Slow writing in the cause of literature, depth, resonance & music
When I was young and mad about books (not that I’m not still) I went, like so many of you to my local library every Saturday and roamed the aisles with a feeling of anticipation and wonder. At that point I was very much aware of all the worlds that were contained within each volume. What I mean is that reading, (during my teens in a rural location with long summer holidays at my disposal and with many fewer distractions than now) was all encompassing and I really entered into the world of the books I was reading. They were vivid, engaging. And when I went to the library and passed by the books that I read, those vivid worlds were conjured once more by the very titles.
In those days (so long, long ago, when we worried about the Cold War, nuclear apocalypse and Acid Rain) there was no YA. There was the children’s book section and the adults and I hovered in between. I read Little Woman and Jo’s Boys, Anne of Green Gables and then I went and found the classics in the adults section. I read so many of Dicken’s books, I was first moved to tears by Dombey and Son. I was astounded that a book could make me feel so much. I wanted to read what was considered fine, perhaps I had a list somewhere. I remember thinking that any day now I would read Proust and Dostoyevsky and I picked up Tolstoy aged 12. (And no, I still haven’t read War and Peace!)
I read Anna Karenina and became fascinated by Tolstoy’s own life and the history of Russia. I studied history for the Leaving Cert with a teacher who was a Tolstoy aficionado and prepared a special history question on Tolstoy’s place in Russian history.
It’s a long time since I’ve read Tolstoy but recently a writer friend sent me some of his quotes, These may related to life but equally can apply to our relationship with our writing. On a personal level I know that I’m eager for many reasons to produce work and complete projects but equally I can be distracted and jittery, prone to modern distractions and following the newer, shinier projects, worrying that things that are taking a long time are, well, taking too long.
We’ve talked before about the importance of incubation, giving time to a project to let disparate ideas coalesce into something whole, layered and original. The first Tolstoy quote says:
Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.
We start out with a wealth of ideas and associations, everything is fascinating but making good story often means finding a true and strong thread through those ideas. Like panning for gold or, as my friend said ‘digging and digging before washing’ to ‘string together nuggets’. An artist friend of mine advised me with my own work on The Book of Remembered Possibilities to take it and ‘shake out the detritus of work progress,’ until I could see clearly it’s ‘colour and shape’ and clear away more until “the beat , the rhyme and reason, the poetry is plain.”
George Saunders in this excellent article talks about writing, about how new devices have had a neurological effect that makes the mind leap from one thing to another, become discontent faster. He talks about how writing faster, working on a number of things such as screenplays, travel journalism etc as well as touring, doing TV shows began to make him feel ‘quesy’. Not that he was denigrating those activities but “I really craved the feeling of deep focus and integrity that comes with writing fiction day after day, in a sort of monastic way.” He adds ‘And twitter doesn’t come into that’.
The second quote by Tolstoy says that
The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.
My friend talked about carrying a poem ‘at the top of your head’, letting it simmer, spending many more hours reflecting than actually writing.
A book I have beside my bed ready to read when I have the time to really dwell on it is The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. This book, which has been termed a ‘masterpiece’ took many, many years to write, an ultimate leap of faith but which she took ‘sentence by sentence’ figuring out where each sentence might live in the novel. Of this novel of she says ”in no other work of mine, in quite the same way, has my artistic ambition, if you like, been so clearly displayed.” This is due to the fact that “The Big Music” has been made to be Big Music in the way it’s been fashioned on a certain scale, with certain attributes, placed within a certain cultural context.”
Her novel is about music itself, in particular Scottish bagpipe music. In the words of reviewer Adam Thorpe is ‘not just about Scottish bagpipe music, it seeks to inhabit it’. He refers to novels that ‘aspire to the condition of pure music, where the sound of the words gain ground on meaning. We’re family with the specific musicality of Joyce’s work. As Thorpe says ‘Writers such as Joyce or Woolf were concerned not only with the musical patterning of syllables, but with structure: they used counterpoint, repetition, circularity, simultaneity and so on in much the same way as a composer might.’ This he says was felt to be ‘a closer reflection of life itself’ since straightforward linear storytelling is really a distortion of ‘subjective experience.’ The depth, resonance, musical repetitions and movements were not something that could be achieved quickly. It was something that had to grow through ‘patience and time’. Are we giving ourselves enough patience and time when working on our own projects. On a personal note, The Book of Remembered Possibilities is one that I’ve had to return to time and time over. It’s been a challenge and looking back it was probably one of not leaving enough time, even though I wrote the first notes back in 2003, its not a straightforward book, it circulates, it tries to represent the feeling of living itself inside it’s words. Other projects have clearer storylines. But in the cases where this isn’t so, it takes a particular kind of courage and what Saunders calls ‘integrity’ not to rush ahead.
In this era of celebrity writers and powerful marketing and sales departments in publishing houses, this might not seem the time to be advocating slow writing or even the kind of slow, focussed reading that was necessary for the classics and will be for ‘The Big Music’.
Ross Jamieson of independent publishing house Bluemoose Books bemoans the “insular and myopic metropolitan view of what literature is” in response to the Granta editor’s comment that Leeds was outside the literary world and this cult of celebrity and ‘wunderkind.’ The danger of books and authors becoming products and brands (as discussed by Elizabeth Baines recently) and having to produce book after book in quick succession is that, even though that process may work well in certain genres with well-defined formulae, it works against the kind of original and well thought out works that might not be instant hits but will last over time. There is room for both.
Two more quotes that might writer friend sent me from Tolstoy are: ‘Music is the shorthand of emotion,’ and ‘Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.’
Like many, my writer friend listens to music that fits it with the emotion that he is trying to convey. Conversely George Saunders says that he never listens to music when he writes as he thinks it creates ‘artificial wings for your prose.’ Of course Kirsty Gunn’s novel is music itself and as for art being a transmission of feeling, Thorpe tells us that Gunn’s novel has much about the obsessional making of art within it and with particular regard to the music talks about “”the unique intervals” in piobaireachd which are defined as “the gap between worlds inhabited by the artist rather than the individual. The usual rules no longer apply there.””
Slow writing enables us to inhabit those spaces and to enable our readers, with their own life experiences and view, to inhabit the spaces, the unique pauses around which we have constructed our well-considered representations of life.
Alison Wells runs the Random Acts of Optimism blog and lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow with her husband and four children. Her short fiction been published in many magazines and online and print anthologies and she has been featured on Sunday Miscellany. Shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, Bridport and Fish Prize's she has just completed a themed short story collection Random Acts of Optimism and a literary novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities. To read Alison's full blog, visit Head Above Water. Find out in her Random Acts of Optimism how she manages to juggle writing, children and life.