unwriterly advice

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In the bestseller written by Elizabeth Strout called My Name is Lucy Barton, the protagonist idealises another writer called Sarah Payne. That’s a long sentence. I’ll break it down.

Elizabeth Strout is Lucy Barton is Sarah Payne. ‘All life amazes me,’ is the last line in the book. And in the Buddhist world we all are each other (until we reject the illusion of Suchness and reach the shore of Nirvana, which isn’t really a shore and isn’t really Nirvaha, but the Great Void, which isn’t nothingness, or much of suchness either).

Elizabeth Strout >Lucy Barton> Sarah Payne (all writers, fictional and real).

Here’s the advice from one of them, or all of them. Take it with a lump of suchness.

‘And I think sometimes of Sarah Payne…how exhausted she became, teaching. And I think how she spoke of the fact that we only have one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is.’  

Writers that teach aren’t writers that write. In a way they’re second class. Writers that can’t write, teach, sutra.  More than that, teaching leaches the goodness out of Sarah Payne’s (pain’s) soul, so she can’t write. Discuss?

In terms of economics that’s true. The economic cost of doing something is not doing something else. When we do one thing, we can’t do the other. Although, of course, our bookshelves groan with learned professors. Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Caroll), C.S Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien and  Umberto Eco, for example, that teach and write. That’s the exception to the rule argument.

Is it an exception or is it a rule?

Nobody has asked me to teach and nobody asks me to write. But usually when I read a novel in which the protagonist is a writer or librarian (Stephen King’s protagonists are often writers) then I groan.

This ties in with the one story I continually write and rewrite. And in these fictional worlds none of my protagonists are writers. For a good example of a writer that continually writes the same story, his characters having different haircuts – think Irvine Welsh after Trainspotting. And he’s not even Welsh. He’s Scottish like me and tends to write about characters that think writers are well up themselves and should come down and get fucking at it. And I’m not even a fan of Irvine Welsh, I prefer Stephen King. And I’m not a fan of him either. The problem of being a writer talking about writing is to most folk it’s fucking boring and shows a lack of imagination. I’m a connoisseur because all I do is write and read stuff. I’m an exception to the rule, which isn’t a rule.  

The historian and writer Robert A. Caro nailed it when he was talking about writing and farming and how you need to pick up the vocabulary and live it to appreciate it fully. There are two ways of learning, lived experience or reading about it. I tend towards the latter. Writers have their noses pressed against a keyboard. If you want to talk about  The Snow Leopard live it like Peter Matthiessen and your vocabulary will be rich as buffalo shit, or watch David Attenborough and leave extreme environments to other writers that are less desk-bound.

If we only have one story, I’ve not perfected it yet. Maybe I never will, not in this lifetime. The secret of good writing is the secret of bad writing. You need to keep repeating the same mistakes again and again until you move on to a higher plane and realise none of it matters. And you must carry this secret into your next story.

Here’s Lucy Barton pondering the nature of time.

I think of Jeremy telling me I had to be ruthless as a writer. And I think how I did not go visit my brother and sister and my parents because I was always working on a story and there was never enough time. (But I didn’t want to go either.) There was never enough time, and then later I knew if I stayed in my marriage I would not write another book, not the kind I wanted to, and there is that as well. But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me…

The ultimate truth in Buddhahood is understanding and appreciating the permanent nature of eternity. The starting point is self. Arthur Miller was willing to concede that Timebends and all things may fall away, but he was going to write about them anyway. His one true story, was many storied.  

‘What writer makes money?’ Lucy Barton asks.

Certainly not me. Or 99% of other writers. I guess it’s an occupation that’s not an occupation, that’s doomed to failure for the masses.

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do.’ Philip Larkin writes This Be The Verse.

Lucy Barton writes about writing about her family. ‘I kept thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw them too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts. My husband said, “But you don’t even like them.”

Any writer knows, nice people are boring. Their great secret is they’ve got nothing to hide. Molla tells Lucy Barton what we already know. For every Jesus we need a Judas.  

‘You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about your story. You only have one.’

Molla hasn’t got a secret. Lucy Barton has, she’s a writer.

A writer’s job is the same as Buddah’s, to hold every moment and to let it go, simultaneously. Here is Lucy Barton watching her dad, inhabiting him.

I remember only watching my father’s face so high above me, and I saw his lips become reddish with that candied apple that he ate because he had to…

And I remember this: he was interested in what he was watching. He had an interest in it.

Pay attention. Here’s Sarah Payne the writer giving Lucy Barton some advice about writing what you want to write, but the real advice comes at the end after rallying against stupid people that fail to understand.

‘Never ever defend your work.’   

It seems counterintuitive, but even a fool you don’t like can point out you’ve got your shoes on the wrong feet. In my writing it happens to me all the time. Insight is not a closed gate, but a gate you must leave open. Pay attention to your faults. Then with good karma you may not repeat them indefinitely. It’s nothing personal.

At the end of all lifetimes is the question a disgruntled admirer asks Sarah Payne.

He said, “What is your job as a writer of fiction?”

And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.

Amen. Go forth and multiply words.  

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