Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reading and writing

This blog first came about as a way of talking about my writing progress. At the time I was writing a great deal, getting a few publications, winning some competitions. Over the past couple of years, however, I've been concentrating almost exclusively on working towards my PhD. Since this centres on American literature it requires constant reading, and therefore leaves little time for writing. 2010 was a barren year, writing-wise. Only one story, and I'm not happy with that.

And yet I may look back on it and decide it was the most important year of all for my writing.

Why do I want to be a writer? The answer is simple and difficult. I've always wanted to be a writer, it's just in-built. But why? I don't know. Perhaps I'm asking the wrong question.

What do I want to write? This is the correct question. This is the crux of the matter. Finding the answer to this is the thing that distinguishes great writers from the rest of us. What do I want to write? I don't know. Not quite, not exactly. But it's coming.

I recently re-read all of my fiction, for the first time in over a year. It was a fascinating experience. In that year I had become unfamiliar with the content so I was able to read it with more objectivity than previously. I could spot immediately where the stories broke down - and why. I could also see an insistent thread running through them. I was aware of this before, of course. The work in question is a series of interlinked stories, so the fact they are connected has always been a given, but I think the connection is somewhat different, considerably deeper, than I had previously thought. You write, my former writing tutor, Alex Keegan, always says, to discover the answers to the questions that are buried within you, guarded by the sentinels who try to stop you from exploring the difficult territory that may lie beyond those questions. All of my writing has been gnawing away at something, trying to uncover, to understand, to reconcile. I know vaguely that it's about disconnection and love, and I know that there are symbols running through my fiction - the number of caged birds in my stories is quite extraordinary, I had no idea, while melancholy walks along deserted beaches are almost unavoidable - but the reason the stories don't work at present is that I'm not clear exactly what I'm trying to say. I think I've needed to take time away from it, reading other writers, working ideas through, to start to make any sense of it.

And reading other writers is, I think, key to it. I have always been of the opinion that most aspiring writers simply do not read enough. The more I do read, the more I understand the truth of that. It's not enough to get by on half a dozen or so books a year. It's not enough to simply read the novelists you like. If you want to be a writer you have to live writing, but if the only writing you are exposed to is your own it becomes a kind of mental masturbation, satisfying enough but incapable of germinating into something great.

I'm not talking about imitating the masters. I don't want to write like Gunther Grass or William Faulkner. But I do want to grasp their understanding of the form, appreciate the way they use it, manipulate it to their own ends, make it something special. These writers know what they want to say, and because they know it they do not feel the need to force it into their work; they let it flow from their work. That is where my writing currently breaks down: you can see the points where I have stopped and thought 'here is where I have to elaborate my theme, here is the important bit.' They stand out crudely. And the reason for that is because I don't understand fully what I'm trying to say. It's as though I'm trying to explain it to myself as I go along, and the result is something simplistic and shallow. Meanwhile, William Faulkner knows exactly what his theme is. It is something basic but impossibly complex - love - and he lets an examination of its paradoxes and pains infest his work. This is the moment when writing becomes great.

Increasingly, I'm getting the urge to write again. I need to rewrite what I've already done. I need to write new things. The past year of thought and study has been illuminating, possibly far more illuminating than I even realise.


Alex Keegan said...

Hi Tom

(Happy New Year)

Can I post this in Boot Camp?



Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Alex, and happy New Year to you too.

Yes, of course you can. Hope it stimulates some debate, and hope BC does well this year.