Nothing Important Comes With Illustrations

What a scorching couple of days in Maine. The last time I remember it being this hot, I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar….

My family and I have been living a life aquatic by swimming. I haven’t been getting many words down. I can’t write in the heat. I can’t think in the heat. I can only think the air-conditioned nightmare, and we have fans. I actually hate it when it gets hot since I’m only good at lounging and swimming for so long before I get bored.

Due to my highly paid skills of deduction, I’ve noticed that I am not much liked on Facebook.

This whole job seeking pursuit of sweet homilies puts me in mind of Mr. Tumnus, who said, “The capacity for ordinary work is not for me.”

I know I’m spoilt rotten by this gift of so much free time to write because I hold no honest entertainment, but always at the back of the cart I can hear the moans of a Mr. Malcontent, who sings, “I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

It seems true that you can never get as much done as you planned to. But, then, even God rested on the seventh day. And if a deity can feast on lotus flowers, I suppose I can as the world wags on and on.

“Why are we weighed upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown;
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!” —
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?” Tennyson

All I can say is, I’m glad that “omissions are not accidents.” (Marianne Moore)

I’m also glad I get to write my books, have my family, my friends, my Moleskine notebooks, my records, my penchants, my cup of PG Tips. These things bring me joy — and panic on the mean streets of writing. Cause right now, the novel I’m working on has a proper unlikeable protagonist and I keep wondering how low he can go be before a reader will refuse to turn the page and curse my name. But I also don’t want to change a thing about him.

I suppose it all hangs off the idea that what interests me will also interest others. But can I be sure? Do people read books for the things I do? I know I’m not that much engaged with writers who assuage or comfort but prefer writers who provoke and unsettle. And I’m not that bouncy about characters who are either villains or heroes, I prefer characters whose lives and even their morality change over the length of the novel. I don’t go to book and I don’t get books that set out to confirm my own behaviour, ideas, or feelings. And I also don’t like to read the kind of realist fiction, the low mimetic, as Angela Carter called it, that deals in simulacrums of the world I live in. Why do I want to hear and feel and think more about that? It saturates me every day. I want to discover a world that hasn’t been covered up by the philistines, or else a world that everybody has overlooked for some grand cause with money at its root, or a world nobody has imagined beyond their pedestrian constraints of the imagination.

Here’s some Smiths, lots of them, on bikes.

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The Light of Common Day

The sun is back in Maine, like an old lion prowling for meat to burn.

I know frustration. I know the spooling away of the smallest thread of one’s life until it’s all just a pattern. But can frustration help to fuel extravagant and visionary imagination?

“To the depths of the unknown,” wrote Baudelaire.

Some days I wish I just raised chickens, felled trees, broke ice in the bucket, chopped wood for the stove, and went out in the evening in fine threads.

Where are the little dells and corners of paradise?

“We fear all things as mortals, and we desire all things as if we were immortal.”

Life’s not a dream. I can prove it! All you have to do is take the quantum pulse of my atomic level to see that I can be both a particle of hope and a little light of luck.

Reality is nothing but the remainder of our lives.

“The short story is not minimalist, it is rococo.” Angela Carter.

The past is dead but alive in us. The moment is forever vibrating. And the future is knowing where to begin and when to end.

If I didn’t imagine, I might as well elope with an amoeba.

But I’m practical, too. And honest. And hardworking. And I understand the Cocteau Twins’ lyrics.

Here’s “Born of Frustration” by Manchester band James.

Don’t Try This At Home

Where I live has a certain bonhomie feel to it. There’s nothing exceptional or explicit or glamorous or trendy, though. It’s a dirt road and some white oaks and pines, silent and stealthy, some forget-me-nots and lupines and rosa rugosa, and a spiritual centre at the end of the road. It’s not like Amsterdam or Venice or Paris or Prague or Big Sur. But I like to think of it as an exotic spot, some literary escape, like the bubble in a spirit level. And in the long shadows and the early morning light, there’s a sense of Dostoyevsky’s “eternal harmony” and the magic of the youngest carbon meeting newborn beryllium.

I think the sight of the sea from my window helps to perpetuate this poetic mood.

Most days I just go about my living, not noticing that much, and then suddenly I happen to look out my window (a bit like Yeats becoming aware of a swan and it gave him such a shock, he wrote a poem about it) and something pierces my self-absorption and I see in a flash the extraordinariness of everything — well, except for conservative non-thinkers. It’s like an inner-city train that has ridden the particular tracks now rattles along the eternal. I get itchy atoms and I feel like a man on a buzzy tree and I’m walking in Henry Miller’s footprints around Paris and Greece, dogging Mervyn Peake on Sark, hopping on DH Lawrence’s back in New Mexico, groveling behind Rilke in Duino Castle, being a scarf tied in Angela Carter’s wild hair.

“It’s the ghosts one misses most.”

It helps my writing, no to mention my spirit, to believe I’m living apart from the maddening crowd in some pastoral glade or idyllic landscape or remote hilltop or seaside hamlet having my very own small literary sprees full of capers and mint and the occasional reddest, stolen, cherries. And I know I have to rub Schopenhauer’s bald spot between his wings of white hair: “Seek out solitude, other people rob us of our identities.”

Yes, it may be fanciful to see my life living and writing by the sea as some romantic ideal, but isn’t the tiniest act of will better than having none at all?

Of course, there’s a downside to pretending you live a life of literary adventure: you never want to leave.

photo

Back to the Unknowable

The old man of sci-fi has died! A candle has gone out in the house of literature. And, yes, there are more candles getting lit daily, but there are candles, and then there are candles.

Yes, death is a lonely business, Mr. Bradbury, but I know you shall RIP.

With Bradbury’s passing, I feel a disturbance in the force; I feel like the young man I was who read his work has also departed, his particles scattered to dark matter that I can make no sense of. All I am left with is impressions. Not of my life, but my life as a story within Bradbury’s books or his fiction as a narrative within my known reality. I really can’t tell which is which.

He’s out there now, the way I like to see it, adding his indelible atoms to the cosmos, relaxing in the constellation Libra and sipping his dandelion wine in peace. It’s odd, but there’s a part of me that believes that when writers die, the material world is momentarily unbalanced and it will take a while for the creative equilibrium in life to come back. A single death, but especially one of such creative force, needs numerous lives to fill the gap. I wonder if the birth of creativity also needs an equal number of deaths to allow it the life it needs?

It’s a silly notion I have, but sometimes I think about the idea of meeting writers I love, maybe a few of them even reading a novel I will eventually publish. And although there are a slew of fantastic contemporary writers I’d love to chinwag with, I find that when I think about it, all the writers I would really love to confab with are the dead ones: Dylan Thomas, Angela Carter, Mervyn Peake, Rabelais, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Hermann Hesse, Henry Miller, Tove Jansson, Ted Hughes, Fritz Leiber, Bruno Schultz, Keith Roberts, Arthur Rimbaud, Rilke, Arthur Machen, Caradog Prichard, John Kennedy Toole, and more.

I’m not even sure why I entertain such thoughts. It’s not like it’s going to happen. But I can’t let go of the possibility that it might even though I know it to be a fucked-up desire. There is something in the total absurdity of this thought that keeps me sane and keeps me writing.

“If you just present the events to the reader, then the complexity of human motive will spin off that. If you try too hard to determine the way the reader sees character and motivation, you will actually restrict the reader’s interpretive opportunities. By limiting the amount of guidance you give, you automatically get the depth and complexity of interpretation you want. Because that’s what we readers do in real life — we interpret people’s actions and thus assign them ‘motive’ and ‘character.’” M John Harrison

The Queen and I

The Queen and I wouldn’t get along. To begin with, I’m Welsh. And I don’t like corgis. And I like my tea in a mug. But if she did invite me over to the palace for High Tea, I’d go. Although I’m sure the conversation would go something like this:

Queen: Would you care for sugar?

Me: Yes, especially in my bowl.

Duke of Edinburgh: I believe that’s a Nina Simone song.

Queen: Shut up Philip.

Queen: Your lovely wife says you write.

Me: Yes.

Queen: Have I read anything by you?

Me: Don’t think so.

Duke of Edinburgh: Is it tawdry? Is is raunchy?

Queen: Philip, do shut up, there’s a good boy.

Queen: Please don’t slurp from the saucer.

Me: Sorry.

Corgi (peeing on my polished brothel creepers): Stupid git!

Queen: I hope that was one of my dogs and not Philip. I do apologize.

Me: Oh, it’s ok, I can’t afford another pair, but the tea was nice.

Duke of Edinburgh: Here’s a tenner. Get yourself some lovely new brogues.

Me: Thanks.

Queen: Thank you for visiting.

Me: Sure.

Queen: We shall never do this again. Unless you get knighted, which is about as possible as Philip getting a royal stiffy. Goodbye.

So, another Jubilee descends on Britain like a plague of locust on a desperate crop of people. Why must my fellow countrymen and women drag out the Old Lady and jolt her back to life? It’s amazing what a bit of bringing the dead to life can do for a nation. A cadaver has never had it so lucky. Though I’ve seen more attractive ones.

And the tourists, a handful of Brits, and the One Million Moms (who are probably five guys and a stray ostrich) will grin themselves to death. And flags will wave like the dead applause of a Greek Chorus with debt issues. And the ostentatious ritual will fill the chasm of life not with gold and diamonds, but chalk and cheese.

And why are Americans so enamored with the fusty and antediluvian Corgi? How easily they forget their Pilgrim forebears, their revolution for a Republic free of the madness of king and country. Makes you wonder if the wrong ones got on the boat.

Oh, the spectacle. For a nations’ eyes only, we get bunting and bulldog and beef, while all the time we’re having our jewels swapped for fake precious memories and a handful of memorabilia that gathers dust on mantlepieces. If this is patriotism, I’d rather die for a real emotion, a real feeling, than live as the bastard native son gone native in America.

Why do the rich, the powerful, never have any taste but fluted champagne glasses full of ostentatious crap?

What makes me shocked and ashamed if I was ever to discover that I’m actually the eighteenth pale descendent of some old queen or other, is that this blatant celebration is all in honour of an emasculated monarchy. The pomp and glamour is just an empty thing, a sham, since there’s no substance, because the Queen has no real power in any sense, besides granting holidays and drawing hordes of tourists. She wields nothing but sentimentality and nostalgia through the eons-old plumbing of tradition that’s in a desperate need of a flush.

The Queen is just some fake porcelain doll given a throne of power simply because way back in the mists of time when men were brutal and women made babies, her brutish relative clobbered some other wannabe on the head, stole his wife, dog, steak and kidney pie, and jewels, and set up a castle and moat and proclaimed himself lord, which fell on deaf ears. And so he went out and killed and stole even more. Oh, and threw a few lavish parades of pomp and pageantry, which really gets the attention of the peasants, especially since they will never ever get a sniff at this kind of life.

I wonder why I don’t see the need to celebrate that kind of history, which the Queen represents, even though Dear Old Liz II is a truckload of genetic material away from that, but she still got dumped with it.

I’d rather have a nation that celebrates and has pomp and spectacle and glamour for literary rogues and swashbuckling anti-heroes. God, imagine a Jubilee to celebrate Oscar Wilde or Dylan Thomas or Angela Carter or Mervyn Peake? Now that would be a celebration of  flamboyance and excess and spectacle and splendor.

Wait, I celebrate this every day when I sit down to write.

Death Star

QR Markham (guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/09/james-bond-plagiarised-novel-qr-markham). The writer who plagiarized his novel. Didn’t he ever listen to the Smiths’ “Cemetery Gates,” especially the line “there’s always someone, somewhere, with a big nose, who knows and who trips you up and laughs when you fall”?

But enough about the hapless fool. I’m not dedicating my blog to him, so many others are going to dig in with the big boot.

However, it does give reason to pause about what is considered plagiarism and what is considered artistic stealing or pastiche. Seriously, how many writers really know what plagiarism means?

Writing is such an unfathomable force sometimes, and its art is a bit like sleeping with your mother — except as writers we sleep with all the other writers we’ve read. I understand that including whole pages of text from another writer amounts to theft and that the pillory should be hauled out. But what about stealing words from another writer? Is this an illegal act? If Angela Carter in one of her novels uses the word “slipshod,” is it fair game for me to use it?

Seriously, where is the line between one’s own work and another’s?

What about a scene you like in another writer’s book? Is it permissible and kosher to lift it, not word for word, but lift its mood, its thingness, and then make it your own? Is this ok?

And what about ideas you stuff into your notebook that you got from another writer’s finished work? Letting the ideas knock about in your head like pugilists. Surf on your own blood. Mix with your atoms until, shock, they transform into your own ideas.

Here’s Webster’s definition of plagiarism: “The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.”

Ok, so there’s the rub. Passing it off as one’s own.

Why didn’t whatshisname just rip off what he liked about Fleming and co and then Make It His Own? Write it in his way? Do what all the other writers do!

I suppose it’s all about finding one’s voice. Although I’ve never understood what the hell this cryptic message means. It always sounds to me like some sort of papal order. Or having a sergeant-major scream in your face: “Find your fucking voice.”

My voice in my work is actually not mine at all. It’s an awful sticky mess of so many other writers. It’s really like a dandelion head that’s gone to seed.

I mean, come on, what writer hasn’t pinched another writer’s idea, theme, vision, words, tempo, plot, metaphor, etc, etc? Very few, I imagine. Like Eliot said, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”

I’m not saying that Mr. Markham is justified in what he did. I’m saying that maybe the creative act is more complicated than we would like to make it out to be. And it’s also more nebulous than it is finite. More shapeshifting. More uncontrollable. More of a febrile beast that devours you one word at a time.

It’s is an act of creation. And as a writer you take risks when you write.

Just be prepared to get the Death Star destroying you like Alderaan if you step over the boundaries.

Some Grandsons Do ‘Ave ‘Em

If a person ever asks me what book or author made me want to be a writer, I would have to give them a blank stare.

There is no such book. There is no such writer.

There is only my grandmother, Anne Richards.

My grandmother has been dead a few years now, and I miss her more deeply as the seasons pass from fall to winter, spring to summer.

She was not a writer. But she was a storyteller. She was not a modern woman. But she was a loving one. She was not a gifted person. But she made the best baked goods. She was not famous. But she shone like a star for me.

I spent a lot of my youth in her and my grandfather’s house on Glanmor Terrace in Wales. It was not a large house and it could be cold in the winter and the upstairs windows rattled in a gale and the wind spooked me like no ghost story could. They had a small bathroom in the house, which my grandfather built, and an outside lav, which was always full of spiders’ webs and damp toliet paper. But it was a fun place to hide away with a copy of the Sun, diligently searching for spelling errors, of course. Their back garden was long and slim and was squeezed between the neighbours’ identical ones. Identical in length and width only. My grandfather was a wicked green thumb and had a large veg plot and flowerbeds. Oh, and there was a gooseberry bush at the bottom of the garden and noisy crows, rooks, and ravens in the big oak that lorded it over the three gardens. In fact, there was no other tree on the entire street.

Windy, wet days were the best. That’s when my grandmother would strike a Swan match, turn on the gas heater, and blue flames would whoosh to life and then settle down into a lovely blaze of orange. Ensconced in her favourite seat, my grandmother would light up a cigarette, never inahling, though, just puffing away, nibbling on slices of apple and sipping her tea with no sugar.

That’s when I would lie before the fire and beg her to tell me stories of her growing up in Ireland. She would puff and laugh. But she always gave in.

I could sit forever listening to her stories. And in my memory it always seemed like I did, lost, in some way, like a character out of an Irish legend who has stumbled by accident into the land of the sidhe.

The sliced apple, the cigarette smoke, the warm gas fire, the persistent draught from under the hallway door, and the torrent of rain on the conservatory roof. What a mood! Maybe that’s why I love gothic tales.

My grandmother knew nothing about plot, structure, tone, dialogue, pov, anything about the craft of telling stories, but I was spellbound, curled up in a fetal ball at her feet, listening to her every word, letting them become as important to me as the blood that pulsed inside.

And her stories weren’t grand, opulent, masterpieces. They were simple ones about her early life in Ireland and especially about her one brother, John, who was a classcic trickster spirit.  I think I loved these stories about her brother the best, the way he would upset the proverbial apple carts and muck about and frighten and amuse and cause a huge amount of mirth — as well as lots of frustration. But my grandmother would always tell her stories about her brother so reverantly, attentive to everylittle detail of his many hijinks and capers. I could tell he vexed the other family members but at the same time they loved him in spite of his devious ways. Part of the proof of that was the many stories my grandmother told about him. In fact, he always showed up in her stories, even if it was to say that John was not around that day, or he’d gone to snare rabbits (or poach), or he was just simply missing, escaped into the wild woods around their cottage. Even his abscense made the stories tingle more with life. My grandmother knew this, I secretly think. Maybe that is why she told me so much about him; maybe she wanted to pass his spirit on to me, keep him alive forever.

If wish I’d told her how much of a great sotryteller she was.

“It’s you — nobody else — who determines your destiny and decides your fate. Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There’s the artist’s responsibility; and the most awful responsibility on earth.” ee Cummings

“I really do believe that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself.” Angela Carter