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.  

Elizabeth Strout (2016) My Name is Lucy Barton.

I’ve a tendency to read short books like this quickly. I should have reviewed it quickly too, when it was fresh baked in my mind. I thought the last line in the book was ‘My name is Lucy Barton.’

Wrong. On the same page, (three from the end). ‘But this is my story.’ A first-person account of her life.

‘And yet it is the story of many. It is Molla’s story, my college roommate’s. It may be the story of the Pretty Nicely Girls. Mommy, Mom!’

The last line reads, ‘All life amazes me.’

The narrator is an oddity, everywoman, who tells the stories of every women. Lucy Barton is not a closed book the reader finds, but a successful author. What makes her successful is the attention, the love, she gives to other people’s stories. She models herself on an author she meets in New York, Sarah Payne (get it pain).

Payne offers Lucy Barton (and other would-be writers) nuggets of wisdom about writing. If I were to use a big, little, word I’d call it subtext.

Issues of class and gender are woven into other people’s stories. Virginia Woolf’s maxim that every woman needs “a room of one’s own” to write pretty much covers it. Money matters. Lack of it leaves the narrator terrified she might need to go home.

‘This is the 1980s’ she tells us. And in some ways it’s also the story of New York, up until the planes crash into the Twin Towers. It touches, for example, on issues of Vietnam and on the AIDs epidemic. But it might well be early twentieth century, her mum had never been on a plane until she visits Lucy and her father fixed farm machinery. Dirt poor, they were isolated by poverty and they smelled. Even locals looked down on them. Her father, a former second world war soldier, we come to recognise, suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Sins of the father passed to the sons. Her brother took to sleeping in a barn and reading to pigs awaiting slaughter and her sister married, unhappily, it seems, as quickly as she could. Lucy escaped that aching loneliness that writing found a way of filling.

The book begins with Lucy confined to a hospital for nine weeks. ‘A simple story, to get her appendix out.’  

Coherence and the backwards and forwards motion of time are difficult for any writer to master. The Man Booker Prize 2016 nominee, written by Elizabeth Strout makes it seem easy. Read on.    

Gram Seed (2008) One Step Beyond: One Man’s Journey From Near Death to Life.


free-to-use image (google)

An epiphany is a moment of sudden insight or understanding. Gram Seed, the bad seed, died and came back to life. You know how the story goes. He was lost and now he was found. He was drunk on the Lord Jesus.

This was one of Robert’s books. For a reader like me – a short read of a few hours. The park bench were Gram Seed decided was the best spot to drink himself to death, I know it well. It’s there on Dumbarton Road. On the square, across from the corner shop and Macs. A busy thoroughfare. Robert’s flat, 8f Dunswin was near the station and entry to Dalmuir Park. He didn’t stay in the house. He could never be himself. Haunted by demons as Seed was. Hail, rain, wind or snow, Robert could be found on that bench.

He got lifted by the police a few times. They even jailed his dog, Max. I had to go up to the station and get Max out. Robert went back to the bench, in the same way that Seed did. No earthly power could stop him.  

Drink was Seed’s thing, just the same as it was Robert’s and so many more lost souls. He tried but he couldn’t give it up. Then he gave up trying to try. Bad Seed knows that story well, he lived it. Died it.

The consultant said to his mum they wanted to switch the life support off. Her son was brain dead and if he lived he’d be a vegetable and paralysed for life.

I’d have turned the machine off, no question. Any of my relatives, any of my loved ones, turn the machine off. DO NOT RESUCITATE is what a protocol I’d hope was written into the end of life stuff.

Seed’s mum wouldn’t agree. He’s only thirty-three, she argued, give him a chance.

Robert was black with death the last time I saw him and I hope he’s resting in Jesus.

Religion is a bit like our first attempts at sex, we’ve grown ashamed of it. Biblical references like a waterless cloud blown by ill wind nail pretty much what I think about the moron’s moron, or any Tory, especially the new-old breed of liar (and odd-on to be elected for an extended stay) Boris. I have heard, as Balaak heard, a donkey speak and it was hee-haw, hee-haw.

Do I believe in God? The answer is yes and no. It’s an embarrassing question that Gram Seed is only too happy to answer. His mission is to convert prisoners, those people like him that didn’t give a fuck about today or tomorrow or the next day. I wish him well and many blessings as the thirty-two physical marks of Buddha.

Robert flirted with religion. AA meetings and the higher power. The Big Book. The Bible. He chatted with Jehovah Witnesses. Promised to visit their Kingdom Hall, but never did. He talked to all kinds of people that passed everyday on that bench. People liked him. One of them gave him this book. I don’t know if he ever read it. I’m reading it for him. He spoke to the woman that does the ground in St Stephen’s, asked if he could go inside and sit a while. A shrine of The Crucifixion, Jesus on his Cross, is in an island arbour of plants in one of the walls. He noticed that it had been painted or newly varnished. Who knows what he was thinking? Certainly, not me. RIP.   

Lies, damned lies and end-of-the-world economics.

King of Nineveh

Truth can be ugly – there’s no money in it. Everything is connected. The Third World War has begun. Us against nature and we’re losing because we won’t recognise we’re all one.

I can go biblical on you.

Jonah 2:3 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Trumptown and proclaim to it the message I tell you.’

Jonah went to Trumptown and proclaimed the message, ‘Yet forty years, and Trumptown and all the earth will be overthrown.’

I can go historical on you. Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, vol. 1.

The Hill country had been ‘a beautiful trap, baited with water’.

It was still beautiful –even more beautiful perhaps because woods covered so much of it now…the reality was rock. It was a land of stone…

The low line on the hills was an “isohyet” (from the Greek: isos, equal; hystos, rain) – a line drawn on the map so that all points have equal rainfall. That particular isohyet showed the westernmost limits to the United States along which the average rainfall averages thirty inches, when combined with two other factors—rate of evaporation (very high in Hill Country since most of it comes in spring or autumn thunderstorms)—is the bare minimum needed to grow crops successfully…And when, in the twentieth century, meteorologists began charting isohyets, they would draw the crucial thirty-inch isohyet along the 98th meridian—almost exactly the border of the Hill Country.

I can go scientific on you (while not really understanding the science, but in the same way, believing twentieth century meteorologists were proven right, again and again, this is called the null hypothesis in science, trying to prove they were wrong).

Robin McKie, Science Editor gives us the latest figure on the scorecard. Imagine those war rooms were they pushed forward models of planes and tanks in a simulated battlefield being put on show before the latest international climate meeting in Madrid (which is a waste of time and energy).

UN Environmental Programme report for the end of October 2019 showed total carbon emissions showed the equivalent of 55 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. Putting the earth on course for the equivalent of 3.2C by the end of the century.

We know how this works, figures like that are underestimates, in the same way that contractors bidding to build a road underestimate knowing they can charge more later, because you’ll  need to pay.

We’re living in the Hill County. It’s called Planet Earth.

I can go economics on you. The costs of war are more than the cost of continued peace.

Global temperature kept below 2C.

Damage such as rising seas, land erosion, spread of deserts and hundreds of million refugees on the move and destruction of fragile ecosystems that depend on none of these things happening.

Estimated bill, $200 billion a year by 2030.

$40 trillion a year if temperatures were allowed to reach 3C or more.  

Runaway-global warming (equivalent of Moore’s law in computing) comes into effect. We can save the world. We don’t need to put on sackcloth and ashes as the King of Nineveh did, but we need to share. We need equality in all things big and small. We need to become more human and stop believing convenient lies. I don’t see that happening any time soon. We really do need a miracle. If you have children, and they ask you what did you do during the war?   

What’s your answer.    

A Star is Born

I watched this film the other night. The one with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. I hadn’t heard of Bradley Cooper and had to google him. Google is a neologism. A Star is Born has been around longer than something we feel about googled, it has been here forever,  but I was pretty pleased with myself, because I remembered the Judy Garland version and the name of her co-star, James Mason and the Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson versions.

I don’t think James Mason was asked to do anything more than be suave, Kris Kristofferson should have been obliged not to sing, but Bradley Cooper, if he wasn’t dubbed, got away with it here.

We all know the story of boy meets girl. One is on the rise, the other on the fall. A see-saw movement in which one star fades, another glows brighter. In A Star is Born women get the lead role. Men are chicklets there for their supposed good looks rather than any innate talent. Role reversal for Hollywood, or any pecker-wood in general.

Women who take the lead role tend to be the divas of their age and when they take on the role of Esther Blodget or the more modern versions and it seems to be the story of their lives. Not exactly beautiful, considered by many to be ugly. Garland had those soulful eyes that came alive when she sung. Streisand had that big hooter that through her face into shadow and a voice that worked out the secret of lyrics and music and what it was to be gloriously alive.  Lady Gaga can carry a tune and perhaps a bit more. Women singers, divas, are always more than the sum of their parts.

Lady Gaga and the scriptwriters make a joke of her supposed ugliness. Her character runs a finger from the tip of her forehead to her chin. She tells Bradley how when she auditioned or played open-mic gigs agents talked about her looks and not her voice.

Ironically, Bradley meets Lady Gaga singing in transvestite club in New York. He’s cruising in his limo, and bang, he needs a drink so badly his hands aren’t far from shaking from his wrists. All shook up.

Gaga makes him go gaga. You don’t often get to use lines like that. Gaga plays seductress, chanteuse, in spangled dress and little bird of Edith Piaff motif.    This is when the film could have got interesting. If Bradley had fallen for another guy it wouldn’t be A Star is Born but something else entirely. Certainly not box-office.

He’s in the up, she’s in the down position. He’s gaga for her. She’s gaga for him.

Bradley is the great star that gives Gaga her break. His fans are going wild and for encore he feeds them Gaga. She wows them, as we know she would. She’s Gaga.

She’s on the up, he’s on the down. He starts back on the drink, goes to AA camp, and she buys him a dog. Life’s kinda perfect in its imperfections a bit like that finger from forehead to chin. Only the last flickering of the light of stardom takes a bit of getting used to for a man. When Gaga offers him a hand, her manager shoves it away, tells Bradley, your day is done. A man’s got to do, what a man’s got to do.

Gaga goes gaga. Alright, I know I need to stop doing that. Inconsolable, Gaga’s still got her music and her dog. Happy ending of sorts. At least I didn’t have to listen to Kris Kristofferson trying to sing.  I do love divas, including Gaga. I’m currently in the down position, growing a beard and open to offers. If Kris Kristofferson can do it…

Elton John (2019) Me

Not many folk get to call their book, Me, and expect you to know who they’re talking about. The Glasgow imperative applies here: Who the fuck dae yeh think yeh are? If the answer is Elton John, you go, oh, aye, that’s alright then. Elton John seems to be everywhere at the moment, BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 4, Radio Four, Channel 4, but I can’t find him on ITV, which is a bit disappointing. He’s an institution.

I thought I’d have a quick shifty at Reg Dwight’s memoir. We already know his story from gossip columns. His love of Princess Diane (Candle in the Wind) and her children, the little royalings. Throw in the queen mother for lunch and yes, I would have thrown her, but you can see how he’s part of the establishment. Remember Elton’s first wife left at the registry office? Gargantuan drinking and drug sessions with the likes of Rod Stewart. I often wondered how the shagger of tall blonde woman and the gay guy that doesn’t shag tall blonde woman got together. The answer is here. Both of them got their start in the music industry as backing for Long John Baldry as he attempted to conquer the world with Bluesology. Baldry is a footnote in the rise and rise of Elton and Rod, both of whom love football. Elton knocked the name off from a band member and loves Watford -forever- and Rod loves Celtic far longer than he caroused with the latest blonde.

Then there’s the Elton away from all that showbiz glitter, hats and hairweaves. He didn’t screw his lyric writer the way many stars would and claim all the credit and profits. Bernie Taupin is worth around $150 million, but Elton did take £15 for the first gig, since he was playing piano, Bernie got a tenner. Elton, I’d guess, is worth considerably more now. The adopter of Take That renegades and other would-be rock stars that fell off the wagon.  The Elton addicted to AA meetings and Drugs Anonymous, give him a sniff of anything like that and Elton will turn up. Throw in his charity work. Raising tens of millions for AID’s charities. Bringing the homosexual into the Establishment and mainstream in a way that Peter Tatchell never could.  

Then there’s his late fatherhood, two boys (I think) with David (I can’t remember what’s-his-name, [Furnish?] which shows who I think is the one that matters).

So, to recap, I don’t really need to read this book to write about it. I did read the mandatory first 50 pages. I should really turn it into a rant about how Me is muscling out me and other authors scratching a living.  How out of the 1.6 billion books bought in the UK in 2018, I sold one Kindle copy that remains unread. Dead. If you turned that into percentages the book would run several volumes longer than War and Peace and be more interesting. Read chapter 1 here free: 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000…% .

Or I’d be snide and say things like Reg Dwight didn’t really write the book, his kinship to books is like the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse, the book was really written by Alexis Petridis a music critic and if Petridis was really a music critic he should find someone else to work with. I’d probably throw in something that has nothing to do with Elton, David Walliams entering the writer’s club that holds those that made more than £100 million in sales. For some reason I can’t stand Walliams, there’s no logic to it, just gut instinct.  

Reg Dwight, the child prodigy that grew up to be Elton John, I don’t know why, but I kinda like him. Maybe it’s because I don’t listen to music and I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Read on.

The Man Who Saw Too Much, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer presenter, producer and director Alan Yentob and Jill Nicholls.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000bqt9/the-man-who-saw-too-much

The story of 106-year-old Boris Pahor is a eulogy to the twentieth century. The man who saw too much and experienced too much is a testament to man’s inhumanity to man. He wrote a memoir, Necropolis- City of the Dead about his incarceration in a little-know Nazi concentration camp, Natzweiler-Struthhof in the mountainous regions of Alsace, France.

He was also sent to Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Dora, Harzungen, Ironically, Natzweiler was one of the first concentration camps liberated by the Allies, but it was empty. Prisoners were sent to Dachau, but it was Natwieler he judged to be the most cruel. His account is illustrated by drawings by fellow prisoners.

Pahor’s ability to speak several languages, his native Slovenian, Italian, French and I imagine a bit of German saved him. It allowed him to get a job inside the barracks as a translator for the camp doctor an Austrian, who also trained him to be a diarrhoea nurse. Almost half of the 52 000 prisoners were executed, died of illness or malnutrition or died outside working in the granite quarry in sub-zero temperatures. A mountainous region, each step going up the graded slope to work was recalled as the equivalent of Christ on the road to Calvary.  The camp produced a particular type of red stone favoured by Hitler’s architects who created public buildings in honour of the thousand-year Reich.

Pahor was sent to the camp because he was considered to be an anti-fascist. He was arrested in September 1943.

Fascism comes from the term fasces, a bundle of rods with a projected axe blade, a symbol of the magisterial power in ancient Rome.

The neologism fascism was associated with the rise of Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain and Hitler in Germany. A megalomaniac belief in the strong-man theory of history. A contempt for the democratic process and calls for its suspension so the great man can act on behalf of the people.

Pahor, for example, recalls his upbringing in the cosmopolitan Slovenian port city of Trieste with access to the Adriatic being taken over by Italy after the first world war. As a precursor to Kristallnacht, Mussolini’s blackshirts burned down the Slovene cultural centre, closed their schools and banned the speaking of their language in public. School lessons were in Italian. Pahor, the anti-fascist was drafted into Mussolini’s army to fight the anti-fascist Allied forced.

Fascism = Capitalism.

Mussolini, the former Communist and man of the people, had a mandate to rule given by aristocracy, landowners and the moneyed classes. In contemporary terms it was based on deregulation. The bogey men of communism and working men organising themselves into trade unions was outlawed. Deregulation meant no regulation, the whip hand was with the rich and only the poor paid taxes.

King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy’s intervention in the second world war and his late backing of the Allied forces led to the arrest of Mussolini at the end of July, 1943. One fascist force replaced another. The German’s sprung Mussolini from prison and took control of the defence of Italy and split the country among fascist and non-fascist supporters.

An estimated 600 000 joined the anti-fascist resistance movement in Italy, around 70 000 of whom were women. Pahore was caught with a typewriter and accused of producing anti-fascist leaflets. So begins his odyssey in the death camps.

Primo Levi, Italian Jew, in his memoir, If This Is a Man asked a question what is it to be truly human?

Necropolis –City of the Dead is the answer. Them and us.  The ersatz category of subhuman that fight each other over a finger-tip of bread while mining pink-coloured rock that has decorative value. Capitalism in its purest form can be found here. Fascism and the strong man theory of history have made a dramatic comeback. Boris Pahor tells it like it is. He saw too much. We understand too little. This is a Boris you can trust.