Free Content From My Life

Episode V

When my wife and I got married, we decided to get in a hot-air balloon and see the world in more than 80 days. In short, have a very long honeymoon. We didn’t want to begin this new adventure by ordering the little drummer boy to play the same old tunes of: start a family, own a house, have matching luggage and careers, and vote in elections.

So, with the reckless spirit of Blake’s Flea, we sold all our belongings, raked blueberries in Washington County in Maine to make tons of money, and bought one-way tickets to Ireland.

We tried living in Galway at first, but that inn was full with students and tourists, so we travelled to Yeats Country. Well, the Gateway to Connemara, to live in a one-room apartment above a barn in Oughterard, the Gaelic words meaning in English the “the Upper Lower Place,” which had perfect meaning for us. We were living in the “Upper Place” of what Wordsworth describes as those “spots of time,” which I have always understood as key elements, both psychological and imaginative, in one’s life. It was also the “Lower Place,” too, since we had very little money and no real ambition for anything besides reading lots and living life from the daily visits with the postman to the encounters with frisky bulls and the roaming bands of long-horn Connemara sheep.

The place I’m living now, the one of writing is also the “Upper Place” of imagination and the time to get it done, since I have no immediate temptations of the working kind. But it is also the “Lower Place.” I could explain, but some things are best left to oneself even in the Age of Transparency.

I also remember a funny incident from that time, cooped up in a barn reading Tolstoy and Hamsun, Ursula Le Guin and Moorcock. It happened at night between my wife and I. We had just finished an evening of watching two Bond flicks on RTE. The wonderful couple who rented the barn to us had gone to bed long ago (they were farmers). My wife and I crawled into bed and fell into a deep sleep. We were woken some time later by footsteps in the courtyard below the single window, open to the scent of wild roses. Back and forth went the footsteps. We were still drowsy from dreams of secret agents and so to our active ears it sounded like a couple of crooks were stealing farming implements or hidden treasure in the barn below. We were so scared, neither one of us could move – not even to get closer to each other. We just listened to the footsteps coming and going and hauling off the loot. We stayed awake until a jaunty robin appeared in the roses. With at least some semblance of light, I was now determined to get up and find out what the hell was taking these thieves all night to rob a barn. Like a very early bird, armed with a frying pan and ready to catch the thieves red-handed, I tiptoed out.

There were no night-time burglars.

Trotting back and forth in the early morning courtyard was a horse. A big iron-shod horse who had escaped his field and thought he would spend the night terrifying a young couple of night owls.

I remember my wife and I sat on the steps of our garret among the rafters of an old barn and laughed until the sun came up.

Here’s a Cave named Nick.


Decadent Lens For An Age of Excess

Here’s something odd that I keep stumbling over: the narrative landscape of today is paved over with realism and naturalism.

What the Hell-Fire-Club happened to decadent literature and its exotic palaces of artifice, perverseness, art-for-art’s sake, sensuality, degeneration, maximalism, and the love of the sublime and surreal?

The fiction landscape now is littered with hovels (novels) filled with their solid and real narratives, their dependable little puppets that hold up their mirrors so that we can look more closely at ourselves and see the truth, whatever that is.

Which strikes me as even more perverse and strange than fin de siecle fiction.

Right now we are living in a time when wars are televised, commodity has become a bacchanalian god, the Web has raped us of any imagination, and the media manipulates us like perverse slaves. So why this pious offering of the real and the solid?

What ever happened to the decadents who dropped their trousers to the world to show off their creative wit, daring, and artifice to the face of the real artificer itself: the material world?

Vanities and insanities surround us — from religious zealots to the banalities of politics to the hedonism of the Web to the drug of celebrity to the ecstasy of violence. We are already living in a hyper-reality, sucking, injecting, spewing, vomiting, engulfing, and gorging on excess.

The orgiastic road goes ever on and on, down from the door of waste, excess, and sensation….

Our bodies are infected with high living (think obsession with celebrity and wealth and God bless everyone last one of us who is a born-again star), the capitalist dream (think recession, the detox symptoms of a society addicted to debt) the greed (think the Gulf disaster and the corporate scandals, and, well, just about anything that hits the media fan).

I want to find a book (or write one myself) that burns with the heat of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the sensual macabre of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, the grand debauchery of a grotesque spirit in Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror, the effervescence and bizarre heaviness of JK Huysmans’ Against Nature, the surreal and manic energy of KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, the effete and diabolical splendor of Moorcock’s Elric tales, the unsettling and comic romp of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces,  the excessive pomp and pageantry and sexy brio of any Angela Carter, the nefarious mischief and glut for the fantastical of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, the Baroque mastery and succulent purple prose of Mervyn Peake, and all the other grand narratives that transform, unsettle, transfix, shock, and make us crack out of clay molds and explore the juicy bits.

Stopped Reading

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I just couldn’t keep hitting my imaginative head against this wall of realism. The book began to get claustrophobic, like Franzen’s legs were strapped around my neck, his hard male voice rammed down my throat. I couldn’t get past the nausea of the suburban life that Gary Lambert and his wife and kids are living, it drove me to sulk before the weird section of my books. And I know it’s supposed to be satire with all the trappings of postmodern verbal capers, an avant-garde robustness for plot with all the high-stakes, roll-of-the-dice character development and a comic-tragic masterpiece to boot, but what the fuck, it was stinking up my habitat. And if it’s good advice to not shit where you eat, then the same should apply to novelists.

Listening To

Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Now here was a decadent singer. Jesus. Talk about your Romantic who lives too fast and died to young. Every time I hear “Lilac Wine” or  “Corpus Christi Carol” I want to weep, and when I hear “So Real” and “Last Goodbye” I want to drink some Green Fairy.

Tim Buckley’s The Dream Belongs to Me. Well, once you listen to the son, you have to listen to the father, right? This is a fantastic album that shows Buckley to be a musician well ahead of his times. It’s like a heady mix of broken wine bottles and silk bedclothes; you are tugged, tugged, tugged to believe and then disbelieve.

The Old Man and the Melniboné

Now this is a writing schedule I could dress up for. It’s one that fantasy writer Michael Moorcock used to follow in his cockamamie days:

“My method of writing fantasy novels was to go to bed for a few days, getting up only to take the kids to school and pick them up, while the book germinated, making a few notes, then I’d jump out of bed and start, writing around 15-20,000 words a day (I was a super-fast typist) for three days, rarely for more than normal working hours — say 9 to 6— get my friend Jim Cawthorn to read the manuscript for any errors of typing or spelling, etc. Then send it straight to the editor unread by me.”

15,000 to 20,000 words a day! How? Where? On whose iBook?

I need to go to bed for a few days!

I also resonate like a crystal to this that the English poet Jon Burnside says about fiction: “What matters in fiction, more than formal skill, more than clever effects or knowingness, more even than the all too frequently sociological “meaning” of the work, is how keenly and completely a writer reimagines language and the world and, by extension, how that vision revivifies the language and experiences of others.”

And I like to shout this by Byron at the British political system: “Degenerate Britons! Are ye dead to shame, Or, kind to dullness, do you fear to blame?”

The Session of Sweet, Silent Thought

The Books section of the Guardian has posted advice from a broad spectrum of writers about 10 Rules for Writing Fiction inspired by Elmore Leonard’s ten commandments. It’s a cool list of writers that includes Jeanette Winterson, Michael Moorcock, Philip Pullman, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Geoff Dyer, Will Self, Neil Gaiman, and more.

It’s fascinating what each writer considers important to the writing experience. There’s some gems there as well as duds. The best advice I took away from it would be this holy trinity: Write, edit, and edit some more. The most pointless don’t was this one from Richard Ford: “Don’t have children.” Total crap. That’s like saying don’t have sex unless you mean to have offspring. Actually his rules are the weakest of the bunch. Which leads perfectly into this advice from Moorcock: “Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.”

And to get semantic, I’m not sure “rules” is the best noun to use. I’d use “advice.” Rules imply an explicit adhering to, and if I come away with anything from these rules, I think it is use at your own discretion.

Here are the 15 I would be able to live and work with, tacked up beside my writing desk along with the most useful advice I’ve come across in a long while: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

1. Write

2. Love what you do. (Winterson))

4. Trust your creativity. (Winterson)

5. Do it every day. The most important rule of all and, naturally, one I don’t follow. (Dyer)

6. When people tell you something is wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. (Gaiman)

7. Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome. (David Hare)

8. Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity. (Enright)

9. Write for tomorrow, not today (Motion)

10. Always carry a notebook. The short-term memory only retains information fro three minutes. (Self)

11. Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom. (Winterson)

12. Stop reading fiction, it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t already know (assuming that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past). (Self)

13. Have more than one idea on the go at any moment. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the later. (Dyer)

14. Protect the time and space in which you write. (Zadie Smith)

15. Hold the reader’s attention. (Atwood)