The Writer and the Peer Review

The reader often has clearer eyes. It is these words (written as the final line of my previous post) that I come back to again. It’s quite by co-incidence that this line tallies with another writing experience of the week. I’ve been sitting on a bunch of short stories, which I’m gathering for my next collection, and I don’t usually sit on them in this way. I usually send them out for peer review. For some reason I’m not entirely certain of, I’ve been sitting on this batch. I’ve been brooding. The brooding has resulted in the stories pushing their backs more and more into the coop I keep them in.

The reader often has clearer eyes; though some writers and commentators more or less dismiss talking about- or letting others see- their writing before they consider it ready for public consumption:

Never talk about what you are going to do until after you have written it.

— Mario Puzo

I just think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.

— Norman Mailer

Don’t tell anybody what your book is about and don’t show it until it’s finished. It’s not that anybody will steal your idea but that all that energy that goes into the writing of your story will be dissipated.

— David Wallechinsky

I don’t care to talk about a novel I’m doing because if I communicate the magic spell, even in an abbreviated form, it loses its force for me. Once you have talked, the act of communication has been made.

— Angus Wilson

The thinking on the loss of the magic or the energy, the detrimental effect on the creative act, is appreciated. However, for this writer, something has been learned over the years by way of interaction with trusted others. My brooding storage of stories has no real root (perhaps there’s a little laziness in not sending them out to those trusted others, but perhaps there’s also a gathering lack of faith in what the words are). There’s always a point when situations change. So I sent forth one tester start of a story, which may become a piece in its own right.

What transpired was that it was read in an entirely different way to the intention in the writing. That a sinister interpretation was made of what was intended as something quite the opposite took me by surprise. The result is that the changing of just one word might well alleviate that issue. This is a small epiphany in a long week, yet one that’s worth writing about.

If we don’t trust others with our words whilst they’re in their green form, we won’t see their misinterpretations and so forth. Of course, there is an argument to suggest that misinterpretations aren’t amiss at all: that is, that all interpretations are valid, that beauty — or banality — is in the eye of the beholder, that interpretations make the work all the richer.

Whichever way the writer falls on this latter argument, peer reviews can be valuable stepping stones along the way. In choosing to ignore alternate interpretations in the editing, at least we’re aware of them beneath it all (something we wouldn’t have had the chance to see if we held our work to our chests until the moment of editor approval and final publishing).

You do have an editorial input other than yourself, don’t you? If not, then you should have this. Even if you’re self-publishing (especially if you’re self-publishing), editorial input at the latter stages of the work will complement the peer reviewing process. It helps if that editorial input is also a writer (though many aren’t). I’m fortunate to say that I have the editorial eye of an accomplished writer and poet in her own right.

Perhaps there is argument to say that the loss of magic or energy is possible in seeking peer review support — I’d prefer to look on it all in the positive though: it’s all a matter of timing. Keep that magic close and don’t let it go in the initial writing process; brood if need be; know when other readers’ eyes need to see the green formations; amend your work if you see fit. You’ll be a stronger writer for it all.

Philosophical Asides on Themes

In laying down the bare molecules of a book that’s forming, I found myself immersed in the idea of ‘theme’. That is to say, in the first instance this ‘laying down’ isn’t a physical act of writing at all (rather, it’s a coercion of various strands of thoughts into something that might later become more coherent); in the latter instance, the theme is the continuing saga of what runs through this writer (rather than, necessarily, the development of the theme of the book).

The more we write the more we can come to be aware of that which pulls at us (by way of what others write about what they’ve read in our work). It’s a sort of ‘making visible’ process of what once was completely invisible, or at least translucent to us. It’s a ‘presence-at-hand’, of which I find myself reminded of a paper I wrote a few years back on philosophical matters of being (here).

By way of a quick preamble, regarding the word ‘stage’ from two angles ‘[i] as in movement, as in a step, progression of sorts; [ii] stage as in a platform, dais, where we present’, I added the following:

In this discerning of the stage we inhabit, I reflect on Barton’s (2011) review of Heidegger’s (1927, 1962) tool analysis. To paraphrase, when an object/tool is operating normally (readiness-to-hand) it essentially recedes into the background, is taken for granted; when in disrepair (presence-at-hand) we notice it, and it becomes present to us.

It is towards this idea of presence-at-hand that I now gravitate with regards to the developing theme that is any given writer, i.e. all that coalesces into who that writer is. In being made aware of the things I write about, having those things made more visible, are they — in effect — in disrepair? That is, recurrences and recurrences are wooden wheels on a bumpy track, and the more they go round the more the sound suggests that all is not well.

Some writers take years to develop their themes and thus the theme of themselves. The question asked is ‘at which point should we jump tracks in order for that overall ‘theme’ to be all the richer?’

Perhaps I’m confusing matters with my two uses of the word ‘theme’. Just as the word ‘stage’ can be seen in different lights, and to clarify, ‘theme’ here is in terms of ‘individual strand’ and ‘overall rope’ of that which is written and of he or she who writes it. If what we write continues to follow the same idea explorations, are we broken, in disrepair as writers?

There may be some relief in the following (ibid):

Barton presents that objects oscillate between these two modes [operating normally, readiness-at-hand; disrepair, presence-at-hand] and further refers to Latour’s notions of space as a network of objects in relation. Space is something experienced and lived, rather than something we merely move through.

That is, in the analogy, this space of the writer’s inner realm is a network of objects (themes) in relation. Our visible themes and those that vibrate invisibly in the background have sinewed connection with one another. That others may discern the repetitions of our current themes doesn’t therefore suggest that other themes aren’t possible. At which point should we jump tracks? Perhaps we have less choice in the matter than we think. Perhaps our invisible themes, vibrating gently in the background, manifest in us when they need to. They are written, and it sometimes takes readers’ perspectives to make us more aware of them.

Of course, as writers, we know what we write and why we do this, but we’re immersed in that writer’s realm, experiencing the space which has its own internal logic. The reader often has clearer eyes.

Barton, F. (2011), A twist on Heidegger: the ambiguous ontology of playspace. Cheltenham: Philosophy at Play Conference.

Heidegger, M. (1927), Sein und zeit. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Heidegger, M. (1962), Being and time (English translation). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

In Appreciation of the Writing of Iain Banks

We should write more about the authors we like when they’re alive. Bothering to write about them and their books only once they’ve died is perhaps a little disingenuous. Why we can’t raise ourselves to praise reflects our blinkered selves; or perhaps we just don’t appreciate those writers out there until we suddenly realise that there’ll be no more offerings from them at all. Iain Banks has died, and I feel a need to add my voice to the posthumous account of his work.

I’ve just read Neil Gaiman’s recent blog post about his relationship with Iain Banks. It reads as honest, but I wonder if Gaiman also wishes he’d written more about Banks’ writing and about him as a person when he was alive. This is an aside. What I’m most wary of here and now, as I write, is that Banks’ back catalogue won’t be getting any larger. Of course, he has his soon-to-be published last book out imminently (The Quarry, June 2013) but, barring any long-lost manuscripts, that’s it.

I certainly haven’t read as much of Banks’ work as I should and could have done. One day I’ll catch up on all of that (like I should be catching up on Kundera, Márquez, and all the other writers I’ve not become fully, fully acquainted with yet). However, what I have read of Banks has — for the most part — left me feeling extremely jealous, with certain memories, and occasionally astounded. This passage, from Descendant in his collection titled The State of the Art (1991) has remained at some level of my consciousness for many, many years:

This is our home town from before we felt the itch of wanderlust, the sticks we inhabited before we ran away from home, the cradle where we were infected with the crazy breath of the place’s vastness like a metal wind inside our love-struck heads; just stumbled on the scale of what’s around and tripped out drunk on starlike possibilities . . .

It was passages like these from Banks, and other authors who amazed me when I first found them, to inspire me to keep such treasures in notebooks specifically bought for the purpose.

For my money, and for that of many others I suspect, one of Banks’ finest works was The Crow Road (1992). That a novel can be started ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’ was a young writer’s lesson in opening lines in one fell swoop (not to mention dispelling the myth held by some critics that opening with such a ‘vague pronoun’ as ‘it’ is ‘unliterary’). Crow Road impressed me with its characterisation, family bonds, and geography. The other most cited Banks offering has to be The Wasp Factory (1984). I read this, I remember, way back but it was so way back that I need to read it again. It had an affect on me, but maybe I wasn’t sufficiently developed as a reader or as a writer then to appreciate it. As is the case with praising the recently deceased, we often find we need to read such books as The Wasp Factory again and for similar reasons.

Banks’ writing, for me, wasn’t all worthy of high praise. I suppose it’s inevitable that in any body of work there are some offerings that just don’t come up to the mark. The most notable of these, in my reading of it, was A Song of Stone (1997). It just didn’t feel like Banks writing this: I laboured with it for a while, maybe half way or so, maybe a little more, but it felt like he was trying too hard. That is, maybe he was trying to show us a new Banks, a new voice, or a tangential one at least. The writing attempted the poetic but fell short.

For different reasons I also came to a bookmarked year-long pause on Transition (2009). The writing in this isn’t so stilted, but it did take a few re-starts to try to get the hang of the various chopping and changing of characters and, indeed, places in time and geography. I’m sure I’ll pick up Transition again one day and give it a couple of days of dedicated attention.

It was at some point in the mid-nineties that I dedicated attention to Walking on Glass (1985). I know this because I remember sitting in a chair reading the entire book to my then partner, whose first language was not English. If I think hard enough I can narrow this down to a more or less exact point in time. There aren’t many authors who dovetail with such personal recollections. The Bridge (1986) was another Banks book to have left its mark: the strange liminal world depicted won’t be for all readers, but it found me at the right time, I suppose.

We all have writers in our reading histories who affect us enough (through their good work and despite their not so good offerings) for us to go back to them again and again. Iain Banks was undoubtedly one of those writers for me. In appreciation of words, I shouldn’t have left it till now to say this. I should also consider all the other writers I enjoy reading too, and I should consider them and their words here and now.

A Voice Analysis of a Body (of Fictional Work)

In a continual analysis of the way I’m writing, in building a new collection of fictions, I find there’s a need to be aware of the way of writing that is taking place ‘now’. That is, it keeps changing: what is it now? I’m of the opinion that a writer needs to be in touch with the idea that analysis of their own writing is important. Even in streams of consciousness writing, we can analyse the process. Being able to deconstruct certain elements in the writing or reading process (if not necessarily in writing that all down, then at least in thought), contributes towards a fuller whole. A body of work can be read in various ways: simple chronology of works created forms a basic frame of reference; maybe that body of work can also be read by way of deflections in and out of themes, motifs, structural arrangements, influences, ways of representing concepts and characters, etc.; maybe the body of work can be read by way of individual voices, or tones of the same voice, within the whole.

The trouble with writing a collection that follows a broad theme, but yet is intended as an array of situations and characters, and which allows for deflections in and out of all the above in the previous paragraph, is that one strong piece written in a certain manner becomes the unintended benchmark. This is an aside, yet something discovered in the process of analysis. That a piece can be strong in its own right, without a need for it to have to correlate with the strengths of the other piece, is something that might need embracing. Matching fictions within a collection against each other might well end up converging on the same way of writing: the same first or third person point of view, the same archetypal characters, crucibles or conflicts, resolutions, and/or patterns in twists in the tales.

In analysis of the individuality of fictions found in various notebooks, as the weeks go by, I’m left wondering about the individual voices contained within each, and whether they’re on the path towards aggregating into some coherent whole. That is, the authoritative, the reflective, the defensive (maybe), the unreliable, might converge into something substantial; yet the ‘now’ being such as it is, we’re not to know. Can we leave it to trust, or should we hone in on one strand (because at least then we know what the end result will have the feel of)?

A recent TV documentary about psychological studies into preferred human states concluded that we tend towards people who present as authoritative. Similarly, in our reading we prefer a strong hand, someone to lead the way in the writing, telling us that this is the way things are. We don’t want someone to be evasive or unsure. We want to be taken somewhere and they can steer. We’ll just enjoy the ride. This is true.

Is this true? I’m often drawn to writers who offer me a chance to think for myself, by way of their reflection, or their device of reflecting so as to draw me into what they want to say. In Dark Back of Time, Javier Marías writes in the very first line: ‘I believe I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once.’ Similarly, in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, her first line offers a thought: ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’

My next logical step from reflection is the possible defensive. The tone that is ‘I write this because I have to’, as I read it, often opens windows into the writer’s body of work. ‘Having to’ being an implication of the dark draw or gravitational pull of words that will out, no matter what. Franz Kafka wrote a series of meditations that he, perhaps, would have preferred not to be published. In The Men Running Past, he writes: ‘If one is walking along a street at night and a man who can be seen a long way off . . . comes running towards us, then we shan’t lay hands on him . . . after all, haven’t we a right to be tired, haven’t we drunk so much wine?’ Writing because the writing needs to be laid down can be less dour than this. An injection of energy, because the energy of the moment requires it, will run through the whole. In this way it’s real.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita could be the epitome of unreliable narration. Within this strand of thinking — that we can fuse reality and fiction as writers and leave the reader wondering which is which — is a constant fascination for this writer: it’s akin to trying to differentiate the blurred line between indoor and outdoor space (when there are no doors, no marks, just some indication of a possible roof overhead). Or it links to cartography and the way that maps of the edges of islands are never correct: if the map marks the high tide line, or the average tide, this is still never the exact shape of the island at any given moment. What is the exact definition of inside/outside, outline of island, reality/fiction in a piece of writing? This individual way of writing is a strong pull.

Can we leave the potential aggregation of voices (tones of the same voice) to trust (the authoritative, the reflective, the defensive, the fusion of reality/fiction or unreliably natured)? Will trust result in a coherent voice in the whole? Analysis and deconstruction, at least, help this writer to understand the writing of the ‘now’.