day 4 of 5 of Sidetracks And Detours inaugural annual not literally a JoinedUpReadingAndWriting Literary Festival
A TRIAL BEGINS with writers in the dock
by Norman Warwick
Good morning ladies and gentlemen of the jury. This is not a grisly murder trial, and you will hear no salacious evidence, but it is possible that one of you on our jury might have to play the role of Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men. You may recall that Fonda played the part of the only man on a jury to believe in the innocence of the man in the dock. Fonda´s character, photographed here on the exhibit you are being shown, had carefully listened to every word presented in evidence and patiently convinced his fellow to jurors to unanimously return a verdict of Not Guilty.
We are here today to defend writers, condemned by an uncaring world as workshy dreamers. I intend to call a number of witnesses in support of writers with a need to put pen to paper. This is a case close to my heart and I ask you read between the lines in this courtroom of the chapter and verse I and my learned friend for the prosecution might offer you. I myself have dabbled in the dark arts of writing and intend here to find the words that might convince you of the importance of creative writing in the modern world..
Rilke, of course, was right – nobody but yourself can help. When I began writing poetry in my not-so-modern secondary school, I quickly realised how hurtful, physically and emotionally, fellow pupils at a boys´ school could be at the first glimmer of any activity that might not be perceived as ´mannish.´ I was massively encouraged to ´hone my craft´, though, by my non-judgmental English teacher, the late Noel Drury.
At first the words flowed on to my empty pages, in almost carbon copies of new releases by Bob Dylan or Tom Paxton or Paul Simon but as I began to try to emulate Dylan Thomas´ technique in villanelle or Robert Frost´s inverted line endings or Masefield´s tidal rhythms I became my own worst critic and almost gave up writing. I became my own severest critic and despaired that I would ever write anything that might have least been worth the Chinese burns against the school railings, or perhaps bring such tortures to an end.
I never actually threw my pen away though. I had invested a lot of myself into my hobby (too much of myself, in fact, to the detriment of my writing). Nevertheless, I persevered, as I do still today, to deliver the word to the page, not to mention the word thereafter, and the word after that, …… and in my case, hundreds of pages thereafter !
As Mr Drury did for me, Rilke responded to a request from a young writer, and engaged in a ´correspondence course´ with Franz Xaver Kappus in 10 letters over the course of six years. Rilke offered advice on matters of religion, love, feminism, sex, art, solitude and patience, but it was also keyed into the life of the poet and how these things might shape the words upon the page.
´This most of all´, Rilke advised, ´ask yourself in the most silent hour of night: must I write?´
Back in the nineteen sixties Mr. Drury offered me the same advice in his own words, and thirty years later I would be telling participants in my creative writing classes that they must recognise a need to write as mere wanting to write would less likely bear fruit.
We who have ever felt the need to write know well the silent hour. Of the participants on my courses who became published writers, like Rod Broome and Andrea Sarginson, all identified the difference between want and need. I am sure that is true also of those students who went on to win a National Book Award or A Booker prize. after being mentored by my first witness, Professor Colum McCann.
Colum McCann is an Irish writer of literary fiction. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, and now lives in New York. He is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing in the Master of Fine Arts program at Hunter College, New York, with fellow novelists Peter Carey and Tea Obreht, and has visited many universities and colleges all over the world. Professor McCann’s work has been published in 35 languages, and has appeared in The New York Times, and ion print and electronic media outlets, and has fully earned the right to be called an expert witness.
What do you have to say on that subject of the need to write, Professor?
´All of these students, bar none, are looking, in Rilke’s words, ´to say ecstasies that are unsayable´, and yet after patience and perseverance, perspirtation and inspiration the unsayable is said, albeit often in words that taste of old wine poured from new bottles.
I would remind you that that W Somerset Maugham, who as writer of The Moon And Sixpence and Of Human Bondage knew a thing or three about writing novels. once said, ´There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are´.
Professor, I used to amend that slightly by advising aspiring writers to learn what rules of spelling and punctuation and technique they could identify, so they would then know better how to break them. Was I right to do so?
´There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the same time.
To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you had better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.
The great ones break the rules on purpose. They do it in order to remake the language. They say it like nobody has ever said it before. And then they unsay it, and they keep unsaying it, breaking their own rules over and over again. So be adventurous in breaking – or maybe even making – the rules´.
I try to signal sidetracks & detours in all my works but I know I don´t have Michael Ondaatje´s ability to bring all his readers to the same end-point. Could you clarifies Mr. Ondaatje´s approach to writing for the jury?
In The English Patient, his 1992 novel, Michael Ondaatje follows four dissimilar people brought together at an Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The four main characters are: an unrecognisably burned man — the eponymous patient, presumed to be English; his Canadian Army nurse, a Sikh British Army sapper, and a Canadian thief. The story occurs during the North African Campaign and centres on the incremental revelations of the patient’s actions prior to his injuries, and the emotional effects of these revelations on the other characters. The story is told by multiple characters and “authors” of books the characters are reading.
The author of The English Patient has since said that “The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’
And what to you infer from that, Professor?
´That a first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again.
The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.
But take it easy too. Don’t stuff the world into your first page. Achieve a balance. Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house. At the same time, don’t panic if you don’t get it right first time around. Often the opening line won’t be found until you’re halfway through your first draft. You hit page 157 and you suddenly realise, Ah, that’s where I should have begun.
So you go back and begin again.
Open elegantly. Open fiercely. Open delicately. Open with surprise. Open with everything at stake.
This, of course, is a bit like being told to walk a tightrope. Go ahead, then, walk the tightrope! Relax yourself into the tension of the wire. The first line, like the first step, is only the first of many, yet it sets the shape of what is to come. Try walking a foot off the ground, then two feet, then three. Eventually you might go a quarter mile in the sky.
Then again, you might stumble and fall. No matter. It is, after all, a work of the imagination. You won’t die trying.
At least not yet.
Professor, you once warned us not to write what we know, but write towards what we want to know reminded me that I used to ask my writing group members whether write to explain or to explore. I have always firmly believed that a writer is an explorer and was particularly struck by a remark Louis Brierley made when speaking of his science fiction work to me in a radio interview. Louis is on the autistic scale and order and routine are hugely important in his life.
¨My writing is the only place where I feel safe even when I am totally lost´, he said.
Personally, I often set out on my writing, even of articles like these with no clear idea of where I am going or even if my destination exists or is still to be created, and whether I have to be its creator.
Nevertheless, my old teacher Mr. Drury was on the money when he told me I could only write what I know. It would logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise, would it not?
´if we write towards what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of. We will have made a shotgun leap in our consciousness. We will not be stuck in the permanent backspin of me, me, me !
Shown here on the right Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., (born November 11, 1922, Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.—died April 11, 2007, New York), an American writer noted for his wryly satirical novels who frequently used postmodern techniques as well as elements of fantasy and science fiction to highlight the horrors and ironies of 20th-century civilization. Much of Vonnegut’s work is marked by an essentially fatalistic worldview that nonetheless embraces modern humanist beliefs. once said, ´we should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down´.
Perhaps when the author of Slaughterhouse Five referred to that cliff he could have been alluding to something else, could he not?
´He could have been describing a blank page, for the descent from top to bottom can be equally as terrifying, or exhilarating- Seriously an empty page can curl up and wrap itself around your mind so tightly that you feel you have a writer´s block in your head, but you will still know in your heart that you are making an excuse. it is time for work, and to sit in your writing place and fight the blankness. A writer doesn´t abandon his desk and won´t leave the the room to check the sports pages or open the mail. A writer won´t be distracted in any way until, having fought, has won´.
Could you maybe couch that in less scholarly terms for the benefit of anyone here who has never practiced as a writer?
´A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.
Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.
Stare the blank page down´.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the hour is late and that concludes the day´s proceedings. We wiññ re-convene tomorrow when I will re-call Professor McCann to the witness box to speak of writing techniques rather than writerly attitudes. I will guide this jury step by step through the creating of characters, employing Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an able advocate, and the writing of dialogue, calling to the stand to give evidence, Peter Carey the novelist.
Professor McCann will also look at the techniques of imposing a structure and developing plot and language and we can expect to hear the testimony of Stephen King (who wrote one of the great books on that act of writing). We will pause briefly to consider the functions of a comma to ensure we consider the importance of a full stop before the judge passes sentence after hearing from detective (writer) Raymond Chandler. Other witnesses will also include Aldous Huxley and Samuel Becket who will be called to speak in defence of writers, and will do so on topics ranging from depth of research and feelings of failure. Andre Gide will offer expert opinion on what we writers should always do, if at first we don´t succeed,…… and, having opened this defence with testimony of the ´first line.´ I will, in my summation, speak about the last line.
We will re-convene tomorrow but you are requested, in the meantime, not to discuss the case. (No one will listen anyway) !
Meanwhile thank you for your attendance and attention here today.
We would like to thank all readers who have joined us in court for day 4 of 5 of our inaugural annual Sidetracks & Detours not literally a JoinedUpReadingAndWriting Literary Festival. We will be hearing more testimony on our final day which looks likely to end in acquittal for the defendants. Reporters are saying that the scholarly evidence we have heard so far all suggests that writers have to contantly hone their craft, maintain their skill sets and be constantly aware of global aware and carry an understanding of human nature. However, only you, the jury can decide whether the notion that too many writers are under-worked and over-paid should be thrown out of vourt. Sidetracks & Detours could not possibly comment !