Saturday, May 07, 2016

Sources of inspiration

7pm at Wheeler End, April 29th
I had an idea a few weeks ago, and it’s held good so far, without being abandoned like all the others. I’ve worked on it every day, and wanted to write a post about it too, but it seemed to be too early, perhaps still is. I don’t find it easy to do the sensible thing. Left to myself I brood daily on crazy ideas and false trails. In “real life”, as opposed to writing—which happily portrays that which is not and could never be—I have K as my prompt, conscience and general minder. Her common sense rubs off, and I am the better for it. But my unripe writing projects constitute a labyrinth that no mortal should have to get lost in, and she wisely stays clear. This is where one has need of a proper etherial Muse. I’m fortunate to have received such a visitation since I wrote here last. She introduced herself one morning as Barbara. It was before five o’clock, too early to stir. I lay immobile as a corpse, unable to know if I was awake or dreaming—the hypnopompic state. Since then I’ve been able to apply her guidance in my writing life and creative decisions. She is self-effacing, gives no sense of a personal presence; never looks over my shoulder to criticize. I can only invoke her in mental stillness, setting aside all plans, habits, dogmas, obsessions and time-pressures. She dwells in the springs and meadows of not-doing, where the air is clear, showing me what I had failed to see before.

And then there is Kenneth Clark. I knew him vaguely as the father of Alan Clark, whose Diaries from 1983 to 1999 I’d found so compelling. Then I read the father’s own memoir, and watched his 11-hour TV series Civilisation, and thought of owning the set of DVDs. Instead I bought the book version, heavy and sumptuous, in perfect condition, for one English penny. I had not thought he could be a better writer than his son, even after hearing his commentaries as he stood in front of Europe’s great works of art. But even the Foreword to his book, on the challenges of converting from one medium to another, must be one of the most lucid and illuminating things I’ve read:
The technical objections raised were themselves a spur to invention. I could see the truth of those familiar words ‘How often has a difficult rhyme led me to a beautiful thought!’
—which I cannot trace to any other author than him, though it bespeaks a poet. And this too struck me personally (my emphasis):
I cannot distinguish between thought and feeling, and I am convinced that a combination of words and music, colour and movement can extend human experience in a way that words alone cannot do.
He gives me courage and perseverance in the similar task of turning my ten-year tangle of published writings into a proper book. I’ve tried and failed perhaps a dozen times. To give an impression of the difficulties, here’s a list of tasks:

-----what to include, what to leave out;
-----how to sequence
-----whether to identify themes and group them in some way
-----how to divide into chapters & sections, with a contents page
-----whether & in what manner to provide indexing &/or crossreferenceing
-----how much to edit
-----how much to rewrite
-----what images to include
-----what reader comments to include
-----how to launch and market the ensemble

Not that it would be possible to tackle them as a list of tasks. There has to be a vision, followed by a strategy for realizing it, keeping a grip on the whole at the same time as the intricate details.

To include comments at all was a major decision, but I know it’s the right one, as we all do in hindsight, when we reflect that it would be unthinkable to have done otherwise than what we eventually settled on. This blog would not have survived its ten years without the offered encouragement—and occasional praise, whether deserved or not, for it helps give a focus as to what is good and what isn’t. Sometimes readers have used the comments to bring up all sorts of side-issues, ignoring what I thought were the important points, which doubtless bored them. There too, I’ve looked through their eyes, and learned. Sometimes my descriptions have encouraged them to append their own stories, and it’s been like a pot-luck supper, we’ve all shared the feast. And sometimes the comments are worth including for the sense they convey of immediate real-time events. Contrast this with many non-fiction books written to a careful plan, lured by the promise of material reward. How often they sag in the middle, and never recover. It’s as if they were written to compete in a tortoise-race set up by the book-market, and the author must push the tortoise along, when it wants to go its own way. Reader comments belong inside, as marks of authenticity.

I refuse to push any tortoise, even to the point where I’ve thought often enough that I might just leave my writings in a trunk like Fernando Pessoa. It would be an electronic one, called “A Wayfarer’s Notes”, available for posthumous editing by someone who thought it had any worth. This idea, if it’s worthy of being called one, was dismissed by Barbara with silent scorn. What else could I do but wait for Serendipity, another of my female helpers, along with Alacrity, whose eagerness is essential to get anything going? I saw that I cannot duck my unique responsibility, which is the same as everyone else’s, to do what you and only you can do. Only thus can Honor, another of my beautiful helpers, be satisfied.

In the event I didn’t have to wait long. A template lay ready, as described in my post of February 27th:
Then Serendipity lent a hand. Going aimlessly around the town, as mentioned in my last, I visited the Oxfam shop, where they keep shelves of second-hand books. I was drawn to a fat paperback of 700 pages, The Assassin’s Cloak. I wavered, then resisted the idea of adding another volume to my collection of Tsundoku, and left empty-handed. But next day I still hankered for it, hoped it would be still there, and it was. It’s arranged in day order, an anthology based on the diaries of 167 people.
Arranged in day order: this was something I was soon to find arbitrary and irritating, because I was only interested in a few of the diarists, principally Etty Hillesum, whom I encountered there for the first time, and I had to chase up her entries through the index while waiting for her translated diaries to come through the post. But it gave me the idea to arrange my own writings in day order, thus tracing the cyclical nature of the seasons as I experienced them over ten years, by interleaving my entries, showing how the thoughts and feelings (which I too “cannot distinguish between”) have developed yet stayed the same. So there will be a chapter for January, February and so on, with interesting juxtapositions, as in the following sequence of entries:
January 4th 2008, 2009, 2010;
January 5th 2007, 2008, 2015;
So this is the base plan, inspired by Serendipity in the first instance and in all the little details thereafter, as a basic given. It’s not a mechanical turn of the handle to churn out finished text, but is brought to improvisational life by the continuous exercise of poetic licence—which is being applied to comments too. They shall submit to the same editorial supervision as all the rest, and if they’ve used their real names or are still contactable I’ll negotiate this directly when the time comes.

Barbara also stipulates that this thing is all done properly, as opposed to some self-published half-hearted e-book. There is a market, there are agents and publishers. I am not to be intimidated by them but see them as team colleagues, when the time comes—it hasn’t yet. Volume 1, January to March, is now a completed draft at 100,000 words, of which 20% are comments. I want to draft the other three volumes before approaching professionals.

Meanwhile, I hope to keep on writing occasional notes here, dashed off quickish & purely for fun, keeping this site alive. But after discovering the Complete Works of Etty—she who got them all singing on their cattle-wagons going to Auschwitz—I feel I have nothing more to say about anything.