Category Archives: Words
I have blogged about spring before – it happens every year after all. I have walked plenty this week, and seen much that is new after the dank, dour months of a brown winter: tight-budded pinpricks studding the hawthorn, a lone bee and butterfly brushing against cream walls, both discombobulated by the sun. A battalion of birdsong firing over the rooftops and this unnamed tactile splendour: a catkin that’s been down the gym.
And yet, as the snowdrops bloom with all their puny might, with the blowsy crocuses and uniform daffodils following hard on their delicate white heels, I always think of the Fran Landesman lyric, that spring can really hang you up the most. The Landesman lyrical sentiment is taken from the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
I. The Burial of the Dead
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
The words speak of change, which many of us are hardwired to resist although we generally seem to do worse, psychologically speaking, with external circumstantial changes, not directly within our control. Every year we are aware that spring, a change, is coming about this time – and we might feel, for the most part, that the seasonal change is welcome after months of short, dark days. So what of Eliot’s Waste Land?
For me, it is stark reality of bright light on the ‘dead land’ that unsettles. The sunscald in what once passed for a garden, the illumination of winter dust suddenly strewn everywhere… the fear that spring will, this time, undo us. These tensions provoke action. Spring cleaning and gardening for some, artistic productivity in others. Busyness will save us from the memory and desire, stirring, we hope.
Yes, April is the cruellest month. Be sure to enjoy March whichever way you can.
The title of this post is inspired by a new book about language and nature titled ‘Landmarks‘ by Robert MacFarlane and published in hardback this week.
N.b. This post has given me terrible trouble what with dodgy punctuation and big ideas gone astray. Apologies if it does not quite cohere.
When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity –in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.
The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. For relationships, too, must be like islands. One must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides. One must accept the security of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency.
I have never had writer’s block, but I certainly have a deep fear of editing – which makes writing rather awkward. Ernest Hemingway used to smooth the previous day’s efforts off before moving forward to the new pages. Once you get to the end of something in excess of a hundred thousand words, that approach makes sense. My method is to press on, and then rewrite and edit from the beginning. By the umpteenth time around, I am dizzy.
Chief amongst my editing fears is missing the what I call the backwards on a donkey moment. This is when some word, or phrase, or sentence jars the reader up. Either by a lack of clarity, poor imagery, the wrong idiom, or sheer clumsiness of composition. When writing first drafts the backwards on a donkey moments are inevitable. It is the job of the writer to edit them all out later. I fear I will not. The fear stays my eyes, and my fingers. Nothing gets done.
There it is out.
Now it is out, I must press on.
The backwards on a donkey description for words that don’t work well came to me, when I misheard an Anne Sexton poem, read out late one night on the radio many years ago. The poem was called Flee on Your Donkey. It’s long, and confessional, as her poetry was. In it, she reflects on being in a mental institution, again.
Sexton was a Pulitzer prize winner. She committed suicide aged 45. She suffered others; others might say they suffered her, including herself.
We call it life I suppose. Here are the lines – they are the last of the poem. The ‘hotel’ is the hospital. My problem has always been one of imagery – the backwards bit – she is sitting backwards, and the donkey gallops, as they do? The first time I heard it, I did not hear the word backwards, and could not understand her description at all. Of course, now, it all makes perfect sense. I think. One word, misheard, not said, can make so much difference.
flee on your donkey,
flee this sad hotel,
ride out on some hairy beast,
gallop backward pressing
your buttocks to his withers,
sit to his clumsy gait somehow.
any old way you please!
In this place everyone talks to his own mouth.
That’s what it means to be crazy.
Those I loved best died of it—
the fool’s disease.
If you should see them sometime… running helter-skelter home from the playground, or lounging languid in a cocktail bar, or buying plain underwear in a department store, or trying a fountain pen out for size… spritzing their inner wrist with foul celebrity scent, or rolling a Cuban cigar in a brothel.
If you should see the words anywhere… be they pell-melling down the cobbles, or booze-cruising the channel, conducting an inquiry, or holding up a red card. If you see them kicking a ball, wearing a yellow jersey, sashaying, or sashimi ing, sozzling or any damn thing.
If you should see the words, my words, anywhere; then send them on home to me.
I miss them you see, and I know they are just out there, somewhere. Just that little bit out of reach.
But please not P.G. Wodehouse!
A few years ago a writing style analyser came out online called I Write Like. It was the brainchild of Russian software programmer Dmitry Chestnykh and it’s basically a bunch of algorithms (whatever they are…) I fed some of my text into it years ago and thought no more about it, but lately, as I approached the second draft/third draft revisions stage of my book, and began panicking that I had written a many, many-headed bastard hydra of differing styles and voice I thought it might be interesting to feed the chapters in to at least see if there was at least some style consistency.
The good news was that there was. The bad news that out of twenty-four chapters, there is one outlier (Asimov) and even worse, two chapters ‘like Wodehouse’. It’s enough to make you burn the whole manuscript a la Nabokov – who the rest of the thing wot I wrote turns out like. Unfortunately none of this really means too much – Margaret Atwood fed in her text and it came out: I Write Like H.P. Lovecraft. If Lovecraft was around to feed in his prose, he would find that he writes like James Joyce, and not himself. So much for all that.
However, if there is an ounce of anything to be taken from this, it may be that my beloved beta-readers, some of whom prefer the sparse prose style, will be ready to string me up and feed me my work, page by page…
complicated (adj.) 1640s, “tangled,” from past participle adjective from complicate. Figurative meaning “not easy to solve, intricate, confused, difficult to unravel” is from 1650s.
If I were to have a brain scan, I reckon the whole lot would look like a Gordian Knot right about now.
Of course that is of no interest whatsoever to the casual blog reader and I really have scratched my head over what to post today, if at all. The problem is that I am trying to get my head around a few new concepts at the moment and the automatic pilot that can usually ‘run’ things in my absence seems to have stalled. I usually get brain freeze at this time of year, but this is slightly different; it’s more like brain stretch! I wonder where it will take me…
Fingers crossed it’s to somewhere other than a sudden, loud and painful *twang*
They do different jobs entirely don’t they?
I can only ever remember two lines of prose – from two different books. One was from Tess of the D’Urbervilles when Hardy wrote about her ‘mobile peony mouth.’ The other could never be guessed at.
Lines from poetry I find easier to recall – at least in fragments. It’s probably because good poems are so utterly alive and vivid – to forget a great line is like forgetting the face of a good friend or a loved song. At the moment, I am totally stuck on the last lines from Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘The Underground’
I meant to post it here when he died, but I don’t think I did because I just wanted to read it. And then read it again and revel in the perfect tautness of the imagery. Perfect is not really a word I use much, but this poem, by the time you get to the last three lines is perfect.
Read or listen to the whole thing read by Heaney himself here ‘… and damned if I look back.’
I have been re-reading this book by Stephen King; it’s part memoir, part writing manual – if there could ever be such a thing. At the end he describes the accident that nearly killed him. A Dodge pick-up truck hit him by the side of the road – he was lucky he survived. I first read the book absolutely yonks ago – certainly before I had the children. Some of it stayed with me – more, in fact, now I read it again, than I realised. Things like, ‘only God gets it right first time’ and the idea that you have to put the first draft in a drawer. Oh yes. You walk away from it…. for like, six weeks minimum…
I had to buy ‘On Writing’ again, to read it again. (I substituted a pronoun there, the master himself would be proud.) I had to buy another copy of the book because the first copy is long since gone.
I am glad I did
I have spent today wading through my own writing treacle. Trying to make something out of not very much. Strangely, I think I have. To misquote another writer, I have applied the seat of my pants to a chair which is all writing is, after all, unless you are Philip Roth – who stands up. Anyway, after more than twelve hours at it, I finally hit something like a groove and now I don’t want to leave it. The marathon culminated with me writing the single most upsetting scene that I have ever tackled. I didn’t know I was going to do it, it just turned up in the narrative. Let me assure you, this happening in non-fiction is very unnerving. But it fits well with King’s idea that storytelling is simply uncovering a fossil – he believes it (the story – more pronoun fixing up there) is already waiting for you in the ground – you just have to brush the dust and dirt away to reveal it.
I don’t especially care for the kind of genre fiction that King turns out and has made his money writing, but I’d bet my last stake that it’s bloody well written, and ‘On Writing’ the man is on the money.
It’s not every day a tall Californian turns up in the road you live on. I suspect it’s even less often that such a man is offering to pray for the people on your street, for a whole year.
But that’s how, a few months ago, I made the acquaintance of a stranger on my street. Let’s call him the Prayer Man. I had heard from a friend and neighbour a week or two beforehand that he had knocked on her door posing an unusual question. Did she need any prayers for her, or the people that lived in that house. I must confess to feeling a little put out that this generous offer had not come my way yet, despite not considering myself to be a fully paid-up Christian. I was brought up a Catholic, which I realise is Christian, so I have a thorough grounding in that which I reject, and in the last year I have asked certain people to pray for others, not feeling qualified to do so myself. Still, I remember to count my own blessings, say thank you for them as often as I remember to and I do consider the power of a positive intention sent out for others to be a secular version of what others might call prayer. I am, therefore, not against prayer per se. However, I am still uncomfortable being prayed for, which was what we called intercession when I went to church as a child. The list of names of the sick and old being read out every week at mass by the priest. Some things stick in the head.
In the end, I finally met the Prayer Man, a few weeks after my friend’s encounter, on the street a few yards from my house. He was on a bike, wearing jeans, and what I might now call a Californian tan. He explained that he was praying for the street for a whole year. He was praying for people, not bricks and mortar, he could only pray for needs not wants and he asked if there was anything that I needed. I replied that I didn’t but mentioned someone else also on the street. The Prayer Man thanked me and rode off on his bicycle. Some days ago a letter was delivered through the letterbox. I read it. I read it again. I put it away thinking it might be nice to mention it on here sometime. I had it in my hand only yesterday. Now I come to write about the Prayer Man and his words to the street he is praying for, I cannot find it.
What I remember is that he compared believing in the word of God to diving into a swimming pool and surfacing into an ocean. What can I say? Good imagery sticks in the head. I also remember he quoted a line from the film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ a film I have never seen.
The line was what the man who is saved by his guardian angel says to the angel.
Well, you look about like the kind of an angel I’d get.
It’s not every street that gets a Prayer Man, no matter what they look like. He came to a gathering in the street yesterday to meet more people and say goodbye, for now. Again, he turned up on a bike, but this time instead of sunshine it was in between bursts of torrential rain and great gusts of wind peculiar to the British summer. I remember when we first spoke that first time he had assured me he was ‘not mad,’ not that I had asked. Yesterday’s appearance felt a little surreal, but I still can’t shake the feeling there is more to all this than meets the eye. The Prayer Man is returning home to California and I feel compelled to notice and record in some way what happens during the period of the intercession intervention. Something will happen, after all, because something always does…
I have rather dramatically entitled the post Miracle Street. For the record, no-one is expecting miracles round here, but they may be some hoping and praying for them.