Part three of my list of 60 Michael Jackson’s best lesser-known songs, to celebrate what would’ve been his 60th birthday. Songs 41 - 60, 1991 - 2009.Read More
Part two of my list of 60 Michael Jackson’s best lesser-known songs, to celebrate what would’ve been his 60th birthday. Songs 21 - 40, 1982 - 1990.Read More
Came up with this far too late to place it elsewhere, so it's going on my blog instead. Today would have been (should have been) Michael's 60th birthday. It's crazy he's already been dead for almost 10 years.
So here’s a list of 60 of Michael Jackson’s best lesser-known songs, to celebrate. Part One covers songs 1 - 20 (1969 - 1982).Read More
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
-George Eliot, Middlemarch
This week's Man Booker prize winner George Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013, and every word of it is as wise, gentle and thoughtful as you'd expect from the author of the short story "Tenth of December". I especially loved this part, and how it acknowledges our love of heroes is the first step to loving ourselves and then others.
Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare's, bright as Gandhi's, bright as Mother Teresa's. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
George Saunders's advice to graduates, 2013
Ambitious work doesn't resolve contradictions in a spurious harmony but instead embodies the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.
- David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
This feels like something I've discussed in various ways with different people recently. Compare with F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that the test of a "first-rate intelligence" is if someone can hold two opposing ideas in their mind at the same time, without losing the ability to function.
It's been a long time since I "commonplaced" anything here, but this from Jeanette Winterson's 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? put something I've thought for a long time into words:
There is still a popular fantasy, long since disproved by both psychoanalysis and science, and never believed by any poet or mystic, that it is possible to have a thought without a feeling. It isn't.
When we are objective we are subjective too. When we are neutral we are involved. When we say 'I think' we don't leave our emotions outside the door. To tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead.
-- Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, p.211
First off: I’m not about to deny any of you have real emotions about Prince’s death, just because you didn’t know the man. In 2009 a man I’d met only once properly - Michael Jackson - died, and I was devastated. I still get upset about it, seven years on. And I realise how hypocritical this is, adding to the pile of words being written as we speak on the subject, by saying you should stop writing about him. What can I say? I’m a twat.
But, agh! I can’t take another one. What grates about these constant tributes and social media comments and solemn blog posts (hello!) isn’t that the emotion behind them isn’t real, but that it can apparently be summed up so succinctly in 140 characters.
When Michael died, I did tweet something. First I tweeted the noise I made when I first found out. I was at home, alone, and let out what I can only describe as a loud drawn-out moan (my neighbours still look at me weirdly). Then, on seeing the tributes rolling past my eyes for a man that once meant more to me than any boyfriend ever has, I had to say something, anything, so I tweeted again - some rubbish telling him to rest in peace, but mentioning my connection to him (that felt important) - and instantly regretted it. My tweet lined up with all the rest, rolled up and off my screen. Poofff. Gone. What a pointless exercise. If anything, it left me feeling more bereft.
But I’d felt this desperate need to say something - anything - because it felt like it was so much more important to me, that no-one tweeting or being interviewed on TV even loved him as much as I did, felt as much as I did, and soon the desire to be heard became so intense I gave in and spouted some nonsense to draw attention to myself.
So I’m guilty of it too. I don’t want this to sound all high and mighty. But that tweet and every subsequent post I’ve written on the subject that tried to put into words what I felt has failed, because what I felt (feel) is too great to put into words.
So what makes me suspicious of people’s motivations is when they can - hours after their idol has died - sum them up in a few words. I can’t sum Michael up seven years later. I certainly can’t explain why I love him so. Why do you love your mother? Why do you love your best friend? Being instantly able to pinpoint what it was about a person that moved you just smacks me of a desperation to be heard. Look at me! Look what they meant to me! Look how sophisticated and subtle a consumer of music I am! But music is not about words - it’s about feeling, about how it makes you feel, not thought and analysis.
I fucking love Prince. Do I love him cos he’s a great guitarist? No. Do I love him because he’s multi-talented? No. Do I love him because he broke the gender rules and made sex seem mutually fun? No. Do I love him because he gave back to his community, or because he was prolific and a visionary and "pushed the boundaries", or any of the other stuff people have been spouting in the last 24 hours? No.
All of those things are true and admirable, but they’re not why I love him.
I love him because his music makes me strut up and down the street (/slash my bedroom) like I’m king of the world. I love him for 'I Would Die 4 U' and the desperate, pleading desire that radiates off it in waves. I love him cos he’s fucking funny (even if he did compare my beloved Michael to Helen Keller). I love that he’s five foot two and still incredibly sexy; when he speaks at the end of 'If I Was Ur Girlfriend' I feel like he’s speaking directly to me. I do some of my best air guitar work to the first 55 seconds of the 12” extended mix of 'Raspberry Beret' - he actually makes me feel like I’m a guitar-playing superstar hero when I listen to that. I was bloody miles away from him in the O2 in 07 (ooh, get me) but I still swayed and hollered like a madman when he started playing 7. When he sings, “Kat - we need you to rap!” in 'Alphabet Street', I fully imagine he’s asking me to step in (and I do - on the bus, in front of my computer, anywhere - I know every word and my shoulders jiggle like you wouldn’t believe). And I actually still *blush* when I listen to 'Gett Off' - on my headphones, when no-one else can hear. (It’s not even the lyrics, the sound of that bass is enough to do it - how the hell does he make even that sound rude??)
I love him for how he made me feel. I love him despite him not knowing me from Adam.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps all these comments are just what I felt in 2009. The hurt then was so much I had to say something - anything. When I heard the news yesterday it felt so enormous I wanted to grab total strangers and tell them. But then those comments are followed by rafts of videos, and clips, and gifs, all accompanied by words carefully crafted to sound as if this isn’t the first time the person in question has seen them.
- "Reminded of how great the guitar work on this is" ("reminded")
- "One of the greatest Superbowl half-time performances of all time" (because you've watched them all and decided) (and anyway, it wasn't - Michael's was)
- "Er, yah, I got to see him in an intimate gig at Koko last year. #legend"
Get out of here. In the torrent of bollocks written about Michael Jackson in the days after his death, it was my friends who’d camped outside his hotel and queued all night with me to be first in line when the stadium gates opened who were notably silent. (Not to mention his actual family and true friends - but I'm not comparing their feelings here, just ours.)
So this isn’t a denial that you’re feeling something. You are. Prince was amazing. He was so great, a small part of us impervious to reason and vulnerable to the mockery of our peers thought maybe - just maybe - he'd cracked it, and he wouldn’t die, just like Michael or Whitney or David wouldn't.
Just be honest about it. You’re feeling something, a tiny feeling among all the other billions of people feeling something. Stop trying to make your voice heard by putting what he “meant” into words, as if he meant one thing to all of us, and you’re some genius for working out what it is, or what he meant to you is somehow better than what he meant to everyone else, or trying to explain why you’re so upset. Just be upset. It’s fine.
And if you must say something, how about trying instead to voice how he made you feel? If he really meant something to you, you might find you can’t.
Yup. Twenty years today. Twenty years since Jarvis Cocker got up on stage at the BRITs and waved his arse at Michael Jackson.
Ha ha ha, right? Hashtag legend. Hashtag LOL. Hashtag-
Nope. I’m still pissed off.
First up let me assure you I hesitated before posting this; I know it'll make me sound insane. Examples:
- I got teary on holiday a few years ago during an argument with a friend when I tried to defend my position. (I couldn’t.)
- I had a 90s theme party for my 30th birthday and almost threw my own little brother out because he came dressed as the Pulp frontman. (Invitations clearly said NO INDIE as the music code.)
- I have two Pulp songs on my iPod - 'Do You Remember the First Time?' and 'Babies', both undeniably great songs - and I feel a little pang of annoyance every time I hear them, while 'Common People’ sends me into a full-on rage (the utter, utter smugness of it! the snideness! A song trashing a girl he nevertheless fancies - ugh, fuck you Jarvis).
Let me explain:
Okay no, there’s no explanation. No non-crazy one anyway. Just hear me out, 'k?
Here’s my ticket from that night.
At the time it happened, my argument went something like this: ohmygodhowCOULDhepoormichaelhe’sdonenothingabsolutelynothingtodeservethis
...because I was 16 and an MJ FAN OF SOME STANDING and I had gone to the BRITs to watch Michael on stage, for the first time in London in four years.
My argument didn’t have the impact I’d hoped it would. Mainly because my audience, aka the 32 16-year-olds who made up 11CH who were at this moment clambering over each other and trying to fart on each other’s laps during morning registration, believed something more along the lines of:
“yaaarrggh, what a wanker.”
A wanker. Michael. But-bu-buh-buh-
All I can tell you is it felt like being bullied. Me/Michael - I was so much of a fan by then I could no longer tell. Michael had long been the butt of jokes, and had recently been the subject of a *police investigation*, which meant as a fan I spent most of the 90s burning with an anger that Michael - and, by extension, me - was being victimised.
For the most part I grew out of that fan way of thinking. Got some perspective, a mortgage, a life. I still don’t believe the really bad stuff (let’s not get into why - I’ll leave that for another blog post), but I learned to see the faults in my childhood hero, just as I got older and discovered my own.
I am now so grown-up I am willing to concede that Michael might - might - have had some work done.
But the name Jarvis Cocker or the sound of Pulp’s music never fails to make my blood boil.
Come on, Kat. Lighten up. One man waving his bum at another man is funny.
*stony Kat face*
This is insane, I know. I know! I can no longer tell if my dislike of Pulp is a genuine aesthetic response (...unlikely) or tied up with what Jarvis did (yep, that sounds more like it), or simply bound up with the frustration I felt at the tiresome, ironic and self-conscious Britpop that dominated the 1990s, the predominant tone of which appeared to be scorn, scorn at girls who pretended to be something they weren’t, scorn at small-town life, scorn at boys who like girls and girls who like boys - all sung by lead singers who cultivated a kind of bored air of contempt, though they deigned to answer the questions posed by Smash Hits nonetheless.
Don't get me wrong; Michael was nuts. I think a part of him *did* think he was Jesus (a tiny tiny part, deep down - and hey, there’s a tiny part of me that thinks so too, so fuck you), and in later years he was plagued by a damaging obsession not just to be, but to be acknowledged The Greatest of All Time. His behaviour got weirder and weirder, he got less and less apologetic, and speculation about his private life overshadowed his music as a result.
But, for all his faults, - and here’s why I love him - he never had a moment of scorn in his life.
His music contained fear, confusion, paranoia, hope, joy in abundance. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, but it didn’t just sneer at social mores and class. All that stuff felt so small-minded, so fucking stiflingly British.
That’s what a lot of people prided themselves on - these were the Brit Awards, after all, one in the eye for an American superstar.
Except Michael wasn’t from America, he was from outer space. His talent at least was out of this world. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe some people seem touched by something godlike - genius, whatever you want to call it - and what’s more I believe acknowledging that and adoring someone - whomever it may be - can be a positive, life-affirming act.
Call me an idiot, why don’t you.
'Earth Song' is not my favourite. The performance of it that night was really corny (always the penultimate song he performed on tour, we spent the time it was on working out how best to make our exit). BUT I admire its chutzpah. I admire its grandiosity, its ambition. I believe it came from a genuine feeling Michael had (about - yes - elephants), and I believe, if you listen to it, and stop feeling so bloody self-conscious, stop sniggering, FFS, you might feel it too.
And that’s what Jarvis is to me: sniggering. Sticking your bum out at someone.
For me he’s forever the boys in 11CH, who liked Ocean Colour Scene and Oasis and that one song from ChumbaWumba, and crashed into you at the bar jumping up and down and gripping each other’s shoulders and jeering to the sound of the Year 2000, and laughed at anyone who didn’t wear kappa shirts and record bags and their hair in curtains. He’s people who believe music is about clever lyrics, not sound and passion. He’s bants.
I realise a lot of Pulp fans might be surprised to hear this, as to them he represents a sort of alternative to that culture - a sort of nerdy awkward outsider who shopped at C&A instead of buying Ben Sherman shirts. Maybe that’s where my anger comes from. Having been on the outside, and finally finding success, he took it out on an easy target like Michael Jackson. Michael was under fire for so much of what he did or didn’t do back then, and getting clobbered for everything. He was an easy target. A showbiz Whack-a-Mole.
So yeah, my argument is still basically still ohmygodhowCOULDhepoormichaelhe’sdonenothingabsolutelynothingtodeservethis
I can’t defend it much. There’s no reasoning behind it. It’s just how I feel. It’s a massive failure in my sense of humour: a man showed his bum to another man at a highly inappropriate moment? In all other circumstances, that is 100% funny. It should be funny. I should find that funny. But I don’t.
Laughter, bants - there is a line where it moves from being good-natured to being simply hurtful, and the victim and aggressor usually disagree where it lies.
And the grown up, non-crazy part of me can see Michael deserved it, or course he did. But puncturing other people’s bubbles can get so tiring. It really can. There’s a lot of joy to be had in inflating them.
He announced he was the King (sneer!), when white people had been very clear that it was Elvis, so he married his daughter (boo!). He sent a statue of himself on a barge down the Thames (cue contempt!). He got given the Artist of the Millennium Award, because he was an egomaniac of outrageous proportions, and not because it in any way benefitted the BPI to have him perform during their award show. And on stage at the Brits he portrayed himself, solemnly, and with much pomp, as someone who had the power to heal people.
Was he manic? Delusional? It's possible. Did he sincerely believe it? Maybe, though I doubt it. Did he deserve laughter? Perhaps. Did he deserve to be mocked? I dunno. Mockery might seem an appropriate response, but it's unedifying how much glee on the part of the person doing the mocking it involves.
And then there’s the possibility that it was Jarvis, not Michael, who took the whole thing too seriously.
When asked by US journalist Diane Sawyer about a video promo he’d made of him walking past cheering crowds that was being compared to Nazi propaganda, here’s what he had to say:
Diane Sawyer: The critics have said that it's the most "boldly vainglorious, self-deification a pop singer ever undertook with a straight face”. **Michael Jackson: Good! That's what I wanted.DS: For the controversy?MJ: Yeah!DS: And they...MJ: They fell into my trap. I wanted everybody's attention.
The engine of my interest (some might call it an obsession) in Michael Jackson remains the same as it was when I was 12: Is he for real? Or is it all an act?
There’s evidence on both sides: IMO he was a bona fide god-sprung genius, but he was egotistical, vain and manipulative too, with a fondness for sentimental lyrics and key changes. Friends say he was a sweetheart, but it’s clear he could also be a bit of a bastard. His music could be joyful masterful pop, but it could be dark, over-produced and difficult too. Sometimes he performed Earth Song, but we forgave him because then he performed Dangerous or an 11-minute extended version of Billie Jean with a mime act and dance breakdown.
That level of artistry is difficult to achieve when your image is ‘authenticity’ and your most potent act is to tear other people down.
So yeah, I’m still angry.
Jarvis was just part of the mob that took Michael at face value. Who didn’t see him as an entertainer, but a weirdo, a deranged fool. Who felt pride in puncturing pomposity, without acknowledging the joy they took in it too.
I still switch the radio off when his show comes on (a show called Sunday Service - OH, SPARE me the IRONY). And yeah - MAYBE I cover his book up when I see it in Waterstones. I'm sad I live in a world where there’s no Michael Jackson, and Jarvis Cocker does voiceovers for Sainsbury's.
And I’m not sorry.
** “straight face” - LOL
...okay, okay, not a live blog as such. A diary. 09:00 This is when I like to start working. But today my task is to read what I just wrote. And what I just wrote is a redrafting of the first chapter of my novel, roughly 7500 words. I start cleaning the toilet instead.
09:18 Okay, it can’t be that bad. I find my best red pen. At first I can only find a biro, when what I want is my red uniball pen (fine), but that is not in any of the 14 places that I look, so I tell myself the biro will do and sit down to work.
09: 21 The biro is not fine.
09:25 Uniball found I get to work. Okay: 'Part One', I read. 'Chapter One'. So far, so good. I get a biscuit.
10:07 Page one takes longer than I expected. That’s not much of a surprise: it’s the opening page, after all. But the effort makes me think I deserve a biscuit, and a look at Twitter. (I switch off the internet every morning at home, and while this means I can’t go online from my laptop, it doesn’t stop my phone and its little heart and email notifications, oh no.)
10:37 Check Twitter in a desperate attempt to get out of page two. If there’s anything, anything I can find of interest, it will distract me from having to read any more of my awful prose. Ack - seriously, reading-something-you’ve-just- written is up there with hearing-a-recording-of-your-voice and looking-back-in-the-toilet-after-doing-a-poo. Don’t do it. Normally I get out of it by writing this here blog (no-one reads blogs). But a novel, I feel, needs a bit more checking.
There are no interesting topics of conversation on Twitter.
11:20 Page three and already I want to kill myself. Feel it’s important to tweet this. Tell myself not to touch my phone, where the Twitter app is lurking
11.26 I tweet it. And I notice my little brother has tweeted something about which I have an amusing comment. I make two. There’s the ten-minute delay while I wait for the responses to come flooding in (hearts! hearts! How I love those little hearts!).
Return solemnly to draft.
11.55 Long extended chat with the guy delivering my veg box. I think he had quite a lot to be getting on with, and hadn't planned on hearing my newly acquired but surprisingly strongly held opinions on organic farming.
12:30 Contractors have appeared on the ledge outside my bedroom. Brief chat about the efficacy of rubber window sealants.
13:00 Tummy rumbling pretty badly now, and I'm only on p.9
13:13 LUUUUUNCH! (p11)
During lunch I get a like on one of my tweets! Big day. Decide to have a little break to think about how great I am.
(End of play result: 14 pages out of 30)
One of the poem ideas I had was that one could respect only the people who knew that the cups had to be washed up and put away after drinking, and knew that a Monday of work follows a Sunday in the water meadows, and that old age with its distorting mirror memories follows youth and its raw pleasures, but that it's quite impossible to love such people, for what we want from love is release from our beliefs, not confirmation in them. That is where the 'courage of love' comes in - to have the courage to commit yourself to something you don't believe, because it is what - for the moment, anyway - thrills you by its audacity.
- Larkin, letter to Monica
So I've finished the draft I started in February and have had some THOUGHTS, y'all. Strap in.
Here we go.
Writing fiction is about making decisions: choosing the path, out of an infinite number of possibilities, your story should should take. And I am terrible at decisions. Menus have the power to turn me into a gibbering wreck. Buying a scarf leads me to question my very existence. The simple act of choosing a bottle of wine leaves me paralysed for hours in the supermarket aisle.
At first I felt like I was making progress on my draft simply by filling the page. I wrote every day. Loads of them. Thousands. Too many. They piled up. I tried to cover every possible angle of my story, meticulous: starting new strands of thought, adding ideas, setting things up rather than getting on with the story.
To do that, you have to make a decision. It’s what takes you from scrawling ideas in a notebook to pursuing just the one; it’s what lets you develop an idea, following it to its logical (or completely illogical) conclusion.
Instead I rewrote scenes; wrote alternatives; employed slash marks between ideas, and left others hanging; all in the hope that I would never have to decide. As I pushed on, other thoughts occurred to me, and I wrote those up, slotting them alongside scenes I had written a few weeks previously, in the sure and just hope that A Better Kat - the version of myself that will one day wake up and know exactly what to do - will make the decision for me. Or some external circumstances will force me to decide: just like when the waiter arrives, or it’s December and so cold I have to buy a scarf no matter what, or the security guard at Sainsbury’s has been reduced to switching the supermarket lights on and off.
At this stage I had abandoned multiple drafts. Roughly 30,000 words in, I would realise it wasn’t working, and try it again, this time from a different angle or a different starting point.
So this year, frustrated with myself, desperate to finish a draft, and wondering why I had ever told anyone I would do anything so stupid as write a novel, I pushed on instead.
Soon I noticed there were fewer and fewer decisions I needed to make. Once I’d passed the midway mark, I stopped writing so many alternate scenes, and worrying about perspective, and voice, and whether or not I’d got that bit in about iron filings that was super clever and I was very proud of (I had, four times).
My little toboggan reached the top of the writing hill, perched there for a bit before hurtling down, and finally - thank fuck - I could see the end.
The rest came much more quickly than the start, partly because my confidence grew with the sheer amount of words piling up behind me. Surely some of them would be good enough to keep? My writing became leaner and had direction: rather than feel overwhelmed by the amount I had to write, I now wondered how I would be able to fit it all in.
At the start of the draft, each chapter was about three times too long; by the final section it was more like 10%.
About 80% of the way through I realised an entire character and storyline was cluttering up the story. She could go. Fwip. Just like that.
I sped up. All the set-ups I’d included near the beginning needed resolving, and I followed my nose as best I could, partly by choosing, partly through sheer forgetfulness (in some cases it had been three+ months since I had written a scene, so rather than deciding which idea was worth continuing through to the end, I’d simply forgotten the others).
Forgetfulness. Illogic. Unthinking. Sometimes I caught myself thinking ‘what?’ ‘you can’t-' at something I’d just written down and it was like when you’re running fast and suddenly with a shock you can feel the road as it slides down your face and tears the skin off your knees, but you’re still upright - you’re running - and your legs are still peddling.
It was at the 95% mark on drafts 1 and 2 that my story fell apart (draft 1 because I’d done next to no decent story planning; draft 2 because I’d done too much). This time, however, when I reached the fateful spot, albeit 30,000 words further along than I meant to, the final few scenes I needed were laid out and waiting.
When I finished the draft there were a few holes and gaps to fill but I was just too excited by the final line to do anything more, not because it was good (it is a pathetic attempt at a Gatsby sign-off and the first in line to be expunged in the edit), but because it told me the story, right there, in that line - this, I realised, is what the whole thing is about.
Of course I’d known it was about that all along, but I’d also thought it was about impossibility and potential and success and love and death and female emancipation and joy and lies and all manner of other stupid things that meant it was impossible to see the wood for the trees.
I wanted it to capture everything I’d ever thought about everything ever. I thought my topic could encompass it all, and therefore I'd never have to make any decisions, but now, at the end, I saw it was about one thing - and that one thing made lopping off all the extra bits, sanding down joins and winnowing out the bloated passages seem easy. I wanted to start the edit straight away; to cut, cut, cut.
So next day I sat back at my desk. Everything about my story had emerged clearly now: I knew what had to go, what needed to change, what gaps needed filling and, finally, what decisions to make.
You don’t know the beginning until you’ve reached the end. I can’t remember who said that - I’ve got a horrible feeling it was Eliot, or Dylan (I don't know who's more pompous) - but it’s true.
Something stopped me, however. With my laptop open in front of me, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The thought actually made me feel sick.
So instead I took a screenshot for posterity:
I realised I was at the end and, more importantly, I needed a lie down.
She was of the stuff of which great mothers are made.
- Thomas Hardy's description of Bathsheba Everdene, the potentially great hero of Far From the Madding Crowd, finding strength at her darkest moment
Fuck Thomas Hardy
Just read Sue Gee’s article on giving your writing the concentration it deserves in the latest issue of Mslexia.
Among her bits of advice was that old chestnut: don’t talk about a project until it’s finished.
I’ve heard it before, and scoffed at it as another example of writers being a bit too precious. I, on the other hand, talked about my novel constantly. I wrote about it here on a weekly basis; I talked about it with friends; I told near strangers what it was about (then spent atrocious nights unable to sleep for fear of them stealing my idea).
Actually the risk isn’t that your idea will be stolen. Ideas, as the tech world relishes in reminding you, are two-a-penny (also not true - but that’s a different blog post). The risk is:
- that you will tire of your subject;
- that you will give yourself unreasonable expectations;
- and, most malignant of all, that you will become satisfied by the look on people’s faces when you tell them about your book, rather than finishing the book itself.
We live in a society that’s increasingly satisfied by the report of things, rather than the things themselves. We go out in order to tweet that we are out. We visit strange and unusual things in order to be seen visiting strange and unusual things. We fret about other people's achievements, and post highly selective updates to Facebook in order to feel happy about our own.
Our mantra? Photos or it didn’t happen.
So it’s hard when your principle activity is sitting on your own looking at a screen. Or your entire achievement today is deleting 2,500 words you wrote yesterday.
My novel is coming along well, but I have no way of actually representing the progress I am making. There’s nothing to show yet, except for a growing satisfaction in my brain that it is slowly coming together. Sometimes I get a rush of excitement at how well it seems to be working, and jabber about it to all and sundry, and that excitement and their excitement (feigned) makes it feel, in that moment, real. And I hope it is. It's just not yet. The whole process is like riding an enormous racing snail - exhilarating, weird, gathering pace as I approach the midway line, but still really, really slow.
Sharing my WIP doesn't really work either - it is mix of developed scenes and notes to self to fix other ones later. The whole thing shifts over time; my perspective of the book as a whole changes as I approach the midway point, and again as I get closer to the end, and numerous times during each subsequent edit. Each time it's getting better, but it's still not readable - yet. Soon those notes to self will be worked out, and, as I know from everything else I write, will be suddenly, almost unexpectedly, done.
Meanwhile my progress indicators are intensely internal - little additions that make the various plots snap that bit more neatly together. Snatches of dialogue. Ways of linking two thoughts.
They go in my notebook. They’re not the kind of thing I can blog about. They’d make no sense if I said them out loud.
But. Unlike previous drafts I am two thirds of the way through this one. The story I worked out in February is holding; I am not going to give up and start again. Sometimes I rewrite bits at the beginning, because that’s how it works - getting to the middle gives you ideas for the start, and getting to the final stage gives you ideas for the middle. I feel I am on the final furlong of this race - it’s just I'm still on a massive slow-moving snail.
As Gee points out, the effort of writing is not just commitment. I’ve written reams and reams of words for five years. I'm committed. It’s convincing yourself that it’s still worth putting in the hours, without any external encouragement. It's not worrying you can't summarise the whole bloody thing (100,000 words! Plus all those thoughts in your head!) in one pithy sentence. It’s weaning yourself off the need to talk about it, to announce milestones (chapter 4 done! 2000 words today! - these victories are almost always hollow a day or two later), and even the need to get feedback too early in the game.
Instead you need to become your own feedback loop: managing the negative voices in your head, recognising when you’re getting better.
So I try not to talk about it now. (I usually fail, as anyone who knows me IRL knows - I’m too excited by it all.) But I believe if you want to learn how to write long-form fiction well, it’s important to conserve your energies and become comfortable with looking at a screen, and those days when no progress has been made at all.
That’s my excuse for not blogging recently, anyway ;o)
The important thing was that, in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning. We all require devotion to something more than ourselves for our lives to be endurable.
- Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
Real self-acceptance, real liberation, involves acknowledging limitations, not grandiosely denying them.
- Jeanne Safer, on her book 'Beyond Motherhood', read on the overnight train from Thessaloniki to Belgrade
The phrase “show, don’t tell” is repeated so often in writing advice that it’s become trite, the province of smug practitioners everywhere who write blog posts like this one to deliver their wonderful new shibboleths of wisdom to puny writers a month or two behind them who haven’t worked it out yet.
So when I realised something that’s been dawning on me slowly while writing my current draft can be reduced to those words, I hesitated before writing any further. It's so obvious, right? Writing 101.
I used to think I was pretty good at showing. My early drafts were a mass of impressions, one after the other. I stripped out phrases like “I thought”, “I saw”, “I watched" like varicose veins. Scenes flipped into each other without a clear reason why - the connections were missing. When I did stand-up I suffered from this (though it can be overthought - one of the mistakes comics make is to focus too heavily on the logic of their set).
Logic - that’s it! Logic has always evaded me. Can’t do it. No patience for it. Whether I’m writing essays or stories or trying to understand economics, I can’t keep my focus for longer than about
Hmm? Oh yes. My problem, I diagnosed, was a surfeit of show. Not enough tell. So I worked hard on that narrative voice, and how it told the story, getting from A to B. I got a bit too bogged down with it from time to time, shuffling my scenes like cards and coming up with different orders, a different development every time, different logic.
Sometimes all at once. It got confusing. Worse, my narrative voice got a bit too overweening, and now that it was first person (new thing - or an old thing, really - it started way back in 2011 like that, went into third person for a good portion of 2014, and now back again), a bit of a barroom bore.
So when something in the story clicks, and another character comes into focus, and then a proper scene between two or more people, and suddenly it’s possible to pour all your narrative and description into dialogue or action - there’s nothing like that feeling.
This is telling a story! I’m telling a story! It’s working!
That’s what it feels like.
And I wanted to write about it, then I realised it boiled down to “show, don’t tell”. And I wanted to thump my keyboard with frustration.
It does come down to that. But what it shows me is just how profound that advice is, how it affects every word you write, every element of a story.
What I would say is this - the advice shouldn’t be “show, don’t tell”, but
“tell it, then show it"
That’s the process I had to go through anyway. Starting off by trying to show everything ended up with a big ol’ mess. So tell it first, understand what you’re trying to say, and then - and only then - show it.
Helen Macdonald won the Costa Book of the Year this week, for H is For Hawk, a book I’ve not read yet but sounds brilliant. Out of the six books shortlisted, however, the one I’m most looking forward to reading is the one by Emma Healey, who won the First Novel of the Year prize for Elizabeth is Missing. It already sounded like it had a great premise, and reviews suggested, unlike a lot of other debuts, it actually delivered on it too. I was even willing to put the fact she is only 29 aside and maintain an open mind (the utter, utter cow*). Then even more promising was this interview. It’s with Nick Higham (for some reason) on the BBC website (which means I can't embed it), and in it she explained why it took her five years to write.
Five years! As someone four years into the same book, this is music to my ears.
She also says she doesn’t write chronologically, which as anyone who’s read any of my blog will know, is something I’ve struggled with. But most importantly she is clear on one thing: that her book didn’t just need five years (it was her first after all, and there’s so much to learn when you set out to write), it needed those five years with her alone.
This is one of the toughest aspects of writing for me; that you plough along the same furrow for years, without other people seeing much of it. So much goes on in your head, and I hope it’s maturing, I hope, despite the changes in direction and reversals and wrong turns and rewrites, the net effect is one of progress, however incremental (though, midway in a field of corn, you can never be sure).
In the video above she explains how she deliberately didn’t send it to agents until she thought it was ready.
“That time, when it’s just your baby, and you can ruin it if you like, and put it back together - that was really really important."
Albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, she recommends not jumping the gun and sending it to an agent until you’ve rewritten it at least 12 times. The temptation to send it out and get approval is overwhelming at times, but that’s the challenge: staying within your head and having the determination that it’s getting better.
I used to think that you were either a writer or an editor, but talking to other writers recently has made me think again. Everyone has a natural inclination to one or the other, it’s true. But what makes one writer better than another isn’t constant feedback, or regular publication and review, but the wherewithal to develop the other side - whether it’s becoming more free with your ideas, or being more critical - on your own. Teaching yourself to be ambidextrous, if you will.
And that takes time. Five years time, sometimes. Thank you Emma for saying it.
* I’ve never met Emma and I’m sure she’s lovely but I’m sure you’ll agree this is unacceptable.
The reader is going to wonder how things turn out. In this respect, Money was a much more difficult book to write than London Fields because it is essentially a plotless novel. It is what I would call a voice novel. If the voice doesn’t work you’re screwed.
With Money, for example, I had an idea of a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film. That was all. Sometimes a novel can come pretty consecutively and it’s rather like a journey in that you get going and the plot, such as it is, unfolds and you follow your nose. You have to decide between identical-seeming dirt roads, both of which look completely hopeless, but you nevertheless have to choose which one to follow.
I've not read Status Anxiety but it's on my list. You know, the list - the one that piles up by your bed and gets so long you worry if you'll have time to read it all before you die. That list. But I came across this quote from it, which I really love. It chimes with something I've thought for a long time about celebrity worship; in my version of this quote I would replace the "vast landscapes" with "celebrities" and "famous people".
Vast landscapes can have an anxiety reducing effect similar to ruins for they are the representatives of infinite space as ruins are the representatives of infinite time, against which our weak, short-lived bodies can seem no less inconsequential than those of moths or spiders. Whatever differences exist between people, they are as nothing next to the differences between the most powerful humans and the great deserts, high mountains, glaciers and oceans of the world. They are natural phenomena so large as to make the variations between any two people seem mockingly small. By spending time in vast spaces, a sense of our insignificance in the social hierarchy can be subsumed in a consoling sense of the insignificance of all humans within the cosmos. We can overcome a feeling of unimportance, not by making ourselves more important, but by recognising the relative unimportance of everyone. Our concern with who is a few millimetres taller than us can give way to an awe for things a thousand million times larger than us.
- Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety
People who profess to not understand why some people take great pleasure in the actions of those deemed more significant than them, more famous, get this wrong all the time: it's not the act of raising someone up beyond their worth that's is so compelling about worship, but the belittling of everyone else (oneself included). That can be paralysing - shutting off the rational part of your brain that tells you you don't have to live in accordance with other people - but contemplating the sheer significance of another person, who is like you, and everyone around you, but so much better, can also be liberating, as de Botton suggests - perhaps therapeutic even, as therapeutic as imagining our own insignificance against the universe.