Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Writing update, life update

I'm absolutely loving this summer. No conferences! No deadlines! (Well, except that I have to rewrite my chapter for Derrida and Antiquity in the next three weeks. But I've had some really useful feedback from Aren and Una, so I'm starting to have some ideas about how to do it.)

It was my birthday in July, and J bought me (among other things) a bottle of Hendricks Gin, to which I have been very partial ever since I bought a bottle for my dad and then one for our good friend K and drank some: gin and tonic has been integral to my self-image this summer, a self-image which I stole from Bridget Jones stealing a self-image from Kathleen Tynan:

I read in an article that Kathleen Tynan, late wife of the late Kenneth, had 'inner poise' and, when writing, was to be found immaculately dressed, sitting at a small table in the centre of the room sipping at a glass of chilled white wine. Kathleen Tynan would not, when late with a press release for Perpetua, lie fully dressed and terrified under the duver, chain-smoking, glugging cold sake out of a beaker and putting on make-up as a hysterical displacement activity. Kathleen Tynan would not allow Daniel Cleaver to sleep with her whenever he felt like it but not be her boyfriend. Nor would she become insensible with drink and be sick. Wish to be like Kathleen Tynan (though not, obviously, dead).

Lately, therefore, whenever things have risked ranging out of control, I have repeated the phrase 'inner poise' and imagined myself wearing white linen and sittng at a table with flowers on it.

No flowers in my study, and obviously I am not wearing white linen (though I have been wearing a grey sleeveless cashmere jumper a lot this summer - I got it for a tenner off Brick Lane market, before you say anything), and the white wine has been replaced by Hendrick's Gin and tonic, with ice, in the beautiful heavy-bottomed tumblers that K got me as a present. But the inner poise is coming along rather nicely.

After comments by Beppie and M on my last writing update, I have been thinking about what 'just writing' consists of. I think the real tipping-point for me, the thing that makes 'just writing' pleasurable rather than painful and scary and vile, is the point where the map and the territory begin to coincide with one another. That's one of the main metaphors I have for thinking about writing, the difference between a map and a journey - the different sense you have of a terrain when you're studying a map and when you're walking through it. So sometimes, when you're planning a piece of writing, you don't know what certain parts of your argument are going to be until you've actually sat down and written them out, word by word and sentence by sentence: you can't understand/draw the map until you know what's in the terrain. But sometimes, when you're in the terrain, you get lost in the unfamiliarity of that way of experiencing space, and you can't see how it relates to the map you have at all, and you wander off and get discouraged, or start worrying about whether you need to redraw the map, or whether you're in the wrong bit of the terrain, or what's going on.

Um. Less metaphorically, that goes a bit like this: I think the two most important things in the process of writing are the relationship between what's written and what's unwritten, and the relationship between the part (the sentence, the paragraph) and the whole (the chapter, the overall argument). When those relationships are off, writing is not 'just writing' but much more a process of rethinking, staring at the screen, going off to read another book, writing-and-crossing-out, playing Minesweeper, doing the washing-up, staring at the screen, going for walks, etc... and all that stuff is necessary to get those relationships right. But when they are right - this is what J calls 'getting the ting' - then, then you can just write, and the more you think about the part, the more you understand the whole; the more you think about the whole, the more you understand the part; the more you think about what to leave unwritten or implicit, the clearer what you write will be.

When I say 'you', obviously, I mean 'me'.

Anyway, this very joyous map/territory synchronicity has been happening for me lately both with The Book and with a long piece of fanfiction I've been writing for mumble years: it's easier to spot with the fiction, where the main sign that everything is coming together is that the harder I think about how to solve narrative problems, the more sense the story makes (when things are going badly, if I think about problems too hard the whole story comes apart and becomes meaningless). Or I try and figure out how to solve one problem and discover that the solution actually also solves another problem that I've been worrying about. It's a period of everything simplifying rather than complexifying, so that each step doesn't lead to ten more possible branches, but rather braids together ten different strands. (Michel Serres writes somewhere about how the dominant mode of knowing in the West is analysis, which means 'untying', and why shouldn't we have a way of knowing that's more like knotting? By which I take him to mean knitting, but that's a whole nother post...)

The same feeling is coming to me with The Book, now, but it's harder to explain exactly how or why. I think it's a feeling that the different currents and strands are braiding themselves together, simplifying into two main lines of argument, which I could (not yet! but soon!) actually explain in an introduction or a book proposal without worrying that they'll come apart if I put them into different words or look at them from a slightly different standpoint. It's... a feeling of the thereness of the material, that I'm working with what the texts want to say rather than against or regardless of it.

And so, in short, hooray. The Book is going to work! And the Giant Fan Story Of Doom might one day be finished!

In other news, my promotion to Lecturer C officially took place on August 1 so today was the first day of my new salary: I have £100 more a month and am celebrating by buying tickets to Dorian Grey at Sadler's Wells. This is my last chance to convince J that ballet can actually be very cool: the first ballet I ever saw, and loved, was the Northern Ballet Theatre's Dracula, which had a fantastic boy-on-boy duet (is it called a pas de deux when it's dancing?) between Jonathan Harker and Dracula, and when the girls came on all skinny and twinkly and dancing unnaturally on their points, this was because they were vampires and thus meant to be skinny and twinkly and unnatural. But then I went to see Romeo and Juliet and discovered that ballet can also be about highly trained men and women working very hard to maintain the illusion that there are vast natural differences between men's and women's bodies, movements, etc, and that is not so much my cup of tea. So I have high hopes for Dorian Grey.

Oh, and I thought of a new and better subtitle for The Book today, so as of now its working title is: Now and Rome: Empire After Earth. Thinking about it, I think this must have arisen from conversations with Una over our extremely joyous weekend at her place a couple of weeks ago, about Carl Schmitt and whether colonizing other planets is the way forward. So: Now and Rome: Empire After Earth. Brought to you by our sponsors, Hendricks Gin.


Katherine said...

Ooh, I do envy you the Dorian Gray! I adore Matthew Bourne's work -- I saw Play Without Words in Edinburgh some years ago, and it was superb. What Bourne does (or, what he's been doing recently) is not really ballet and not quite dance; it's theatre without words, without dialogue, everything communicated through the movements of the dancer/actors to the music. It's not like anything else, and as a rule his stories are fabulously queer. Here's the pas de deux from his Swan Lake -- this piece was a religious experience for me when I first saw it, and it still gives me chills.

I know what you mean about writing. The time when you're no longer trying to grasp at something; you have it in your hands! Joy of joys! (That feeling's been very elusive for me lately, woe.) I think that's what people mean when they say "it wrote itself" -- meaning: it was just writing from the beginning of the process to the end, no fiddly does-this-bit-go-with-that-bit.

Beppie said...

The map/terrain metaphor makes a lot of sense to me! Often it's just a matter of finding the right bit of theory to make all your work hang together properly-- which is very much like finding the right way to orient a map, or learning to read the codes used in cartography. When my supervisor tells me to "just write", however, I suspect that she means that I just have to go out an explore the terrain, regardless of whether or not I have a map. As you say, it's a necessary part of the process, but in my experience, it's often lead to the illusion of progress when I'm really walking in circles-- which means that the map I draw is faulty. Again, I recognise that this is simply part of writing a thesis-- but damn, it is frustrating. :P

Looking forward to reading the Giant Fan Story of Doom. :) I'm interested to hear more about how you apply this metaphor to the process of writing fanfiction, given that fanfiction is, in so many ways, about placing new landmarks on the maps already provided by the author, or creating a new map altogether based on the terrain of the canon-texts.