Thursday 30 August 2012

Annie Dillard's website

Annie's Dillard's Summer 1936
I remember reading Annie Dillard's The Writing Life a long time ago"The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend." She's a master craftsperson. Each sentence is a perfect object. Not surprising that she is also a painter. I remember being impatient with the book. I wanted practical advice. It felt overwrought to me. It felt like it broke its own "rules." But I go back to it now and admire each of her carefully wrought sentences. It rings true.

She writes about the disappointment inherent in writing. She quotes Thoreau: "The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or perchance a palace or temple on the earth and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them." And Henry James: "Which is the work in which he hasn't surrendered, under dire difficulty, the best thing he meant to keep?"

Searching the web for something the other day, I came upon her strangely refreshing website. Crotchety, private, and scolding, about The Writing Life she says, "The Writing Life" (1989) is an embarrassing nonfiction narrative fixed somewhat and republished by Harper Perennial 1998

Thursday 23 August 2012

The self-critic

A manuscript page from James Joyce's Ulysses.
I once talked to a writer who told me that she read her novel over from the start on each day before she began writing again. If I did this, I would never write another word. When I think of my approach to writing, the word "headlong" comes to mind. I pitch forward, trying not to look back until I come to what I think is the end. Then I begin re-writing. I have an obsession with completing things. The doubt that would overtake me if I had to re-read my early drafts would be paralyzing. Here's a good article from The Guardian about the self-critic.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Daphne du Maurier

From Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: "The moss smelt rich and deep, and the bluebells were earthy, bitter. I lay down in the long grass beside the bluebells with my hands behind my head....I wondered why it was that places are so much lovelier when one is alone. How commonplace and stupid it would be if I had a friend now, sitting beside me, someone I had known at school, who would say, 'By the way, I saw old Hilda the other day. You remember her, the one who was so good at tennis. She's married, with two children.' And the bluebells beside us unnoticed, and the pigeons overhead unheard. I did not want anyone with me. Not even Maxim."

I just finished reading The Scapegoat by du Maurier, too. The plot seemed implausible (two identical-looking men switch lives) and at first I didn't think I was going to like it. But her details are so rich and the characters so convincing that I was borne along and ended up loving it, and believing it. I didn't realize that she also wrote the short story, The Birds, that was made into the Hitchcock film. To me, she has the introspection of someone like Virginia Woolf, but she also has this compelling sense of suspense that sweeps me through her books and makes me want to to re-read them, more slowly.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Singing at the top of her lungs

Everything we learn about good writing says not to use cliches. I agree with that for the most part, although sometimes a writer goes to such lengths to avoid cliche that the writing calls too much attention to itself. Here are a couple of examples from Shantaram, a novel I've been trying to read:

Prabaker took the money and slipped it into his pocket with a movement as swift and fluid as the tentacle-grab of a squid.

Maybe if I was more familiar with the tentacles of squid, I'd get that.

I tried once more to find the words for the foliant blaze of her green eyes. I thought of leaves and opals and the warm shallows of islands seas.

From this, I get green. More importantly, I get a 936 page novel that's trying my patience as a reader. But certainly I've committed my own share of simile sins and metaphor mishaps.

My point is that once in a while, a cliche fits. Especially for a first person narrator, who sometimes thinks in cliche, like we all do. A cliche is also shorthand. It can stand for something. Or it can be so hackneyed that it's meaningless. This one, "singing at the top of her lungs," still works for me. To me, it evokes a fierceness, a bit of recklessness maybe. I associate it with singing in the car, letting loose. That's what my character does anyway, flying along the road, gravel scattering. Her singing, though, speaks for itself in the scene, I hope. I don't have to say she's trying not to let the bastards get her down, or that she's trying to keep her head above water.