Quote of The Week

“The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election, while the statesman thinks about the next generation.”

Theologian James Freeman Clarke

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Commonplaces

What already seems like a lifetime ago, in a book called Writer at Work (2005 – see Books and Audio page), I suggested than one sure cure for writers’ block was always to have at least one long term project.

“Having a project can also help a writer to get going and keep going. The project can be a novel or script (although these things can be a quagmire), or simply a theme or a series. It may help to think about the kinds of things you want to write and formulate them as a long-term project – for example “all my family’s stories” or “looking back on the books that changed my life” or “the experiences and opinions of a recovering educator” – you get the idea. The great French essayist Michel de Montaigne gave this as his very best piece of advice to writers: have a project, work on it every day, and never let your mind lie fallow. It sounds more impressive in French.”

Of course I never follow my own advice. These past few weeks I found myself in a sort of existential fog. Nothing seemed worth doing, or writing about. Finally I realized that, since finishing with an essay collection and a memoir at the end of 2017, I haven’t had a real project.

Plenty of fantasy projects have drifted through my mind: writing a novel, writing some short stories, writing some huge heavy-duty serious essays for the literary magazine market. But none of these ideas had the motivating spark, so I went to the basement.

The basement is my Freudian subconscious, where I keep all the stuff I think I have forgotten. There are several filing drawers full of “ideas” – or at least files with notes and cuttings about things that interest me. One set files is for my short radio essays, a second is for my music program, and the third contains everything else. I pulled all the stuff out of the third drawer.

What I found was a heap of files – some old, some new – a full twenty-seven inches thick. I measured them. These are all ideas that I want to write about “one day.” Perhaps that day has arrived.

It was interesting but daunting to go through these papers. They contain disorganized material on every subject from the teaching of history to the belief in flying saucers, and from tourism to the curious attitudes of Americans towards sex. It is either a treasure trove or a heap of junk.

I decided to treat it as a treasure trove, and set about organizing the chaos into topics. But it was clear from the start that this explosion of ideas and prejudices was not material for a conventional book of essays. But it might be the basis for a Commonplace Book.

Who in the 21st century has heard of a Commonplace Book? They’ve been around since the 16th century, and are still regularly published under some different label. The original Commonplace Books were collections of spiritual thoughts and insights. These were commonplaces by definition. In those days any departure from orthodoxy might have very bad consequences indeed.

But, over the centuries, the term Commonplace Book took on an ironic meaning. It was still a collection of everyday observations and thoughts, but the content became more and more original, quirky, and unorthodox. In other words “commonplace” was turned on its head. The originator of this device may have been Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées (1669) are a fine example of a commonplace book that recorded the casual thoughts of an ordinary prodigy and genius.

In short, a commonplace book is an intellectual scrapbook, a collection of thoughts, opinions, and memories. One of my favorite examples is D.J.Enright’s Play Resumed. Kurt Vonnegut, in his old age, took to publishing such collections of fragments, the best of which is Man Without a Country.

There’s no doubt that I have more enough material for such a Commonplace Book, but it is hard to know where to start. For the moment I have returned all the papers to the original filing drawer to mature, like a fine wine. I still need a project, but there is no point in rushing into things.

Vanity Fair

Vanity of Vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.
Ecclesiastes

A lot of writers are shy. We are self-selected for shyness. Politicians, actors, and pop singers become what they are because they adore the limelight, but writers have chosen a solitary occupation. Most of us spend virtually all our working time alone, and that’s the way we like it.

But I suspect that, under a veneer of modesty, a raving egotist is struggling to get out. After all the mere act of writing, and the expectation that someone will read it, and even pay for it, can only be explained by extreme vanity.

I like to think of myself as a modest and even a shy person. What set me thinking about vanity was time spent in the basement, still clearing up the debris of a house move we made years ago. The basement always promotes philosophical reflection. It’s like the Freudian subconscious, where we hide all the things we don’t want to think about right now. Clearing the basement is a form of psychotherapy and, like any course of psychotherapy it may tell you things about yourself that you would rather not know.

What I uncovered on this expedition was a ridiculous accumulation of personal records. If I’m so modest, why do I have diaries going back to the 1950s, photographs going back to childhood, and copies of just about every letter I ever wrote or received? Why do I have several big files filled with letters of appreciation from readers, listeners and event organizers? I never keep the bad ones! There are filing cabinets filled with everything I ever wrote, including the most trivial trivia.

I have always claimed that I have no interest in writing about my own life or family, because they have been and are pretty boring. But I have actually written two memoirs, which are a kind of distillation and dramatization of the stuff in the basement. It can be nothing but vanity – an unfounded belief that my life is much more important and worth preserving than it really is.

In recent years vanity has been re-labeled as “self-esteem,” and given a more positive image. Some American children are puffed up with self-esteem like so many hydrogen balloons, so they get a real shock when they hit the cruel world outside the family. I’ve encountered college-age students who have a marvelous opinion of themselves, even though the only skills they seem to have mastered in eighteen years are sex and the operation of a smart phone.

This is obviously nothing new. In John Bunyan’s inspirational story The Pilgrim’s Progress, which first hit the bestseller lists in 1678, he tells of a town called Vanity in which self-esteem was the major industry. In Vanity, every kind of honor, title, position, pleasure and flattering self-image could be bought, at a great market, run by Beelzebub. Naturally, the place was a bigger success than The Mall of America. Everybody went to Vanity.

In the 1840s William Makepeace Thackeray used Bunyan’s fantasy to satirize the narcissism of the human race in a wonderfully entertaining novel called Vanity Fair. Now we are in the twenty-first century, and human nature still hasn’t changed. There is a glossy magazine that – in a spirit of irony or ignorance – is actually called Vanity Fair. The contents certainly live up to the title: three hundred pages of pure narcissism and self-delusion.

But back to the main point. If writers are vain by definition – if egotism is part of our job description – we just have to embrace it. Writing tends to separate us from the rest of society, but our vanity reminds us that we are exactly like everybody else.

New York, New York

Manhattan is less than fifty miles from where I live, but I go there less and less. The other day I made the trip for the first time in months, taking the Long Island Railroad train that millions of commuters love to hate.

The underground caverns of Pennsylvania Station were like a scene from a disaster movie, as usual, and I almost rushed for the street. I always take pleasure in climbing the two-dozen steps out of the station. It makes me feel good to walk up this broad, almost empty staircase, while hundreds of my fellow travelers cram on to a single narrow escalator that climbs even more slowly than I do. This stair climbing activity may be genetic in origin. My mother, at 103, became the oldest inhabitant of her retirement home, and she loved the fact that she was also the only one who could climb the stairs without help.

I always forget the impact of New York. The street outside the station hits you like an explosion. Vendors shout, the traffic roars, sirens wail constantly like a kind of ambient tinnitus, and great masses of people are walking hurriedly in all directions as if their lives depended on getting somewhere right now. For those of us who live in the suburbs it is quite a novelty to see people walking at any speed. Out here we just flop into our cars and flop out again whenever we see a supermarket.

The walkers of New York claim my entire attention – the women of course. Who cares about the men? New York has more beautiful women than any other place I’ve seen in the world. I’m not forgetting Paris and Milan. Midtown Manhattan is a cornucopia of thin, lovely women of all ages. They divide roughly into two types: those who dress with great elegance and those who (in summer) scarcely dress at all. It’s almost too much for a man of my age.

Manhattan has a million other temptations: bookstores, theaters, restaurants, bars, and stores selling mountains of clothes that are made in India for a few dollars and that reappear on the Upper East Side with price tags in the hundreds. This is the city that globalization built, and you can see it on the streets. Breasting the crowds on Fifth Avenue, like a swimmer forcing my way through heavy waves, I must have seen representatives of every nationality in the world in half an hour, from Muslim women in the full Burqa, ultra-orthodox Jews, Africans, Asians, and the whole Babel of races. It made me dizzy, and I popped into a bar where a stunning black waitress with long ringlets, a girl out of a fantasy dream, made me dizzier still.

New York is not a place for the faint of heart. Writers flock here for the history and the atmosphere, and hang out in the bar of the Algonquin Hotel hoping to meet the literary celebrities who (in theory) should be thick on the ground. I know several writers who claim that they could never live anywhere else, because it is so stimulating.

But it would be too stimulating for me. If I lived there my whole attention would be absorbed by the manic rhythms of the city. If I’m going to write at all I need to be in the half-dead wastelands of suburbia, where nothing ever happens. That’s my place.

When the train had crawled back to my home station and pulled away, and when the crossing gates had stopped clanging and flashing, there was a moment of blessed quiet. I actually heard a bird singing, and I walked home on completely empty streets. Once again I can, as the saying goes, “Hear myself think.” It may not be metropolitan and sophisticated, but here I can write.

An Existential Moment

“An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.”
Albert Camus

You often see someone who seems to be in a daze, staring into space. The someone may be yourself. It’s a cliché of abstraction, a formulaic Hollywood pose that is supposed to indicate: “My mind is elsewhere, I am detached from the here and now, I am in another place.”

This is usually nonsense. The apparent dreamer (yourself?) MAY be lost in thought. But it’s more likely that s/he is having an existential experience, very much in the here and now.

The other day I was waiting for a train, and idly watching a young Asian woman whose gaze was intently fixed on the station platform. She forced me to look at the platform too, which was a perfectly ordinary slab of filthy concrete covered in squashed chewing gum, and to remember all the other platforms, sidewalks, stairs, floors and parking lots I have gazed at in my lifetime.

Any object is a distorting mirror. It beams your own uneasy memories right back to you. A dirty station platform, like Proust’s infamous Madeleine, recalls all the dirty station platforms you have ever seen. And that in turn recalls all the thoughts you have ever had while gazing at a dirty station platform.

I remember the platform where I waited for the commuter train that took me to London every day in the early 1960s, and thinking: Is this all there is? Will I be standing on this wretched platform every morning forever? I remember the platforms at the Gare du Nord in Paris that were at the beginning and the end of some romantic and unromantic journeys, and a windswept platform in Amsterdam where I waited for a military transport train, and other platforms in Milan and Rome that stuck in my mind for some reason. I remember very vividly standing on the platform at Pennsylvania Station in New York, when I started commuting again in the 1980s, and thinking: Is this all there is? Will I be standing on this wretched platform every evening forever?

There’s a whole lifetime history of moments on those platforms, which were all different yet all the same – all in a way continuous as if I can walk mentally from one to another to another, right to the spot where I saw the young Asian woman yesterday. They are, in some sense, a single long platform, united by the fact that I have stared at them.

The world is indeed flat, and all connected. My local station platform is no less alien and no less disgusting than one I stood on in Calcutta. The same anonymous feet walk on all and both, going nowhere.

If you don’t have these kinds of thoughts, be thankful. I blame them on early exposure to the literary existentialists, especially Camus, Sartre, Barbusse, and Hesse. They forced me to look at the surfaces below the everyday surface, and to find extraordinary meanings in ordinary things. I think it was in The Outsider by Albert Camus (1946) that the narrator Meursault fixes his eyes on a pair of dirty braces (suspenders) worn by a café proprietor, and finds nothing in them but sheer horror. I wanted to quote the passage, but my copy of the book has vanished – somebody please correct me if I have mistaken the source.

The bottom line is that every object becomes a puzzle and a potential threat – and a potential subject. I’ve written essays about sticks picked up in the woods, dead fireworks, jars of rusty nails, writing implements, and many other everyday things. They all seem (to me) much more meaningful than they appear.

Nobody ever writes to me about these essays, or comments on them Perhaps they are too commonplace, or too peculiar. But no doubt I will keep on writing them, and blaming them on Albert Camus.

Cassandra

My parents read a London newspaper called the Daily Mirror. This was an embarrassment, because the Mirror was a tabloid and not a quality paper. It was full of bathing beauties, murder stories and sports reports, and featured huge, shouting headlines. As a snobbish teenager I refused to read it, except for one columnist who went under the nom de plume “Cassandra.” His real name was William Neil Connor.

Cassandra was an attack columnist. He said all the things that should not be said, and told all the truths that nobody wanted to hear. But he was always on the side of truth and justice, and I took him as a kind of role model. Later in life when I started writing newspaper columns myself the ghost of Cassandra was always in the back of my mind.

Somewhere along the way, but much too late, I looked up the name Cassandra. My sketchy classical education had failed to teach me that she was a Trojan princess who was punished by the god Apollo for refusing his advances. He put an unusual curse on the poor woman. She was doomed to become a prophetess whose prophecies would always be true, but would never be believed.

So it seems that I myself had been doomed without knowing it. My early fascination with that column in the Daily Mirror must have warped my brain, and I have spent half a century churning out prophecies that are always true, but never believed. I can’t quite decide whether this is funny, or tragic.

A Curse of the Autodidact

Writers need to know things, and the best writers know a lot. Historical novels obviously depend on massive research, but any novel, short story or essay is much richer if it is well-seasoned with facts and ideas.

This was a barrier I ran into when I first started writing. Having skipped the college degree and jumped straight into Journalism at the age of sixteen I very quickly reached my level of incompetence. It was clear to me that the writers I admired were much better educated than I was, and that I could never aspire to do what they did without pounding a great many more facts into my head.

So I became that most annoying of creatures, an autodidact. On weekends I scoured the public libraries and the secondhand bookstores in Charing Cross Road in London. Two tedious years in the army provided me with a lot more reading time and, by my early twenties, I was quite certain that I knew everything worth knowing.

This illusion was briskly shattered by the clever boys and girls of the London literary scene. I had acquired some knowledge, but it was just a grab bag of disconnected facts and ideas. Nothing coherent came out of it.

It is no shame to surrender against overwhelming odds, so that’s what I did. After a belated immersion in the world of university and graduate school I emerged somewhat chastened but also at least half educated. This has been enormously useful, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

The trouble is that it is hard to stop. Those old autodidact habits haven’t gone away. I find myself going to lectures and to seminars at the One Day University, my study is cluttered with serious books and college courses on tape, and I haunt the local library like an inquisitive ghost. It’s a kind of neurosis. Most of this stuff I don’t need to know (this week the subject is Nietzsche) and none of it is remotely useful. I’ve never taken a course in carpentry, or electrical repair, or plumbing, although all these would be skills I could use.

There are a lot of others like me. I keep on meeting them in seminars and lecture rooms. We are decades past the stage of being educated, and probably past the stage of remembering anything we imagine we learn. But that is the curse of the autodidact.

Personal Archaeology

A few writers catch the habit late in life but most of us started young, tempted by the low initial investment and the illusion of status. This means that, by the time we enter the Valhalla of senior citizenhood, we have a lot old writings behind us. Attitudes to these vary: some of us shred, delete or otherwise dispose of all our unpublished and/or immature creations, while others keep every golden word. I am one of the pack rats.

Most of my old manuscripts are rubbish, except in so far as they jog my memory and constitute a kind of disorganized memoir. But occasionally I get the idea that something from the past could be revived, rewritten, and given a second chance.

Right now I’m working on a series of essays under the general title Lost Causes, and it occurred to me that I had written about some of these subjects before. Back in the 1990s I finished about half of a planned book called Pre Millennial Syndrome about the anxieties surrounding the Year 2000 (PMS, get it? Very cute). No publisher thought it was cute, and the finished chapters dropped into some dusty files in the basement.

Now I think can use some of those chapters in my essay collection. They will have to be much revised, but a lot of work went into them twenty years ago and I hate to see it all wasted. The only catch was that the chapters were not on my computer. They were on old 5¼ inch floppy disks that had deteriorated a long time ago, and don’t fit any modern computer. But I did have the printouts.

How to avoid the tedium of a vast amount of retyping, or the cost of hiring someone to do it? It was time to learn the mysteries of OCR or Optical Character Reading. After consulting some technical wizards I installed a program called “Readeris” which (not without some calls to Bombay) allowed me to scan the old pages into a word processing program, and so recover them for easy editing and rewriting (and deletion, if that proves to be the sensible thing).

Now my eyes turn towards the dubious treasure trove of ancient manuscripts in the basement. Using this new technology I could bring any of them back to life. Perhaps I could post my historic science fiction stories on the Internet – a blast from the past of the future, so to speak?

But no, it’s like revisiting old love affairs: the untouched, unedited memories are more than enough.

Talk

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” Jessamyn West

“The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.” Pearl S. Buck

Reading and writing are solitary pleasures. Other people must be pushed into the background so that we can enjoy our communion with words. But sometimes I wonder if this solitude is a defect, something fundamentally inhuman and anti-human. Reading, after all, is not a significant part of most people’s lives. For the nine out of ten Americans who scarcely read at all it is something positively alien. If you think I exaggerate, ask any high school or college teacher.

What brought this thought to the surface was a period of unusual sociability, during which I have met and talked to a lot of people. Tried to talk would be more exact. Writing comes easily enough to me, but talking is increasingly hard work. I seem to be losing my verbal (i.e. conversational) skills. Could this be the result of the writer’s inevitable solitude, eight hours or more a day of complete silence in an empty room in an empty house? It’s a disturbing thought.

When I started paying attention I realized that people all around me are talking all the time. My neighbor stood in her yard the other day and talked in a penetrating voice on her cell phone for a total of sixty-seven minutes, scarcely drawing a breath (I timed her with a stopwatch). I could never talk for sixty-seven minutes without a script because I don’t have that many things to say. Yet other people do it routinely. The front desk workers in our local library talk steadily from morning till night, as do most people in groups. I’m overwhelmed and silenced by their flow of words.

This brings us back to the difference between writing and talking. The decline and literacy has been more than overbalanced by a huge increase in verbosity. Cell phones may have something to do with unleashing this tsunami of talk, but something bigger may be happening.

Printing is not yet six hundred years old. Mass literacy is less than two hundred years old. For most of human history stories were told and heard, not read, and the tradition still survives in many parts of the world where literacy rates are low. The storyteller is an important and respected figure in the community. I’m reminded of the character Katsimbalis in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi whose fount of stories clearly made a deep impression on the author. Good storytelling is powerful.

By contrast, books and magazines as a form of popular entertainment are historically very new, and intellectually quite difficult. Learning to read is hard, reading is a concentrated, interpretative, solitary activity. The reader has to think. Translating those marks on paper into words, then into sentences and meanings, is hard mental labor. That’s why so many young people hate it.

In the twentieth century alternatives to reading appeared: radio, movies, television, videogames, and so on. Suddenly the hard work of reading could be bypassed, and we could drop back into the delightfully relaxed world of the old oral culture. “Tell me a story,” we said to our parents, and they did (or at least mine did). It was and is a primordial pleasure. Talk is easy, listening is easy. That’s why recorded books are so popular.

So an argument can be made that, because of the new post-print technologies, we are moving back (or forward) into a new/old age of oral communications. There will still be plenty of isolated, silent writers serving their isolated, silent readers. But most people will be just talking, and talking, and talking.

The Image

Writers must sometimes venture into activities for which we have few or no qualifications. Public speaking and salesmanship are two good examples. Recently I have been trying and failing to think intelligently about cover design. A visit to any bookstore will confirm that some book designers have tremendous flair, and others should never be allowed near a graphics program. It seems that I one of the latter type. My visual ideas are rubbish, and my grasp of typography and graphic design is about on a par with my grasp of quantum theory.

Book design is overrated, in my opinion. Books are about words. Nobody buys a book for its cover, unless we include trashy paperbacks sold in airport bookstores. The French once had the right idea about jacket design. Most serious books in France used to be (and a few still are) wrapped in the absolutely plain, graphics-free paper covers that I remember from my student days: title, author, publisher, and nothing else. They looked serious, and they were serious. If you wanted to know what was inside you had to read the book.

Our publishers have never gone for this simple and cheap solution. Book covers are advertisements, and must be created with the same care as the text – or perhaps more. Professional book designers are employed to do this, although most of us have strong ideas about our own books which the designers are paid to ignore.

My particular design problem was perhaps one of the most difficult and potentially embarrassing. We needed to agree on the cover design for a memoir that is due to be published next year. The very last thing I want on that cover is a picture of myself, because I am not and never was a thing of beauty. Almost anything else would do: an abstract design, a photographic image relating to the memoir, or a cartoon. I have used all these in the past, and they were fine.

Inevitably I lost the battle. The book will appear with a large cover photo of you-know-who. How this will affect the sales is something I don’t want to think about.

The Final Cut

About two hundred and fifty pages of manuscript just appeared on my computer and they look strangely familiar. In fact their existence is entirely my own fault. They are the final draft of a memoir I wrote last summer, and that now come back to me to me with the copy editor’s final comments – nineteen closely typed pages of them. This is the last chance, the final revision. Once the copy editor has corrected my grammar and punctuation (I love commas, who doesn’t?) this will be the version that appears in print. Every author at this stage suffers from Fear of Finality. The questions come crowding in:

What have I left out?

What should have I left out?

Who have I left out?

Who should I have left out?

Is this memoir true or is it, like most memoirs, pure fantasy?

Is it too late to cancel the whole thing?

Years ago, in a book called Writer at Work, I included a chapter about how to write a memoir. It was based on zero experience, because I had never tried to write one myself. But I had found it a popular course to teach at writers’ conferences, and at the rules seemed pretty straightforward. Now I have completed a memoir myself, and found a publisher, I’m not so sure.

P.S. A week later I’m still working through the corrections on this manuscript, so there’s no time to waste on web pages!