The Length of a Piece of String

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I am a bit worried about what I am writing at the moment.  People see me spend long stretches working, and ask me in a roundabout way actually I am working on, and I don’t really want to say.  There are two reasons for my uncool evasiveness. Firstly I only have a few central ideas and a new raw stylistic idea for what I am working on, and the newness of these ideas are a little scary. So my evasiveness is borne of insecurity.

Secondly the actual plot of what I am working on is something of a moving target these days. this also is new. Generally,  I am the type of guy who sits down, makes a plan, then executes it. I mean its not that I usually know every plot move, but I generally know. So I am doubly insecure, in as much as I am not sure where I am going or how long it will take.

This leads me to the third question I get asked:

‘When are you going to be finished?’

‘How long is a piece of string?’ I say, meaning I don’t know and I worry when actually I will be done.

 

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length of string….

 

 

My novel started out as a nice respectable middle aged crisis type book with a few literary and thriller elements attached. Now, three major drafts later and three years later, it has become a monster. Now its got more to do with horror and thriller elements than the tame reflective rather self absorbed piece I started out working on. And as I go through drafts and as it subtly changes me, I become more and more uncomfortable with how raw and visceral the book is becoming.

It also makes me think about the art and craft of writing. Where am I going with all this work, all this drafting and redrafting and rewriting? Is there a point when one runs out of ideas, a limit to the amount of books your produce before you begin to be a cliché? Someone who produces a slim tome every eighteen months to keep up with contract requirements? What’s the point of writing?

I don’t have and don’t really want an answer to that question. But I do think once you learn about writing, the craft, how to plot, how to pace, the elements of story, using different types of styles for differing elements of a text, you find that having the craft is not enough. One wants to go deeper, certainly I do. One throws away language games and well worn plot clichés to get at the core of things.

I think that writing is an act that leads one to shed elements of a false self and it leads you to ones core, that’s if you want to go there. J D Salinger famously stopped publishing because he wanted his writing to be as free of the demands of others as possible. The thread or piece of string one leaves down as one journeys through the labyrinth of words is just long enough to get to the centre. That’s how long the string is.

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Interview Day and Keeping Going

Ever since I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Ones Own I knew I wanted nothing more than a quiet room of my own, a stipend or wage of sorts, and enough time and space to write, or more properly to think. All that seems a little crazy on paper, but it was where I was at back then. Decades later it hasn’t changed. In fact, having seen what fame and money has done to writers and artists of various stripes and persuasions, success in that sense is a fate I fear as equally as my ego and insecurities desperately long for it. So today, with these concerns buzzing away in my mind, I went over to University of Limerick to do an interview for a month long course  in CELTA or the certificate for English language teaching (I am not really sure what the ‘A’ stands for) but its a qualification enabling me to teach English in pretty much any country in the world. There is naturally a downside to doing this expensive course, that is, if I pass the interview. Its is more than full time. I was warned by my interviewers that I will spend hours each night doing course work, along with the regular nine to five schedule, along with Saturdays and early morning meetings. This means I have to forego this book I am working on, which is a big worry. Will I lose the ‘gist’ or thread of ideas I am drawing from while I am engaged in working for this qualification? Will I write differently after all this linguistic analysis? I often think of what Ozzy Osbourne said when asked why he never learned to read or write music. He said that after a while he took the advice of friends never to learn, as the music he was involved in making might actually be ruined by learning the formal rules and procedures of music writing. It sounds rather counter intuitive. But now I know what he means. Time till tell.

Popcorn and Cat Memes and the Passing of Time

Its good to begin with a joke or a parable. I don’t like gimmicks, but I got two little stories.

This is one I heard today while listening to a website called You are Listening to Deep Thought. I  heard it as I was trying and failing to move forward on the latest draft of the book I am working on. I don’t know who the speaker was, but I enjoyed the story, so I am sorry to whomever I am appropriating this fishy tale from. It’s about two fishes swimming along in the deepest part of the ocean, and, as they swim along, they pass an older, bigger fish, who says “Hi Guys, how’s the water for you today?” The two fish pass on and then after a while stop and turn to one another and ask “What the hell is water?”

I chuckled when I read that. Good stories like that come and go all the time. The ones that stay with us have something clever and funny and poignant to say. Like the idea of being surrounded by something so all pervasive, so all consuming, that you don’t even see it or sense it or count it into ones worldview. Like the catch phrase “The Matrix Has You”  But what is the matrix?

In the 1999 movie The Matrix, a hacker learns, to his world-shaking shock, the true nature of reality. He learns that everything he thought was real was actually fake.  He realizes his lifelong sense of alienation was a true gut instinct. He learns there really is something fundamentally wrong with the world. That’s interesting. Its clever and poignant. It’s also shocking. The knowledge that things you thought were true and real are really unreal stays with you and changes you perhaps forever.

Here’s another parable I like. Its a Japanese proverb that says that we have three faces. You probably heard it before. I did too. Only recently it struck home. So, anyway, we have three faces. The first ‘face’ is the socially or culturally accepted mask we wear when we are out in society. The second one is the one we wear with our family and our intimates. The third one, this is the most secret one. This third self is one inside, the secret self, the truest one, that few ever see. I like that idea too.

The idea that we have secret selves appeals to me and is shown to be true over and over, by life, if not by science. The other idea, as depicted by the fish story, I love too. These two little stories merged in my mind – (1) the idea we are surrounded by a world we don’t see but affects us all the time, and that because of (1) we are (2) wearing masks that are not our truest selves.

Of course that could be all nonsense. Except, well, its not. We have an online world now, one where we interact and use every day, sometimes for long hours. Imagine if we actually added up how many hours a day we spent online. I did, and the number shocked me. It was a world shaking realization of the amount of time I was wasting. I realized just how addictive Facebook can be. In a sense, as there are billions online, on and off Facebook, we don’t realize its an addictive practise. Its also true that who we are offline is very often nothing remotely like who we are on for instance, Facebook, or Tinder, or Twitter.

It’s interesting too, that this online self is the one subject to so much scrutiny and manipulation by security services and marketing analysis and advertising targeting by Facebook itself and companies like Cambridge Analytica. On Facebook, you and I are the product. Our Profile is sold every time we are targeted with an Ad or a political post or we join a group. Each time we make a click or a like we get a little endorphin or dopamine kick. That’s the addictive effect, the need for stroking which is satisfied with a like, or even a love.

Online there’s so much to read, see, and experience. Yet we have so little time. In the ever shortening attention span of online life, we get three minute videos, witty pics, specially edited punchy journalism, and cat videos. Its catered to us, all based on previous reads or clicks or comments. We get summaries of movie plots and animal videos and bits of news and jokes and memes and cartoons.  We are amused. We read or click or comment, and that gets analysed and calibrated. And on it goes.

The benefit the online user gets for being on Facebook is stroking, the sense of belonging, amusement, love, distraction and the ability to comment and at times debate. Online, especially, there seems to be an increasing polarization and entrenchment of views, possibly because Facebook or Twitter isn’t really an arena for dissecting and carefully discussing incredibly complex multifaceted ideas be they political, religious, scientific, philosophical, or literary. It leads more often than not to misunderstanding and polarisation.

Facebook was formed in a dorm room by a gifted hacker who wanted to compare photographs of people who were pretty and who were not. It has grown and changed and evolved and enriched him beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. Facebook is a place for people to meet. Facebook is popcorn. Its too simplistic a vehicle for self expression. This is why, I think, one is left with a mask on when one goes online and its so easy to misinterpret things. I’m relieved, despite my present state of headachy withdrawal, to have left it behind me.