Obedience to the Muse 1

‘You’re a writer?’ they ask. ‘So how many words do you write a day?’ Well, I have no idea, because most days, nine out of ten days, I am re-writing, and it could be years since that first draft. I’ve been in a bit of a fix recently, researching, at first legitimately, and then as a displacement activity, Iron Age Britain. With the equinox I should have started writing but didn’t. I’ve been footling with my notes for a month.

Part of the cause was a fear that I’m past it. Writing historical fiction is so very, very hard. I can’t think of a harder form of writing: getting a good story and getting the facts right and not making mistakes. I made a few in A Gift for the Magus which, as ever, only become apparent after publication (I had three readers and two editors). So despair had set in, and I’d begun to think of alternative genres. Nature writing, memoir, biography, that kind of thing.  But two friends gave the same advice: ‘Stay true to the Muse, and don’t worry about your mental powers. The less you have of those, the better.’ Because, you see, the Muse does the work, and I’d forgotten that.

The Muse, when reading the words of her servant writers, does not notice mistakes or, if she does, doesn’t mention them.

In something of a revelation, I realised that none of these alternative genres required the presence of the Muse at all. Non-fiction is just a name for the writer being fully in control of the material. Fiction… Well, that’s the name for the deep well of imagination in which a writer may sink or swim.

So these were my thoughts at Halloween, and then came an email from Alphasmart, the people who make the Neo ‘writing machine’. I love my Neo but have only been using it recently to take and process notes, clicking away in the Sackler Classics Library on what looks for all the world like a typewriter. Here is a clip from youtube:

The email from Alphasmart said something about a BLOMOJODOBO or some such thing (I don’t understand these acronyms flying about that seem to be about and by writers), some kind of competition to write a novel in a month. I was just about to press the delete button when my eye happened to catch the text of the mail. Using the Neo, it said, it was perfectly possible to write 1700 words a day, which would add up to 50,000 and a novel by the end of the month. The month which was to begin on the next day. Well, why not, I thought. It’s better to do that than to keep footling with notes, rearranging them and indexing them.

So the next day I began.

To be continued tomorrow!


The Arrow-Maker and the Gorilla

There is an ancient story from the Indian tradition about an arrow-maker whose attention to his work was so focussed and fine that he was unaware of a boisterous wedding procession passing by his window. The moral of the story seems to be that this state of mind leads to mastery of your art.

I am just checking the second set of proofs for A Gift for the Magus. How many times has this book been edited? Let me count them. At least four times by me, including use of software programmes such as Editor. Once by a proper editor. It has been edited so often and so thoroughly that it seemed barely necessary to hire a proof reader, so we didn’t. I went through it, then David did. I found an awful lot – not mistakes particularly, just opportunities for improvement – and David – with a little trumpet fanfare on each occasion – found the things I’d missed. But our typesetter is as quick as she is patient and sent back a second set on Monday. So all I had to do was to check that the corrections had been made correctly. Wasn’t it?

I am currently enthralled by Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary – the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It was recommended to me in rapid succession by Lindsay Clarke, John Moat and Maggie Ross, so I had to read it, all 500 pages. So far (page 163) I am finding it a continuing revelation that shakes my philosophical foundations (but leaves them intact). As Maggie Ross said in a talk, ‘With neuroscience, you don’t need your neoplatonic philosophy.’ I found that as exciting a prospect as terrifying. So now I’m a little way along in this journey of modern science – science as science should be – open-minded, full-hearted and questing.

One of things it is forcing me to reconsider is attention. I’ve always been taught in my philosophy school that there are three states of attention: focussed, broad and scattered. McGilchrist (so far) has only spoken of the first two and linked them to left hemisphere (focussed) and right (broad). Apparently birds watch for predators with the left eye, and look out for the group with the right one. (I was circled by a little egret recently which I took to be a magical communion across species until I realised I was the subject of a left-eye survey.)

I was speaking to a writing-proof-reading-philosophical friend yesterday, asking him how one might avoid making mistakes in the first place. His reply was ‘pay attention’. Yes, but what kind of attention, and to what? If I were scanning a text looking for typos, then I could practise the attention of the arrow-maker. But I’m not just looking for typos. If I were, I’d have sent the first set of proofs back with less than five corrections when in fact there was a scribble in red on almost every page, PLUS the chapter which had mysteriously got left out (how did that happen?). It seems to me I need to have an eye as much to the wedding procession as to the arrows. I need to have my attention everywhere at once.

Here’s what I’m looking for and finding: typos (these days a euphemism for mis-typing) spelling mistakes, clunky sentences, repetition of words or rhymes or homophones, punctuation (sigh), consistency (this one is complex and of astonishing depths of subtlety, such as when to give pope a capital P and when not to), hyphenated words at line-ends, ambiguities, and downright howlers.

To be honest, I think it all comes down to me in the end. I could pay the earth for the best ever proof reader but he/she wouldn’t find everything, and I’d be the one to discover that, so I may as well do it myself. Godstow Press is an Indie, but mainstream publishers, forever cutting costs and using Spellchecker instead of a human brain, make this an issue of as much – if not more – concern to their authors.

So here I am at the end of the second set and what do I find on the closing pages? Saint Mathew spelt with one ‘t’, and Cosimo de’ Medici referring to Ghiberti’s bronze doors of the Florentine Baptistry as ‘the gates of paradise’ – a sweet metaphor thought up by Michelangelo a generation later. And so, instead of cheering and throwing flower petals over my own head for finding these two things, I suffered deep despair and a building depression,  haunted by the questions, ‘What have I missed?’ and ‘Must I read it again?’

What have I missed? Bring on the gorilla!

In a now famous experiment by Simons and Chabris, subjects were asked to watch a short video clip showing a basketball game in a relatively confined indoor setting. [I’ve struck out the description of the test because it’s more fun to do it yourself: ]

… As they and others have neatly and dramatically demonstrated, we see, at least consciously, only what we are attending to in a focussed way (with the conscious left hemisphere). Since what we select to attend to is guided by our expectations of what it is we are going to see, there is a circularity involved which means we experience more and more only what we already know. Our incapacity to see the most apparently obvious features of the world around us, if they do not fit the template we are currently working with … is so entrenched that it is hard to know how we can ever come to experience anything truly new. [McGilchrist p.163]

Or spot our ommissions.

The Colours of the Church Year

I’m in the last days of editing A Gift for the Magus and Really Busy, thanks to having friends to hand who will say things like, ‘Are you sure about that altar frontal?’ Next thing you’re googling altar frontals — and finding they are available to buy on Ebay.

I am not finding what I’m looking for, but in the process I’ve come across this lovely site on the colour symbolism of the liturgical year which I thought I’d share. After all, who knows what you’re looking for today!


The Promise

A week ago I promised a posting on adverbs and how they can clog up our writing but day after day I’ve put it off. So I’m going to write about broken promises instead.

We’ve been watching a four-part drama called The Promise which ended last Sunday. It was set in two time periods with the story of a granddaughter in our time going to Israel to find the Palestinian family her grandfather knew in 1947. We thought it was probably one of the best, if not the best, TV dramas we’ve ever watched.

Local actors, both Jewish and Arab, were used.

On the last episode I started getting tense a quarter of an hour in and by the end, two hours later, was ready to explode in tears. The story of the Jews and Palestinians in the last sixty years beggars belief; that Britain was one of the causes of this intractable conflict is not something we ever discuss.

It was an incredibly brave production, filmed on location, and it gave the Jews a hard time. Let’s be clear, by ‘Jews’ is meant the hard-line Zionists – , in 1947, the Irgun – bent on clearing the whole of Palestine for Jewish occupation. That ‘clearing’ in the last episode involved throwing tear gas or smoke bombs into homes in an Arab village then machine-gunning anyone who ran out, women and children included. It would not have happened if the British had not suddenly withdrawn and left them all to it (at which point, Len defects and takes the consequences of dishonourable discharge, leading to a bitter future life that Erin inherits).

Len poses with Mohammed's family, a photo which leads Erin to the goal of her quest.

Most dramas bend over backwards to be fair to both sides (unless they’re about Ireland, of course, in which case we Brits have to watch with our heads hung in shame). This one didn’t. This one stayed true to history, because when the Brits moved into Palestine to oversee the formation of the new State (a period known as ‘the British Mandate’), they were on the side of the Jews. Many, after all, including  Len, had been present at the liberation of concentration camps like Belsen. But during their time in Palestine, the British soldiers found their allegiance shifting to the Arabs. Len’s own allegiance shifts when he finds his Arab servant being abused not by Jews but by his own comrades. He tears them off a strip and then befriends Mohammed, and the story begins.

It was inspired by a letter the writer-director, Peter Kosminksy, received from a British veteran of the period, which led him into eight years of research and writing.

Each week we watched the credits carefully. Credits for the actors were unreadable (no Baftas there, then, but we’ve given the drama best film, best actor, best supporting actor, best screenplay, best music, best casting, best everything – except the credits, blue on a black background, I ask you) but we were more interested in the production credits. Countries involved included Australia, France and Israel. Israel. Wow.

In an interview Peter Kosminskysaid that on location in Israel the crew were Israelis, as were the Jewish and Arab characters in the drama. He said he didn’t have to get state approval for what he was doing, but he sought the approval of the Israelis – both Jewish and Arab – involved in the production and got it.

‘I ended up feeling there was nowhere else to shoot this. It brings a verisimilitude – one visible, one invisible. You have the real physical elements – the terrifying wall for example, the white stone, the Bauhaus architecture, and you have the invisible – the relationships between the Israeli Jews and Arabs in the cast. There was a scene where a Jewish actress plays a Jewish settler, who has a screaming match with a Palestinian woman played by an Israeli Arab. It was a very hostile scene, it felt tense. At the end they wanted to be photographed together as actors. [Peter Kosminksy in an interview].

But over and above the horror of the political story, we had Erin’s personal story (I noted her name and didn’t miss the irony), of her emotional distance from her mother, who in turn was emotionally distant from Len, now an old grandfather paralysed in a hospital bed. No one could do insolence better than Claire Foy, the actress who played Erin  – she made me cross and angry with her so what must it have been like for her poor mum?

Erin by the wall in modern-day Israel.

But in the end Erin comes home, gives mum a proper hug at the airport and then goes to see grandad. It was his diary that had guided her journey, his life she had uncovered, a noble, heroic life as a sergeant in the British army, loyal to his friend, Mohammed, to whom he had made a promise which proved impossible for him to fulfil. Erin does what she can. Her journey takes her to Hebron, Haifa and, of course, Gaza, in her search for anyone related to Mohammed. When she comes home, she goes to the hospital to tell her grandfather what she has done. His response is a slight movement of a finger against her hand, and a tear rolling down his cheek.

And that’s when I cracked up.

My Dad was in the 8th army and fought in Palestine. And he fought in shorts. That really struck me in the final episode, the Brits fighting in shorts. They looked so vulnerable with their bare knees, like Hoplites in kilts.

I went to Israel as a young woman in the 80s to do a job of picture research for ‘The Cultural Atlas of the Bible.’ I met Israelis and Palestinians in their homes and, like Erin, fell in love with both. When I came home, my mum was waiting for me at the airport, which was not something I’d expected. I knew this story and up until the final episode thought I should have written it (the one I did write lies in the proverbial drawer somewhere, wherever that drawer might be); but I couldn’t have written that last episode.

‘Don’t shoot the dog!’ I cried out, but he did. Not flinching, as we discussed the other day, from the dramatic moment. Children shot, women abused. And then the really powerful story of Erin’s friend, Eliza. For what has taken Erin to Israel in her gap year is that Eliza, who has dual nationality, has to do her stint in the Israeli army and Erin’s going to stay in the family home. When it comes to the show-down in Gaza, Erin has to face Eliza who is now fully playing her part as an Israeli soldier. It’s an awful moment, and they rode it beautifully. Just from a glance exchanged you could tell that their friendship was going to survive this horror.

So, back to boring TV and doing a lot of knitting. Cartloads of accolades and shiny prizes to all those involved, although I rather suspect that Kosminsky at least is above such things, as those who are truly worthy tend to be. After all, it took him eight years to write and produce this, and you don’t do that for trinkets and baubles. It should be compulsory viewing for every child on the planet.

It can still be seen via Channel 4


The King’s Speech – plot, theme and Muse

We went to the pictures the other day for the first time since Slumdog Millionaire, entering with some trepidation, wondering if our eardrums would survive. But we reckoned that going to the matinee of a film squarely aimed at middle and above in both class and age, we were safe. And we were. We went to the art cinema rather than the Odeon and settled down amongst some very well-dressed people with white hair.

Is this a great film? I’m not sure. The plot was predictable of course, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that in the end the king triumphs over adversity with the help of an unorthodox speech therapist – one with no qualifications to boot.

Some of the jokes were good but some fell flat towards the end. And the set piece, of fast action to excited music (thanks, Mozart), seemed to be just what it is: a set piece designed to create emotion, only it didn’t. It was faintly embarrassing because of its transparency.

So is this a great film? You bet. Because it sets your solar plexus a-quiver and, unless you are very hardened, has the tears pouring down your cheeks. But why? Is it the script, the performances, the direction? Well, all of these have their part to play, and all of these will probably get Oscars, but I think the cause is elsewhere.

You hear a lot about plot but rarely ever hear about theme. If plot is the bones of a story, theme is its soul. The theme of a piece can often be expressed as a cliche: ‘crime doesn’t pay’, ‘don’t believe what others tell you’, ‘triumph over adversity’, etc. At first glance, the latter is the theme of The King’s Speech. But there is yet another level to this film.

The personal drama of the Duke of York, overcoming his reluctance to be king, especially one with a debilitating speech impediment, is played out against the abdication of Edward VIII, the resignation of Baldwin and the advent of the second world war. What we are witnessing is the very peculiar and fateful change of main players. Scenery was shifting: the inadequate and downright bad were being displaced and the good were being shoe-horned in. For a moment I even saw the king as Frodo and the therapist, Lionel Logue, as Gandalf. These two have a part to play of mythic proportions in the battle of good and evil. The moment when the new king is walking side-by-side with the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr Churchill – that’s when I began to quiver. Because without these two men, one wonders if we’d have had the strength and conviction to win the war.

Did the script writer set out with this story in mind? Perhaps. But all too often writers begin with one idea which then morphs into another one. The ‘hook’, the very gist of the film, which finally becomes the blurb of the trailer, often that’s the last thing the writer discovers. But the process of discovery is helped if the writer is concerned with two things: theme, and accuracy (that is, being true to the story).

The blurb for this film is: ‘When a nation needed a leader, when the people needed a voice, an ordinary man would help him find the courage.’

Getting to that psychological depth of understanding is the gift of the Muse. It’s a mistake to think that Muse inspires a piece at the outset. She doesn’t. Her work is to show us what it is we have. Her other name is Insight.

I could be wrong of course and the truth is that the script writer had the whole story in mind when he began, that the irony of a stutterer speaking for a nation has long been realised by everyone except me, and that the script was all written down in a single draft. But somehow I doubt it.

All the scheming and plotting in the world won’t result in something lasting, transcendent. Anything that’s authentic, that’s real, comes in the form of a gift.

– Jose Saramago
(1922 – )
Portugese author

Mummy, is it true?

There is so much to discuss on the topic of truth and accuracy in historical fiction that I hardly know where to begin. Let’s start with this article in The Australian: Passion for the past leaves little for nitpickers. It’s about the film, The King’s Speech, and how the director is so obsessive about detail that those who like to find fault are being quite exercised to find any. Interestingly, the film is on track to pick up lots of major awards without resorting to special effects, a sensational plot, hot sex scenes or a shark. It’s just the plain old fashioned recipe of a great script and terrific acting. But how important is it to get the details right?

I live in Oxford. Naturally I’m fond of Inspector Morse and, now, Lewis. But I’ve had to get used to the film makers playing God with the scenery. The police inspector comes out of the gate of a major college but not on to  the street that runs past it. He chases a villain towards the north of the city and, quick as a flash, they are in open countryside. Or, even worse, he’s now chasing him in a southerly direction. The director will probably argue that it cost less to film in open countryside than an arterial Oxford road, or that it looked better, or that it set off Morse’s pale complexion rather nicely. But each time someone plays merry with the facts, someone else is upset and, in the case of Morse, it’s everyone who lives in Oxford. Strange, to wantonly annoy your key audience.

So how lovely to hear of a film maker who is ‘obsessive’ about accurate detail. Let’s applaud him with as many Oscars as are appropriate.

Meanwhile, we have only just begun on this topic. I’ll continue with it over the next couple of posts. I’ll just leave you with this. My friend’s 7 year old son asked his mother to ask me if my book about King Arthur is true? I was disconcerted to say the least. It’s not my place to tell any child there’s no Santa Claus. I spoke to him about it and found myself describing the different levels of truth, how things may not be literally true (no, Sir Bedevere did not arrive on Port Meadow one day and have to tell twenty-one stories in order to get back to the Otherworld); but somewhere deep inside us there is a just king who is sleeping right now and needs to wake up. He accepted that (bright kid).

Yesterday I found him reading a book, author and title forgotten, but obviously it was an adventure story which, in my day, would have been ‘Biggles Flies Again’ by Capt. Johns. And so I asked him, ‘Is the story true?’ ‘No,’ he said at once, ‘of course it isn’t!’

Which raises the question, how does he know that? I discussed it with his mother, and we think that some stories have markers in them which alert you to the need to suspend all credibility; and others don’t. It’s the second kind which can be dangerous fiction. And the Da Vinci code is a prime example.

The question is, really, does it matter if gullible people get to believe things that writers make up? And what if the writer doesn’t think he/she is making it up, but is receiving it through the channel of divine inspiration? I’m not being facile here – all authors hope for that.

I suppose I’m a bit miffed that someone who believes Lorenzo de’ Medici was of the bloodline of Jesus is making a fortune. I’m not bothered about the fortune: I grieve for the truth. Because what is really important about Lorenzo will be lost in the glamour and glitz and sheer vivacity of conspiracy theories.

What does anyone else think about these matters? How far can we, should we play merry with the facts to ‘let the story have its head’. And what are facts, when it comes down to it?

PS. Dorcas Lane in ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ has pierced ears I noticed last night. True to period, I wonder?