A teenager implied the other day that this blog wasn’t personal because it dealt with a very specific subject and that answering shallow questions like “What did you do last night?” was much more personal and fun.
Of course I know better than to argue with a teenager (let me grab another beer), much less one that doesn’t write fiction, but that little implication was useful because it shows how people who aren’t writers don’t understand how personal a blog as my own, really is. It gave me the perspective of an outsider about the novel-writing World.
I don’t know if anyone unpublished ever decided to take a year away from work and write a novel, while writing a blog about it, but there is a lot to be said and it’s impossible not to make it personal. It becomes your life.
Not wanting to seem ungrateful for being given this opportunity, I must confess that it is not easy to be your own boss in a field where you start with almost no knowledge at all. Luckily, writing is one of the fields where we all share what we know to one another. If we think about it, writers share their secrets to their competitors. Several published authors have published a book on the craft or at least an autobiography that includes their journey as a writer. Not everyone does it though, and I always wondered why that is.
Sometimes, now more often than when I started, I wonder if I really have something to share from what I’ve learned. I feel arrogant if I claim to have something to teach because even the most tangible basic parts of the craft have been brilliantly broken several times. It is so delusional to say that a comma should be where you stop to breathe, when we all breathe differently or may choose to do so. The later portuguese author José Saramago, used commas instead of full stops or quotation marks. His sentences are often confusing and with a length that covers several pages, yet his book “Blindness” won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
We are taught that long sentences should be cut down for a faster and easier read. Sometimes we hunger for a word-count reference on what is a proper length and the number 20 pops from time to time (– why 20 and not 30? Who the hell invented this? What are his credentials?) Gabriel García Marquez’s final sentence of “The Autumn of the Patriarch” covers 53 pages, which is at least 17,000 words long. Cormac McCarthy, 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner with “The Road”, is known for his powerful long paragraphs with sentences that cover much more than 20 words.
It’s hard to figure out these things alone, but alone is what you truly are as a writer. I still believe studying books on Creative Writing is important, at least to know where to start. Only after you know what someone else called a rule, you can learn to cleverly bend it. And yet what is cleaver? I used to think that you should only bend a rule to the point where the message is still clear to the reader. Yet José Saramago was a compulsory read in my secondary school in Portugal, and I remember how I struggled to finish his books. How do we present something new, that doesn’t exactly have to be easily understood, good enough for a nobel prize winner?
I’m not aiming to replace full stops with commas. I’m the kind of girl who still wants to be easily understood, that still cares for the message in my books to get across. You may not know this, but José Saramago was not admired by everyone in my country. He had his own ideas about religion, sex, politics… and eventually he took off, of course, like several of us, tired of all the little minds, and proceeded on writing about his own beliefs to eventually be admired in other countries.
When he won the Nobel Prize, of course, Portugal suddenly wanted to claim its ownership on the author “He’s portuguese!! He’s portuguese!!”. When he died, even people who haven’t read any of his novels appeared sad; the country mourned its loss, that same country that made him leave as well as so many other portuguese great minds.
Not only writers, but also actors, scientists, athletes can’t find support for their skills in their own homeland and emigrate to achieve brilliance in other Countries. Like actor Joaquim de Almeida who left Portugal when he was 18 years old (1975) and only won the Portuguese Golden Globe in 1998, when already famous worldwide with movies like “Good Morning, Babylon” or “The Count of Monte Cristo” amongst many others. (maybe you saw him in the TV-series “24”, ”Clear and Present Danger”, ”Desperado”, ”Kingpin”… he’s usually one of the bad guys.) In my homeland, only football is a safe field (they are obsessed with it!), so José Mourinho was famous well before he moved abroad, and I bet everyone in Europe knows who that is… or at least the name sounds familiar.
I believe it’s not easy to be original, but it is harder in small countries like Portugal or even here, in Ireland. But to break the rules in writing can be read in any Country, and by anyone, as someone who doesn’t know how to write properly.
Some months ago, I read “How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them” (Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman). At first the book seemed very useful, but somewhere around the middle it just seemed mean and small-minded. It mocked every wannabe writer who ever made something that they considered as a mistake, as if writing was something inflexible and uncreative. Can we really afford to laugh about others’ way of writing or organising stories without finding an accomplished author who hasn’t already done the same successfully?
I found this same problem when I tried to write “Lessons” in this blog. I’m glad to have had the sensibility to understand that I was mostly writing them to myself, from my experience while writing my own novel and studying the craft. Otherwise, I would be trying to rule something that I believe should never be ruled. Yet, Lesson number 2 was deleted several times, and even something that was Lesson number 2 is now under other category.
It’s hard to write about writing. It’s hard to write a book on the craft that is both useful and open enough to allow space for the student to breathe is own style. When I gave my feedback on my friend Reg’s writing, I tried to do it in a computerised fashion. I had to put all my feelings aside; all the different ways I would have written some paragraphs. When I first read his first chapter, I felt an urge to correct everything, maybe in the same way the authors of “How Not To Write a Novel” analise each new manuscript they receive.
Then I took a breather, opened my mind to the piece of writing my friend was offering me. I let my imagination be his imagination, my feelings be his feelings, my words be his words, and suddenly all left to correct were minor things, probably the things that can almost be called ‘typos’.
For example, he had the word “and” repeated several times across one single small paragraph. However superficial, I still see that any correction, from anyone, pokes at the writer’s self-esteem. We all wish to have the self-esteem and confidence of José Saramago. To just “don’t give a shit”. To write as we like and because we like it.
My friend’s first chapter (which is the only part I’ve read so far) is very well written, yet, would he ever believe me with all the tiny corrections? Would he ever see that the corrections are purely about the craft and not the art? Isn’t the craft an art in itself? If that’s so, should it be ruled? Who am I to correct a painter’s canvas?
I guess, at the end of the day, the boss upstairs makes the rules. Not God — the guys in the publishing world; the same ones who decide if José Saramago should win the Nobel Prize — the ones who decide if the repetition of the word “and” is fault or style. Who am I to talk about it? Who is any of us for that matter, as I’m certain several other publishers would never have published a single José Saramago’s novel. Yet, “Blindness” was published, read and re-read, translated broadly, acclaimed and a winner.
It’s hard to take a year to write because most of the time you don’t know what you’re doing. The outside world seems to be evolving without you; trivialities are devoured by your story as you don’t have any space left in your brain for anything else. All is a potential story, all is subject to be studied as craft; even a movie seems like an excuse to study how the author did it and if it would work best in any other way. And if you want to be a full-time writer you do have to suffer from this disease gladly.
If you don’t have any friends writing or reading it’s even harder, but even if you do have them, I suspect your own novel-in-progress will always be just yours to work on. No matter how many persons you show it to, each one of us has our own idea about it, as it reflects (or not) over our own experiences and beliefs.
I’m not a member of any writer’s club and suspect never will, because it is so hard to set our own notions apart (of what is good writing) and read another’s work-in-progress with an open mind — may I say: a pure mind – that I’m afraid if I let a group of strangers read my novel they will pick at it like hungry crows until it’s shred to nothingness. I aim to read my friend’s full manuscript with an open mind. It is the only way to learn from it; it is the only way to make it pleasurable; it is the only way I aim to read novels from now own — with a writer’s heart and an alien’s mind; eager to learn and live something new.
And drop it, if neither writer nor alien in me are engaged.
It’s hard to be especial if you don’t have anything original inside you, yet it is hard to be accepted if you do. The World is full of copies of the same story, written with the same group of words, where characters have the same re-actions, the same fears and goals. Only when we strip-naked from everything that we currently believe as good writing, will we ever discover what’s the next step to achieve. What’s there to be played with? What new way of telling stories haven’t we discovered yet?
It’s hard to be a writer because writing is one of those professions where you feel completely alone and have to learn to hunger for it. To live in it; to sleep in it; to distance yourself from what others may think and keep going at it alone without selling your soul. (Because you’ll want to). Have some kind of dramatic event that happened in your life from where to pull a meaningful tale. Otherwise, you’ll have nothing new to add to this World.
I believe every fully-grown adult (on the verge of extinction, I’m sure) has one good book in them because all of us have lived something that was dramatic, at least once, by the time we reach 30. Even the shortest moment can be shaped into brilliance, given the dramatic effect the author adds to it. We all have at least one good book in us, but not all of us would know how to write it.
The best writers know how to transform any fact, any event lived or imagined, in something with enough dept to make it meaningful. The more personal the source, the more powerful the story. Because it is not the story itself, as we are not reading the exact events as they happened to you, but the way you tell us about it.
A tale about a fish may have nothing about fish in its message. The same way you can use anything you’ve lived and transform it into a story about fishing, and make it memorable. This is what it means to write about what you know. Every experience is made of feelings. If you lost a lover, you felt a sense of loss, that feeling can be used to convey any other meaningful loss in your novel — even if felt by a fish about a pebble he never liked. The magic of writing is that everything can be mirrored into something similar or flipped into its opposite.
Writing, I believe, is about experiences shaped into universal truths. A writer has to shape himself into a Psychologist and polish what is profound into simple truths; for only simple truths have the power to connect to everyone and everything.
In this matter, I believe that superb writing is something you are only born with or gather from a very troubled life – but even in the latter you must have been born with a sensible, intelligent mind. A good writer has the humility to learn the rules, the openness to marvel at how others did it and, then, the arrogance to believe he can do it better. Mastering the balance between humility and arrogance, is the true challenge. Several are destined to never be brilliant because this is something that cannot be taught; there are no rules for it.