These days my hero is Andrey Platonov. A few others of transcendent talent who suffered under the Soviet boot taught me humility about writing and the rest of life, and helped me gain perspective on my talent and efforts. (I just read A.O. Scott’s review of The Place Beyond the Pines, in which he mentions Bradley Cooper’s restless and resourceful talent. To be called restless and resourceful is the highest praise I’d ever aspire to.)
I’ve always been embarrassed by Aubade and Waiting for the Sky to Fall, but for different reasons and at different times.
Twenty-five years ago an agent who had the idea he could sell the movie rights to one of my novels (he couldn’t) told me I seemed to be embarrassed when he mentioned Aubade. I was. I was squirming, but now I can’t figure out why, at that particular time. I’d been embarrassed many years before, to the point where I even denied writing it, because in my twenties I was trying on a heterosexual identity and had internalized a lot of homophobia. It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. when I was 30 that I got caught up in the spirit of the times and fully came out. Except when for some reason it wasn’t convenient. As a journalist I trod an uneasy path between denial and making a point of choosing gay men to write about, their sexuality a given only worth mentioning in passing.
Yup, it’s complicated. A 16-year-old boy who wrote a book that gave comfort to many might have been a gay icon. If I’d been rich, or protected by a powerful family, or didn’t have to earn a “respectable” living. I was reckless, but not that reckless. I’d known that writing a gay novel was a huge risk in that climate where queers were still regarded as perverted things, but I also sensed the queerness was what would make the book get noticed and maybe published. At 16 I was desperate. I’d left school, I’d missed going back for an A-level year to get into university and there was no money to support me at university even if I got a full scholarship. There were no options. Everything depended on the book getting published. (I benefited from the law that may help a cowardly writer seem brave, the law of delayed consequences. You weren’t immediately held accountable for what you committed to paper. In the days of www. that law may no longer apply.)
And when I got the advance there was no question that I’d get on the boat to England. Let me tell you what I was escaping. A sister made a weak attempt to keep me at home. “If you stay you’d have everything you want,” she said. “Enough money for your own razor and your own radio.” MORE TO COME
Reviewing additions to the “literary failure memoir” genre in the 3/25/13 New Yorker, Giles Harvey concludes that the authors are making an inordinate fuss over their failure to succeed at a career in which success is unlikely (since the career barely any longer exists), and that some are such poor writers they don’t deserve to succeed. Redemption, even learning, seems to be lacking.
Doubtless some will read my previous post (“Good writing done me in”) as an apology for poor writing skills, a dismissal of knowledge and craft in the service of letting it all hang out, and terrible advice to school kids who need to learn the best possible communication skills.
Not so. I’m arguing that it’s useful to match degree of craft to purpose in writing. When I gave up fiction for journalism in the early 60s, a lot of people castigated me for selling out. (I castigated myself.) But I needed to eat (and wanted to drink, oh yes). Some of the best writing I ever did was reporting for the Sunday magazines, helped enormously by the scrupulous writing skills I’d taught myself for fiction. (It must be hard for today’s North American writers in all genres to believe that my fiction and journalism usually went straight to the printer with not a comma changed or a fact checked, even with a lead time of six weeks: editors had learned to trust me (but my sentences were simpler then–my 16-year-old self would have been horrified at the idea of parens within parens).) It was unthinking prejudice that led some to assume attempting to write fiction was always a more worthwhile pursuit than making a career in journalism. I’m not sure many would make that mistake these days. (Though you’d be surprised how some envy me for having novels published when they never pick up a novel and know nobody who ever reads novels.)
Expertise in basic skills is useful for any writer, and essential for the wretch on fire with a passion for writing. Nothing will stop the truly passionate from learning what they need to learn. But every kid in any class might learn to value any attempt they make at writing for the gifts it might bring, some unknowable at the time of writing: I think every kid through every stage of development, however clumsy the attempts at writing, should save every word in a time capsule to open periodically through life to help him understand where he came from and who he is.
We forget who we were, especially who we were when we were very young. I had no memory until I read Aubade thirty years after I wrote it of how angry I was as an adolescent. I had no idea when I wrote Aubade and my headmaster banned it that one day teachers would recommend it to their students as the “ultimate gay young adult novel” (because it was written by a young gay adult). We can never know how valuable our words, however clumsily shaped, may one day be to us, or even to others.
These days I sometimes recommend that psychotherapy clients start journaling in search of (to help create) that authentic self they can respect, but find so elusive. I ask that they not shape the writing. I suggest that when a thought seems worth it they jot down key words, phrases, on their phone or laptop. Don’t “write,” lose the restrictions. Match means to ends.
When I was 16 I behaved very differently. Before I wrote my first novel Aubade the summer I left school, I studied two thick manuals by Uzzell on the technique of the novel, and both Fowler books. (You’re reading this blog and don’t know who the Fowlers were? Enough of that 16-year-old schoolmarm remains in me to tell you to look it up.) All that studying (which I’d refused to do in school) resulted in a novel that the London Sunday Times later called “maturely sophisticated in style and structure.” (Which was probably what got it published and saved it from being rejected as filth. Though that happened: Dot, the woman who ran the railway station bookstall in Bangor, the Northern Irish town where I grew up, ordered some copies to make a few shillings and then sent them back when she read what she called “the dirtiest book I ever read.” Lives were sheltered in that benighted decade of the 50s.)
Fast forward to the 90s, and a New York agent explained to me why the treatment I’d written for a nonfiction book wouldn’t sell. “But it’s so well-written,” I complained. “Oh, well-written,” she said dismissively. (She’d been the same notoriously demanding Ph.D. student who gave me an unprecedented A+ in a lit course at Columbia.) Or to psychology grad school, where I couldn’t understand why a peer got an A for a paper that was full of typos and grammatical errors, whereas I got only an A-.
I was still focused on form, not content, and it took me a long time to begin to understand why murky clunky detouring allusive writing got the praise and my clear prose was rejected. For years I supposed that the murk was designed to disguise a lack of content, but eventually I was willing to admit that my transparent prose only served to reveal the thinness of my ideas.
To write most sentences is to lie by omission. To select x number of words is to choose not to tell the whole truth. Even if we knew it, even if such a thing exists, even if we always know what it is that we know.
In twelve step programs they say that “More will be revealed.” In my twenties huge chunks of my earlier experience were unavailable to my consciousness. It’s unclear to me that I deliberately suppressed the early experience. Maybe more likely, I was too busy creating an identity I could live with to handle, integrate, the early experiences into my view of the world. I’ve known men, not me, who woke up one morning at the age of 24 and realized that they were gay (or longed for monogamy, or didn’t want children) but with no memory of ever having considered such a possibility before that morning.
When I was in school I was bullied. I don’t recall ever saying that before. I felt (feel?) so much shame about it that I couldn’t tell even a therapist. However, in school I also bullied. That, unlike being bullied, was something I only remembered, admitted to myself, quite recently. I could write a thousand pages about how those experiences have formed my character and influenced the way I behave towards others. But I don’t think I bullied because I was bullied. I bullied because it was part of my nature.
I’ve written that in writing Aubade I wrote everything I knew. But I didn’t. The book was thought of as daring, but I left out what I was ashamed of, or what even that reckless child knew would be considered beyond all acceptable thinking in that place at that time. So I lied by omission then, and maybe later I lied deliberately through shame.
When I was a teenager writing fiction I was constantly told (accused!) that writing came easily to me. When I started writing for the quality London Sunday newspapers I struggled to the point where people watching me said I should find another profession.
My first three novels came fairly easily, for different reasons. When I wrote Aubade I wrote all I knew. I didn’t have to choose what to say about the experiences/feelings/competing beliefs/responses to other writing that flood my brain these days. Writing my second and third novels I wanted to produce x number of words so that I could get the contracted advance and eat.
Of course I was spoiled by writing a highly praised novel at age 16. I expected writing to come easily, and I didn’t have the inner resources (or respect for the work) to fight to succeed when it got hard.
I started out with more respect for journalism, not least because I could earn £20 more for a piece in the Sunday Times or Telegraph magazines than I got for the advance on my first novel. I wasn’t writing to formula and had no idea how corrupt many Fleet Street journalists were about stretching the truth until I started working alongside them. I was willing to pound the streets (I once interviewed every tenant on every floor of every building on both sides of an entire block in Soho) and struggle to craft a story from what I believed to be the absolute truth. Journalism only came easily to me when I lost respect for my assignments: when I moved to New York, twice a year I’d get sent to Hollywood to interview stars such as Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson. That was when I truly wrote to formula.
These days (these last few years) I read almost nothing but 19th and 20th century Russian history and fiction, part of my struggle to learn the Russian language that I’ll probably still be engaged in the day I croak. Which has taught me respect for suffering and genius. While I wrote the new introduction to Waiting for the Sky to Fall I was also reading Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, with its useful distinction between autobiography and memoir. I thought of writing a memoir about how I became who I am, but I cringed at the difficulty of handling the interactions between the three main things that shaped me (no, pounded me into shape). Maybe three books that covered the same years? Maybe three long parts of the same book? That would truly be opening a vein, and at the very least bloody hard work.