I give up.
Not writing The Book (silly! though, believe me, it’s occurred to me more than once), I mean writing in a straight line.
And by a “straight line”, I mean writing one thing after another, as they are supposed to happen. You know, like, a story.
Instead I lay out ideas like cards and try to piece them together: it happened when I used to write essays, it happened when I wrote jokes and stand-up routines, and it happens now I try and write a story. Writing the links between jokes was soul-destroying, and it’s a mistake: no-one in the audience cares how you get from A to B, as long as A and B are funny, right?
I am past the halfway point, and my story should be starting to unravel, going into freefall. But it’s not. Instead I keep going back to earlier parts of the book, tightening the screws, making sure the knot of plots (plot knot, nice) comes together.
At each natural pause or break in my story, I try to cobble together where I am and push forwards, but inevitably something sticks in my mind or something else will need adding, an old idea that must be accommodated, a new idea that would make better sense of what I’ve written so far, or a scene that actually fits earlier in the draft than I had it originally.
This draft was supposed to be a straightforward construction job: getting the plot and structure right, and not worrying too much about details and language at this stage, but still I find myself fitting bits together rather than letting them run on smoothly according to cause and effect.
I try to practise writing without thinking here. You can see what good that does.
Then I remember that sometimes stand-up is more than getting to A and B. Comedians like Stewart Lee makes a play of how a joke is told, but it isn’t in the links, isn’t in the logic, it’s the performance.
A few weeks ago I was thinking about how “obvious” my writing seems to me. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where that’s coming from, without not being me. But a comment left by a friend reminded me of a quote about imagery by Stephen King in On Writing, which I’ve banged on about enough (it’s ah-may-zing):
take two pledges: First, not to insult your reader’s interior vision; and second, to see everything before you write it. The latter may mean you’ll find yourself writing more slowly than you’ve been accustomed to doing if you’ve been passing ideas (“It was a spooky old house”) off as imagery. The former may mean more careful rewriting if you’ve been hedging your bets by over-description; you’re going to have to pick up those old pruning shears, like it or not, and start cutting back to the essentials.
Perhaps what seems “obvious” to me just needs unpacking. It’s on the right track, but is too cursory a mention to warrant that beautiful feeling when you read a phrase or paragraph that describes something just right. One of my favourite things in writing is when a whole paragraph or a whole chapter even becomes an unfolding of what was originally meant to be a single opening sentence.
These diversions are why we read novels, and not, say, a news report.
It seems to me what generates those diversions is empathy. I’ve been reading a few interviews with John Jeremiah Sullivan, one of my favourite writers. In an interview with the Guardian, he describes how important empathy is to his writing:
“A source of energy and inspiration to me in my writing is empathy,” he explains. ”I want to stay in touch with what I have in common with my subjects, with the places where are equally implicated with whatever is wrong with the culture. I feel more legitimate as an observer when I am in that place so I seek it out. I seek out subjects that plug into my own weaknesses and my own past.”
Empathy isn’t just about good characterisation, it’s about how you and your subject and your reader all tie together. It’s the stand-up’s art; it’s what comedy performers have in mind every second they are on stage. How long should I let this one go? When should I get back to the joke? How much are they laughing?
It brings energy to writing. Sullivan is an essayist, and in discussion with Geoff Dyer (not, I think he’d agree, a writer who can keep to the point, or, indeed, has any interest in there being a “point”) he explains how this often produces a diversionary mindset. The subject is beside the point:
That’s what makes us essayists. Your reaction dwarfs the reality, and so we write about the reactions.
Essayists, but novelists? I’m not sure. All I know is that the next part of the story has slipped further back into a section I’ve already written. That’s okay. I’m usually champing at the bit to move on to the next event, or the next few events, so it is nice to stumble upon something that makes me pause and take my time.
Word count this week: 3,297 (not much – but I cut a lot)
Second draft: 57,397
First draft: 128,661