23 May 2012

The Stranger's Child

She'd been lying in the hammock reading poetry for over an hour. It wasn't easy; she was thinking all the while about George coming back with Cecil, and she kept sliding down, in small half-willing surrenders, till she was in a heap, with the book held tiringly above her face. Now the light was going, and the words began to hide among themselves on the page. She wanted to get a look at Cecil, to drink him in for a minute before he saw her, and was introduced, and asked her what she was reading. But he must have missed his train, or at least his connection: she saw him pacing the long platform at Harrow and Wealdstone, and rather regretting he'd come. Five minutes later, as the sunset sky turned pink above the rockery, it began to seem possible that something worse had happened. With sudden grave excitement she pictured the arrival of a telegram, and the news being passed round; imagined weeping pretty wildly; then saw herself describing the occasion to someone, many years later, though still without quite deciding what the news had been.

The Stranger's Child, Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel, is a pretty long book. (Close to 600 pages.) My copy is a present given by my older brother, Francis, who took the trouble of finding the Waterstones nearest his hotel in Belfast, where he'd gone for a couple of weeks. From his room he had a view of the headquarters of an entirely different H & W: Harland and Wolff, that is, or the company that built Titanic. I was going to ask for a Tóibín, and I was going to demand that it be autographed, with a dedication, that Francis fly south and find out where this favorite writer must be living, and perhaps, on my behalf, remind Tóibín about an E-mail correspondence that had been struck three or four years ago, but of course this was all a dumb fantasy. I was simply jealous of his trip: when was anyone ever going to send me to Belfast? But Francis has a kind heart. He does not care who the finer writer is; he is only after bringing something nice back to a younger brother, and making me giddy with delight, which is exactly what he did, since The Stranger's Child, as demonstrated by its absolutely beautiful first paragraph, is as elegant a novel as any. 

10 May 2012

Writer's Block

I have a good friend in New York whom I once asked about writer's block. Why does it happen? Does it happen to you? What can be done about it? I received a thoughtful response, which you'll find below. I hope his advice is as useful to you, if you are writing something, or are planning on writing something, as it was to me. Though I can't say that I'm any closer to being the kind of scribbler that I wanted to be when I asked the question, it is possible that I have since become a much better reader.


Dear Migs,

Thanks for asking about writer's block.

I happen not to believe in writer's block, for what it's worth. And it's not worth much. I have bad days, when the words don't seem to come and even my thoughts are sluggish. But these are extremely rare. I always have a number of things to write about, and usually there's one thing that is a lot more congenial than the others. I write a great deal, in sheer word count. And I have arrived at a philosophy, I suppose you might say; I have a few basic ideas, a few notions against which I shape everything that I write. Although I've always written, I started making sense only about eleven or twelve years ago—until then, I was dreaming. Not that dreaming is bad. But my dreams were science fiction without the science. They were not about people.

I am a very late bloomer, which is probably the last thing that you want to hear. But I really do counsel patience. I'm sure that your blockages are attributable to unavoidable ignorance. Now, forgive me for calling you ignorant, but as it happens everyone your age is; it is, as I say, unavoidable. There is so much to know in today's world, so many connections to understand, that, as I've heard more than one person say, 35 is the new 21. What you have to understand is that if the world continues on its present course (scientifically speaking), you're going to live to a great old age. Don't be in a hurry to acquire the trappings of maturity. Let them develop naturally.

What you can do is read. Read and read carefully. Start a commonplace book, in which you write out sentences and passages that really strike you as important. You'll look back on it later and have absolutely no idea what it was about this or that that meant something to you, but copying out passages strengthens the mind. Carry the book with you. Try to memorize poetry—Shakespeare's sonnets will never let you down. In the end, you will have a happy old age if you read a lot now—always understanding that you think about what you read. There are books that you ought to make a point of re-reading. I can't tell you what they are, but I can tell you that I've read Jane Austen's Emma seven times, and that it is always a different book. Donna Tartt's The Secret History is a more recent book (much) that I've re-read and will probably re-read again soon. Write about what you read—that's something that you can do.... Or start another blog just for your reading notes. But be sure to read, read, read.

That's why I don't believe in writer's block. I believe that "writer's block" is something that happens to people who have stopped reading. Or they have stopped reading widely; they're just about obsessing one or two authors and suffocating on imitation. As you grow older, there's one deep danger: you know better and better what you like. To some extent, you have to follow this knowledge, but to submit to established taste is to die, which is why so few middle-aged people have active minds. Now, when you're young, and the field is wide open, you ought to read everything that comes to hand. When you're older, you won't believe what a luxury it was to have, when you were young, plenty of time for reading.

Real writers are turned on by what they read. Not by everything that they read, but by a lot of it. Reading creates an itch, the itch to write in response. The itch to answer. People who don't read but who want to write—and they're unfortunately numerous—are the most pathetic people on earth, in my view. My good friend B doesn't get enough time to read, owing to the demands of his life. He would be a happier writer if he could read more. But already it is very late: he is sixty. How to catch up on the reading that he ought to have done as a young man? Well, in the end there is no catching up, there is just making the best of what you can do, and B is doing extremely well with that. But it would be easier if he had read the way you do when he was your age.

The one other thing that I would counsel is this: don't try to be original, not yet. Don't be afraid of imitation—but make sure that your imitations are very good imitations, that you understand what you're imitating from the inside out. This is how all great artists learn their craft, and, to a lesser extent, it's how writers get to be good. (The difference is that, unlike artists, writers deal in a medium that's universally understood, at least as speech.) Don't try to show off, but make sure that when you do show anything, it's well done. Take pains. Look things up when you're not quite one hundred percent sure.

And now I shall close this tedious outpouring. Immodest man that I am, I hope that you will read it several times. Just remember this: writers can't help writing. If you can go for a year without writing anything important to you, then writing is not your métier. I'm pretty sure that this is not the case with you, Migs, but always remain open, now at least while you're young, that writing is not for you. Believe me: it will make you a better writer if writing is what you're meant to do.

Here finisheth the lesson (a bit of old church English).