Don't Look Now

After two weeks of sitting poolside in a holiday home in Chianti, smoking minty cigarettes and surrendering my life essence to blood-hungry mosquitoes, I'm back in the airport and waiting to come on back to Toronto, via London for a few days. Normally when I'd spend a week or two away from home, in a new place, amid a different language, I'd be looking to come back with all sorts of insights and things I've learned about different cultures and what it means to be human and all that, but this one, this one went sort of, nah.

A haze of jet lag erased much of my knowledge of the first day or two. I'm not a sunshine kind of person, seven generations of sunburnt gingers in the family have seen to that, but I found a little shade in the back garden by the pool, and it was there I retreated, neither working nor sunbathing, but just sort of... oozing. My slow, slothlike degeneration continued for days, and I blamed it on the heat and writing exhaustion. The final edits on the book were done, and I'd gotten an early early draft of a new one finished before I came out, so for the most part I was trying very hard to think of nothing. I wasn't looking for inspiration, or rooting about in old stories or writing new scripts. I just read books, and sweated, and covered myself in suncream and mosquito repellent, then sweated, then swam, then covered myself in after sun and after-bite. 

After a week or so, my tourist guilt took over and I decided to leave the house. Boarded a train to Florence, a few days later a train to Venice. I looked at the outsides of churches and galleries. Saw some scary statues. The strangest part was the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. I walked past the graves of all her little dogs, across a rainy patio, and there, inside the gallery, found long corridors of paintings of misshapen bodies and amorphous faces; each one seemed to be watching something. Their gaze fixated either upon me, or upon someone else outside the frame.

And then, it came to me. I remembered back, and realised what had really kept me at the house in the first place, back in my shade, slowly stagnating by the pool. Eerie phenomena I encountered on the first day of my holiday, when I entered a town square in Figline Valdarno, somewhere outside Florence. 

Spies. Looky Loos. Watchers.

Imagine, if you will, an entire town of old Italian people, each one looking at you funny. Honestly. A bent-over woman emerges onto a baking hot town square, dragging a plastic chair behind her. She plonks her chair down, not five metres away from you, tourist, drinking an espresso and thumbing through some Elena Ferrante. She settles herself, lights up a cigarette, pulls up her sun dress to let the air at her withering legs, and stares at you. She doesn't check herself, or look away when you catch her eye, pretending she's been caught in a moment of trance looking through you. No, she looks right on back, staring you down so you look away, embarrassed, and then she stares at you some more. At first, you wonder if it's not because you are so clearly a tourist, or that it's your red, red hair, or the fact that you have an assortment of interestingly shaped and differently aged sunburns across your pale arms and legs. Maybe she's doing a class of cloud-watching with your skin, trying to make various figures or symbols appear out of the ambiguous red forms upon your body. Nope. She keeps looking.

 

You try staring back at her, keeping your eyes locked on hers, but your Irish sense of personal shame starts to kick in, that tuning fork sound in the back of your mind singing, 'You've done something wrong. She knows. Evade. Wink if possible.' Your resolve crumbles away under the force of her stern, unapologetic stare, and you look away. You turn your chair and place your back to her, but then you notice it's not just that one person. 

Behind you, another man is watching. He's scratching the grey hair on his arms, fingering an old sailor tattoo and trying to see inside your rucksack. And at a house across the square, a short, round woman opens a sun shutter and leans out. She turns around to someone behind her in the room, and then points a long, accusatory finger at you.

Take a walk. There's a behatted octagenarian sitting outside a tobacconist, looking your outfit up and down. Black shorts and navy t-shirt, Irishman? Really?

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And there, not against any sort of landmark or resting spot, with nowhere to lean and nowhere to go, just off the centre line of the street, an old woman in a billowing moo-moo stands with her hands on her hips and her glasses high up on her nose, squashed right up against her pupils so you can almost see her corneas tongue the glass, taking in the whole street. You pass by her, silent, afraid of waking some ancestral beast from deep inside her, of fracturing her Sphinx-like being, her immovable and unknowable stance, so some ferocious judgement comes to pass.

It's zombie-ish, a mix of Black Mirror voyeurists and Pod People, another person leaning, judging, appraising from every street corner and window. Good Jesus you're surrounded, until you hurry back home, sweaty and paranoid, wondering what wrong it was you ever did, what crime you committed, to have the mass judgement of an entire town of people descend upon you. You lie in the shade in the back garden and try to forget about it, to just read and nap. You doze by a shimmering chlorine pool, and think that it was just a result of your jet lagged, heat hazed mind. But at night, you close yourself into your room, turn on the fan, and dream of eyes, eyes everywhere in the dark.

And then you wake, and you think, them Italian museums got it right.

 

 

 

 

Waiting on Eggshells

The last six months I've mostly been concerned with getting my buke Rockadoon Shore into a shape where it will be less liable to make me cringe in about two years time. It's due out in less than a year and the editing stage is pretty much done, thanks in huge part to John Murray editors sending notes and emails. Aside from visions of my old English teachers all showing up in a bus to tell me I've made a work of mediocrity, what has been concerning me most over the last while is the idea that two years or so from now, I'm going to open this book that I wrote, read the first line, and think to myself, 'Balls'.

That's natural enough, and there's a large chance that in the future, no matter good the book is, I'll think 'Balls' anyway. That's just the nature of craft and growing and outgrowing your own inclinations, and you can only really do that by working on what you have, now, and trying to make it better. If you think something you wrote five years ago is still flawless then you probably haven't grown all that much as a writer. What that means for getting something ready for publication though, is that there's a weird balancing point between being lazily confident in what you've done, and working something to death out of insecurity. You either leave something undercooked and fatty like a soggy rasher, or you pare every bit fat off it and work on it so long it's a lean, overcooked rasher. Either way, shit rashers.

The idea of the last six months for me has been to do short sharp bursts of energy on the book so that I see it fresh, cut away the major annoyances, get stuck into into the sentences, tinker with them, whittle shit down and make it smooth, and then get out before I just start hate-hacking everything away and be left with a manuscript 25 pages long. Then I get a big ol' break until I'm relaxed and bored enough to start going again. My between-edit solution a month ago was to take a trip to the beach. Problem was it was still winter in Ontario and the beach was frozen. 

 

It's really the waiting around part that can be frustrating. You have to wait for your memories of your previous draft to drift away, to let your anxieties and nerves settle and then to try and see the book new again, and there's really no way of speeding that process up. The times in between drafts can also be a pain in the arse because although they're not short, they're not altogether long either. It's not enough time to start work on something major and dedicate yourself to it. You kind of just have to dillydally around doing bits of things.

Here, for instance, is one example of a dillydally:

 

Yeah, that's an egg. I tried to draw a vague outline of the plot of my book on there. I firmly believe this would have gone much better if my drawing skills had advanced beyond the level of six year old, but oh well. I was happy enough though that I managed to get a pretty good representation of the arc of the book down onto such a small area. I was disappointed to find out photographing curved surfaces was harder than I thought. Other methods of distraction have included short fiction, project (read: long) books, gym sweating and loads of movies. I live around the corner from the Royal Cinema in Toronto, which shows old, weird, and kung fu-y type movies, so I've been camping out there a good bit of the time.

 

 

The fury-editing/waiting stage is almost at an end now though, and what's ahead is about six months of nathin, when I have to get back writing new stuff and working on another book. It's that or just sit around tapping my foot and looking at my wrist for the watch I don't wear. You also realise that for all the work and creativity that's required for editing, it's only possible because the initial material has been written. Any day you can go in and say 'Ah, I'll just mess with that chapter", and it'll be there waiting for you. Starting fresh on something is harder. When it comes to getting back to work, it's that horrible sight of the blank page again, mewling at you, taunting you, going, What you got, man? What you got?

Once the last of the editing is done, and the manuscript can't be fiddled with anymore, I've got a date with an A4 ruled piece of paper with a feisty attitude and nothing to lose. 

Gonna put that piece of paper in its place. It's been coming a long, long time.

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Would You Die If You Couldn't Write?

A few years ago we had this question come up in a writing workshop. There was a discussion about Rilke and Letters to a Young Poet. The workshop leader directed our attention to this one bit of lovely writing:

“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

What comes after this is a lovely and very affecting bit of advice about dedication to the act of writing, and it’s right that Rilke should recommend that anyone who wants to do something should commit to it, heart and soul, and give it everything. But what actually came out of the workshop discussion was that everyone focused on the dying part. Would you die if you couldn’t write?

As I looked around the table in the workshop, everyone seemed to be nodding solemnly, occasionally shooting each other half-weak grins as if to say, ‘God help me, I would. I would indeed die.’ As I sat there looking at this, I got incredibly pissed off. For ages I couldn’t figure out why, and it’s taken me a long time to think clearly about it. Part of the reason is that I know in my head that I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t have to die if I was forbidden to write.

The ability to write is not some structurally-crucial, load-bearing part of myself, one that if you took it away my whole physical being would collapse. I would not instantly put a gun to my head if I was told I couldn’t write. I don’t know what would happen in the longer term, how I would direct my life and what my goals would be, but there are certainly other things in the world that I’m passionate about, that I could chase after in the long term.

Think of all the brilliant things in the world. Think of all the wonderful things you can do, and the many noble ways of living your life, ways that help others or ways that give you yourself satisfaction. There’s family. There’s love. Christ almighty there’s also dancing in the world. There’s so much dancing to be done. So no, I wouldn’t have to die if I couldn’t write. Certainly I’d miss it, certainly I wouldn’t know what to do with myself for a while, what to aim for, what to dream about, what to call myself. But I’d be okay in the long run.

I’ve squared that with myself, but I always just remember feeling really foolish and really, really fucking angry sitting in that writing workshop, looking round at everyone. I seemed to be the only person in the room kind of shrugging, and that made me feel guilty. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a writer. Maybe I just wasn’t as passionate about it as everyone else, maybe I lacked the true Artistic Spirit. Maybe I was just a fraud, someone who conned their way into a room of true artists, and would be swiftly found out. For a long time it bothered me, not only how I seemed to be the only person who had some doubt, but also of how it made me feel about the other people in the room. It got me all judgy and petty. When everyone in the room was nodding, I was pointing a little finger in my head at various people thinking, ‘YOU wouldn’t die. Nor would YOU. I KNOW you wouldn’t.’

That’s a big problem with writing. Writers to a large extent don’t just think of themselves as people who write. They are Writers. When I first started out in writing workshops, we were told ‘We give you permission to call yourselves Writers for the next year’. It was a very nice thing to say and something that gave people a lot of confidence, it certainly gave me a lot of confidence. That was when I started referring to myself as a writer. But I think calling yourself a Writer also gives people who write a very exalted view of themselves, of the importance of their craft and its superiority to other arts. Other people seem to have no problems calling themselves musicians, or sculptors or artists or photographers, yet there’s this hesitation in people who write to call themselves writers, especially if they’ve not published much or anything. I’ve felt this discomfort myself in the past. It usually goes like this:

‘What do you do?’

‘I’m a writer.’

‘Oh wonderful, what do you write?

‘I dunno…. Books and stuff… Scripts and things… I actually work at a cafe… I’m not really a writer, I just write things…’

 

There’s a hesitation to call yourself a Writer because it seems to be this lofty, mythical profession, a title that has to be earned, and it’s this attitude people have to it that does it no favours. What happens when people eventually do get a book published, and they’re one of the insiders, one of the select few? They might start to see themselves as higher up than everyone else. They might say, ‘If I couldn’t write I would DIE’.

It’s an attitude that makes writing out to be something other than an achievement of honest, hard work mixed with skill, empathy and craft. And it lets writers get away with all sorts of shite that people in other professions can’t. It  People like Hemingway or Jack Kerouac told others how they could live like True People, how they as writers had some sort of handle on what truth and beauty and love and hardship was, how they knew more about it than ordinary people, because they could mess with words and syntax. And they got away with it. They acted like utter selfish bastards and the world loved them for it, at least for fifty years or so.

I have absolutely no doubt that writing has brought many people stability and good health and has given them meaning in their lives that they could not get elsewhere. I am absolutely not pissing about with that. I’m sure there are many people who would find their lives totally without meaning if they lost the ability to write, and that they would have to die. But I don’t think this is a question that is posed to people in other arts or professions. No one asks a musician would they die if they couldn’t Music or an artist Art or a sculptor Sculpt. No one says to a businessman, ‘Would you die if you couldn’t Business? No you wouldn’t die? Then you’re not a real Businessman’.

The way I view it is that I love to write. I really really love it. It’s what I’m best at in the world and most passionate about, and it’s certainly a dream that I could live the rest of my life making a living from it, or just even have the time and space to do it around some other job. But that doesn’t make me any different than any other person who just wants to work a job they love. The world is filled with people who don’t get to do what they would love to do. Does that means they don’t really care at all about their passion? Absolutely not. It just seems a waste of life to say you Write or you Die.