Friday, February 5, 2010

One Bite at a Time

The chairs, normally in wobbly rows facing front, have been moved into a circle. Several people are trying to manage their bags, folders and elbows in the cramped spaces between the chairs, and a fortyish woman is pushing the last one into place, declaring that this arrangement is much more suitable for "participant interaction". It reminds me that she is a social worker. I personally dislike the circle format; it's too close for comfort and there's too much craning of heads, but I keep this to myself. That's fine, I say, whatever makes you all happy. From the front, I look at backs, profiles and faces, and see that the Social Worker's head is twisted awkwardly in my direction. Soon, one by one, the chairs are turned around.

The Poet tells us that the quickie exercise about the insignificant object has already borne fruit. She had focussed on a button, started wondering about how they were made, visited the public library and researched the history and manufacture of buttons. We applaud; as the Social Worker might have said, there's nothing like positive reinforcement. [NB: months later the article the Poet wrote on the subject of buttons was published in a craft magazine.]

See, I say - the insignificant object can lead to something bigger, and like bicycles and hula hoops, the hardest thing about writing is getting started. And one of the easiest subjects to write about is yourself but ... for your first home assignment, try it from the point of view of another person or object. There are puzzled looks, so I elaborate. You could describe yourself from the perspective of your mother or your employer, your best friend or worst enemy. You could get whimsical and imagine what your cat thinks of you. Your mirror might have something interesting to say. How about your telephone? The important thing, I explain, is to take the viewpoint of the employer, enemy, cat or mirror. He, she or it is doing the writing and the subject is you from their perspective. It's fun, I tell them - you'll enjoy it, and no one will read it unless you want them to, so let rip. Writing should be enjoyable, otherwise why do it at all?

About half of them do the exercise at home and the rest have excuses - mostly the same excuses that writers have been using ever since someone first picked up a goose quill. Mrs Hong Kong bobs her head to the side and says that her English is not good enough. Miss Taiwan looks relieved and says yes, yes! The Charmer laughs and pleads that he was busy with lectures, yeah, no, and he meant to, you know - looked interesting, yeah. The Genealogist sighs and complains that she'd had so many people in the house she hadn't had a minute. Mr Hong Kong has already nodded off and the Farmer grunts. He is, I fear, going to be difficult. I remind them of Dr Johnson's remark that nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome. My word, the old boy had an answer for everything.

Writers applaud Evelyn Waugh for grumbling that anyone could write a novel given six weeks, pen, paper, and no telephone or wife, but in our hearts we know that he was wrong. Not everyone can write a novel, especially with a pencil, however much time they have, and wives of writers are quite useful sometimes, looking after the children, cooking meals, and creeping in with coffee at frequent intervals. [Boring feminist interjection here: wives who are writers must do all these things and write as well - how fair is that?] But as well as time, novel writing takes doggedness, imagination, skill, confidence, and even the quirky but generally harmless requirements that some writers invent to excuse their lack of progress: yellow paper; twelve pencils sharpened to a perfect point, a sound-proof room, a writing hat. Most novelists take much longer than six weeks - although Georges Simenon apparently shut himself away for eleven days for each of his Maigret novels and emerged afterwards pale and trembling but finished.

Lack of time is an excuse. If we want to do something we can always find time. The scale of a writing project is irrelevant: you can eat an elephant if you do so one bite at a time, and writing is after all one word after another. The quality of those words is something else. This is a message that I hammer home one way or another over the duration of a course, and one that I remind myself of time and again as I contemplate the half-finished novels in the bottom drawer of my desk.

The picture is "Reflections"

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