July 31, 2012

Research for writing

I don’t come out of an academic tradition, where research involves applications for funding and ethical approval along with a detailed exposition of methodology. Nor have I been a journalist in the usual sense, even when I was a magazine editor. I do understand about getting the facts right, and checking things, and information being as reliable as its sources, and giving credit where it is due and so on.

I’m thinking about research because the novel I have embarked on requires me to do some so I can write about subjects on which I do not already have expertise. For my second novel, Poppy’s Return I wanted to Poppy to go to Whitby, in England. So, as part of a holiday, my partner and I went to Whitby. That was a good call. All the places in my novels that have any significance at all are places I have been to, albeit for entirely different purposes from those of my characters. That, and checking dates and weather and the current locations of some art works and the habits of a few sea birds, and such has so far been sufficient research.

For this novel I have folders, both the sort that holds paper and the sort that live on my computer. And I have a fresh view on how the research can take over. It’s fun, and it involves the internet and the public library, both places I like to go. It’s easier than working out and writing a story, too, doesn’t require such hard thinking. So I’m being firm with myself, not reading and taking notes from every book that touches on my subject/s not saving every website into my electronic filing system. I’m looking for what I need to know so that I don’t write rubbish. Of course I will find out more than I could ever use—information is not the point of the novel, it’s a setting, a demonstration of my characters and what they are about.

There are writing programmes and apps that promise fool-proof ways of organising materials for writers and I decided not to spend the time learning to use one. I’m doing fine with my folders and a table or two for dates and names. 

July 24, 2012

Narrators and News

This week I finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. The only other book of his I have read is Lolita. Pnin is about Russian Professor Pnin, an unlikely lecturer at a minor American university, first published in 1953. Nabokov died in 1977.

I read it because I kept seeing references to Nabokov as “master prose stylist”—I quote from the back of the recent Vintage (Random House) edition. It’s a short book and I read it over a couple of weeks, which is slow for me, studying the style. I think I get it; it’s discursive, with a Narrator who carefully describes his relationship to Pnin at the end of the book and gets inside Pnin's head. A random example:

He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths) on the verge of a simple solution of the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request.

The urgent request was from a squirrel wanting someone to activate the drinkng fountain in the park where Pnin was walking. Pnin is both funny and tragic.

Coincidentally I’ve read another book lately that has a narrator who is also a character; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I was surprised at how short it is, almost a novella. Nick is a character with a strong narrator role, and he’s an interesting side-line to the main story of the nouveau-riche Gatsby, a high-liver, bound to self-destruct. A book of flappers and car crashes, as the man who wrote the annoying Introduction says. This is one of those books I am glad to have read because it gets referred to often.

Teju Cole’s Open City is a book I heartily recommend to everyone. Written in the first person it’s a novel set largely in New York, with a side trip to Brussels. Julian is from Nigeria, a psychiatrist, registrar in a New York hospital, and he walks in the city. There’s no plot to speak of and few other characters. It’s like a riff on modern life, and is described on the cover as, “A meditation on history and culture, identity and solitude,” which is close enough. The detail—what Julian notices—is often original and the reflections on modern life and experiences thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s not at all hard to read and I think everyone should read it. Nice writing, nothing fancy, does the job extremely well. One example of many, many possible examples:
… there isn't anything that immunizes us from a plague of one kind or another … we are just as susceptible as any of those past civilisations were, but we are especially unready for it. Even in the way we speak about what little has happened to us, we have already exhausted ourselves with hyperbole.
 It’s three weeks since my last blog entry, so I have a FAIL on my resolution to write in here weekly. So be it, no gnashing of teeth. I’ll see if I can Do Better.

Two pieces of writerly news have made the major media in the last twenty-four hours. The first is intriguing: the discover of some previously unknown Katherine Mansfield stories which have the pundits out in force. The second is sad: the death of Margaret Mahy. Her wonderful books are not, of course, lost to us but her eccentric presence is; there's an empty space in New Zealand’s cultural world. 

July 2, 2012

Writers on Writing

Neil Gaiman, famous for writing The Sandman series, American Gods, Coraline and a lot more, says, “I make things up and write them down.”

The pieces of my writing that I’m collecting for Stones Gathered Together, are partly made up stories, partly to do with things I think about and partly close to being memoirish, derived from my life. I think I remember what is remembered and what is made up, and am aware that the remembering and writing down add layers to the original memories, which become something other than the original experience, even though the thing remembered has its core of this-thing-happened-to-me.

(Unattributed photograph from (http://info.neded.org/stathand/parttwo/cather.htm)
Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” And Chekov said, “When men ask me how I know so much about men, they get a simple answer: everything I know about men, I learned from me.” Both of these suggest that writing is largely memoir in different forms, in opposition to Neil Gaiman’s “making it up.”

What writers write about writing is one of my favourite areas of reading. As with, as it is said, the bible and Shakespeare, you could find a quote from a published writer to fit just about any opinion on what writing/ literature is and how it happens. That’s one of the things that makes it interesting; writing is more complex than learning how to fix a bicycle, or knit a jumper.

Susan Sontag writes in the second edited (by her son, David Reiff) collection of writings from her diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, that she  wanted to “play only with the top team,” who she defined as “Those who become reference points for successive generations in many languages (eg, Kafka).” Earlier in the same book she says, “I’m good at understanding things …. But I’m not a genius, I’ve always known that. My mind isn’t good enough, isn’t really first rate … ultimately too conventional … I’m not mad enough, not obsessed enough.”

Gertrude Stein [Internet]. 2012. http://www.biography.com/people/gertrude-stein-9493261

Gertrude Stein, on the other hand, knew she was a genius, and said so, often. (There are a few references to her in Sontag’s diaries but she doesn’t put Stein in the same team as Kafka.)

I could do this for a long time—quote writers and compare what they say about writing to what other writers say about it. However, the one central idea, the incontrovertible core, is that a writer writes. And if, as Gertrude Stein said, “Remarks are not literature,” then I had better stop these remarks and do some writing. Whether what I then write can be called “literature” involves a whole other discussion which I’ll pick up in a later post.