Letter from Bali XIV
This one is a writer’s ramble as foreshadowed in Letter XIII. Before it gets going though there is a soundtrack to go with it… a Balinese gamelan music link can be found by clicking here. Turn up the speakers, all together now… ting tong ting tang tong. I find it quite pleasant. Family may recognize that one of the orchestra players is not quite the same as the others.
The book bit.
You learn a lot of things about yourself when you try to write a book. The limits of your vocabulary is one discovery. There is a splendid word I am familiar with, it is ‘procrastination’, five syllables. I learnt this word in my youth; it and I get along. During the last twenty years my pal procrastination and I have collaborated on ten different books and succeeded in perhaps three hundred pages between them, rarely getting beyond a chapter two. If that sounds like a lot… well it isn’t. It is worse yet because half of that total was done in one month. If the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo – a link to which can be found here) is taken out I was averaging less than a page a month. Until Bali.
Procrastination has served me well in some respects. When the typewriter beckons I find the house is rarely cleaner, ‘thank you’ letters get mysteriously written, drains are unplugged, cars get washed, shirts are ironed for two weeks out… and then there is the internet! Valuable research time will bring me fully up to date with all the goings on through the BBC, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, show my hockey pool standings and reveal the latest from the English Premier League. There is now only the small matter of two hours of pornography to get through before I am at last, truly and finally ready and willing and eager to get down to the rough and dirty business, nay, the calling of writing a book! I’ll just floss my teeth first…
You might think that I didn’t really want to do it, and I’ve wondered that myself sometimes, but we’d both be wrong. I did and I do. Write a book that is.
Before pulling the anchor and sailing to Bali I looked into the writing habits of others for hints or re-assurance. One page a month does not justify leaving your job, it is, however, grounds for divorce. I found ample solace. Victor Hugo, I discovered, had his ‘man’ hide his clothes from him all morning so he could not go out. He had to stay in and write until lunch. Was I not going to have a ‘man’ too?
And there was more. Agatha Christie, Dame of the cloak and dagger, it turned out, was a morphine addict and kept a lesbian lover chained to her desk who would not give Aunt Agatha her ‘medicine’ until she had put out twenty pages! Shocking, but true, or perhaps not quite true, but still re-assuring in an ‘imagine if’ sense of the word.
And then J.K. Rowling, she of Harry Potter and the twenty billion bucks. Her press office put around that she wrote her 4000 pages of Berty’s Bots and Quidditch splinters during staff coffee breaks. Ten minutes a day times 160 school days a year for five years = 133 hours. That is 30 pages an hour for the empirically minded among you… anyone else smell a rat? Wikileaks has it all, J.K. put in for four hundred and seven sick days during that spell when she employed a team of eight ghost writers in Gujarat. She did the editing while marking homework. God bless her, but I wan’t sure it would work for me.
Truth is, I knew already what I had to do. I saw a program once about a famous Frenchy author who pounded out a book a year for forty years like clockwork. His secret? He shut himself in his room at seven every morning and did not emerge until noon. Wherever he was with the writing at noon he left it. If he didn’t write a speck all day, so be it. The day was his own after lunch, no further work was allowed and he took weekends off. The room was everything. He needed his cell and the regimen that went with it. Anyone who deigned disturb him was beaten or sacked or preferably both! It sounded perfect. I can’t remember the author I’m sorry to say, but it felt right for me.
J.D. Salinger, I was informed, had a similar trait. He apparently shaved and dressed for the office every day and then went downstairs in the house or round back to his room with his briefcase and ‘checked in’ for the day. He punched a clock only the commute was better. Of course Salinger was a complete nut and a recluse and perhaps hadn’t written anything in forty years but why would I let that bother me. Here was a class act showing the way!
I arrived in Bali on a Friday last summer. On the Monday morning I locked myself away at 8am. I appeared again at 1pm ready for lunch and whatever the day would bring. Monday to Friday, weekends and holidays off, rinse and repeat, every day since then. In January I abandoned my balcony hideout. It was warm and there was a partial view and I was alone and occasionally got a WiFi signal. I moved downstairs to my wife’s office. Now I face the corner, I have the computer and a blank wall to look at, there is an overhead fan turned on for white noise and I sit from 8am to 1pm with a towel over my head to keep the bad spirits away. I look like a blinkered pony, and there is a school teacher peering over my shoulder to keep me in line should I need it.
You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. The towel gets washed once per week and my man brings my clothes with the lunch tray.
I have learned another thing that is true of myself… when I am trying to write I hate people that can write… and I hate people that can’t write… you become a very picky reader when you are trying to write yourself.
I think Somerset Maugham is great. He’s one of my favourites. I found a book by the bastard by accident, fortuitously as he might say, a travelogue and ramblings he put together covering a trip he took from Burma to Vietnam. It was 1930 and the book is great, he travels from ‘house’ to ‘house’ with a mule train for his baggage, a translator, a cook, his gurkha manservant and associated camp hanger-ons. Life’s bare necessities.
He sets off an hour after his mules leave, he finds their commotion interrupts his thoughts, and has a nap when he reaches the next house, usually twelve miles distant. He hunts and his man brings him gin bitters after dinner while he plays cards and reads. This is only eighty years ago but it is a bygone age now, a trek, however, through a familiar landscape. The rice fields and jungle and mountains and villagers are what you see here and what we saw in Vietnam, minus the cell phones. It is a funny and interesting story in its own right and informative too, more for the habits of the travelling European than the land he wanders through. The thing is, it is well written, and that isn’t helping me.
When you sit for twenty five hours a week trying to thrash something out you become very sensitive to the precarious commodity that is ‘worth’. You might think that reading ‘good stuff’ is inspirational or sets a good example, or a tone. You are wrong. It is a crushing weight of impossible expectation and a judgement on your puny efforts. It is a kick in the balls and makes you sick when you re-read your own shit the next day. Not that your stuff is always shit, but your confidence is fragile and ‘worth’ is in very short supply.
I overcome this by a confidence trick I play on myself. I reason it would be nice to write something of any ‘worth’ but concede that this isn’t likely to happen. I don’t object to Mr. Maugham and his ilk, I just don’t want his wares lying on my bedside table, rubbing my nose in it as it were.
Some people know this of themselves, some people are in denial, but it is the case for most of us. If you have the self knowledge to know that ‘worth’ is in short supply then there remains only two other avenues to continue doing what you feel you have to do, instead of throwing in your towel with shame. You can a) apologize or b) whore with pride.
I don’t apologize. I disdain the path marked ‘relative achievement’ which is what the apology represents… a crushing failure. “Relatively speaking you are shite, Mr. McChesney, so your book rises to the pinnacle of our expectations!” In the end it may come to this… but not yet!
I intend to whore with pride. A shameless genre fixation, stock characters and a couple of hot gypsies thrown in for good measure! (Thank you Rowan Atkinson.) I want the Kindle sales, baby, and I’ve got an author Facebook page started so I can kiss publisher ass! Now if I go down, it will be in flames and not with a whimper, and I think I can live with that.
It does lead me to my final ramble, that I can’t tolerate bad writing just now either. I’m collecting a small mountain of buddhist new age yoga guano beside my bed that I can’t read to chapter two. Who are these people!? Who buys this crap!? I can’t even get annoyed with the content the writing is so poor. So I turn to pulp fiction instead and here you walk a tightrope. It has to be bad enough not to challenge your fragile sense of self worth, but good enough not to make you physically sick. Michael Connelly is working for me this week. His hard-boiled detective, ‘Harry’ Hieronymus Bosch has fists of stone and a nose like a blood hound. He has his hang ups, but he isn’t apologizing for any of them.