Faith and Will – Carl Shuker

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INTERVIEWER
So, how do you write, exactly?

BALLARD
Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

Obviously the Ballard here is J.G., in his Paris Review interview. Here is the author of, at his death in 2009, 18 novels and by my count 22 assorted collections of short fiction. In 1984, when he said this, James Graham was 54 and had published 10 novels and 15 of those collections. What lies behind this perfect little quote is an enormous lived treatise on the faith and will of writing.

J.G. is turning irritably in his grave right now, but hear me out.

In 1964, three novels into his career, Ballard’s wife died of pneumonia. In his joyous, playful The Kindness of Women he rewrote his own biography such that she dies after a fall at a Spanish beach resort. He is forced to drive his three children home to their dusty semi in Shepperton, TW17. Imagine that drive.

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J.G. Ballard outside his house in Shepperton.

Shepperton, to his readers, is an otherwise banal London commuter circuit suburb luminous with his fiction: its reservoirs clasping drowned light aircraft in their waving weeds; its leafy green über-English foliage poised trembling ready to explode into a precisely and passionately observed tropical rainforest; its residents walking as if lost in a dream, ready for their deviating sexualities to emerge and find their fullest expression on church pews and dashboards.

What he did, just three novels in, his wife dead, age thirty-four, was to drive home to Shepperton with his three bereaved children, and commence the unimaginable task of bringing them up alone and writing his life’s work. And though Miriam died of pneumonia, not of a mysterious concussion in the back of a Catalan ambulance, whether or not he verifiably drove those children home doesn’t matter. Because that is what he did. He drove them home from the place of their mother’s death, and then he drove them to school in the morning, every morning, and came home, poured himself a large Teacher’s at (I like to imagine) about 9:15 (elsewhere in a very generous and humanising admission he talks of it calming his nerves), and commenced on the next 500 to 1000 words of some of the most devastating, numinous, repetitive, terrifying, sad, monotonous, prophetic, hilarious fiction we keep from the latter half of the twentieth century. (Martin Amis called Ballard’s fiction “at once totally humourless and entirely unserious”: his persistently strange work always rewards the paradoxical juxtaposition, and like all the biggies, he always reveals his reviewer.)

This is an act, behind his—and any big writer’s—apparent bravado, Godlikeness, unassailability (I don’t ever think of McCarthy sitting down to Blood Meridian and murmuring “Oh, I just can’t enter into this imaginatively today”): an act of faith, and of will. Because the weird catch-22 or ouroboros of novel writing is that to do the creative, imaginative work of making a piece of prose ring in a reader’s imagination, to raise and fire an undoubted world with bounce and blood and passion such that the reader has total faith in it, you must have faith in yourself. It’s a requirement.

It may sound trite. But consider this: out of nowhere, you’re say 24 and haven’t hardly finished a proper emotion let alone a thing we might call a book, you’re required to have faith that this tiny two-inch corner you’re painting right now will form an inevitable, essential, closely examinable and yet seemingly seamless and unremarkable part of a huge, huge canvas (you know only it’s really big) that you don’t know the exact dimensions of yet. (There’s a not-small element of bluff.) Because if you don’t have that faith then the brushstrokes, the mark making, will be incongruous; tiny, perfect details here; broad evocative strokes out there when you got confident but ran out of time/material/story/whatever. Pacing all wrong. Result: “Patchy”—L. Patchett, Listener. “Uneven”—Michiko Kakutani, NYT.

So because it’s me and not, well, you, I’m actually talking about, back to the first person: the catch: in order to do what I need to do and what I know I can’t do, or certainly have no prior evidence I can do, I must have faith in myself that I can indeed do this miraculous thing. Faith is a synonym here for love of self. But also, over time, as the fiction progresses, for me, faith in the people of the fiction. Faith in the world as it is transformed into the fiction. Faith as synonym for love of world. (Of course what also works is support of community, of family etc., apposite energies or obsessions like anger, loss, love, big passions which can be channelled, etc., Scotch.) Will is the element of getting myself into the position to have faith. “I will, every day, be here at this time doing this thing and if you think I won’t and that I will fuck this up like I fucked those other things up you’re about to get a lesson in will.” Or something equally self-exhortatory, vociferous, not to say strident. This is our only time and our only time in the sun; bitching about publishing and about debt and stress and hard work and tiredness and failure and dumbing down of this and that are just ways of not doing what I really have to do.

Don DeLillo has a lovely bit about will, in Underworld:
“Have you come across the word velleity? A nice Thomistic ring to it. Volition at its lowest ebb. A small thing, a wish, a tendency. If you’re low-willed, you see, you end up living in the shallowest turns and bends of your own preoccupations.”

It’s a Jesuit talking to a young man. And I can see it’s kind of scary in isolation from the big sepia warmth of that book. It’s not just about set teeth and application of trouser seat to chair, as Kingsley Amis has it. Here’s Ballard, at his desk every morning in his, let’s face it, filthy house, his three children (three children) off at school, with his glass of Scotch, commencing on the next page of the novel, of his alternative affirmation of the psychosexual horror-comedy of the twentieth century.Drowned_World

And before I tell you what he does next, looking down at what he’s written, there’s another thing I might mention, apart from writing, and books, that is the result of this exercise of faith and will. Bill Manhire reports on always feeling like the youngest person in the room. And it’s written all over his face. Seamus Heaney said, “All poets are young poets really, that’s the beauty of it.” It was written all over his face too.

There are writers out there, and unhappy, frantic-seeming people with intense inner lives who haven’t found their work, who only calm under the weight of a task. I think of them like certain teenagers, all power and energy and no direction. Give them a task, give them a weight to bear, precisely calibrated just above their expectations of themselves. And they may bitch and moan, but the weight must be such they are forced to concentrate, and calm. There is a peace.

And there’s more. Because here’s Ballard, 34, with his three children, his debts, no doubt, and his memories of murder, atrocity, torture and starvation. His lost wife. He looks down at what he’s just written and chuckles.GetImage

Carl Shuker is the 2013 Writer in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. His books include The Lazy Boys and The Method Actors. His latest novel is Anti Lebanon. Asked to recommend Ballard titles, Carl writes: ‘For new readers I’d say definitely start with the canonical Crash, or for those more squeamish, The Drowned World. And for the wonderful transmogrification of Shepperton: The Unlimited Dream Company.’

Carl is representing the MA year 2001 at the IIML Alumni Reading on Sunday 29 September from 7.30pm at Circa Theatre, Wellington.

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Research and Improvisation – Amy Head

 

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For the first time in a while, recently, while I was packing up to move, I put my hands on the folders and clear files relating to each of the stories in Tough (a collection set in the past and present on the West Coast). I’m far less likely to happen on digital files in the same way, and it was the first time I’d looked at this material together as one record. Each story had its own spiral-bound notepad. There were photocopies from library visits and pamphlets from tiny museums in the middle of nowhere (more like sheds, some of them, supervised by no-one). I found an exhibition catalogue and a promo DVD from Solid Energy.

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The folders were filled out with print-outs of past drafts – three or four per story. Flicking through the old versions reminded me of entire sections of stories that had been scrapped, like the deleted scenes in DVD extras. It reminded me how unexpectedly modular the stories had been, allowing me to shift paragraphs around when I’d finished the first draft and could see more clearly what the story was about. It was all there: characters whose names had changed, the story I had to rewrite after being burgled.

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I especially enjoy the research and discovery phase of developing an idea for a story. At its most ‘method’, this has meant persuading a friend of a friend, a textile historian, to let me try on her collection of hoop skirts. At its most leisurely it meant tracking down and watching old goldrush movies.

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Sometimes these diversions were justified. After all, I have to inject the language with my own energy and commitment. I have to make the first draft sparkle enough to keep me interested in all the subsequent drafts, when I’ve switched the paragraph order and changed my mind about tense and point of view, and it’s all an unpacked mess that has to be put back together somehow.

But often, when I’ve forced myself to stay at my desk and write past the point at which the day’s writing began to feel stale, I’ve eventually arrived at an idea or image I’ve liked. I’m not sure that all of the preamble, my holistic approach, which I hoped was building up a unique world, attitude and tone for each story, was actually necessary. Although it may have given the stories the occasional sentence or image, the language and style is far more likely to have been enriched by what I was reading. On my MA year in particular, I was reading more, and more widely, than usual, and being encouraged to try new things.

During an interview for ‘In the Actor’s Studio’, Robert de Niro said he often found he got to the same place in his characterisations by skipping most of the fastidious preparation, instead starting to improvise and rehearse as soon as possible. I wonder if, when I start out in my next project, I’ll find a better balance between preparing and doing from the outset. If I start writing earlier, my subconscious can continue the work while I’m skiving off watching YouTube footage of the world’s highest waterfall, a demonstration of how to put my hair in victory rolls, or Roberto Begnini performing his one-man show about Dante, in Italian, in front of the Duomo.

Amy Head’s first book of stories Tough is published by Victoria University Press. She appears in the Writers on Mondays lunchtime series at Te Papa on 29 July.

Word Stabbing with Therese Lloyd

I remember doing this exercise when I was a little girl; back then I didn’t know it was a kind Therese Lloyd 2012of writing exercise of course, I was just having fun with words. But I figure a sense of play is still the essential component of any writing exercise even if I am a grownup now.

So before we begin, just to clarify, this exercise is completely lacking in sophistication; it’s the sort of thing that you can do prone and with one eye half open. But if you want to get something down on that glowering piece of paper (‘the piano crouched in the corner of the room with all its teeth bare’ as Nick Cave says), this’ll do it.

Instructions:

• Chose a collection of poems by a single poet (no anthologies)

• Open the book at any page

• Close your eyes

• With one hand, index finger pointed, make grand-ish gesticulations* in the air

• Then with your eyes still closed bring that finger down onto the open page

• Open your eyes … there is a word under that finger! Write down the word

• Repeat this twenty times, each time opening the book at any page

• Once you have your twenty words start writing a poem that uses all of those words as the structural foundation

Things to note:

If your finger hits a blank space on the page or an article, conjunction or preposition just chose the nearest interesting looking word (whatever you deem that to be) or flick open the book and repeat the process. Try to be as loose as possible though and don’t be put off by a word that you find ugly or out of your ken, and similarly don’t seek a word that you think might ‘fit’.

You can use the words in any order and as many times as you like and you can change the tense to fit.

The great thing about this exercise is once you start composing your poem you can shoot off in any direction you like, in fact, the more open you are to the possibilities the better; after-all, at this stage these are just twenty lone words with no meaning attached to them.

Although we’ve probably all done exercises like this at some point, what’s fun about this one is that you can still get the satisfaction of having written a poem but without dredging your soul for themes or images—the subject tends to emerge as you go along.

The other good thing about this exercise is the marvelous happy accidents that can occur. From Paterson by William Carlos Williams amongst the list of twenty words I picked was this little cluster; ‘old, unoccupied, clouds’, how lovely!

While it’s not essential that you use a single poet’s collection, I encourage it because it’s a novel way to get a sense of a specific poet’s lexicon. Doing this exercise with Wallace Stevens for example may yield a lot of shape, pink, voice, high, concentric etc, with Lyn Heijinian, burlap, bounded, realized, brick etc.

Have fun and remember, no one’s watching.

*not strictly necessary but lends a certain mysticism to the exercise; writers are part magician after-all.

Therese Lloyd’s poems have appeared in a number of print and online publications including Sport, Landfall, Hue & Cry, the AUP series New Zealand Poets in Performance, Jacket2 and Turbine. In 2007 she was awarded the Schaeffer Fellowship to spend a year attending the acclaimed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Several cities later, she now lives in Paekakariki with her husband. Her debut collection Other Animals is published in March.

A Very Public Masterclass

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Photo by MAARTEN HOLL/Dominion Post

During the recent Writers & Readers Festival in Wellington three novice poets had their work critiqued by Poet Laureate Bill Manhire during a poetry master class. Read the DomPost Story here.

‘Then he says the thing I both love and hate hearing in a workshop – I think you need to take a deep breath and start again.’ —Pip Adam reports for the Scoop Review of Books

‘lots of really good stuff,’ he said. ‘Lots of really dodgy stuff.’  —Philippa Werry on Beattie’s Book Blog

‘the people in the seats next to me spent the first ten minutes talking about how they weren’t quite sure about this whole Bill Manhire business, but they wanted to see for themselves’  —Hera Lindsay Bird for Booksellers NZ