Churchill’s Daily Grind

Charwell, Clementine, corona cigars, ir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, nap, Nobel Prize in Literature, Uncategorized, Westerham Kent
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (November 30, 1874 – January 24, 1965), was arguably the most famous British statesman of the twentieth century. He was elected to the office of Prime Minister in 1940 and served in that capacity during the rest of the war years, until 1945. He later served as Prime Minister again from 1951 to 1955. He was an officer in the British Army, a historian, a writer and an artist. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States.
When he left the army he looked forward to a life of relative freedom from the regimented existence he had experienced so far, but in fact chose to live every day by a strict regime. He lived in Chartwell, a huge country estate two miles south of Westerham, Kent, in the south of England. One of the researchers who worked for him as he was writing his books was heard to say: “He was totally organized, almost like a clock. His routine was absolutely dictatorial. He set himself a ruthless timetable every day and would get very agitated, even cross, if it was broken.”
In later years his regime was as follows:
He wakes at 8 a.m. and after shaving, makes for the first of his daily baths (filled by his valet), in which he spends some time soaking and wallowing, reciting poetry, rehearsing speeches and singing in a high tenor voice. After drying himself off, he dons a silk dressing gown and goes back to bed for two hours, not to sleep but to read all the daily newspapers. If he finds something of particular interest, he will shuffle across to his wife’s room where he will discuss it with Clementine for a while before returning to his room. While he is reading he pours his first scotch and soda, which he will top up with soda throughout the day, and lights one of his trademark Corona cigars.
When he has finished with the newspapers he tackles his voluminous mail, dictating answers to a secretary who will draft the return letters for his signature. Once the mail is done with he drafts memos and greets any visitors who are staying at the house, who dutifully troop into his bedroom for a chat.
Next he works on his speeches or checks the galley proofs of one of his books until it is time for an impressively formal three-course lunch at 1.15 p.m. He “dresses” for dinner, meaning a white tie and tails, including a cummerbund. He drinks champagne; Clementine drinks claret. Lunch is lavish and languorous and Winston dominates the conversation; but since he is such a fascinating conversationalist the guests don’t mind.
After lunch he totters out to the pond in the garden to feed the ducks, returning about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, whereupon he changes into a silk sleeping vest and climbs back into bed for a nap (a habit he picked up in Cuba when he was a war correspondent there). He wakes at 5 and plays cards with his family until 7 o’clock when he has the second of his baths.
Dinner is at 8.30 and once again there is a variety of guests and family at table. After dinner, as per the household tradition, the men retire to the drawing room for port, brandy and cigars. At 11 p.m. after all the guests have retired, Churchill has his second working period of the day. He dictates the text for his books to two secretaries, aided by his researcher, and works until about 2 a.m. If there is extra work to be done he will stay up till 3 or 4 to finish it.
            Using this extraordinary regime he was able to write between 2,000 and 5,000 words a day and up to 10,000 words at weekends.


Keeping a Notebook

ballpoint pen, brainstorming, iPhone, Macbook Air, newspaper column, notebooks, Uncategorized
Back in the days before smart phones were invented I used to keep a collection of small notebooks. At the time I was, among other things, a freelance journalist and had a regular column in a Sunday newspaper. I used the notebooks to scribble down ideas for the column so that if something occurred to me I would have a permanent record of it. The only problem with this arrangement was that I quite often I forgot to look at my notebook and spent hours pacing, trying out new ideas, and sweating as the deadline for my article loomed closer and closer on the horizon, while the notebook hid, inert and forgotten, in the inside pocket of my jacket.
I also used the notebooks for taking notes of practical household matters that I needed to attend to and for ideas for novels, short stories or novellas that occurred to me during the day or sometimes, rather inconveniently, in the middle of the night. In the late 90s I was working on my first novel, Lab Rat, and I was quite often to be seen scrawling in minuscule handwriting in a corner somewhere as ideas for the book occurred to me. The notebooks themselves were tiny, 3” x 5”, and came with a their own Lilliputian pencil. I usually replaced the pencil with something that would leave a more permanent mark, such as a stainless-steel refill for a ballpoint pen, which you could buy fairly cheaply in second-rate newsagents.
Notebooks became popular several years ago when Moleskine produced their own high-quality version. I seem to remember that the advertising played on the fact that all the great figures in the literary world had relied on notebooks, the implication being that you too could become a colossus of letters by owning one. And they weren’t cheap either, yet people bought them by the bucketful. I do suspect that possibly every home in the western world contains at least one Moleskine notebook lying unused in a drawer somewhere.
Nowadays, I rarely use notebooks. What I tend to do is take notes using the Notes app on my smart phone. I own an iPhone and a Macbook Air, so whenever I take a note on my phone it backs it up immediately by sending the text to my computer as an incoming email. Of course, I do miss the tactile quality of a physical notebook. Come to think of it, I rarely physically write anything these days, other than my signature on checks and on those little screens at cash registers that always produce a signature that makes you look as if you were drunk when you signed it. I’m beginning to wonder whether I will eventually lose the ability to write altogether and only remember how to type!





I came across a couple of those old notebooks of mine recently and was astonished to find whole outlines for novels and detailed descriptions of short stories and even the opening chapter of a novella, all written out in tiny handwriting that only a gnome could read. Some of it was just outlandish brainstorming or wittering drivel, but some of it was usable. Maybe I should go back and reread those old notebooks. It might give me an idea for a blockbuster novel that will make me a millionaire overnight. As I say, some of it was wittering drivel…

George Orwell’s 6 Rules

A Christmas Carol, Animal Farm, Charles Dickens, Hemingway, Huffington Post, Nineteen Eighty-Four, similes, Uncategorized
Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), aka George Orwell, was a British novelist, poet, essayist, journalist and critic. He is best known nowadays for his fiction, in particular the wryly polemical Animal Farm, published in 1945 and Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, which charts the fate of mankind in a dystopian near-future. But his essays are also highly acclaimed as are his works of non-fiction which covered everything from working-class life in the north of England to an account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. He died at the age of 46 from complications arising from tuberculosis.
Orwell was a stickler for quality of writing and held himself to a high standard in his work. It is no surprise, then, that he had six rules that he used when tackling a piece of writing:
1.     Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This piece of advice is valid for any piece of writing, whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry. Of course, you want to avoid using the usual suspects: for example, “he was dead as a doornail.” Dickens destroys this particular simile once and for all at the start of A Christmas Carol when he says: “I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail.  I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.  But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.  You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
So the rule is: never use outworn similes and metaphors.
But you could equally go in the opposite direction and invent preposterous similes in an attempt to avoid the trap. A few years ago the Huffington Post published a list of the 15 worst similes and metaphors perpetrated by high school students in English class. Here are some examples:
“She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.”
“She was as unhappy as when someone puts your cake out in the rain, and all the sweet green icing flows down and then you lose the recipe, and on top of that you can’t sing worth a damn.”
“The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”
And lastly: “The ballerina rose gracefully en pointeand extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.”
2.     Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Paradoxically this rule is entirely determined by serendipity and whether or not you are a bibliophile.
Orwell certainly used this rule in his own writing to achieve a level of conciseness that possibly only Hemingway could match.
3.     If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4.     Never use the passive where you can use the active.
It is interesting that Orwell here doesn’t just say “never use the passive.” There are some times when the passive is exactly what is needed, for example if you don’t want to reveal the identity of the person who is carrying out a particular action, or if you deliberately wanted to sound distant, official or vague.
There is a test you can do on your own writing to change the passive into active. It’s called the Paramedic Method and it was originally developed by Richard Lanham in a book called Revising Prose. If you are interested, a description of the method can be found here.
5.     Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6.     Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This comes as something of a relief. Orwell was not so wedded to his own rules that he couldn’t break them if he thought it would help. Nevertheless, I find that is good to keep them at the back of the mind while writing, as a kind of inner guide to good writing.


Margaret Atwood’s 10 pointers for writers

back exercises, Canadian, editing, laptop, pencils, prayer, publication, Uncategorized, writing on a plane
Margaret Eleanor Atwood, (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is best known for her novels and short stories and has also written fifteen books of poetry. She has won many accolades throughout her writing career, including the Booker Prize. She has 10 pieces of advice for authors which she articulated to the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2010:
1.     Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
Surely they haven’t banned pencil sharpeners on planes, have they? Nowadays, I reckon many writers would be using a laptop anyway. In any case, I’m not sure I would feel comfortable writing a work of fiction on a plane where everyone around you can see what you’re writing. Of course you could always use a very small font so that the guy next to you can’t quite make out the words on the screen. Then again you may have a problem if you can’t read the words on the screen either.
2.     If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
Still on about those pencils, Margaret?
3.     Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
Of course, when it comes time for you to submit your masterpiece to a publisher it might be difficult to send your arm through the mail. I’m pretty sure the postal service draws the line at handling body parts, no matter how many postage stamps you use. Same goes for lumps of wood, which, depending on their size, you may have to check in along with your bags anyway before you even get on the plane.
4.     If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
She forgot to mention that you shouldn’t keep the memory stick in the same place as the computer. Otherwise, when a fire breaks out you may lose your computer and the memory stick, and then where will you be?
5.     Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
Now this I totally agree with. I threw my back out when I was eighteen and ever since then I have had more or less constant back pain of one kind or another. Back exercises definitely help. Of course, it’s difficult to do them on a plane. People might begin to complain if you start bobbing up and down in the aisle, touching your toes, sticking your feet all over the furniture and stretching ostentatiously.
6.     Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
This is somewhat disturbing. How does she know what shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark is like… unless she’s tried it? Apart from that it is certainly true that if you can’t hold your own attention and get excited over what you’re writing, the chances are that that you won’t endear yourself to the reader either. And if what you have written does bore the pants of B, then B should think about reading in private somewhere, in order to avoid embarrassment.
7.     You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Who’s whining? I wasn’t whining. Were you whining? On the other hand, it’s true. Nobody is holding a gun to your head to make you write. Perhaps she comes across writers regularly who moan about having to write novels, short stories or poetry and wail about their lack of pension plans. Writing is hard work at times. But it is also very enjoyable to do. So stop all the whining, will you?
8.     You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
This, at last seems to be good advice. Getting somebody else to read your work is essential. And provided it’s someone who is skilled and experienced in reading the same kind of work that you have produced then you are onto a winner. But I agree; it is a delicate matter. When you have slaved over a chapter and put your all into it, it can be difficult to take criticism. I also find that if I leave a piece of writing for a while and then return to it later, I can usually view it much more objectively than I could just after having written it. Sometimes that’s a better option than punching your loved ones in the face.
9.     Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
Perhaps sitting down in the middle of the woods is where Margaret gets all those pieces of wood for taking on planes. I once wrote the entire first half of a novel before I realized something was drastically wrong. At that point, I decided to let one of my editors take a look at what I had done so far. She told me immediately that a whole plot strand was simply too outlandish to be believed. What I had done was include a character who, in an attempt to commit suicide by jumping off a building, had got himself tangled up in the mechanism of a crane (as you can see Buster Keaton had nothing on this guy). He stays up in the crane for days and I don’t really remember what happened afterwards. Anyway, the whole thing looked like a pile of garbage. Crestfallen, I abandoned the manuscript and moved on to other things.
Then a few months later I decided to have another look at it. As it turned out, most of the unworkable subplot was confined to a series of separate scenes. I decided to cut them out, just to see how the plot looked without them. Lo and behold, the whole thing looked much better. A few tweaks here and there, and I was back on track. I took my outline and edited it; then worked on rewriting the remaining sections that made reference to the weird crane scenes.
10.  Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualisation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
Sometimes I have some of my best writing ideas while I’m trying to pray. It’s a distraction. But I’m not sure whether the idea is distracting me from prayer or the prayer is distracting me from writing. If I dwell on this problem for long it distracts me from what I’m really supposed to be doing, which is driving down the freeway at seventy miles an hour, dodging traffic and generally trying to stay alive until I reach my destination.
Reading something else, also works. The only disadvantage is that later, when I am writing, some of what I’ve read begins to leak into my text, but I put it in there because I think it’s original, only to discover that I have been plagiarizing like mad. I then have to carefully go through what I’ve written and excise all the stolen treasure from other authors. It’s demoralizing.
Or would be demoralizing if there wasn’t that Holy Grail of publication waiting for me at the end of the line. Ah yes, eagerly sending out a manuscript, waiting eagerly for months, eagerly ripping open the return envelope, eagerly reading the rejection letter and eagerly throwing it in the trash, then eagerly sending out another manuscript. Who says that writing isn’t the best profession in the world?


The Godlike Mystery of Creative Writing

Adam, creation, creative writing, fMRI, Martin Lotze, Michelangelo, Uncategorized, University of Greifswald
A couple of years ago researchers, led by Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany, ran an experiment which monitored, using an fMRI machine, what happens in the brain when someone is composing a work of fiction. The subjects being tested were given the opening sentences of a story and asked to come up with what happened next. They first had one minute to brainstorm ideas and then two minutes to write down what they came up with.
What they found was that the areas of the brain that came alive during the brainstorming part of the experiment were associated with vision, as though the subjects were “seeing” the story in their mind’s eye. The hippocampus, which deals with retrieving factual information, also came into play during this period. However, Dr. Lotze was not satisfied, mainly because the people being tested in the experiment had no previous experience of creative writing. So he ran a second experiment on a group of experienced writers and found that a completely different area of the brain was activated, to do with speech, as though the subjects were forming words in their mind. The two groups also differed when it came to the actual writing part of the experiment, the more experienced group activating a region related to practice and repetitive action.
The experiment has received some criticism because some think that the type of activities tested were not focused enough. It should have been testing the difference between writing a story and writing a fact-based essay.
In a sense, experiments like these can never really uncover the mystery of how someone can sit down at a desk and come up with a story that no one else has ever written before. We know this instinctively without having to conduct scientific experiments. When you are “making stuff up” there are a huge number of interrelated details held in your brain that you combine in a unique way to produce story elements. And of course none of this even touches upon the skill involved in retrieving the information you need to form words and write in complete sentences with correct spelling and form those sentences using logical grammar. It is clear to anyone who has ever made up a story and written it down that it is a complex task involving multiple skills that have been learned and new images and ideas that are the product of combinations of information in your brain.
There is something mystical about creative writing. We could even go so far as to say there is something godlike about it, in that the writer appears to create a whole world and peoples it out of more or less nothing. It is a strange but happy thought that in some way we can come closer to God by participating in creation through creative writing.


Formal poetry or free verse?

Ben Jonson, Ezra Pound, formal poetry, free verse, rhyme, rhythm, T.S. Eliot, the Waste Land, Uncategorized
The days of the sonnet, the villanelle and the ballade are over. The what? you say. You know, formal poetry with strict rhyme schemes and regular rhythms and stuff. That has been the mantra among the echelons of the poetry world for as long as living memory can stretch. Ever since T.S. Eliot stunned the world with the Waste Land people have been tolling the death knell of formal poetry and nowadays nobody writes formal poetry any more, do they?
Well, in actually fact, the Waste Land is peppered with formal poetry elements in disguise, and nowadays there is a growing battery of “new formalism” poetry journals and magazines that publish nothing but formal poetry. Formal poetry still doesn’t have the punching heft or the inviolable, lofty status as free verse, for most people, but it is making a come back.
T.S. Eliot himself was heard to say: “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost — and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” That in fact is what happened to The Waste Land, his epic masterpiece. In its original form it was a sprawling mess of a poem. As Ezra Pound (who eventually managed to edit it down to half its original size) mentioned to Eliot, he had written “the longest poem in the English langwidge [sic].” The poem turns out to be mostly free verse with formal elements infiltrating it all the way through. Another gnomic utterance from Eliot states: “It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” This still stands today as an indictment against would-be poets who never really take the trouble to learn how to practice the rules of formal poetry but stick to free verse all the way through.
So which is better: formal poetry or free verse? Well, it depends on a number of things, including the subject matter, the occasion and the audience. Sometimes rhyming poetry works best and sometimes free verse does.
I have found Eliot’s comment about working within a strict framework producing the richest ideas to be true, for the most part. Writing rhyming and scanning poetry forces you to concentrate. It’s a bit like working on a cryptic crossword puzzle. It can be fun, but it can also be infuriatingly frustrating. You have to think more carefully about your word choice, make sure you don’t add extra syllables to a line, make sure the rhyme scheme is adhered to (even if they are only slant-rhymes) and in some cases (for example, with sonnets) make sure you have finished what you want to say by the time you run out of space and reach the end of the poem. Of course, it is possible to write a technically brilliant poem that doesn’t say anything much…
Free verse, on the other hand, by definition doesn’t have the constraints of formal poetry. You can literally write anything you want. But because of that a free verse poem has to stand on its own two feet without the surrounding support of a structure to hang your thoughts on. It is easy to waffle. It is easy to produce flabby lines that lack concision or thought. It is easy to produce a poem that sounds just like prose. So why do so many people prefer it to formal poetry? Poets prefer it because it appears to be relatively easy to write (although not so easy to write well). Readers of poetry prefer it because often it is easier to understand than the alternative.
But even if you are writing free verse, it can help to put some formal constraints on what you write, such as making each line a set number of syllables, having stanzas that are of a uniform length, or using an iambic rhythm in each line. It can help to add a little discipline to what you write. Similarly, if you are writing formal poetry you still have some latitude to depart occasionally from the scheme you have chosen if it helps get the meaning across or emphasizes certain words. In actual fact, the more you look at it, the distance between formal and free verse gets closer and seems more like a continuum rather that two discrete styles.
Formal poetry gets the reputation of being stuffy and, well, formal. Free verse gets the reputation of allowing the emotions of the poet to come out, well, freely.
So just to mix things up a bit, here is a formal poem that exudes poignant emotions but still manages to do it within the rules of the form: Ben Jonson’s poem “On My First Sonne.” It is an incredibly touching poem set down in rhyming couplets – lines which rhyme in pairs – which you would not have thought at all suited to powerful emotion. It was written on the death of his little son, on the child’s seventh birthday. The little boy was named Benjamin after his father, and Benjamin, in Hebrew, means “child of my right hand” hence the opening line. There are three short verses:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
    My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
    Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
    Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ’scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
    And if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
    Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
    As what he loves may never like too much.
And here’s part of the aforementioned Waste Land, which is written in free verse but is still concise and compelling:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Free verse does have a value and can be used to devastating effect. But, as Eliot says, it is much better to learn the rules of formal poetry first before you decide to break them.


Character Profiles… or not

background information, character development, character profiles, novel writing, outline, Uncategorized
There are all sorts of preparatory exercises you can do when planning a novel. As well as drawing up an outline, chapter by chapter, and researching times, dates, places, people and things, you could also come up with a character profile for each of the main characters. This sort of approach is recommended by many teachers of creative writing. The idea is that you write down everything you know about your main characters: where they went to school, their favorite color, what they were like as a child, whom they dated, where they went on vacation, and so on. What this is aiming to achieve is twofold. First, you get to know your characters intimately so that you know how they will react when they meet each other, and that keeps your story plausible. Second, you can use the character profile as a fact-checking mechanism so that if you, for example, refer to something in their past you can keep your facts consistent.
It sounds like a good idea. But there are other people who maintain that nailing down all those fact about your character can make them predictable and one-dimensional. It’s the same argument that is used by proponents of the “no outline” stance and it does have some merit. They also say that it takes all the joy out of writing if everything is predictable. After all, part of the excitement in writing a novel is the thrill you get when your character says or does something that you had not foreseen. In that case, the novel takes on a life of its own and the author is just as surprised as the reader by the direction the character development is taking.

             I can’t really make my mind up about it. I suppose it depends what kind of novel you are writing. If you are writing an action-packed thriller in which the plot speeds along like a freight train, then perhaps deep character development is not necessary. Sure, you need to give some complexity to your characters, but not so much as you would if you were writing a romance novel.

I once tried to draw up a character profile for each of the main players in one of my novels and found it rather difficult to come up with a lot of intricate detail on their backgrounds. One method that has been suggested is to imagine you are in a room together with one of your characters. Then you simply sit down with them and ask them a list of questions. In other words, you let them do the talking. For some people that might work well. Others might find it difficult to imagine sitting down with a fictitious character. And yet others may be so good at it that they have to see psychotherapeutic counseling for multiple personality disorder. I suppose one aspect of interviewing your characters that might work is that the more you get to know them, the more you will end up liking them. But the reverse might be true also. Once you get to know some of your characters well you might just as easily hate their guts. And that would be bad news for your novel, especially if they happened to be the protagonist.
Another aspect militating against character profiles is that characters in a novel can develop and change according to the circumstances they encounter as the plot unfolds. If you have already decided everything about them from their shoe size to when they last had a haircut then you may find yourself with fairly static characters who remain the same no matter what gruesome experiences you force them into in the course of the novel.
            Maybe next time round I’ll take the character profile method for another test drive and see if it helps my next novel or hinders it. Maybe I’ll write a romance novel. And maybe tomorrow the sun will rise in the west and Donald Trump will be bald.


Dante’s Inferno

Clive James, Dante, Dante's Inferno, Ezra Pound, hell, quatrains, rhyme, T.S. Eliot, terza rima, translation, Uncategorized
I have just finished reading Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. Clive’s James’s entry in Wikipedia begins thus:

“Clive James AO CBE (born Vivian Leopold James on 7 October 1939) is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, translator and memoirist, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, for his chat shows and documentaries on British television and for his prolific journalism. He has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since 1962.”

Anyone familiar with James’s television work would probably be astonished to find that he is a poet and translator. Yet these are the two key skills needed to tackle Dante’s humungous 34-canto epic.
Dante composed Inferno in terza rima, which is poetry written in groups of three lines, especially in iambs, which rhyme aba bcb cdc. This particular form is rather difficult to keep up in English because, as you can see, in order to do it properly you have to come up with line endings containing three words that rhyme. In Italian, which is the language the Inferno was written in, that’s not so difficult since most of words end in one vowel or another. So James uses a much easier form for the translation. He divides the text into quatrains, that is four-line groups which rhyme abab cdcd efef. That way he only had to rhyme two words together at the line endings. (I trust I make myself obscure.) It is an inspired choice and enabled him to proceed with the translation without bending over backwards to accommodate a difficult rhyme scheme.
Most of the time James’s translation is superb. But he alternates between a “high” style of writing and a “low” one and usually this works – usually. To give you an example, here are some lines from canto 2:
And then Paul’s ship,
The Chosen Vessel, came to Rome as well—
The vessel, in a sense, that Faith might sip
Renewal from, and did. But now, pray tell,
Why me? Who says I get to go there?
Do I look like Aeneas? Am I Paul?
See what I mean? He juxtaposes the rather archaic “pray tell” with “Who says I get to go there? / Do I look like Aeneas?” which to modern ears sounds distinctly colloquial. It’s a style that was used successfully by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and ultimately by Dante himself.
James had to make a number of choices when writing the translation, leaving out parts of Dante’s text and adding other parts here and there in order to produce something that worked as poetry. He has been criticized for that, but I think it makes the whole thing much more readable in most cases. He also does away with footnotes, preferring instead to incorporate some of the external material into the text itself, which of course is another stroke of genius.
What he doesn’t stint on is Dante’s gruesome imagination. As the narrator is led through hell he comes across various atrocities as individuals and groups are punished for their sins, usually with a punishment that bears some relation to the sin they committed. We see people wandering around with their entrails dangling out, giants munching away at various sinners, one guy gnawing away at another guy’s head, and everywhere demons with whips strut around to make sure the crowd keeps moving. Dante was not kind to some of the people he knew and places them down there among the nine levels of hell to endure their punishment for past sins.
The book is, in fact, a great read and has something of the flavor of a thriller about it. It may not be a word-for-word translation of the famous text, but it is compelling enough to keep you reading and has all the drama needed to offer new and exciting manifestations of brutality on every page! All in all, I’d recommend it.


Auden’s Daily grind

As I Walked Out One Evening, barbiturates, Benjamin Britten, bennies, benzedrine, drugs, funeral blues, Kirchstetten Austria, New York, September 1 1939, Uncategorized, WH Auden
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Wystan Hugh (WH) Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973) was born into a professional middle-class family in York, England, and grew up in and near Birmingham. After high school he went on to study English at Christ Church, Oxford, where he first started writing poetry, and subsequently spent five years (1930–35) teaching in English public schools. He then traveled to Iceland and China in order to write books about his journeys. He moved to the United States in 1939 and became an American citizen in 1946. From 1941 through 1945 he lectured in American universities. From about 1958 until the end of his life he wintered in New York and summered in Kirchstetten, Austria.
Auden’s life was to some extent unashamedly gay at a time when being gay bore much more of a social stigma. He was a serious scholar of poetry and English literature and spent an appreciable amount of time in coaching students in the art and craft of writing. He was a poet and playwright, and also librettist of considerable scope and skill, collaborating on numerous projects with such famous composers as Benjamin Britten. As a poet he was a natural, and penned thousands of poems with what seems like consummate ease – aware of the rules of formal poetry but without being rigidly bound by them.
What interests us is how he managed to lead a productive life, given his self-confessed often sybaritic lifestyle. There was a key to how he maintained his output and it came down to discipline – of a certain sort – and drugs.
Auden considered it a sign of weakness that he had to rely on artificial stimulants to maintain his workday discipline. Nevertheless that is what he did. He started his days with Benzedrine, or “bennies” (an amphetamine that at the time was a legitimate treatment for narcolepsy and lethargy in patient, but which was later used as an artificial stimulant that was used recreationally). This enabled him to be alert and active and to get through the work of the day quite productively.
In the evenings he would consume quantities of alcohol and barbiturates to calm him down so that he could eventually sleep: he called this whole regime “the chemical life.” The barbiturates helped him to sleep, but just in case he woke in the night he would have a bottle of vodka by his bedside to swig.
And so each day wound in with this lurching from extreme consciousness to drugged stupor, in and out, right up to his mid-sixties. Of course, the bennies, the alcohol and the barbiturates had a tendency to ravage the body. So, Auden’s death from heart failure at age 66 was, to a considerable extent, a result of his decades of practicing, with the complicity of his doctors, “the chemical life.”
It is a moot point whether W.H. Auden could have produced such marvelous poems as “Funeral Blues,” “September 1, 1939,” or “As I Walked Out One Evening.” without resorting to artificial means. He was an almost matchless technician when it came to formal poetry, so when he was on his game he was sublime. Could he have maintained his output in the absence of drugs? How much longer could he have been productive without them? Who knows? We have to be thankful for what he managed to produce in his – by modern standards – relatively short life.


P.D. James: 5 Pieces of Advice for the Writer

PD James, the English language, Uncategorized, vocabulary, whodunit, writing
Phyllis Dorothy (P. D.) James was the author of twenty books, many of which have been televised or filmed. She began writing in the mid-1950s. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was published in 1962. Many of James’s mystery novels take place against the backdrop of UK bureaucracies, such as the criminal justice system and the National Health Service, in which she worked for decades starting in the 1940s. She was the recipient of many honors, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature, and in 1991 was created Baroness James of Holland Park. She died in 2014. Here is the advice she gives to would-be authors.
1)    Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.
By increasing your word power she does not, of course, mean simply poring over a dictionary and logging up scores of obscure words that you use indiscriminately in the course of your writing. It means when you write you have several alternative synonyms you can draw on in order to give your writing color and nuance. Whenever I discover a new word, I usually find it helpful to use it at the first possible opportunity, either in conversation or in writing so that it gets embedded in my memory. That way, I retain knowledge of new words and can use them whenever seems appropriate.
2)    Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
Here the focus is on reading good authors. But I also think it depends how you read. If you read for pleasure only and without any attempt to analyze the text then there is only a limited amount of benefit you can derive in terms of your own writing. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy what you’re reading. It just means that when you read you should also pay attention to how an author writes, how he or she achieves certain effects, how the book is structured and what kind of vocabulary is used. That way you can enjoy reading but also grow as a writer yourself, by trying to imitate the good aspects of another author’s writing.
3)    Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
Like any other skill, the more you practice the better you get at it. What definitely helps is if you build writing time into your daily/weekly schedule, instead of blitzing it twice a year. Steady progress helps you to develop as a writer, better than staggered and erratic effort.
4)    Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
That’s easy for her to say, you might think, since she has a steady stable of bestsellers to show for her efforts. On the other hand, if you are only writing what you think the public will buy in the hope of accumulating wealth, readers, more often than not, will notice your insincerity and steer clear. If you can combine writing what you really want to write with a popular genre, all to the good. Just don’t sell out to commercialism just because people seem to be buying a certain kind of book.
5)    Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.
This also makes a case for not isolating yourself as a writer. Writing is a solitary occupation, and unless you can plug yourself into human experience in a meaningful way, by putting yourself into situations where you can interact with other people, gradually you will run out of convincing things to write about or become one-dimensional in your representation of human relationships. Again, it also makes a case for trying to see life through the eyes of the other people we know and using that in our writing to portray authentic human beings.





Some of these points apply more fully to writing fiction, but most of them have a bearing on any kind of writing – poetry, non-fiction, even business reports at a stretch!