This popped up in my Twitter feed this afternoon, just as I was contemplating doing some actual writing. As I said yesterday, right now for ‘writing’ substitute ‘reading’; I really need to get back under the skin of the story before I start trying to change it.
But I worry. I worry that I am wasting time, that I need to be getting on with it, that if I want to be a ‘writer’, I need to stop wasting time. So thank you to Betsy Morais and The Atlantic for reminding me that it’s OK to work at your own pace, and it’s definitely OK not to start until you have some life under your belt.
The best advice I ever had about being a writer – and I’m afraid I can’t remember who said it to me – was “if you want to be a writer, write.” And over the last few years, I have tried to follow that advice. When people ask me what I do, I still talk about my other jobs, my ‘real’ jobs, but I more often than not admit to being a writer. I think it’s important to feel that what I do is a real thing, with a real purpose to it. And a real end prodict, which is where my promise of yesterday comes in.
An excerpt, I blithely promised. So far this afternoon, I’ve spent time sifting through the book as it stands, looking for something representative, and wondering how on earth I’m supposed to define ‘representative’. And, you know what? I got caught up in the story again, and started reading it as if it was a book. This, my friends, is a good thing. But I’m no nearer to identifying a representative sample than I was before 5 boys came home from school and turned this place into a madhouse.
No, only 2 of the boys are mine.
So, instead, I’m going to muse on not how to write, but when. Every writer does it differently – some rise early, and do nothing else until they have completed their allotted number of words; some write whenever they have a spare moment, or like M. Jenni, are ‘Sunday writers’. I’ve tried all of the above, and, honestly, they all work to some degree, but I seem to write best in the evenings. I need quiet, but not silence – I don’t mind the cats shouting around the house, as long as they’re not doing it in my office, and I prefer to have orchestral music on in the background. Then I can shut the door and just let the story go where it will. Music with words doesn’t work; I always want to sing along, and no-one needs to hear that. Total silence also just feels wrong; I probably spend too much time trying to hear what’s going on elsewhere, or am distracted by something outside. So, it’s usually Shostakovich or Mahler, less often Bruckner or Sibelius. If I need to be shaken out of a rut, Messiaen or Bartok often does the trick.
And then I got to wondering – can I tell what I was listening to as I wrote what I’m reading? Well, in some cases, I think I can – there’s a piece in Part 3, for instance, which was obviously written under the spell of the magnificent final movement of Mahler’s Ninth…
And there I have it: extract no. 1 is a clear illustration of how the music I’m listening to creeps into the story almost unnoticed. It’s also a pivotal, if underplayed, scene – the relationship between these two characters changes subtly but permanently as a result of what happens here:
Going Back: an extract from Part 3:
Clare asked him to put the music back on – “I’m calm now, and I’d like to know about the music which makes you cry, if you don’t mind.” Andrew had to think about it for a minute, then remembered that it was the Mahler, which he felt spoke for itself. He explained a little about it anyway, and wondered idly how long it would take him to drive to Meiernigg – a place he had always wanted to see – from here. If things get really bad, he thought, I can just escape there.
The music soothed and calmed him, without making him too emotional. He tried to explain that it had less emotional force for him if it was divorced from the rest of the symphony, but Clare shushed him – she was listening intently, and he smiled to see it.
They arrived in Hohenügel shortly before the end of the movement, and Clare pulled the car over to the side of the road as they left the autobahn so that they could hear the end of it. She took several deep breaths once it was done, then turned and smiled at him. “I may have to revise my opinion of a few things,” she said. “I never quite saw the point of all that classical stuff, but I may be getting the general idea. Jesus, that was sad, wasn’t it?”
Andrew rarely needed an invitation to gush about music, and he gently disagreed with her. “On the surface, it is, yes. He’s dying, and he knows it. It is a lingering farewell, but it’s also a statement of defiance and intent. I always hear it as the musical equivalent of ‘rage against the dying of the light’. I do find it can reduce me to tears if I’m not careful, but I can also find it enormously uplifting if I’m in the right mood.”
“Which is it today?”
“I’m not sure; I never quite engaged with it – too much else on my mind, I suppose – but it has calmed me and I think I may be ready for whatever might be coming.”
“Well, you’d better be, big guy, because it’s coming, like it or not.”
OK, I’m officially scared now – some part of my book is out there in the public domain. Please trat it kindly, won’t you?