Faults and Flaws

Another way to think about writing memoir is to write about the present or even the future rather than the past. I almost prefer this idea, because memory is shaky, and this makes memoirs hardly any truer than novels.

I took this, Happier at Home, out the library, mostly as a joke, a few days ago. The list on the cover – kiss more, happiness2jump more – hardly inspired confidence as a route to home happiness, but I do like the idea of a documented self-improvement project.  I think these make great topics for memoirs.

Take the guy who decided to follow the tenets of the bible. His book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, led him to tend sheep in the Israeli desert, battle idolatry and worst of all, tell the absolute truth in all situations.

I’ve been tempted to try small-scale self-improvement projects but not, so far, to write about them. Every now and again, I have a ‘faults and flaws’ day. Faults are entrenched personality deficiencies like neuroticism or pessimism – of course, I don’t have these faults, but if I did happen to have them, they would be impossible to change.  Flaws, however, are much more focused problems like being online too much or not putting the lid on the toothpaste. Again, not that these flaws are at all recognisable to me.

However, I’m thinking bigger than this for my next memoir. I don’t just want a touch-up job, like something you’d get at a shady panel beater; I want a complete engine rehaul, a new personality in 365 days. I just need to to think of the right experiment.

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Truth and Lies

Every author probably has a question that is always asked of him or her.  What does everyone want to know about George R.R. Martin? When he will write his goddam sequel.  What do we always get asked? See. Clever. A smooth segue between George R.R. Martin and Greg Lazarus for those millions of Google searches that include both our names.

We always get asked how we write together. And we always say the same thing. When we write, we don’t fight. It’s sort of true. If you don’t count comments like, ‘Don’t be stupid, stupid’ in your definitions of fighting.

One way we achieve this peaceful stance towards one another is by developing our own writer vocabulary. Words subtly shift their meaning. If I’ve penned a draft of something and I show it to Greg, I’ll ask him what he thinks.  And this is how it goes: ‘Interesting’ means ‘crap’, ‘good’ means ‘fairly crap but not entirely crap’, ‘ great’ means ‘maybe we can salvage one or two lines from your 500 words’.  But doesn’t any relationship work like this? Since when did ‘I’ve got a headache’ mean ‘I’ve got a headache’? truth

Some writer collaborations probably involve a whole lot of fighting. Raymond E. Feist at Open Book Festival seemed to imply that this was the case with his collaborative partner, Joanie or Jo or Jumbo or something. He said that they screamed at each other for hours but all in the interests of the narrative, of course.

This would never work for us. New work feels very fragile. Ours is not a cactus like Feist’s manuscript; it’s more like a struggling sapling, just breaking through hard soil.  Even sharing ideas at the early stage is very difficult. Greg refuses to do it. He says he has to feel his way into a piece. I think that sounds a little bit poncy, but I tell him that I understand. And after he’s sent me the first 500 words, I’ll be sure to say, at the very least, how ‘interesting’ I’ve found them.

Rude and shocking

Fuck, cunt. Cocks. Pussy galore. I feel a bit naughty writing these things, but not so much. Just a slight charge of shock. Not long ago, the effect would have been a lot more hard-core. Apart from some scandalous exceptions in fiction, like Portnoy’s Complaint, these words were mostly for magazines stuffed under teenage boys’ mattresses. Now they’re just part of the writer’s toolkit – maybe you’d use words like these to reveal character, for example. And sex in general, and of just about all kinds, is mainstream, in fiction and non-fiction. No more passing around copies of Eric van Lustbader’s The Ninja, pages folded over on the dirty bits, with even those passages a little bit coy (“By what magic had she accomplished that?”). Or The Thorn Birds.

Still not as popular as ‘Jared’ or ‘Samantha’

Now any old book has got dirty bits, even lots of highly-respected lit. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections contains a scene of someone called Chip sniffing up and down a sofa, nosing into the seams to find the elusive scent of quim from an ex-girlfriend. And let us not forget the anal sex memoir, The Surrender. Or The Sexual Life of Catherine M, in which a disaffected Frenchwoman has anonymous sexual encounters with multiple men.

An erudite friend says that our civilisation reminds her of Ancient Rome. We are totally decadent, everything goes.

Naturally, for a writer, it’s important to be able to shock the reader – one of the things you might hope to do now and then – except how do you do it anymore with sex? Where do you go? Cannibalistic bondage orgies? Nah, been done. Well then, what happens if you take the sex out of a novel altogether and write a love story? I certainly haven’t read one of those recently. Could it be that we’ve reached a situation where love, written about without irony or friction (no pun intended), is more shocking than fucking?

3 misconceptions about writing fiction

 

  1. Writing is dignified

If you want to write authentic characters, they frequently won’t be dignified. People do squirmy and embarrassing things all the time.  It’s interesting that some writers, in my limited experience, tend to be quite taciturn in day-to-day life but appear fairly comfortable revealing secrets on the page.

Says memoirist Edmund White in My Lives,The most important things in our intimate lives can’t be discussed with strangers, except in books.’

Oddly, if you tell something authentically and well, I think the shame goes away. The nice thing about writing (unless it’s memoir, of course) is that you can transfer those horrible, shameful feelings to one of your characters, and thus, far away from yourself. You can then claim that your characters have nothing to do with you. Yeah. Right.

But even if the writing is explicitly about you – e.g. Edmund White’s grotesquely masochistic tastes or Tobias Wolff’s youthful fraud – the magic of good, authentic writing is that readers don’t regard you badly.

 

  1. Inspiration comes to those who wait

You know the drill: you’re trying to write something and everything distracts you –  the  lawn mower down the road, a door shutting in the house and  Facebook. RIGHT NOW you need to know if anyone new has liked your artistically rendered photo of the salmon sunset over Camps Bay. RIGHT NOW!

dracula

Yum

But if you stick with the writing through boring patches where you inch along, you sometimes, not always, hit gold. Suddenly, things starts to happen, the words gush out and the story plays – briefly – like a movie in your head. ‘We…will have to pass through the bitter water before we reach the sweet,’ as Van Helsing says in Dracula.

Some writers feel differently; they think you should only write when inspired. I disagree. I think inspiration creeps up and bumps one on the nose at unexpected moments but often only when one is actually writing. And if it happens when you’re not writing, you’d better rush to get it on the page. Because you’ll forget it. Particularly if you have young kids.

 

  1. Writing is slow and painful

Yes. Yes. It often is like that but don’t be frightened by a sprint-like first draft.  To quote Stephen King:

“Get the first draft done quickly…

I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months…Any longer and — for me, at least — the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.”  stephen king

In a first draft you need to get lost in the world of the book, which begins to inhabit your everyday life, so that you almost get that discombobulating feeling of coming out of the cinema after a long movie, blinking, into the daylight. I think it’s about trying to make this fantasy world real, at least for yourself. If the world is not real for you, then it won’t be real for anyone else.