30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Eight

Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head… and decided this twenty-eighth post of my 30 day challenge would be about ageing.

And then, because I’m in the magic zone where synchronicity just happens, I read an interview with novelist Marilynne Robinson while drinking my morning tea and, abracadabra, these words appeared on the end of my wand:

ROBINSON

I have a sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself. It’s a nice opportunity to be able to know these people, but I have to do other things, which take hours, days, weeks.

INTERVIEWER

Have you always felt that urgency or is this something new?

ROBINSON

It’s a little new. Years ago, I was younger than I am now.

You can read the full article here (which appeared, in 2008, in the Paris Review: and why, when I’m reading the Paris Review, do I always glance down at my clothes, and my choice of beverage, and the shabby chair I’m sitting on, with the airy disdain of a Parisian waiter and remember all over again that I’ll never be truly cool?).

But I digress…

Years ago, I was younger too.

I had the heartwarming experience yesterday of bumping into an old work mate, and being told I looked younger than ever – ‘like a schoolgirl’! (It was a dark street.) Perhaps, with some vaseline on the camera lens, I could just about pass as a schoolgirl of the Grease variety, where Rydell High was patently populated by students pushing thirty, but, no, I am not a schoolgirl and do not look like one. Even though I do wear bunches sometimes. And my management of my finances is positively schoolgirl-ian in its consistent focus on instant gratification.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner's focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner’s focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Like Kit Williams in MasqueradeI’ve laid a trail of clues in recent posts as to my exact age, so, ahem, we won’t mention it here. But I’m quite a lot older than I was when I first had a sniff at a publishing deal (I was 20, Fact Fans). And the 17-year-old Lynsey who tore open her acceptance letter from The Rialto and positively floated to school because she was going to be A Poet… would have to wait an awful lot longer than anticipated for her next piece of work to be published. (Twelve years, Fact Fans. Although two came in the same week, which reminds me of something about buses… and men…)

And now here I am, X number of years later, writing my first novel at the age of… let’s just say I’m une femme d’un certain age and leave it at that.

For a person who’s always written, since the age of 6, it’s a fairly clear indictment of the way I live my life that I’ve made so little finished work in that time. When I say ‘always’ written, I mean: ‘always thought of myself as a writer’ – when others, assessing the ‘work’ they’d produced so far, might have slipped by the wayside and started to call themselves other things: butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. Hah, kidding! I meant, of course, productivity managers, process administrators, data coordinators.

(In the process of writing this post I’ve just discovered a job I’d never heard of before, Penguinologist, and now I’m not entirely sure I want to be a writer anymore. Is it too late to swap?)

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Is it good or bad to be an older first-time novelist? (I’m going to proceed as if it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll get my book published, if that’s all right with you; because proceeding on the basis that I’ll have to resign it to the digital graveyard is a bit too annoying to think about at this late stage in the writing.)

Let’s look at the pros:

  • I have never before known as much as I know at this moment. (Not even when I was sixteen, when I knew everything.)
  • I do not believe that alliteration alone is enough to carry a sentence.
  • I have evolved to the stage where I need/want/have very little in the way of social life.
  • My daughter’s on the waiting list for surgical attachment to her iPhone, and no longer requires my presence now, now, now at all times.
  • I’ve been down this jolly old road before, and succeeded a bit, and failed a bit, and I know life carries on no matter what. (Writing carries on, too, no matter what.)

And now the cons:

  • I won’t look like Zadie Smith in my author photos. (Did I before? Er… well… no. But you know what I’m saying here.)
  • Assuming the publishers wanted one at all, I would probably be encouraged to have a very small, stamp-sized author photo as opposed to a full cover close-up.
  • There can’t ever be a publishing frenzy about the Hot Young Author called Lynsey White.
  • My chances of making the Granta Best British Novelists list are dead in a ditch.
  • If there’s ever a launch party for my book, I won’t especially want to go. I’ll want to be home drinking cocoa.

Try as I might, I cannot find a single ‘con’ to do with the actual writing. (Oh, hang on! Here’s a tiny caveat: sometimes when I have a great insight, I go to my laptop to write it all down and… ah, now, what did I come in here for again?)

All the cons have to do with publicity, and marketing, and USPs, and sales graphs, and the fact that a publisher is buying you as well as your book. Graham Greene could refuse to be filmed during an interview, but very few have that luxury now. Not that I’ve got anything against interviews, per se: it’s quite clear to you all, by now, that I really like to talk about myself. (Shutting me up would probably be the issue.) But, no, I’m no spring chicken, no whippersnapper, no Mozart-ian genius sprung from the ether.

But writing is an art that doesn’t lend itself to Mozart-ian genius. Having a ‘way with words’ is all very well – in fact it’s wonderful – and you will need a way with words if you’re hoping to write literature (and a ‘way with words’ is fairly impossible to learn, I think: in that respect, yes, there can be a Mozart-y element to it all). But pick up ‘a way with words’ and rattle it and – yes – it’s empty. Until you have something to say, it will always be empty.

I’ve read books recently (Jennifer Egan’s first) and even a Booker Prize nominee (won’t say which one) that left me thinking: clever, but empty. Step away from the Mozart Model of creativity, and turn instead to Beethoven, who said that mistakes were forgivable; what wasn’t forgivable, was playing without passion. Music schools today are crammed to the rafters with kids who can knock off a Flight of the Bumblebee with the effortlessness I reserve for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…

…but that doesn’t mean they’re making music. (They might be; they might not.) Flying fingers are a conduit to making music, not an end in themselves, no matter how fantastically impressive it all looks – and is (don’t misunderstand me: if I could play like that I’d be doing it right now instead of writing this post). But without emotion, it’s only sport; not art.

My fingers could fly twenty years ago, but it would have been mostly sport I was offering. And so, at the ripe old age I am, I feel properly (honestly!) glad that I didn’t get published twenty years ago. I didn’t know what I was doing.

still don’t know what I’m doing half the time. But at least now I know I don’t know what I’m doing…

This post is dedicated to PD James, who died yesterday. She never knew it (and doubtless would have been unexcited had she known) but she was the subject of my GSCE Extended Essay in 1989. For which I got an A. So, thank you, PD James, for my A grade, and for proving that women writers can be wanted, welcomed, accepted, even though they don’t begin until they’re pushing forty.

pd james

Thank you, PD James. Hope there’s a really great library up there in the sky. You deserve one.

 

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Necessary Rudeness: the trouble with sex scenes.

Those of you who’ve met me in the flesh, so to speak, will be unsurprised by the following fact: I’ve never had a sports related injury.

I’ve had ‘pianist’s wrist’ (for which I blame Beethoven) and ‘trolley back’ (for which I blame Tesco) and lately, since switching from desktop computer to laptop, I’ve noticed a new affliction: ‘laptop leg’. To the joy of osteopaths across Norfolk, my primary writing pose is the Sofa Slump. And it doesn’t half make your legs ache after a while. Not to mention the molten heat emanating from Gwendolyn’s vents (yes, I have named my laptop) when I’m not so much writing as ‘writing’, i.e: when poor Gwendolyn has more open windows than a tower block in a heat wave, and the ratio of words written to candy crushed and cats cooed at and Buzzfeed quizzes completed shrinks ever lower.

A couple of days ago, in an effort to fight the twin demons of Laptop Leg and distraction, I joined my friend Mary in the local library for a writing session entirely free of cats being jerks or candy crushing. (Luckily, courtesy of another friend, Jon, this candy moratorium didn’t extend to amazing homemade cookies with fruit pastilles in them – yes, fruit pastilles. I know, right?). And we actually wrote. We wrote words and sentences (unless Mary was typing sjdkfjdnsbdnfbdafmsndfbxzpqeuwqoweiquasfofsuafsd to fool me), and two of the paragraphs I wrote were, well, you know, not good exactly, but they didn’t make me want to immediately claw out my eyes for having the audacity to call myself a writer. Just once, for ten seconds, I sneakily logged on to the library wi-fi (for the minor humiliation of having no notifications on Facebook, nor none on twitter neither) and somewhat to my surprise I found that my website (this very site that you’re reading right now) had been blocked by the library wifi for ‘pornographic content’. (Goodbye, at this point, to those of you who’ve immediately gone in search of said content.)

Well, this was news to me. I’ve occasionally had someone land on my home page by means of a weird phrase or two (‘tight-lacing governess stories’ is my favourite so far) but, hand on heart, there is nowt here whatsoever of a titillating nature.

Yet. 

It so happens I’m giving a reading next month for the Norwich Sound and Vision festival. And said reading so happens to be in a chilly and candlelit mediaeval church. (There’s a link to the event here if you’re ‘local people’. There are four fantastic readers – plus me – and as well as a Q&A session, in which I get to display my shining ignorance on the theme of gothic fiction, there is – more importantly – a showing of silent classic Nosferatu – remastered and with a live score, to boot.) imagesI am hemming and hawing because the piece (in its current, unfinished format) that I’m planning to read contains the words knickers, bra, and (best – worst? – of all) willies. I once drove some unsuspecting writing students from a residential weekend in a convent by reading my short story, Amore (if Amore was a cocktail, it’d be Sex on the Beach), and although willies and knickers are (in my opinion) at the very tamest end of the sexual spectrum, the fact that I’m going to be standing in a pulpit proclaiming this stuff has given me pause for thought. It’s not so much God striking me down with a lightning bolt (which, come to think of it, would give my reading a bit of pizazz), I just hate making people uncomfortable. At least, when those people are sitting directly in front of me. Staring. Or possibly glaring.

images-1

Eric Rohmer’s 1969 masterpiece, ‘Ma Nuit chez Maud’.

As a teacher, I’m often asked how to deal with that thorny old chestnut of how to write something your mum/dad/brother/wife/churchgoing friend is going to read. First off, and most importantly, write the damn thing before you allow yourself the luxury of panicking that your neighbours will cross the street when they see you coming. (Let’s face it, the odds of publication are always against you.) Second of all, if you’re bashful enough to be asking that question, then maybe you ought to hold onto that bashfulness – as a quality, not a weakness – because, after all, there’s no need for a (sorry) blow by blow account, unless you’re intending to crack the erotic market (in which case, one word for ya: pseudonym): you can summarise all manner of sizzling action, or simply allude to it (‘When she fell into bed the following night, she could still smell James on her sheets’, for instance, or perhaps, ‘Susan was walking like John Wayne for the rest of the week’…). A scene can be sexy without any sex, if there’s plenty of tension (see Eric Rohmer’s Ma Nuit chez Maud for a cinematic example, in which Jean-Louis Trintignant and Françoise Fabian bring more electricity to a thwarted snog than a hundred knicker-less leg-crossing scenes in Hollywood movies).

On the other hand… the short, sharp, shock of a single anatomical detail can make a big impact in an otherwise sex-free zone, as it does in Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, where she renders a young woman’s, um, lady garden, in the starkest possible terms through the eyes of her male protagonist. And it’s a fantastic scene. And if writing means capturing the stoniness of a stone (as the Russian formalist Viktor Shlovsky asserted: ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony‘) then Tremain takes that stone and she makes it as stony as hell. And it wouldn’t be stony as hell if she’d used the word ‘lady garden’, or one of the million other euphemisms we’re all familiar with. As a writer you choose the appropriate word at all times – even if, in polite company, that word would be wholly inappropriate. We call a spade a spade. As a writer of fiction you’re only ever the conduit for your characters. Don’t put words in their mouths for the sake of shock value, but equally never deny them their god-given pricks and tits, above all in first person (but also in free indirect), where ‘I gave her a right good knobbing’ might be more honest and truthful than penetrating her lady garden.

Some questions to ask: do you want to arouse or repulse? Does the scene move the story along, reveal character? Have you resorted to cliché? (If anything’s heaving or throbbing, the answer is probably yes.) Have you got too engrossed with the oily mechanics of sex and forgotten that, ultimately, what’s most interesting is how it transforms the relationship between two characters (or three, or four… and a donkey…)? We’ve all got the internet if we just want the old ‘in-out’, so be certain there’s always a literary purpose in mind (and, a word to the wise: if you happen to be in a writing group, think carefully before sharing. You’re going to be up close and personal with these people, discussing your work. Do not underestimate the shrivelling effect of an elderly lady’s face when perusing the fruits of your diseased mind).

I’m the first to admit I’ve gone way overboard in the past, in my efforts to make a stone stony. But here, from my aforementioned story Amore, I offer my own example of what I’ll call NR: Necessary Rudeness. My unnamed narrator, a sixteen year old virgin, has gone on holiday – not by mistake, as Withnail would have it, but hoping to lose her virginity. As she lies on the beach, she indulges herself in a fantasy of how sex will be:

In his apartment the blinds will be down, and the rooms will be stripy with sunshine. They’ll sit on his single bed and they’ll suck at the cold tops of their beer bottles. What will he taste of? Hops. When he takes off his trunks, he will smell of the sea, and the tan lines framing his crotch will look like underpants and will seem to preserve his dignity. His thing will be smooth as an actual sausage; white, and shy-looking. Like a magic trick it will vanish inside her. What then? Bliss, and the seed coming out of him: like wee, she supposes.

And here, rather sadly, is the rude awakening of reality:

He tugs at the waist of his trunks and the purple stump that comes bounding out of them must be his penis, she thinks, because that’s where men keep them. A purple stump of veins and hair with a swollen wet end like an arrowhead.

I hope you’ll agree I couldn’t have made my point without reaching for a little Necessary Rudeness.

And you know what I’ve just realised? All these years later and I’m still bloody writing about willies.