Monday, 30 December 2013

The Hilary Mantel method

Hilary Mantel is one of my greatest inspirations. She is an extraordinarily versatile novelist who has written many contemporary novels as well as her Booker winners, including Beyond Black, the story of a medium which presents the spirit world in forensic detail. This is one of my Desert Island books. (My rationale being that if I were sent to a desert island, I would take eight books and one record.)

I have now read both Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and there is no doubt that Mantel deserved her double Booker. Not only does she create a plausible, tangible sixteenth century reality, and populate it with characters who are credible both as Early Modern humans and people we can understand, she raises the game for all writers of historical fiction. The question of what is factual and what is imaginary, what is invented for the benefit of modern readers and what is ‘authentic’ is one which we all need to address. We might not find an answer to it, but we can only write with fluency and authority if we know enough to imagine with confidence. And Mantel meets this challenge with magisterial brilliance. Speaking at the Novel Approaches to History conference at the Institute of Historical Research in November 2011, Mantel commented:

What happens in most historical fiction is – the author dresses up twenty-first century figures in the costume of the period. Conventional historical fiction – offers moral teaching about the lives of women. I did not want a cocked or disguised way of writing about the present. The past has a value in itself. Fact and fiction are not two neat categories. If I were to distinguish fact from fiction in Wolf Hall, I would have to footnote every line.
Mantel is interested in the aspects of the past that historians cannot access.  This is what she calls ‘the activated Power of Rumour’ and this is where an author’s imagination can operate, free of accusations of inaccuracy. 

She argues: ‘I can operate in this “off the record” area. So much of what we have now – pageantry, painting, gift giving culture – is what is demonstrated or shown. I am more interested in what is going on on the back stairs, what is said behind the hand. I might be able to make my readers feel what it was like to live through those terrifying days. I will walk you forward with the characters who don’t know the end of the road.’

Wolf Hall shows Thomas Cromwell’s vulnerability – his wife and daughters die suddenly of the sweating sickness. At the start of Bring up the Bodies, we learn that he has given his daughters’ names to his falcons. He sees them plummet from the sky to kill their prey. (The opening sentence is: ‘His children are falling from the sky.’ I would challenge anyone to stop reading after that.)  Cromwell trusts his instincts more readily than his fellow man. At Henry’s request, he schemes against Anne Boleyn without knowing what the outcome will be. (Henry, becoming toddler-like in his bulky infirmity, is trammeled by his own power.) Cromwell must act to end the marriage he worked so hard to broker. His is a ruthless but inexact science.

His view is partial, sometimes confused; his surroundings are shadowed and obfuscated.  He is Master Secretary – he can do anything in the service of the King, even arrange for the removal of inconvenient wives. But the removal of Anne is messy. Witnesses may be lying. The accused may have confessed because they were tortured. His own position is insecure, just as Anne’s is insecure, and her downfall may bring about his end. (If Anne Boleyn wasn’t safe from Cromwell, the courtier Wriothesley asks, how does the King know he can trust him?)

The reader is similarly unsure and half-informed, caught between light and darkness. I tried to describe Mantel’s style to someone recently, and talked about seeing her characters though mullions of dark coloured glass, vividly but incompletely. So I was pleased to find almost this same image towards the end of Bring up the Bodies: ‘Perhaps, caught in the little panes which distort and cloud, Wriothesley sees a dubious image: confusion, fear, emotions that do not often mark Master Secretary’s face…’

In the third volume of the trilogy, we will find out that things end badly for Cromwell. This is not a spoiler, as history has already done this job for me. The point is not what happens, but how. And in Mantel’s ‘off the record’ area, the ‘how’ can be imagined with truthful clarity.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Why I wrote about Shakespeare's Dark Lady

In my previous post about Dark Aemilia I talked about beginning life as a historical fiction writer, with no background as a historian. I should probably add that I chose the Early Modern period simply because I discovered the real Aemilia Bassano Lanyer when I was trying to find out more about the early staging of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Unlike my children, who appeared to study nothing but the Tudors when they were at school, I had never really studied this period. But I didn’t feel inspired by the French Revolution, or the Industrial one, perhaps for the very reason that I had studied these during a period of my life when I was catatonic with gloom. (Don’t get me started on puberty, nihilism and A levels.)

Lanyer’s story inspired me for the following reasons:

She was possibly Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, the cruel and insatiable lover to whom he dedicated sonnets 127 to 152.
  • She was an outsider, the member of a family of Jewish Venetian musicians. Her father and his five brothers came to the English court to play for Henry VIII.
  • She was the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain and was kept in a splendid suite of rooms at Whitehall Palace.
  • When she became pregnant she was married off to her cousin, a feckless recorder player who spent her dowry in a year.
  • She was herself a poet, one of the first women to be published professionally in England.

From rags to riches and then back again with music, poetry and Shakespeare attached – what was not to like? So no matter how much work was involved, I needed to write her story.

If you want to find out more about my research for this book and the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, then you can read my piece in the December/January/February issue of the women’s writing magazine Mslexia

(You can’t access the piece itself via this link, but you can find out more about the issue and how to subscribe.)

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Write what you know?

‘Write what you know’ – now there’s a sterling piece of advice. I’ve passed it on to quite a few students in my time. A little experience, an injection of actual pain, something that’s stirred the surface of your life – this is the stuff of good fiction, there is no doubt about it.

But writing what you know can mean sticking to the boring and familiar. Audacity and curiosity are also essential features of effective writing. Writing what you don’t know opens new worlds of possibility – you can write about anything you like if you take the trouble to find out about it.  And these two elements: of knowing and not knowing can work together. Experience combined with empathy can take the writer – and the reader – to the most exotic or remote places and to forgotten worlds. 

None of this is easy, though. When I started writing novels I thought I would be writing books drawing on social observation and the world around me. So I wrote two novels based on my take on contemporary life, featuring the war between the sexes, modern hypocrisy, etc, and thought this was my territory. But the books didn't sell enough for my publisher's liking, I was out in the cold once more, and I therefore decided to Go Historical.  I grew up reading Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece and Ian Serraillier, and loved the sense they gave of entering a time machine and flying back into history, tactile, sensory, vivid, convincing. I was sure I’d enjoy immersing myself in the past. The only problem was that I didn’t know very much about this place: The Past. Any of it. My knowledge of history was based on the Ladybird books, a selection of melodramatic 1970s movies including Anne of a Thousand Days, Nicholas and Alexandra and A Man for all Seasons and my O and A levels. My O-level focused on the Industrial Revolution and the social legislation which followed. 

There was also some Napoleonic business thrown in. I did well at this: I liked and believed in the idea of social progress. (It was the 1970s.)  My A level was a disaster. I became mired in the detail of the French Revolution, and the blood and horror got lost in dates and times of day and the minutiae of shifting alliances. The American War of Independence was just boring generals and pointless battles. My teacher, Mrs Cheer, used to steeple her fingers in what I considered a complacent manner while talking about The Battle of Ticonderoga, and I would stare dumbly at her, steeped in a horrible teenage knowledge of my own mortality.  (I just Googled this battle and there are four different possible options: this can’t have helped.)


So when I began a novel about William Shakespeare and Aemilia Bassano – the novel which became Dark Aemilia – I had to do One Hell of A Lot of Groundwork. Mrs Cheer would probably be proud of me, if not a little surprised. (I got a C for History instead of my predicted A. It still rankles.) And I now really do know quite a lot about Early Modern England, though not quite as much as I did when in the throes of writing the novel.

This was meant to be a post about the genius of Hilary Mantel! Watch this space...

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Just do it

Okay, so this is a Nike ad, and naturally I am opposed to The Man, globalization, capitalist greed, pointless running shoes and so on. However, I am also pro Just Doing It. And so Nike is on to something here, though you can perfectly easily go for a jog in bog standard trainers and nothing bad will happen to you.

Just doing it relates to all elements of being a writer, not just the pure writing, the bit where you lean over your notepad in a cafe with blood dripping out of your forehead or whatever. It relates to reading, it relates to writing a short review of everything you read, it relates to bothering to set up/join/attend a writing group, it relates to looking up words you don't know the meaning of, it relates to editing your work until it is ready and not rushing it off to an agent when you know, deep down inside, your ego has got the better of your patience. And it relates to blogging. Oh yes.

I speak as one who does not blog often enough. Like most writers, I want to write more and drink less, but things don't always go according to plan. I want to blog more often, but I procrastinate. Chief among my excuses, apart from the occasional hangover, is my alleged desire to say something worthwhile, and not clog up the internet ether with brainless ramblings. This is commendable, but leads to prolonged silences on my part. Blogging, like all forms of writing, like running, needs practice. We writers have never had a platform like this, to share ideas and to present our work. Publishers know this, and want their writers to blog as often as they can. (Novel deadlines permitting.)

Normally, I would spend the next half hour dutifully inserting links into my blog, but having read the brilliant musings of Problogger Matt Haig, in this post I will let my writing do the talking. Apart from linking to Matt here.

If you don't have a blog, set one up. If you do have one, and are surfing the internet in a random, Googling your exes sort of way, Blog Now. If you want to share some thoughts on the writer as blogger, leave a comment. I will be blogging more regularly from now on. I'm Just Doing It.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The World's End - the worst was yet to come

Slightly extravagant Saturday night – family outing to the Duke of York’s in Brighton with Partner plus teenage kids. Treated the family to balcony seats and various indulgent snacks/drinks, and settled down to enjoy The World's End, which Peter Bradshaw of el Guardian had promised was the best of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy of films.

These showcase the talents of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. But what is Bradshaw thinking of? I didn't laugh once, nor did anyone else (on the balcony, anyway). I thought this was vastly inferior to Shaun of the Dead (genius) and Hot Fuzz (hilarious). This is neither as clever nor as likable as Wright's earlier films, and lacks narrative energy and focus. 

The basic set-up is that Gary King, a posing loser, mysteriously persuades four straight/dull old school friends to join him on a pointless pub crawl in their horrible home town. The aim is to drink a pint in each of twelve pubs, which they failed to do on a memorable evening way back in the 90s. The 'reunion' device is creaky and contrived, and we share the boredom of Gary's posse till some blue-blooded robots arrive on the scene.


At this point, there is plenty of fighting, which I suppose is what the demographic wants. But what is being spoofed? In Shaun of the Dead, the zombie genre was brilliantly parodied. In Hot Fuzz the references to US cop shows with a touch of Wicker Man thrown in worked perfectly. Here - what? David Tennant era Dr Who? Bit niche. Robots in general? I couldn't say. There is touch of The Road, too, which made me wish they had made Viggo Mortensen and his pram the butt of their Cornetto humour - dystopian misery is ripe for lambasting, surely?

The buddy element was disappointing, too.  For me, the Pegg/Frost formula is running out of steam: we don't 'get' the dynamic between them till the climax, and the relationship between the five pub crawlers is woefully underdeveloped. Nearest thing to a laugh for me was Paddy Considine's line: ‘Cards on the table. I am currently seeing a 26 year old fitness instructor, but if you’ll have me I’ll leave her in a heartbeat.’ More one-liners would have helped.

Also under-explored was the idea of crap/clone towns and their robotic inhabitants. Sound concept– but how did the plot dramatise this idea? The aesthetic isn't as stylish or original as that of the other two movies, and the visual jokes were patchy and inconsistent. Altogether, a more bloated and less entertaining film than I expected. 

Perhaps I am not enough of a sci-fi aficionado to get the jokes. Or perhaps there just weren't as many jokes in there this time. (Though other, proper critics clearly disagree. Not only am I at variance with Mr Bradshaw, this film is 89 per cent 'Fresh' on Rotten Tomatoes.) But I just don't understand. Are Wright & Co too famous to fail? 

 I may be in a tiny minority, but I prefer their earlier, funnier movies

Friday, 12 July 2013

Dissing Cinders

Why get annoyed about a fairy tale? It's not as if they haven't been thoroughly decoded, retold and reinterpreted by the likes of Angela Carter and Marina Warner. Surely I can't be annoyed by some old story, tried and tested and shining with Disneyfication?

Well, I can. And this is because I am an Actual Feminist. The story that is irritating me is Cinderella. It's not the only contender, of course. Pre-decoding, a lot of fairy stories presented Bad Role Models for Girls. In Sleeping Beauty, all you have to do is lie down in a scented heap and wait for the handsome prince to come and kiss you awake. (But not that awake - into a pleasant somnolence, I assume.) In Rumpelstiltskin, it's fine to marry a bullying control freak as long as he is the King. And in Snow White, youth and prettiness equate to niceness and goodness, while the ageing Queen represents evil and malevolence (and transforms herself into an ugly witch when she wants to do her worst).

Part of the problem is that everything has been prettied up. Earlier versions of fairy tales, collected by Perrault and the brothers Grimm, are harsher and more unforgiving than the sanitised and bowdlerized versions that we read today. And there are some archetypes which present a slightly less passive version of womanhood - the poor but clever girl who can talk her way out of trouble appears in several stories.

So why Cinderella? And why now? Firstly, obviously, because Looks Aren't Everything. This story is the archetype of many others which suggest that beauty is a fail safe route to love, happiness and good fortune. This is not only sexist, it is infantilizing.  Teenage girls are hyper-aware of their looks and of external appearance in general. But in my view, this limiting view of ourselves as women is something that we grow out of. My role models are Christine Legarde and Aretha Franklin, not Victoria Beckham and Beyonce. 

Affluence and consumerism have exacerbated this, so that now we try and buy youth and permanent beauty. Plastic surgery is becoming 'normal', botox is freezing the faces of younger and younger women and extreme make-overs litter TV schedules.

Which brings me to my second point. Cinderella is the grandmother of the makeover. What we are now - you and I - me typing, you reading - is inadequate, according to this mantra. We can and should improve on this. Although we could take exercise or eat less - perfectly sensible approaches to self improvement - this takes time. And Instant Transformation is central to the Cinderella myth.

As there are no fairy godmothers to hand, this can take the form of Extreme Detox, which usually involves spending a lot of money on packets of weird powder as well as No Dairy; or Extreme Dieting, which is basically a short cut to eating disorders, or Surgery, which  promises to fix not only our faces but everything else as well. The fairy godmother will suck the fat out of us, and liposuction will magic away all those years of self indulgence.

Why does this irritate me? Because the Cinderella myth fosters passive compliance. And passive compliance makes you unhappy. At the heart of this story is the idea of rescue. Someone will come and fix it for you. Someone will wave the wand. Someone will conjure the fairy coach. Someone will pick up the glass slipper and find you and marry you and you will live happily ever after, based on the searching courtship of dancing till midnight. Call me a killjoy, but this is a crap model for life. Tell me it's a harmless fantasy and I will point you in the direction of some rather worrying facets of the modern world.

1. The Bridezilla.

Bridezilla is so obsessed with her wedding that she falls out with everyone and almost doesn't marry the fuddled groom, who almost has a lucky escape. Soon after the wedding is over, Bridezilla is horrified to discover that she is married and living on a small housing estate and No One is Looking At Her. Divorce follows soon after, with the promise of another wedding on the horizon. Cinders factor: 10 out of 10 - obsessing about Your Big Day and forgetting about real life.

2. The Shopaholic

The Shopaholic is now slightly out of date due to the Global Financial Crisis, but this isn't going to stop her. She is seeking a transformation via the medium of shopping bags. She shops till she drops, she flexes the plastic, she is a girl on a mission. She never wears anything twice. (Or, ideally, once.) Perfection is a dress folded in tissue; imperfection is putting it on. Cinders factor - Nine out of ten. Confusing a Barclaycard with a Fairy Godmother.

3. The Daily Mail victim

The Daily Mail is a newspaper devoted to the subjugation of women. It does this in a number of devious ways, but the main tactic is Bikinis. Women must be 'bikini ready' for the beach, and those who are on the beach must be 'camera ready' for the prying lenses of the paparazzi. If your make over isn't sufficiently rigorous - and you are a famous woman - they will find you and they will punish you. The Mail usually has at least 10 photos of celebrity cellulite on any given day. (Cellulite only happens to women, apparently.) Cinders factor - Nine out of ten - the Daily Mail is a 21st century Ugly Sister.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Book of the month: Restoration

July seems like a good time to bring in a new idea, being as far as possible from January and therefore a Midyear Resolution. From now on I will be attempting to write about a historical novel every month.

No promises of topicality - I will just include whatever I happen to have read and liked. I won't review books I hate (and there are a few of these). Which means I won't be attempting anything worthy of the Hatchet Job of the Year Award In my experience, it is easier to enjoy a frisson of schadenfreude when reading terrible reviews if you aren't yourself in the business of producing work that could be given similar treatment.

My first review will look at Restoration, by Rose Tremain. It has been on my radar for years, asking to be read. I resisted because - like many people - I thought that historical fiction was a bit National Trusty, politely retrograde, irrelevant. I thought that characters in historical fiction were like pretty puppets, prancing about having bogus emotions. I can't stand clunking wish-fulfilment hist-fic, in which fancy dress and fancy stuff rules. I'm deliberately seeking out historical novels which offer something different.

But the best historical novels are filled with complex, believable characters. Restoration is one of these. Robert Merivel, the protagonist, is as eccentric and vividly realised any character in Dickens. He is an unheroic hero, absurdly comic and often wracked with emotion. At the start of the story he is an ambitious but slipshod physician who accidentally cures Charles II favourite spaniel. Overjoyed, the king makes him surgeon to all the royal dogs. When Merivel is established at Court, Charles arranges a marriage of convenience between Merivel and Celia Clemence, one of the royal mistresses. Celia's dowry includes Bidnold, a splendid house and estate in Norfolk. Part of the deal is that Merivel lives there alone, while Celia is installed in a house in Kew, where the king visits her secretly.

All this is fine, and enables Merivel to play at being a painter and great landowner. (Appearance, superficiality and deception are recurring themes in the book.) But everything unravels when Celia comes to live at Bidnold after irritating the king. Merivel is increasingly smitten by her and makes a drunken advance to her one night, with disastrous results.

Though Merivel is dazzled by Celia, his true love object is Charles II. Not that there is anything sexual in this - Merivel is rampantly heterosexual, like his rakish monarch. But it is Charles who inspires his truest and most painful devotion, and the highs and lows of his relationship with Charles provide the tension and plot structure for the novel. The counter-weight to his rather undignified devotion to the king is his close friendship with Pearce, a dour Quaker who is loyal to Merivel but highly critical of his foolishness.

Tremain has more interest in her male characters than her female creations -  the same is true of her later novel, Music and Silence. Merivel is flawed but endearing: vain, childish, excitable and selfish. But he is also sensitive, loyal, passionate (about people, his horse and Bidnold) and has a powerful sense of his own weakness and absurdity. (The word which most readily comes to mind is 'hapless'.)

Charles is also a complex, beguiling character - he is capricious, easily bored, impulsive and ultimately ruthless and distant. He seems to take delight in Merivel's company, but spies on him to make sure that Merivel is not sleeping with Celia, and treats him with cold disdain when he tries to seduce her. He has absolute belief in his dominance and preeminence as monarch, and his superiority to other human beings.

Celia is a cypher in comparison, cool and pretty and a continuing mystery to Merivel. Most of the other women are variously needy or raunchy sex interests, a bawdy backdrop. But this is Merivel's story, and on that basis the novel works brilliantly.

Tremain also evokes the seventeenth century setting with tremendous style and energy, from the bustling London streets to the quiet haven of a Quaker community, and from the elegance of Bidnold to Merivel's parents' little house, which is consumed by fire.

The novel's main flaw, I think, is that time is handled awkwardly. It's a first-person narrative which is not a journal, and not written in Merivel's old age, but close to the action; a day later, two days later, maybe more than this. The way this shifts around can make the tense and our relation to the action confusing and disorientating. It may be that Tremain intended to disorientate and unsettle the reader, but I found the device distracted me from the story.

However, this is a small issue in such a dramatic and emotionally satisfying novel. It's also a tremendous entertainment, a tour de force: a seventeenth century bromance with wigs and feather hats.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Where do you get your ideas from?

Among the various pressures on writers,  there is the awful feeling that you ought to be Saying Something Original. In a crowded bookshop, full of novels and short story collections, and celeb memoirs and cookbooks and all the rest, it is hard not to feel that all the ideas have already been collected, and pinned down like Victorian butterflies, and polished and edited and packaged to death, and there is no room for what is in your head. So much so that you don't even know what is in there, apart from a fizzy, panicky belief that you ought to be Doing Something about your writing ambitions.

So when A Writer is asked questions by The Public at an event like the Hay Festival (now in progress) one of the questions that they will almost certainly be asked is 'Where do you get your ideas from?' And the fact that it is a frequently asked question doesn't make it easy to answer.

But I'm going to have a bash.

1. Observation.
I recently saw Mike Leigh's Another Year for the first time, and though it was a masterpiece. Themes, cinematography, performances, dialogue, everything. Essentially, like the best of Mike Leigh's work, it is based on observation, by both the director and the actors. Lesley Manville, in particular, was brilliant. She was playing the desperate, chaotic Mary, and made a potentially irritating and depressing character so believable and vulnerable that I was rooting for her, hoping she could conjure some kind of happiness out of her wilful neediness and 'inappropriate' drinking. This is the sort of idea that comes from noticing things, small things, the details of life, and ferreting them away somewhere, and thinking about them. Small things encapsulate larger things, supposed truths of life.

2. The unconscious.
The surrealists were keen on this, of course, and so are many fiction writers. Julia Cameron has written about the importance of keeping a dream diary, writing first thing in the morning and getting down the quickly forgotten details of our dreams. Mary Shelley said she dreamt of Frankenstein after trying to write a ghost story with Shelley and Lord Byron - you can be fairly confident that the conversation and the challenge generated the dream, but the dream was essential, nonetheless.

3. Other stories.
Margaret Atwood says that in writing we are Negotiating with the Dead. One of the paradoxes of originality is that it is not a unique outpouring, or the fruit of solitary genius, but an informed and enriched perspective on common experience. (The writer might work in solitude, but their mind does not operate in solitude. Language itself is a collective summation of agreed communication and patterns of expression.) Originality in science is about the small breakthrough, built on the research of other scientists (whose work is something overlooked). The exact same thing is true of artistic endeavour, which is one of the reasons that creative writing students and anyone who takes their writing seriously should read compulsively and across a wide range of genres. Not only does this increase our fluency and repertoire as writers, it also helps us tap into the traditions and the shared stories that make up the collective unconscious of the Zeitgeist.  

4. Your obsessions.
If you had what seemed like a great idea, but find it is beginning to bore you, then the reason could be that it isn't something that you care about enough.  In order to generate an idea, you need to find a subject or a theme that will never bore you, because it is one of those niggling things that you cannot escape from. I wrote a novel about Shakespeare's Dark Lady, but it is also about my own experience of trying to be a writer, and my own intense feelings about my children. I can't ever get bored with this. (The fact that I then developed another obsession, with Early Modern London and the lives of the people in it was an added bonus.)

5. Writing itself.
And finally - ideas aren't in there, waiting to be mined like oil reserves. They become what they are in the process of being written down. Writing is not solely a mental activity, which requires the mechanical activity of your hands to become real. It is the combination of the brain and the body - which is one of the reasons that I think it's useful to write with a pen from time to time.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The thing itself...

The thing about writing is that it is very easy to evade/avoid. Why do we DO this? Not everyone loves their job. Not everyone leaps out of bed on Monday mornings filled with joy at the prospect of being - for example - a dentist, or a car mechanic.

But broadly speaking, when called upon to do dentistry or fan belt fixing, these people probably get on with it. And yet the stories about writers not getting on with it are legion. Depression, booze and general lack of focus all have a part to play. Children can be an issue - Cyril Connolly wrote about 'the pram in the hall' which was meant to be the enemy of promise, though given the lack of interest men had in caring for babies and small children in the early part of the 20th century, I would have thought this was a bit of a feeble excuse. (Connolly was writing about male promise, in the main, primarily his own.)

My children are extremely large now - taller than me, short-ass Mum. But they still find ways - so many ways - to stop me from working. I lie awake till 3 am waiting for the sound of Daughter's drunken footsteps tottering home. I lie awake after 3 am wondering if Son might do some revision when he finally wakes up at 3pm.

And yet. One of the mistakes we can make as writers is thinking that the stuff we experience isn't Material. We think we are too banal, too boring. But all the stuff that is stopping you from writing is the very same stuff that could be your subject- as the great Raymond Carver found. Day jobs, life jobs, the daily grind - this is the Stuff. All we need is a pen, a pad and five minutes of our fragmented lives to get it down. There is no bathos in our lives, really, because everything that happens is worth writing about.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The power of Eeyore

There are many things wrong with the modern world. Fracking, snacking, 50 Shades of Grey, binge drinking, drones, abattoirs, nose jobs, the private car, Gardeners' Question time... I could go on. But in spite of this we are meant to conduct ourselves like a bunch of wilful, myopic Pollyannas. Thinking positive is - allegedly - a central requirement in the post-post modernist age.

Why? Is this a post-post modernist joke, referencing the appalling suffering in the last century, now hilariously summed up in faux WWII memorabilia telling us to Keep Calm and (insert joyless witticism here)? I dunno. All I can say, on a Tuesday, sipping my Earl Grey and feeling as far removed from Calm as it is possible to be, is that we are overlooking the power of negative thinking. The power, in short, of Eeyore.

It's almost exactly ten years since my dad died, and he was a loyal Eeyore fan. Not least because he saw a resemblance between Eeyore and me, his oldest, speccy daughter. As adolescence descended, like a black cloud of Knowingness, I began to look in the mirror more. But not in a good way. I would stare, eyeball-to-eyeball, at this unbelievably asymmetrical human which was housing my beautiful soul.

'Oh God,' I would groan. 'Oh God, it's horrible.' I would hog the hall mirror for hours on end, wallowing in negative narcissism.

And Eeyore, as all Winnie-the-Pooh fans will know, has a similar experience. He stares mournfully into the river, then crosses over with some difficulty, and then stares at his watery reflection again. 'As I thought,' he says eventually. 'No better on this side.' My dad enjoyed making this comparison. Eeyore, basically, c'est moi.

So far, so gloomy. But this is not the end of the story. Gloom is Good. Introspection is Cool. I am currently reading a brilliant book called Quiet in which the author, Susan Cain, sets out the case for introversion, and suggests that the modern world is run by reckless, optimistic extroverts.We are neglecting, suggests Cain, the valuable perspective of thoughtful introverts. What's more, according to a serious-sounding journal called Psychology and Aging, cautious, shy people live longer and have better health.

Writers are by nature pretty introspective, I would say. We might pretend otherwise, bouncing around like Tigger when this seems to be necessary. But there is an Eeyore inside most of us, staring sadly into the mirror, resigned to the awful truth.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Coping with success

Writers are better at being miserable than they are at being happy. Discuss.

Maybe this is not true. Maybe it is just me. They are - we are - generally well known for boozing and feuding with one another, rather than making cupcakes and being tactful. Writers stagger about with one layer of skin removed just so other people can carry on being thick-skinned. Writers are paranoid, negative, self-absorbed. On a good day.

And here is Truman Capote giving it all the depression he's got.

But maybe we need to lighten up. By which I mean, maybe I do. In a blog in which I have retained a cautious distance between my me and my actual feelings, The Work and Myself, I am suddenly confronted with one very nice thing which is definitely going to happen, and a second, almost equally nice thing which is also definitely going to happen but I'm not going to mention it till I have An Actual Letter.

So the first very nice thing is that my book, Dark Aemilia, is going to be published by the wonderful Myriad Editions. Proper people will read it, and Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, who is sort of my secret best friend, will be Out There, in the 21st century, being her intense and wayward self.  Yay!

 No less a writer than Neil Gaiman has said that writers should take a moment to experience the highs, and the successes, and I have this on the authority of the brilliant Liesel Schwarz who you can find more about here.  But this blog is not going to be about praise and publication from now on. Never fear. Success won't spoil it. It will still be about the daily business of being a paranoid writer. Just with some added optimism.

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Everyday

The Everyday is not very exciting. Almost by definition, the Everyday is dull.  New Year resolutions founder because we secretly want to be Cinderella, transformed by the wave of a magic wand into a perfect version of ourselves. Failing that, we settle for the Rubbish Self that deals with crap Mondays, eating chocolate or swigging caffeine to get by. (Or is that just me?)

In writing terms, this means that it's exciting to be writing a novel for about twenty minutes. For that period of time, you can be a Novelist. Your Novel, unwritten, is a work of genius. Your ideas, while they are in your head, are blindingly original. You might even feel slightly sorry for the people who aren't writing your novel, who don't have your brilliant mind.

After twenty minutes, the rot sets in. Writing becomes a chore. You have to earn the feeling of excitement, the giddy arrogance, the thrill. And it takes hours and hours and hours. Every day.

So my New Year's Resolution, in spite of having a massive hangover on January 1st, wasn't to stop drinking, or lose a stone or take up zumba dancing. It was just that I would write for at least 20 minutes, in my journal, every day. And on day 21, I have managed to do this. Every day. Still completely imperfect in every other way, of course, and the stuff I've written isn't literature or genius, but it's really helped. So that's pretty good.