The wooden teacup: crimes against ‘show, don’t tell’.

When my daughter was little I had an idea for a picture book called ‘Where there’s fun, there’s mess’, the idea being – ostensibly – to have parents relax about chocolatey fingers on pearly white sofa cushions and mud in the hallway and landslides of toys on bedroom carpets (but, probably, honestly, more about making my own slutty housekeeping feel like a virtue).

I never wrote that book, but luckily the author Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Lifewhich was called to my attention by the lovely writer Mary Nathan last night. In Bird by Bird, Lamott likens real-world mess to writing mess, and reminds us how vital the latter is to that all important ‘shitty first draft’ (which calls Hemingway’s dictum to mind: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’). Lamott rails against perfectionism (the desire ‘not to leave so much mess to clean up’) and its deathly end result, that horrible writerly trait of ‘tidiness’, which ‘makes me think of held breath’, as she says, ‘of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move’.

As the title says, this is a book about writing and life, and some of her larger statements gave me an ‘ouch’ moment or two of recognition regarding my life, as opposed to my writing (I’ve made no bones about my recent depression, as interested parties can read about here and here and here…). But at least, when it comes to writing, it’s never too late. Perfectionism – and, worse still, its twisted sister, avoidance – have wreaked their havoc in my Real Life (here’s Lamott on the subject: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life’ – too true), but the good news is that I’ve slowly entangled myself from the tyranny of writerly tidiness over the last twelve months (partly by ‘blurting’, as Ray Bradbury called it, about which you can read more here, and partly by hearing my mentor on the Escalator Literature Scheme describe a large chunk of my book as ‘boring’).

We all have default settings as writers, and this is mine: a belief that by piling on nice-sounding words that sit nicely together, like some kind of OCD-inflicted bricklayer, I’m taking a shortcut away from the messy necessity of that shitty first draft – when, in fact, what I’m doing is SUCKING THE SOUL from my story. First drafts oughtn’t to look like this…

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… but this:

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Which brings me to my personal nemesis: the wooden teacup.

We coined this phrase, Mary and I, last night. It so happens we’re both writing books set largely in houses – in elegant houses where people drink tea, sit on chairs, flutter eyelashes, notice the wallpaper, listen to footsteps approaching, remark on the weather – and while such detail doesn’t have to lead to smallness (by which I mean heartlessness, emptiness, woodenness) the sad truth is that laying the nice, neat bricks of your scene in the sort of careful prose that rightly belongs in the editing phase means you’re likely avoiding the fun of the story as well as the mess. If you’re too keen to keep it all tidy – the literary equivalent of ‘picking up after yourself’ as you go along – you’ll find yourself with ‘wooden teacup’ writing: fussy and finicky, lacking a heart (thanks to Mary again for identifying ‘heart’ as a necessary factor of any decent scene – not, of course, in the sense of Hollywood schmaltz, but instead as the single thing that keeps it all beating).

In her excellent blog, the novelist Emma Darwin identifies a culprit for what she calls this ‘blow by blow’ writing: a misinterpretation of that hoary CW chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell’. Now many of you doubtless don’t need reminding of this, but I do: unlike playwrights, for us novelists ‘there’s no necessity to write the whole of a scene in real time’, as Darwin says. This shouldn’t have been a revelation to me in the last twelve months (since I’ve pretty much spent my life writing) but the humbling fact is I used to know this perfectly well, when I wrote less self-consciously (i.e. before I was published), but somewhere along my word-blocked journey to Madder Hall I taught myself to show, show, show, no matter how painful the showing, and gave up on the humble art of ‘telling’ as somehow too easy. A lot of the trouble comes from writing in close third person (not a can of worms I want to open here, but watch this space…) without that sense of an author to step in with his or her observations, but what I’ve effectively done is crippled myself – ‘cramped’ myself, in Lamott’s word – by failing to ‘use the infinite contractibility and expandibility of time in a narrative’ (and now I’m back to Darwin – who goes on to hold up her own dirty hands and admit that she, too, succumbs to the wooden teacup once in a while, when ‘tired or stressed or not very well’, ‘pulling the action blow by blow out of [herself] and sticking it on the page’). I urge you to read her post (when you’ve finished reading this one…) and read it right through to the end – where she has some vital observations on the writer as not just a camera (perhaps thank Christopher Isherwood for that), but editor, voice-over and cinematographer too…  

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn't yawn... Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn’t yawn… Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

So the revelation is this: YOU CAN SKIP THE BORING BITS. And if you don’t know what to skip to, then here’s revelation number 2: YOU HAVE NO HEART. (Not you personally, natch – your scene.) All that clinking of teacups and scraping of chairs and offering of matches (the other thing my characters do with mind-numbing regularity is light cigarettes – the book’s set mostly in the 1970s, which is my excuse and I’m sticking to it)… well, zzzzzzz. It’s all so polite and so dainty and sometimes the prose, as it lands on the page, has a cool sort of flow of its own – but what’s prose without story? (A poem, I suppose…) What I aim for now in my first drafts is something as rough as a fishwife’s cackle, that somehow, in spite of the flailing proseholds the interest. Has heart. I want clutter, not teacups, because ‘clutter is wonderfully fertile ground’ (says Lamott), and amongst it are treasures. She quotes Kurt Vonnegut: ‘When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth’. The point is, the world (of your book) is your oyster. In real life you might spend a disproportionate amount of time drinking tea (she types, whilst slurping) but characters in novels really shouldn’t (unless of course you have some juicy subtext in which case the drinking of tea is a prop, as it should be, and not the scene’s purpose). Take stabs at the page with that crayon and see what comes out. Write in longhand on paper. Switch person from first to third, or vice versa. Switch tense, back and forth if you like. Let the thoughts tumble out, let the thoughts become words – don’t be crippled, or cramped, by the need to ‘keep tidy’, to let words dictate thoughts. Read Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making  and remind yourself that writing (whatever form it takes) starts with finding out what you want to say before caring how you say it. Avoid the blow by blow, unless each of those blows really matters. Remember who’s telling the story – that’s you – and as novelists (unlike pesky humans) time is our toy, our plaything.

And, lastly, I want to quote a nice, fat chunk from John Gardner in his book On Becoming a Novelist which, for me, covers pretty damn neatly the question of ‘show, don’t tell’ and warns all aspiring novelists against wandering into wooden teacup territory:

‘The writer with a truly accurate eye (and ear, nose, sense of touch, etc.) has an advantage over the writer who does not in that, among other things, he can tell his story in concrete terms, not just in feeble abstractions. Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should “show,” not “tell”. And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school (one need not show a scene at the private school if the scene has no importance for the rest of the narrative), or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.’

We could, but won’t (because this post is far too long already), take a detour here into T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the objective correlativebut frankly if you think ‘spaghetti: tell’, ‘despair: show’, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Let us see the story unfold in concrete terms (as opposed to abstract), but dunk too many pointless biscuits in too many pointless cups of tea and you may just find you have something wooden where your story’s heart should be.

 

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Heart-shaped darts and poison pens.

In my last post I touched on the issue of grinding real-life axes via the handy medium of fiction, and after less than four hours’ sleep – as someone who’s currently very much in the market for the brain-arranging services of Dr Mierzwiak in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – I find myself drawn to the topic again. ‘If you want to get things off your chest,’ said one of my non-writing friends, ‘then why don’t you just write a story about it? You don’t have to print it.’

That’s never really been my thing, though. (Faces on dartboards, that’s my thing. By which I mean photographs of faces. Obviously.) 4278_84276857207_3158053_nI don’t like to muddy my fiction too much with people I’m trying to forget the existence of. And then, too, as a writing teacher I’ve seen a few thinly-veiled axe-grinding efforts over the years that have made me tread carefully here myself. (What follows, I hasten to add, has been liberally reinvented):

‘It was one thing being dumped, thought Sue, but to find yourself dumped for a girl your daughter’s age was another thing entirely. It wasn’t as if she wanted Chris back – with his nose picking, shoulder hair, and halitosis – but knowing he’d chosen a slut like that! (She was pretty enough, Sue supposed, but in ten years her looks would have faded and Chris would be left with a hatchet-faced bitch who could barely string two words together, and then who’d be laughing? Sue, that’s who.)’

‘John was twenty eight, if Jane recalled correctly, but thanks to his jowls and bald head he might have been easily forty under the restaurant’s strip-lights as he checked his phone for the hundredth time. Whoever she was, Jane thought with a grin, she wasn’t coming. Perhaps she’d got word of John’s “shortcomings”, as you might say, in the trouser department.’

All very cathartic, no doubt, but this sort of sniping brings a word to mind and that word is petty. 

Plenty of published authors, though, have mined their own turmoil for fiction. Hanif Kureishi, for instance, who once commented that authors should be ‘terrorists, not masseurs’, has never shied away from autobiographical territory. His 1998 novel Intimacy documents a father’s decision to leave his partner and their two young children for another woman – something Kureishi himself had just done. This Telegraph interview with the man himself quotes one of the novel’s particular gems: ‘There are some f***s for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a freezing sea.’

Well, ouch.

As for Norman Mailer, not content with the real-life stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales, he went on to murder his third wife in print (An American Dream) – and just for good measure he sodomised their German maid as well.

But it’s not just the men. When the seventeen-month marriage of newspaper columnist Kathryn Flett ended nastily in divorce she churned out the abysmally-named The Heart-Shaped Bullet, described by the Independent as ‘a sort of Bridget Jones meets The Bell Jar in the Conran shop’. Among the indignities doled out to pseudonymous ‘Eric’ were tales of his toilet habits, his impotence, and his love for a fluffy toy called Bunny. I’m sure ‘Eric’ had no trouble at all with impotence after that came out. 

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But my feelings are mixed. In one sense this is sort of a writer’s consolation, the silver lining to all our misery: ‘Maybe there’s material here…’ And I’d hate to deny any writer (least of all myself) that silver lining, if only because I’ve found such solace in other people’s accounts of problematic lives. But revenge? I’m not sure. By airing someone else’s dirty smalls in print, you air your own as well. We none of us act our best when we’re hurt: is The Heart-shaped Bullet a book that Flett’s still proud of, I wonder? Speaking personally I’d hate my own wounds to be bound and printed and selling for £6.99 at WHSmith.

And, besides, that’s what your diary’s for.

On tap-dancing kittens, and why fiction is like an over-thick milkshake.

Since grandly announcing ‘I’m free to write shit‘ I have written precisely nothing. Bupkis. Opened notebook and pen

My thinking, I suppose, is that by blogging more often I’ll gently encourage the flow of words – like an over-thick milkshake through one of those straws with more loops than intestines – and gradually something resembling fiction will find itself slurped from the base of the cup and…

I think may have gone too far now with the bendy straw thing.

But, in my defence: (a) I am wooly of mind this morning, having taken an extra sleeping pill to counteract my daughter’s Tangfastics that I misguidedly ate to stay awake during Eurovision last night (in some bizarre twist on the old woman who ate the spider to catch the fly, etc – and ended up eating a horse and dying – and, no disrespect Haribo, but eating horses is probably far less conducive to nighttime palpitations than sour jellies doused in sugar). And (b) writing good fiction is a bit like sucking a drink through an obstacle course of a straw. Why, Lynsey? 563

Because it’s really hard work.

This has been my annus horribilis so far, to quote dear Queenie, and every time I switch my brain to ‘fiction mode’ there’s a loop or a bend or a blockage beyond which my battle-worn thoughts are just too gloopy to go any further. I don’t want to be one of those writers who grinds real-life axes through fiction (although inevitably, I suppose, things creep in). But, naturally, a writer is present in her or his own work – and, in fact, should be, as I blogged about here – so what do you do if you’re just, well, just not that keen on yourself or your own bloody company at the present moment? I read to escape myself (just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the fourth time – please do read it if you haven’t already), but, as Flannery O’Connor once said, writing is no kind of escape at all: if you’re doing it right it’s the deepest kind of self-penetration (don’t think I’ll be tagging this blog with that line…), which sounds vaguely painful – and quite often is.

I do wish I could write about happier things, but I can’t (so it seems). I could plan for a heartwarming tale about tap-dancing kittens, but somewhere – I guarantee you – somewhere amongst all that tapping and dancing the spectres of sex and death would rear their ugly heads and the whole thing would have to end stickily for those showbiz kittens. As Andre Gide said: ‘What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.’ Although in my own case I’ve gone one further: I can’t seem to prepare for it, only destroy it.

Okay so they're not tap shoes. And they're not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

Okay so they’re not tap shoes. And they’re not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

As Madder Hall has gone from thought to pen to sprawling metropolis of Scrivener documents, things have got darker. The story has moved in a different direction and, hence, I’ve started to encroach on territory that’s difficult for me. I suppose we’re all drawn to particular things (I think it was Philip Larkin who once remarked that authors oughtn’t to be blamed for what they wrote, because they had no choice in the matter) but as I blogged about here it may be that those things we’re drawn to are leading us down unhealthily introspective paths. Who knows? I don’t pretend to have the answers. When all’s said and done, I suppose I’m a tiny bit scared of my book. Is that silly? Like being scared of your shadow. Your darker half. If stories are milkshakes, then mine are invariably liquorice coloured (ew) and perhaps the loops and bends and twists and blocks are my brain’s way of cowering, just at the moment, from tackling that liquoricey mess.

Bike rides and bunting (and not sweating the small stuff).

Bikes rides. Bunting. Cuddles. Tea. Cocoa. Knitting. Sue Miller. Elliott Smith. Nick Drake. Carol Shields. Alison Lurie. Wallander (in Swedish, naturally). The League of Gentlemen. The Secret Life of Us. The Office. Modern Family. Hilary Mantel. My Mother’s Day card. Secrets and Lattes (on radio 4). Brass Eye… Just some of the things that have kept me going over the last three months.

Aforementioned bunting.

Aforementioned bunting.

And then yesterday… I did a little writing.

Pointless, awful writing. But, still. New writing. New writing that didn’t exist the day before yesterday.

Where’s it all going, nobody knows. I’ve confronted the cobwebby drafts in my notebooks and found lots of nonsense – with one or two pearl-like lines among swine – and (with tea cup in hand) I cracked open the Scrivener file on my laptop where Madder Hall lives and (sharp intake of breath)… of the sections I read, it is mostly dreadful. 

Hardly surprising. They usually are dreadful, first drafts. If I wasn’t already despairing of everything else in my life, I’d despair of the novel. But misery, so it turns out, has its positive side: it does give you a fresh perspective on writerly belly-aching. It makes you not care about agents or book deals. It makes you immune from the sting of those twinges when somebody writes something better than you. So my book’s mostly crap. I don’t care! It’s a shame, yes, that Scissors – a chapter I liked when I wrote it – is wooden and lumpen and filled with the sort of dialogue that can only be written, not spoken. But never mind, eh. Push on, push on. I’m so low in myself that any words committed to paper are worthy of celebration. It’s liberating. (Sort of.) I’m free to write shit, and be proud of myself just for writing at all.

So, to sum up… I’m still in the gutter. But gradually, painfully, starting to look at the stars again.