An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The writing muscle

I learnt to write in my professional career 30 years ago. Running a research department full of technically brilliant but linguistically challenged guys somebody had to take responsibility for presenting their findings to best advantage. And then there were the applications for new projects. It quickly became obvious that if I couldn't write convincingly and well then we would run out of credibility pretty damn quickly. 
Senior managers are not assiduous readers I discovered. Long preambles and strong narrative were pointless. Get to the point quickly and make it stick hard. The more I wrote the punchier my stuff became so I started writing imaginary proposals and speculative finding just for practice. The prose got tenser, leaner, sharper. And the writing became easier. That's when I realised that writing is like any sport - the more you practice the better you get at it. My writing muscle got harder and stronger and my stamina improved. The more I did it the better I did it. 
After a while it stopped getting easier but the writing became better. I got to the key points quickly, pushed them home and moved on from point to point until I rammed the conclusion, unavoidable and all but incontravertible by now, into the basket. Slam dunk.  
My reports got shorter and slowly I worked on different ways of  designing different presentation styles. I figured that people would get sick of the same approach every time and if I could know who would be reading it then I could tailor the attack to their sensitivities. The writing muscle was now becoming more versatile - it could manage slow starts and sprint finishes - it could sustain serve and volley or drop back and play a baseline game. 
Treat your writing as a muscle. Keep it fit, make it strong, and make it versatile. It won't let you down if you do. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Warming up for the Comeback

The title of this piece, "Warming up for the Comeback" is also the title of a short story by a writer called Sam Keery. Look him up - he may still be writing. Maybe he published the story. I worked with Sam. He was my boss for a while in a desultory fashion - he bossed me in desultory fashion and I worked for him in an equally desultory fashion . We both worked for a really big and really boring insurance company - all insurance companies are boring but the bigger they are the more boring they are. We both turned up but the word work is conveying more effort expended than either of us actually put in. Truth was he was more interested in writing and I was more interested in reading. The difference between us was that he was maybe a year away from early retirement and I was a rising young buck but we both dug literature more than anything else. 

Sam gave me the draft of this short story to read because, like Nora Barnacle and Joyce. his wife wasn't at all interested in his writing. Her choice - she was entitled - he was allowed. Sam had plans to spend his retirement writing for publication. It was his passion and he'd spent most of his working life denying himself but once he retired that was it … he was finally going to do it. He was going to be a writer. I told him that being a writer is an existential binary - you're a writer or you aren't, just because you aren't writing now doesn't mean you aren't a writer, just because your stuff doesn't get published - ditto. You don't become a writer. 

I took the story to the smoking room. We had smoking specific rooms then - it was before the all out assault on smokers - our habit was marginalised but we weren't. And I read it through. It was OK in a sub William Trevor way. Sam was a Protestant from Northern Ireland originally. It was about a footballer getting ready to return to league football after a bout of injuries or at least I think it was. Or maybe I made that up - that's part of being a writer, the line between what you remember and what you invent is faint or vanishing. Anyway, whatever the plot was, what it was really about was a writer getting ready to do writing full time. Or so I thought. I was deeply into post modernism at the time and was reading Mulligan Stew  - that's definitely true - I think. Sorrentino's comic masterpiece was the first book I had begun re-reading immediately on finishing it since … well since a long time - maybe since my first Ray Carver collection.

Sam didn't agree with me but promised to think about it. He also promised to read the Sorrentino. I promised to re-read his story and treat it as a story - period. 

We did some work. Sam took a week off for a funeral and when he came back he gave me the latest draft of the story - funerals were always a good excuse for time off. The new draft was tighter, a little faster and the voice was more consistent. To me it was obvious that he had taken my ideas on board but the way Sam saw it was that he was working hard. That he was, as he put it, "working the writing  muscle harder". Sam's take on writing was deeply Protestant - all about work ethic and toil. The way he told it writing is like thinking and thinking is like any skill - you have to get the stuff that does it fit and keep it fit - if you do enough of it you get better at it. If you don't use your muscles they atrophy. If you don't use your brain it atrophies. Your brain is by metaphor another muscle and if your brain is a muscle then by extension the writing organ is a muscle. I'd never thought of it like that. I do now.

I recalled that incident with Sam when I came across. or somebody sent me, or some other body told me about Stendhals injunction to writers "Twenty lines a day, genius or not'. Whoa, rewind, I just remembered it was Harry Mathews who introduced me to  Stendahl's wisdom. Mathews got a whole novel out of that discipline and even called it "20 Lines a Day". And I just remembered or reconstructed - what's the difference for a writer? - as I was questioned about my use of the expression "exercising the writing muscle". So do I do it? Do I take Stendahls advice? Not really or rather intermittently. I may not stay in regular and permanent writing trim but I do make sure I warm up before embarking on a new writing project - it's what I'm doing now. It'a been a longish layoff and the muscle has lost tone but ...