30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Two

Which dead celebrity would you most like to have sex with?

I don’t even have to think about my answer. There’s close competition from Jeff and Tim Buckley, and I always had kind of a crush on Philip Seymour Hoffman, but give me Franz Liszt circa 1840 and all others pale by comparison.

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Be honest: you wouldn't kick him out of bed on a cold night.

Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Be honest: you wouldn’t kick him out of bed on a cold night.

 

(Editor’s note: This is the post that immediately loses me all the new subscribers I picked up yesterday… It’s mostly an extravagant preamble, an Oscar Wilde-style ‘eloquent circumlocution’ if you like, to point you towards my new page – up above – called ‘Music to Write to, which I hope you’ll take a gander at, even if you drop out HERE and read no further…)

Liszt was a rock god before rock gods were invented. Women collected the butts of his cigars and wore them on chains around their necks. They swooned at concerts. They abandoned their husbands for him. They wrote novels about him. I’m certain they’d have thrown their knickers at him if not for the peskily-awkward nature of Victorian fashion.

And did all this adulation turn Liszt into a massive cock?

Well, probably. At first. But he was also (Lynsey pulls sad face) devoutly religious (except for the ‘thou shalt not fornicate bit’; but if you look like Liszt and you play piano like Liszt and you don’t fornicate, you’re certifiably insane I reckon. Even God on his cloud was, like, ‘eh, go on, then, ya scallywag’.) He was a bit of a Big Head, it has to be said: ‘Génie oblige!’ was one of his sayings – nothing to do with a man in silk trousers granting you three wishes, but rather a twist on the ‘noblesse oblige‘ idea that those with money and power were meant to do their bloody bit for others. Likewise, those who were… well, geniuses (oh go on, let him off; he was a genius) were required to step up and… um… share themselves. (All credit to Liszt, he did share himself admirably well.) Génie Oblige finds its contemporary expression in Spiderman’s dictum that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Bet you never thought Liszt and Spiderman would be likely bedfellows, but there you are. We none of us know what life (or, indeed, this blog) will bring our way.

The man in action.

The man in action.

 

All of which is a STUNNINGLY LONG-WINDED way of saying that Liszt played his concerts for free.

For free.

That’s right. Just like the millionaire rock stars of today, who feel they probably have enough money already (how many houses, helicopters, pool tables, swimming pools, etc, does one rock star need?) and they want to thank their fans by…

Charging them as much money as possible.

Lovely.

For years Liszt was nothing to me but a painting on an album cover: a compilation of his Hungarian rhapsodies. Then, one night, I was reading a book about Chopin and, much as I love Chopin, whenever Liszt came striding in he swiped the scene from under Chopin’s pointy nose. While Chopin was pining for Georges Sand and palely coughing, Liszt was charming the copious undergarments from virtually everyone except Clara Schumann (who loathed him) and running away to an island with Marie D’Agoult and being twice as charismatic as Emma Thompson on the Graham Norton Show (and that was a whole lot of charismatic) crossed with Benedict Cumberbum and a side order of Christopher Walken in King of New York. 

In fact, before Madder Hall came along, I was planning a 12-part novel based on Liszt’s Transcendental Études for solo piano… Now, calm down, I know that excites you, but don’t all squeal at once, please: this is an Englishwoman’s blog. I’ll get an attack of the vapours if you keep on like that.

(Heard the oddly-quiffed Evgeny Kissin play this live at the Barbican last year, and practically went into the stratosphere, such was my delight.)

I strongly suspect that everyone’s packed away their pencil case and gone home for their tea now, because you probably all heard the school bell about seven paragraphs ago, while I was enjoying myself on one of my favourite topics. Am I alone now? (As Tiffany nearly sang.) If so, I could literally write anything I wanted to…

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 Image source

Just getting a cat to stroke…

Right, back now. Plus cat.

 

Watch out for the radioactive eyes.

Watch out for the radioactive eyes.

As I said at the start of this L O N G post, I’m in a musical kinda mood because I’ve just stuck a brand new page at the top of the site, and it has lots of musical links you mightn’t have come across before, and there might just be something to tickle your fancy. So do check it out.

And, partly, I suppose I’m trying out ideas for Book Number 2. Book Number 2 is going to be musical. I don’t mean it’ll come with a birthday-card jingle inside (although, hmm, there’s an idea…) or a Jamie Oliver style CD-to-cook-to (could you be any more twee and middle class and faintly annoying, Jamie?). I mean it’ll be about music. (Except it won’t, of course. It will be about having sex and then dying, which I what I always seem to write about.)

It won’t be about Liszt, though. Because Liszt is sort of in Madder Hall. And if you visit my About Me page you can hear me describing the character he inspired.

PS: for those who’re interested, my NaNo word count stands at 43,726. As of 10.04 this morning.

P.P.S. Just realised I told my friend Jon, over coffee yesterday, that this would be about raspberries. (Perhaps it should have been.)

Here's an otter blowing a raspberry. Just for you, Jon.

Here’s an otter blowing a raspberry. Just for you, Jon.

 

 

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30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty One

Now I face the important decision of whether or not to hyphenate my twenties.

Decisions, decisions. I’m not very good at them. Which is unfortunate, because a writer needs to make more decisions than an Apprentice project manager in the midst of a cross between a brainstorm and a shitstorm.

You need to make decisions in two places: inside, and outside your novel.

Inside your novel… we’ll come to in a moment.

Outside your novel: simply put, this means making a decision like the one I made at 7 a.m. today. That’s our usual waking-up time on a school day, but my daughter’s not well and after a wee bit of negotiating (in which she made her case very well; guess which side she was arguing?) we agreed that she could embrace that wonderful moment every school kid knows: the one when your mum/dad/gender-neutral-caregiver says, ‘Oh, go on then. Have the day off school.’

 

So now (being an adult who ner-ner-ni-ner-ner can’t be told what to do, not by anyone*) I faced my own little decision: head on the pillow or fingers on the keys?

* If only this was true.

‘I think I’ll do some writing,’ I said to Poorly Daughter.

‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ said Poorly Daughter.

Laughter ensued. ‘Will my typing disturb you?’

‘No,’ said Poorly Daughter. ‘I like hearing you work.’

Spoken like a true Slave Master.

Two things had to happen before any writing could begin: the kettle had to be boiled, and the two large furry cat beasts who dominate our little household had to be momentarily calmed with porcelain dishes of manna from heaven, rubbed on the thighs of virgins and sweetened with the blood of a sacrificial… errrrrr, I don’t really know where I’m going with this. The cats are demanding, anyway. They had some cat biscuits, etc, and became temporarily less demanding. I’ve probably got carried away here.

The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house.

The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house. Although number 3 actually looks the most demanding here, I have to admit.

So anyway, Decisions inside the novel, she says in a forthright and tally-ho sort of a manner. Now I’m Alan Sugar in the boardroom, loading my firing finger for another fatal shot. (God, I’d love to know if he practises that in front of a mirror.)

Yesterday, after more to-ing and fro-ing than a to-ing and fro-ing thing (I’ve opened my head like a pervert’s purse in a stripclub and all of my similes have fallen out. Except that one. And perverts probably carry wallets, not purses – if that’s not too sexist a comment; it probably is – but damn it I like purse better. So I ain’t changing it. See above, where I said ner-ner-di-ner-ner)… what was the point I was making again? Ah, yes. I’ve been dithering for the longest time about whether or not to have a Dowager Countess in The Fecking Novel. She was in, she was out, she was in, she was out – it was like she was doing the Hokey Cokey! Here come all the similes at once in a veritable avalanche of the bastards: cover your heads, down below! – and I liked writing about her. I liked the way she looked. (Not in that way. Shut your pervert’s purse, please.) She was based, a bit, on my first piano teacher, who was a magnificent turbaned former ballet dancer with perfect turn-out, called Cicely. (She was called Cicely, not her turn-out. Just to be clear. Although Cicely would be a good name for turn-out, wouldn’t it?) She had a Kings Charles called Figgy, who used to sit on the pedals when I was trying to use them, for which I – not Figgy – would be blamed. It was a cardinal sin, during lessons, to glance at the clock. This was the height of rudeness and not to be tolerated. My friend, Kim, was once caught red-handed and claimed, in a rather unconvincing way for a snotty teenager, to be ‘admiring your wallpaper’.

Once, oh hallowed day, I was invited into the Inner Sanctum to run my fingers across the pristine keys of the grand piano that students weren’t allowed to play on. She had a photograph of the bronze cast of Chopin’s hands. I was given a copy of Chopin’s waltzes to borrow.

I went home and told my mum, ‘I’m playing Choppin next week.’

‘Actually, lovey, I think that’s pronounced…’

So, RIP Dowager Countess of Madder. You are cold in your grave. Probably shouldn’t have smoked so many cigarettes. Your only real job was to take your granddaughter to London, but as the plot’s thickened it makes much more sense for your daughter-in-law (who you always hated) to do it instead. Life’s a bitch, sometimes.

And now I’m making the Executive Decision to stop writing this, and get back to the novel. I can do a whole twenty minutes before I have to get dressed, etc. And actually, though you mightn’t think it, you can write a helluva lot in twenty minutes.

Set your timer and see for yourself…

 

 

Ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum… or the Music of Prose.

What do you do to relax? I do various things. I read books, I watch films, I take baths. I play Chopin’s Waltz in F major on the piano – delighting my neighbours – and listen to ASMR videos on youtube (and if the latter has you thinking I’m probably mad then you’ll know it for sure by the end of this post).

Above all, though, I write.

Is she kidding, you’re thinking? She writes to relax. I should clarify, here, that I don’t mean proper writing with plot arcs, and meanings, and narrative drive. That’s like juggling whilst riding a unicycle – backwards – and, wonderfully absorbing and rewarding as that is (when it’s working), I’d never describe it as soothing.

Proper writing is like this.

Proper writing is like this.

No, no, I mean something called free writing. You let your pen loose on the paper (or fingers on keyboard) and, well, you just write. You don’t think, you don’t shape, you don’t plan. Your brain flops – I can actually feel it, somehow – and you splurge your thoughts onto the page. Automatically. Writing without really thinking about it. Like jiggling around in a nightclub, say, as opposed to performing the lead role in Swan Lake on stage for a ravenous crowd at Sadler’s Wells.

Free writing feels like this.

Free writing feels like this.

And, NB, when I say this is writing ‘automatically’, I don’t mean to say this is ‘automatic writing‘ – in which practitioners believe they’re communing with spirits: the only communing you’ll do here is with your own brain – your subconscious, specifically – which is far more entertaining (and, just occasionally, more alarming, if you’re currently unfamiliar with its deepest enclaves). The technique has been fairly widespread among writerly types since Dorothea Brande’s ‘Becoming a Writer’ way back in 1934 (which you can read in its entirety here, with an intro by John Gardner, whose own book, On Becoming a Novelist is equally deserving of your time and attention). We free-write in order to access our un- or sub-conscious, says Brande: the most playful – or childlike – part of our brains, that must function in tandem alongside the critical, conscious part (that decides if the plot makes sense, etc.) ‘You must teach yourself,’ she says, ‘not as though you were one person, but two.’

If you’ve never tried free writing before, you’ll find some great prompts here at practice writing.co.uk (choose a prompt that immediately zings in your brain – it’s more likely to resonate with you), or simply write ‘cold’ if you like (let your natural environment prompt you somehow). Back to Brande: ‘The unconscious is shy, elusive, and un- wieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it.’ The key here is practiceMy students divide into two clear camps: those who groan at the ‘f’ of the ‘free’ (and would rather poke sticks in their eyes than be let off the leash), while the other half champ at the bit to get started (and often have poetry somewhere behind them). You need to keep trying. The older you get, the more likely it is that your brain has erected complex fortification systems – a series of signs reading do not disturb. But a writer must play. I’m afraid it’s essential. You can’t run away from yourself – not forever: this process, for me, feels like switching the light off and groping around in the dark. You won’t know, till you reach out and grab them, what treats you might find. There are all sorts of things in that darkness, believe me, and maybe you’d feel that much safer by switching the light on but don’t, please, I ask you: the best stuff is shy and elusive, remember. It shrinks from the light.

‘But this post,’ you’ll be saying around about now – if your memory is better than mine – ‘was supposed to have something to do with the music of prose, whatever the hell that means.’ Well, yes. I’m now getting to that. It’s not something you’ll hear very often from advocates of free writing, but this is the way do it. Think back to the start of this post (it was ages ago) and you might recall something I said about Chopin? My twin loves are writing and music. The two come together sometimes. Where they meet with the least complication is here, in the dark of that treat-filled room where I do my free writing. The way I relax is to write for the rhythm alone: I don’t care about meaning, or sense, or self-censorship. All I can hear is the sound of the words, the ti-tum, ti-ti-tum, and the ebb and the flow of the language. Rhythm in English derives from a pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables: somehow I reach for an iamb or trochee or dactyl without even knowing exactly what iambs or trochees or dactyls are, but the rhythm entangles me, lulls me… relaxes me. Pushes me into the groove where I do my best writing, and opens the juiciest part of my brain where the good stuff is hiding.

Have you ever read prose that’s so fluid it’s sort of hypnotic? Tobias Hill (a poet as well as a novelist) is great at this; so, too, is his namesake, Tobias Wolff, in this ravishing extract from Old School‘it carried me back to those Sunday teas in the headmaster’s parlour, red leaves or snow or whirling maple seeds falling past the tall windows. The great Persian rug is covered with cookie crumbs. The air smells of the Greek master’s cigar. In the fat corner someone plays ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ on the tinkly upright, fragments of the melody floating just above our voices. We boys stand in circles…’ And so it goes on. It’s just lovely, right? Full of music and assonance. Swoon. (Although, crucially, Wolff breaks the rhythm sporadically: prose isn’t poetry, after all.) I could read it forever. In James Wood’s superb How Fiction Works he describes the ‘mathematical’ perfection of certain sentences; the writer’s ‘third ear’ that hears something beyond mere content. I don’t, by any means, lay claim to excellence as a writer (‘Authors come in two kinds,’ my mentor once told me. ‘Those who are natural storytellers… and, well… you’re the other kind, I think’) but the one thing I would say I’ve got is a fairly good ear for the music of prose. Which is bugger all use, of course, when you can’t tell a story, but, still, in my long writing life I’ve pulled one or two sentences out of the bag that I’m proud of. For me, that’s enough.

If you have too much time on your hands…

…you might like to read the sample that follows. It’s copied verbatim from one of my copious Free Writing files on Scrivener, written without even thinking about it, or stopping, or censoring anything. This here’s the part where you’ll think I’ve gone crackers, but read it aloud – very quietly, when nobody’s listening – and you might find it trips fairly easily (mad as it is) off your tongue.

And you know what? I quite like those card-playing dolls…

The dolls looked alarmed. They were sipping their cold tea from cups made of apples and holding their clenched hands alone on the table in front of them. None of their hands could manipulate scissors. They gazed in the far vacant distance. You never knew what they were thinking. Their eyes were completely devoid of sensation. Their bodies were heartless. They mostly wore tartan, or plaid as the little girl called it, and spoke of their long ago love affairs, over the border, when none of their hearts had been broken by boys, since they had none to break.

Was it good, the girl asked? This doll’s life? They replied that it was, that she ought to come try it. She said she preferred the boom-boom of her own real heart. They were sorry. They sat playing cards for a while. Could she join them? 

The littlest doll had an ace. The fat doll with the wig the same pink as a radish was holding the kings and the queens, and the elderly doll with no eyes had a two and a four. They weren’t sure what the game was, or who was the winner. The time was passed tolerably well in the nursery. Still the clock ticked, and at last when the rabbity hands had advanced to the ten and the seven they sighed and explained it was high time for bed.

If you’ve made it this far, grab your pen or your pencil and write fifty words – without stopping – on owls, or hearts, or cards. Feel the flow of the sentences. Jig your way through them, as if in a nightclub, and reach for a word not according to meaning but sound. When I’ve done this in class I’ve seen students come up with all sorts of ridiculous things, but they’ve often had something – a sort of a spark – that their conscious writing lacked. ‘If you never let yourself go,’ as Germaine Greer (sort of) once said, ‘how will you ever know how far you might have got?’

Exactly.