Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Wall

On his first day back after holidaying in Germany, a work colleague walked across to my desk and handed me a small piece of Perspex encased concrete. It was a fragment of the Berlin Wall.

As I looked down at that small artefact, that thumb-sized chunk of history, my head began to spin. Here was the world shrunk to Lilliputian dimensions. This trinket gave me a physical connection to a great event, a hopeful and world-changing event, an event that had taken place many miles from my small city in the South Pacific. This object folded space, made the world, for a moment at least, dimensionless.

Ours is a history defined by wars and walls, barriers and brutality. These things may not define us, but they have shaped us for thousands of years. If we have learned nothing from history they will continue to shape us until we do.

Perhaps my colleague’s small gift is not unlike the gift a writer offers his reader. A story draws us close to things that are far away; it reminds us of our interconnectedness; it reminds us of the value and beauty of freedom, and of peace.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Write Something

There is Something looming in the dark, can you feel it? It’s a big footed Something. It’s a pointy toothed Something.

The Something is getting closer - you can hear it breathing now – and, as you sit down to write, you can feel it leaning over your shoulder. You feel its fetid breath upon your cheek as it whispers in your ear.

“What are you going to write?”

“I was…,” you reply. But you find that the foggy breath of the Something has permeated your mind.

“I was…,” you repeat feebly. For suddenly it strikes you that the very thought of writing is ridiculous. The idea that you might have an idea worth sharing is laughable.

The Something is grinning.

You recap your pen. You close your notebook’s cover. You think the pointless thoughts of a writer who sat down to work but who has just recapped their pen and closed their notebook.

You do not turn to the Something and slap it across its furry chops. You do not turn to the Something and give it a big hug. You sit in the silence, and you do not move.

The Something sneaks quietly from the room. You did not confront him. You did not embrace him. But you feel better - for now, anyway.

Writing is nothing but controlling anxiety, says Janet Fitch, author of the best seller White Oleander.

I agree.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary

Our friends at the Oxford University Press need to turn to page 692 of their Pocket Dictionary and look up the definition of ‘Pocket’. They might be surprised to find that a pocket is not defined as: “a large bag sewn into or on clothing that is capable of holding a 1,100 page hardcover-dictionary.”

I’m suggesting that even MC Hammer would struggle to fit the Pocket Oxford English Dictionary in his trouser pocket.

Perhaps Dr Who stopped in at the OUP and dropped off a pair of Tardis pants. Actually, this would explain a lot, because the Pocket Oxford English Dictionary has a companion - the Pocket Oxford Thesaurus – and it would take a pair of Tardis pants to contain this dynamic duo.

The ‘pocket’ moniker is a misnomer, but this is still an excellent small dictionary. It fits nicely in the hand and is a joy to flick through. Its definitions are crisp and clear. It’s the dictionary you reach for when you think you know the definition or spelling of a word, but you want to be sure before committing to it in writing.

And I bet those folk at the OUP were happy when they closed out the book with ‘Zygote’. The symmetry is almost Zen: the end of words is the beginning of life.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Slate Audio Book Club

I am listening to Stephen Metcalf, Katie Roiphe and Julia Turner discuss Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert on the Slate Audio Book Club podcast.

Metcalf hates Eat, Pray, Love. Did he just say that he hates the book, hates the author, and hates anyone who would try to defend either the book or the author? It’s hard to tell. It feels as if Metcalf makes sentences by pulling words from an enormous bag, a bag that contains adjectives and adverbs in high proportion. He takes these words and flings them into the air, creating sentences of sidereal splendour, sentences that are as inaccessible as the stars – at least for me. He is a caffeinated personality, Metcalf, and I like him.

Roiphe loves Eat, Pray, Love. She has written an article for Slate in which she describes it as “…a transcendently great beach book.” She is suggesting to Metcalf that he take a breath, that his hate is irrational, that the book has heart, even if it is pulseless artificial heart - a Dick Cheney heart. Metcalf can rant all he likes, Roiphe will not placate him; she is not that kind of woman. There is a palpable tension between them, but they have more in common than they realise. And he likes her: of course he does.

Turner likes Eat, Pray, Love. She is ready to talk about Gilbert’s book, but finds herself, rather reluctantly, in the middle of a group therapy session. She wonders if her colleagues, Metcalf and Roiphe, will leave the room holding hands, but she dare not say as much.

Metcalf is vitriolic. He detests Elizabeth Gilbert and tells his fellow book clubbers this in emphatic tones. The listener, in this case me, sees through Metcalf’s wordy criticism. His dislike of Gilbert is simple: she is a manipulator - her book reveals this - and Metcalf will not be manipulated by a woman. Oh no, Metcalf likes women who play it straight - like Katie Roiphe, for example.

I love the Slate Audio Book Club podcast. It’s informative. It makes me laugh out loud - literally. It’s the book club you wish you could belong to. You can subscribe to it through iTunes.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Zen In the Art of Writing

An reviewer writes that Ray Bradbury’s book, Zen In the Art of Writing, “…is the best book on writing I have ever read.” Reading this review left me wondering if I felt the same way. Is Zen In the Art of Writing the best book on writing I have ever read?

Before I answer that question, let me tell you a bit more about the book.

Zen In the Art of Writing is a collection of essays taken from Bradbury’s extensive oeuvre. This is not a book about how to write - in spite of a liberal peppering of typewriter related anecdotes. This is a book about the feeling of writing. It’s a book about Bradbury’s experiences as a writer.

Bradbury’s style is accessible and friendly. He comes in close beside his reader. He speaks in low, rhythmic tones. He is a parent encouraging his child to take heart and not give up. He is an aged rebel encouraging the next generation to shake their fists at this life-giving, death-threatening, universe of ours. He is telling us writers to be brave, to trust to our own inner voice, to practice, to practice and to practice. He is reminding us that we write for love and not for recognition or money. He is telling us to boldly go and split the infinitive for world peace.

This, then, is what Bradbury’s book delivers. It is not a book on typing; it is a book about being a writer. Is it the best book on writing I have ever read? Well, no. Is it a worthwhile read for the aspiring writer? I think so.

If you want to be reminded why you write, then buy this book. If you want to learn the difference between transitive verbs and elephants, this is not the book for you.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

How to Write a Sentence

There is a quotation on the inside cover of How to Write a Sentence that reads, “If you know sentences, you know everything. Good sentences promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organisation of the world.” This quotation comes from the book's author, Stanley Fish, and at first sounds like a bold statement. But if you read this book, as I have, you may well end up a convert to the truth of these words.

Fish tells his reader that, while the content of sentences may be infinite, the forms and shapes of sentences are finite. If, through study and practice, we become familiar with these shapes and how they work, we can use them as vehicles for how own words, for our own message.

This method, sentence deconstruction, is preferable, Fish says, to examining sentences through the cold lens of English rules and grammar.

Fish uses examples of excellent sentences throughout the book. He cracks these sentences apart, revealing their inner workings and bones. How could we not see these things before?

This is not a simple book; at least I did not find it so. But it is useful, inspiring, and I wanted to begin it again as soon as I turned the last page.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

There’s a Fanatic in my Attic

According to the Little Oxford English Dictionary, a fanatic is someone who is too enthusiastic about something. Is that a bad thing?

If you want to win gold at the Olympics, if you want to achieve spiritual enlightenment, if you want to become a world champion Scrabble player, if you want to be great at just about anything, you must practice as if your life depended on it: you must become a fanatic.

Becoming a fanatic will set you apart from the also-rans and rank amateurs. Your fanaticism is the difference between you and those who are not prepared to devote their lives to the achievement of their goals.

This message came to me in a blinding flash as I devoured Stefan Fatsis’ book, Word Freak.  Fatsis introduces his reader to the world of elite Scrabble. It’s a world in which obsessive-compulsive word nerds memorise tens of thousands of nonsense words and anagrams in an attempt to become the world’s best Scrabblers. Their devotion to the game is both pathological and inspirational.

You might scoff: “Who cares about Scrabble?” And you might have a point: Scrabble is just a silly board game. But your goal is not silly. My goal is not silly. And, speaking for myself, I am not prepared to be out out-fanaticked by a bunch of Scrabble geeks.

Are you?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Free Book Inside

I don’t think Thomas Monteleone will mind me telling you that his book, ‘The Complete Idiots Guide to Writing a Novel’, doesn’t actually tell you how to write a novel. His book is not about the laborious task of typing a very long story. It is about, well, everything else.

Here’s what I got out of it:
  • If you want to be a world famous novelist, you have to write a book that appeals to a lot of people;
  • Most top selling novels fit into a genre;
  • There’s more to selling a novel than banging out 300 pages and sending them to a publisher.
If you dream of becoming a published author then Mentelone’s Idiot’s Guide is well worth your time. However, if this doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, you could try something completely different.

Steve Hely’s novel, ‘How I Became a Famous Novelist’, examines the world of literature form the point of view of a Gen-Y male who wants to be famous. The New York Times Book Review described this novel as ‘A gleeful skewering of the publishing industry and every cliché of the writing life.’ What better way to get the facts?

I have a spare copy of ‘How I Became a Famous Novelist’, which can be yours – free. Leave a comment bellow telling me why you want to write a novel; I’ll send the book to the person who leaves the best comment.

Three things:
  1. I’m the judge of this contest.
  2. The competition closes on the 31 March 2012.
  3. The book is a little worse for wear.
Good luck.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Business of Loving

The sun was all light and no warmth the day I first saw you. I sought shelter in the public library; alone – yes – achingly so. Do you remember how my fingers brushed against you as I walked past? It was no accident.

After that, for the next two weeks, we were inseparable. You cast a spell upon me that made my eyes open a little wider. New life started to blossom in the desert of my heart.

You were my delight.

But I knew from the first that you belonged to another, that I could not in could conscience keep you as my own.

The separation was bitter, yet I took solace in the changes you had wrought in me. Because of you, I no longer felt alone in this world.

It was because of this, because of my fond memories of you that, years later, I tried so hard to find you. I scoured the Internet searching for you. But my memories did not make suitable search terms. I could not search for Love: of course not.

I looked for you until, one day, after years of searching, I made contact. We were to meet, and I knew that this time you would be mine.

I was nervous. I wondered if you had changed since last I saw you. And at first, it seemed that you had. There were times I worried that I barely knew you. But slowly the memories flooded back, and it soon felt as if the intervening years were but moments.

The eyes-wide-open feeling you engendered within me when I was young has returned. I am so glad that I have found you again; so glad that I can hold you again; so glad to be reading you again.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Unwritten

Oh Story of a Love Letter, how long will you elude me? Your twists and turns, the gentle curves of you, have proved too subtle for my cumbersome prose.

I sat with you, in the midst of your broken sentences and your un-linkable paragraphs.  I sat, typing endlessly, constantly trying to find the right words to express you. But, even as I worked, you were moving away from me.

The closest I got to you was this:

But, as he approached the letterbox, John realised that it wasn’t a flyer at all: it was an eggshell-blue envelope with a postage stamp placed perfectly in its top right-hand corner.

It seems I was not ready for the next sentence. I was not ready to hear your secret.

Now we must part company, and I am left wondering: were my efforts in vain?

But perhaps, my dear Story, we will meet again? Maybe when my novel is in its tenth chapter, you will come back to me and share your sweet words.

Until then, stay safe.

Monday, January 30, 2012

When the Wind Blows

Last night the wind raged. It roared through our pine tree sending loose bark and small branches down upon the roof of our little house.

I lay in bed and tried to estimate the weight of that tree: 30 tonnes, perhaps? What if that angry wind tore down our ancient conifer, pulled its mighty boughs from their heavenly home and brought them crashing down upon our earthly one. If that happened, would my small family make a sound, I wondered.

I thought, if that tree falls, it would spell the end of me lying in bed thinking about what would happen if that tree falls.

And, as I drifted into sleep, a menagerie of wild images swirled around in my mind. Pines and spines, sap and sinew, limbs and limbs, all overlapping each in a bizarre collage, a phantasmagorical nightmare.

By morning the wind had abated.