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The Spooky Art – some thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

The Spooky Art

Orginaly posted on 02/07/2003 in my Diaryland blog.

A strange chain of reading took me to Norman Mailer some months ago. I was reading an anthology of book reviews by Martin Amis, 1972 to 2000 I think. Amongst the writers reviewed were Norman Mailer; the review was probably ‘Harlot’s Ghost’, which I have now read. Though not well written, I read an enjoyed a biography on Norman Mailer. About this time one the English Broadsheet newspapers, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ serialised ‘The Spooky Art’ so I bought it.

I’m offering up some quotes here

Here are some early comments on the first 100 pages. Once I’ve got to through the hundred pages I’ll do this again. It’s already served its purpose – I’m preparing to write again, to get a novel finished. Do add your thoughts on what Norman Mailer has to say. I’ve added page references in the expectation that you’ll buy the book too and we can share notes.


‘Writing a novel is like learning the piano.’

I like this thought because if said with conviction it might deflect conversations that imply that any of us could, with ease, add the writing of a novel to our hectic lives. Few people are selfish enough, confident enough, patient enough or desperate enough to attempt to write a novel; just as few adults who failed to learn the piano as a child and likely to stick with it as an adult. Strangely we have a piano, bought two weeks ago. I may pick up where I left off, I’m beginning to get some crude right hand sight reading back already.

‘A good skier rarely worries about a route. He just goes, confident that he’ll react to changes in the trail as they come upon him. It’s the same thing in writing; You have to have confidence in your technique. That is the beauty of mustering the right tone at the right time – it enables you to feel like a good skier, nice and relaxed for the next unexpected turn.’ Mailer (2003. p. 78)

I like this because it knocks flat the premise of a year’s effort and some expense writing, illustrating, designing and photographing the ‘routes’ or as my family call them ‘pistes’ (using the French term) of one of the world’s greatest ski resorts, Val d’Isere and Tignes in the French Alps. I have thick files that map and annotate the 77 or more ski runs. Yes! I enjoyed the excuse of spending months on skis up a mountain, it happened to coincide with my pursuit of someone who had taken a year out (quit a city job) to work the ‘Season.’ We’ve been married a few months short of ten years and hope to spend our Tenth Wedding Anniversary, as we spent our Honeymoon, 2000m up a snow-covered mountain. I digress. The writing analogy works for me and ties in with this ‘writing from the hip’ concept that Ghanima has picked up on; just as skiing would be no fun if you stopped every few yards to figure out what to do next, so writing cannot be fluid, consistent or fun if it is done mechanically. The difficulty is having the confidence, or as Mailer would put it, a large enough ego, to pull it off (as well as basic writing skills, something worth saying and a compulsion to write). Talent is nothing more than a product of these. Mailer continues in a similar vain here:

‘Describe what you fell as it impinges on the sum of your passions and your intellectual attainments. Bring to the act of writing all of your craft, care, devotion, lack of humbug, and honesty of sentiment. Then write without looking over your shoulder for the literary police. Write as if your life depended on saying what you felt as clearly as you could, while never losing sight of the phenomenon to be described.’ Mailer (2003. p. 80)

My mistake is to take big breaks between writing; I get lost.

I lose myself, I lose track of what I am doing, I have new ideas. As I have said on these pages many times I need the discipline and exacting conditions of two three hour written exams a day – I perform under that kind of pressure.


‘Unless your literary figures keep growing through the event of the book, your novel can go nowhere that will surprise you.’ Mailer (2003. p. 82)

I put this in as a note to myself. I have a character in ‘JTW’ who bobs along, unchanged, muddle headed and too like me to be convincing or compelling. The other novel, something I started on a decade ago and forget about, let’s call it ‘Form Photo’ may be more sustainable because the protagonist is a debased shit, a contemporary ‘Flashman,’ a sex obsessed Humbert for whom incest, rape, casual sex and necrophilia become part of his crazed purpose in life. On vera. As Mailer puts on the back cover of ‘The Spooky Art’ and all the best books on writing state emphatically, ‘writers write.’ I just have to sit down and do it, consistently, every day ideally.

First Person versus Third Person

(More on this later). The first exercise of this Montparnasse thing has produced some useful thoughts on the qualities of writing in the first or third person.

Real Life versus Plot Life

‘One could make the case that our love of plot – until it becomes very cheap indeed – comes out of our need to find the chain of cause and effect that often is missing in our own existence.’ Mailer (2003. p. 89)

This I find repeated in the books on writing I admire the most, such as Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’ and Ben Okri’s book, the title of which alludes me. Offering reasons and meaning is the simplest way to make a reader feel empathy for the predicament that the characters face.

‘I look for my book as I go long. Plot comes last. I want a conception of my characters that’s deep enough so that they will get me to places where I, as the author, have to live by my wits. That means my characters must keep developing. So long as they stay alive, the plot will take care of itself.’ Mailer (2003. p. 90)

I like this for the emphasis on character, the ride you give them and how they develop. Where I have a character that is convincing, the next step is to toss at them ever larger loads of shit and see how they deal with it.

Working on a book where the plot is already fully developed is like spending the rest of your life filling holes in rotten teeth when you have no skill as a dentist.

My efforts to follow any kind of treatment, for a screen play, TV series or book, have invariably failed. I have used software such as Dramatica Pro ad nauseam, I even bought some ‘New novel’ software on impulse the other day that is pure crap. It, with folders from ‘The Writer’s Bureau’ and ALL the DIY books I Have on writing should be binned. Instead of helping me find a path to the end of a story they toss up cul de sacs and diversions. They force you to create a road map and in doing so, implying that you must stick to this one road, hundred of alternative routes are indicated.

Instinct and Influence

‘If you find some theme that keeps you working, don’t question it. Let that theme be sufficient to fuel you work. If you start using the value judgments of others, you’re never going to get much done. If I find something is stimulating to me and arousing my energy, that’s fine; I’ll trust it. No matter what you find yourself writing about, if it’s giving you enough energy to continue, then the work bears a profound relationship to you at that point and you don’t question it.’ Mailer (2003. p. 98)

This is what I prefer; like a leap off the ski route, into powder, risking a trail no one has taken since the last dump of snow. Sometimes this gets me into trouble, often the experience is personal, intimate and exhilarating.


‘It’s as difficult to become a professional writer as a professional athlete.’ Mailer (2003. p. 101)

I’m glad he says this, like learning to play the piano. It explains why so many successful writers never produce novels: they are journalists, non-fiction writers, broadcasters or write screen-plays, but the novel alludes them.

‘The sad truth is that a would-be novelist possibly has to start a few books that do give out, or even crash, before a sense of the difficulties is acquired.’ Mailer (2003. p. 102)

All the more reason to get the first few novels done while you’re a student or living alone in digs – not in mid-life, burdened by debt with a family to keep.

‘A large part of writing a novel is to keep your tone.’ Mailer (2003. p. 102)

Were I to write a novel in one sitting, day after day, for a number of months, then I could probably deliver a consistent style and tone. The way I currently work, in bits, plays on my worst trait, I am inconsistent and indiscriminate.

‘I love starting a book; I usually like finishing one. It’s the long middle stretches that call on your character – all that in-between! – those months or years when you have to report to work almost every day.’

This is where I fail. Steven Pressfield lists all the reasons why a book might not be written, he calls it ‘Resistance.’ I am guilty of doing anything BUT write. Anything. I invite distraction, create distraction, or enter a cave of drink, TV, DIY, entertaining the kids, taking them on trips, ironing – even ironing! I don’t need a shed at the bottom of the garden (I enjoy gardening too much), I need a shed up a mountain in summer: no phone, no TV, no newspapers, no people.

‘You don’t write novels by putting in two brilliant hours a week. You don’t write novels if you lose too many mornings and afternoons to a hangover.’

This is what stopped me drinking this time round.

I realised that 2003 is not lost; I made a reasonable start, lost it for a few months, but could still make it up by the end of the year. We’ll see. I find denial of any kind tough.

‘Sometimes, when you’re in a bad period, you must in effect contract yourself for weeks running. “I’m going to write tomorrow,” you have to declare, and, indeed, show up at your desk, even though there’s nothing in you, and sit there for hours, whatever number of hours you told yourself you were going to put in. Then, if nothing happens, you still show up the next day and the next and the next, until that recalcitrant presence, the unconscious, comes to decide you can finally be trusted. Such acceptance is crucial. The unconscious expects that what it has prepared for you in your sleep should be expressed, ideally, the next day. We live, you see, in an arm’s-length relationship to our unconscious. It has to be convinced over and over again to believe in you. Sometimes when you’re writing a novel, you have to live as responsibly as a good monk. That does get easier as you grow older.’

Here we go. I need to be re-institutionalised. School worked for me, I was at boarding school for over nine years, it was possibly the best thing for me. I knew when to think, when to practise, when to eat, play and wipe my arse. I didn’t need money, to cook, to supervise children, or take responsibility for anything other than me.

‘Writing is wonderful when you talk about it. It’s fun to contemplate. But writing as a daily physical activity is not agreeable. You put on weight, you strain your gut, you get gout and chilblains. You’re alone, and every day you have to face a blank piece of paper.’ Mailer (2003. p. 102)

I liked this thought because it reminded me of a writing group to which I temporarily belonged; when we stopped loving each other we realised it was shit hard work, no one could take the negativity, and only a few could accept that it would be painful.

‘Professionalism probably comes down to being able to work on a bad day.’

I must.

‘When I’m writing I am rarely in a good mood. A part of me prefers to work at a flat level of emotion. Day after day, I see hardly anyone. I’ll put in eight to ten hours, or which only three or four will consist of words getting down on the page. It’s almost a question of one’s metabolism. You begin, after all, from a standing start and have to accelerate up to a level of cerebration where the best words are coming in good order. Just as a fighter has to feel that he posses the right to do physical damage to another man, so a writer has to be ready to take chances with his readers’ lives. If you’re trying for something at all interesting or difficult, then you cannot predict what the results of your work will be. If it’s close enough to the root, people can be physically injured reading you. Full of heart, he was also heartless – a splendid oxymoron. That can be the epitaph for many a good novelist.’

This will be hard. I’ve tried to fit writing in around housework, around the children, around holidays to no avail. I did best when I sat down for a few hours during school term week days to write in a café; perhaps the best I can expect from now. It will take a publishing deal before I can buy, let alone justify, going at it all day long. I looked at an office the other day; a space away from home where I could write in peace having dropped the children at school. Ten years ago I would have committed myself to the place, but too many financial errors have left me nervous and inclined to listen to my wife’s advice. If I cannot act on impulse then I cease to be me.

The Lewes Writer’s Group


I’m part of a writer’s group (offline, real flesh and blood stuff. I offered this to a dear friend. Tell me. Will it help her?

‘I have gone through ‘Away Days’ with great care’

I am fired up by a week of indulgent, experimental, binge writing. I feel better able to comment on those faced with the same struggle and discoveries they need to make . I am more enthused and confident about writing prose than ever before. I’ve had fun. I’ve written thousands of words, 8,000 one day, much of it crap. But this is good. It is part of the acceptable, mud-crushed path writers go down. I will write 2,000 word ‘sketches’ as a first draft, expecting to slip the leaves into the narrative later (or not). I will ‘let go’, go crazy to see if what tip taps onto the page is edible (or not).

From Naomi Eppel, ‘The Observation Deck’

Eliminate Words

‘Allow yourself to write garbage, to repeat yourself, to produce clichés. Let yourself create what Anne Lamott calls ‘shitty first drafts.’ Bad writing is part of the creative process’.

This is unfair in the context of ‘Away Days’ but is a suggestion of what you need to do to take ‘Away Days’ up several notches if you are to be published. Not a rewrite, not faffling about, but, head down, three hours, you’ve lost the original manuscript, you have to put it into someone’s hands by lunchtime. Just do it. Heady stuff. Exam conditions. From the top. Again. You can sing. This is about singing. Create some magic. Get angry with me, with it, with your characters, with just about everything … but use this anger to express yourself. And if not anger, some other equally devouring passion. Get it onto the page and let’s see it in sentence length, word choice, themes and indulgences. Take me on a trip and make me have to read on even though the phone just rang and keeps ringing and when the answer machine kicks in whoever it is has something urgent to say but I don’t give a monkey’s because someone has me by the throat and won’t let go. And she is the author of ‘Away Days’.

My notes are dense

My scribblings are dense. Notes, loops, deletions, inverted arrows, obscuring – good. I like what you write. I could not do this with something that wasn’t begging me to tinker. I enjoy your voice. Indeed I became you. I read it out loud, a gentle North American accent that slipped around between Jerry Hall and Tom Hanks as Forest Gump! Some words lost me. How do you say ‘either’ and ‘James’ and ‘aluminium’ ???

The first must

Put as much as you can in the present case. It takes you there. In doing so I could see this sequence of lyrical sketches. However this created the next problem. Chronology. Logic. Form. I found the flashbacks within flashbacks were getting me nowhere. What did work though, was to dip in and out of the present or past tense. As long as your reader knows what you are doing it works. You can be a narrator talking in the present, and talk in the present once you have climbed ‘over the fence’ as it were.

What ruined my chance of producing a ‘chapter’ for the group (I still could, still have chapters to release) was this ‘Conflict’ exercise. What I was doing was too tame,’ grey’. It lacked ‘black and white’. I have tossed in a lot of blue, and a little red. And some tears. I don’t want to write spaghetti shapes in a bland tomato sauce, I want to write pan seared scallops with snippets of dry cured bacon, on a bed of brown rice and pine nuts, with rocket salad. ‘Conflict’ for all of us could be a crucial moment. We may not like it, but we have to lie. We have to lie and enjoy it. Then call it fiction, then stand back and realise we have become writers. And hope that in the process we don’t confuse the lies we write about with the reality of the lives we lead.

It isn’t simply that we wish to be commercial

We share a desire to be ‘storytellers’, if we are good at telling stories we will become commercial. To do this I will have to shave off the filth that can get stuck to my stories, or go ‘underground’. I feel you have to do something else, I believe you have a voice, something special, but you are too shy, too polite. You may never share an enriched, explosive second draft rewrite of ‘Away Days’ but I feel you need to do this in order to reach something compelling and competitive. I could also recommend some viewing, if not reading. I devour movies, not books. So, to start with I should lend you, ‘Fucking Amal’, ‘My Life as a Dog’ and ‘Toto Le Heros’. Those of us who have not seen ‘Moulin Rouge’ should do so. Get the DVD too, the interview with Craig Pearce who shares how the screenplay was written is such fun, and so much something I want to do. (Remind Jonathan, he may not know, it but I was part of a group at Oxford who did this with him and Imogen Stubbs writing out what got written).

I dearly hope I haven’t upset you

Commenting on someone’s exposed heart is a privilege, but difficult. We are writers, not gardeners well able to nurture each other’s work. At times I loath to read anything by anyone, I am too caught up in squeezing my own drivel onto the page to care two hoots what someone else is saying. (Apologise to those reading this. I binge read, pages and pages, when the wind comes round and my passion to devour takes over). I can be disingenuously dismissive by being effusive. What you deserve, and others whose work I read deserve, is considered, focused, constructive criticism and support. Nurtured. Encouraged. Pointed in painful, daring, intolerable, acceptable directions – but moved on.

To do this we ought to meet outside the group

There is a pattern in what I feel I’ve identified in ‘Away Days’, the same issues arise again and again, the more so because I feel the opportunity I have had this last week has allowed me to see how easy it is and necessary it is :

-to speak in the present (ideally in the first person singular (for me)

-to run in order from start to finish, with few ‘flash backs’

-to invert points in a sentence in order to punctuate and so lead and control the audience.

-to expunge all vagueness.

Reading ‘Away Days’ out loud was magic

I had so much fun becoming this ‘other voice’. The kids weren’t around. It freaks them if I ‘act’ or speak a foreign language. It spooks them. Most importantly, I enjoyed the performance.

We want commercial success

We deserve it, you deserve it. To do so we must both learn to treat writing as a money generating, audience pleasing entertainment that in the 21st century has to compete with dozens of TV channels, magazines, novels and novellas, life, the internet, the radio – life and lots more!

Did you catch that article in the Weekend magazine of the Guardian on ‘New British Writers to watch in 2002?’ It makes for an informative read. Of the chosen five, three were writers anyway, published in magazines, online or with a TV series. The other two had done a ‘creative writing course’ (so they must work) … and they worked in book shops. The very best place to see you readers. I will never be published in Seaford, and nothing I write will appear in a public library – at this rate!

Would you not like to be amongst that bunch next year? Best new writers of 2003? With me? The both of us grinning cheekily and conspiratorially at each other on the front cover while the other ‘chosen few’ look uncomfortable?

Let’s meet

We can enjoy your writing, I hope I can help move it along, and if you would, you can decide what I might (or might not) submit to the group. I have these two novels, one scratching along to the 40,000 word mark scattered across the first 10 chapters, the other like a kid’s party balloon, vast and bulbous in places, thin in others … and a growing collection of short stories, that began on a theme of ‘cybersex’ and ‘sex on the net’ and seemed to be turning into a banana bunch on a common theme, but are now more like fruit in a bowl, a few bananas, apples and oranges, a passion fruit and a squashed over-ripe plum tomato that somehow got in there.

The Web is different – in defense of online diaries


I found Erika Meyer’s article on the defense of web diaries fascinating. There is not only enormous personal value to those posting entries to these sites but there are broader benefits to be gained by society, at work and in communities, by sharing experiences. Esther Dyson in Release 2.1 calls this ‘disclosure’ and it’s something we’re going to have to live with and love over the next few decades.

The online diary could have a multitude of personal and business applications. For the last few months I’ve used this as an excuse to spin through many online diaries during business hours, not looking for secrets, or for entertainment, but to understand their value to the individual and others posting such entries.

Paper vs Online Diaries

As a boy and teenager it took me four years to fall into a diary writing approach that was sustainable; I hope it won’t take as long to suss the online diary format. In those days, aged 13, I kept one of those Five Year diaries that offered you less space than a Post-It Note to write the day’s entry and obliged you to complete it every day or leave a glaring gap. Over the years it was fun to look back at what you were doing exactly a year, or two or three years previously, though too easily one day could blend into any other. For a time I tried loose leaf arch-leaver files, but on both occasions the exercise got out of hand and was unsustainable. Eventually I settled for a hardback book of lined A4 pages and I committed myself to a single page entry every day. Days were missed, but not often and sometimes I’d stretch an entry to several pages. Later, when the purpose of the diary changed, it became as much a place to put notes on books I was reading or on ideas that I was developing. Any form of diary writing clears the mind at the end of the day (assuming that’s when you write it all up). It helps to put ideas down, record the events and feelings of the day. These are often picked up in dreams and dealt with overnight in that way.

The Web is different

The Web is different. Alerted to the services of Diaryland in September 1999 I took the opportunity to revise a diary writing habit begun 25 years previously and only recently gave up as I settled into married life and parenthood. For the last three months then I have kept an online diary. It is flawed, though at times the experience and the challenge has been exhilarating. I love climbing learning curves. For the last month I’ve transferred some of my allegiance to Tripod under the banner ‘The Contents of My Brain.’

So why not keep all the entries offline?

So why not keep all the entries offline? There’s something about the medium, the expectation that these entries could be read, that someone may notice if you miss a few days and ask why. In an online discussion at Talk.Diaryland the views of thirty or more contributors are shared in a debate between paper and online diaries. It also makes it easier to pick things up whether I’m at home or the office. I use a database, and file articles, proposals and what not the best I can, but time and again, I find it easier to find something I might have written in the online diary, because the entry is associated with a day, in a month and will fall in a group of linked ideas or concerns that were being addressed at that time. It’s not that I simply wish to justify spending office hours visiting this or other diary sites, but I genuinely see there is business value to this approach. The process of logging, or observing daily practice begs you and others to identify ways to improve a process, or fix a problem, or share best practice. As the entries accumulate I need a way to search through the material, something that is offered through online diaries posted at Diarist.net

An excellent way to exercise the brain

I think it was Jonathan Swift who remarked that he couldn’t know what he meant until he’d written it down. In this respect, keeping a diary, especially in the fluid digital environment of the Net helps the writer to elucidate their views. My quality of thinking and the arguments at my disposal have improved greatly since I went online with a diary because I found ways to express. Simply put, this is an excellent way to exercise the brain. But it can be taken too far. I’d just been introduced to Diaryland when I came across an article in the Washington Post on 24th September 1999.

‘Ellen Levy has got the write project for the Internet Age. The main points of every conversation she’s had and taken pictures of, almost every one of the more than 1000 people she’s encountered since New Year’s Eve 1998. In all, to date, 800 single pages of text, and 1,100 photographs.’

But will Ellen share these pages with us? What insights has she gained? Has she anything to say to the world? The article continues:

‘By recording everything that comes her way Ellen thinks it is possible to track how chance meetings develop into critical business or personal relationships.’

If Ellen has been able to track the way meetings develop, all well and good. If this is a yearlong audit of her business activity, what has she learnt that will allow her, or her colleagues to become more efficient? I’m reminded of a scene in Terry Gilliam‘s film ‘Brazil.’ While some poor sod is being tortured by Michael Palin his secretary is outside typing up verbatim what is being said. All she types is, ‘Ahhhh! Ggrrrrr! Aeeeehh! Ouch ouch ouch! No! Grrrrr! Aaaah!’ Is that was this is all about? What life will Ellen’s entries get online? None, it would appear. She won’t publish. While not doubting the PR value inherent in this kind of front-page coverage in the Washington Post for Softpage, I doubt that Ellen is the first to keep track of her day to such lengths.

There are over 2000 diaries in diarist.net alone, and twenty times this figure scattered about the web. Diaryland.com, launched in September 1999 had 6000 writers online by the New Year.

Evolution not revolution

Erika Meyer suggests that we are witnessing a revolution with the rapid expansion of the Net. She also calls the development of an alphabet, and of the printed word as revolutionary, I’d prefer ‘evolutionary.’ Language and an alphabet took millenia to develop, the printed word took hundreds of years to take off and even now the use of the Net must be seen in the context of the growth in use of personal computers over the decade or two that followed it. Revolution implies destruction and conflict over a short period of time, evolution implies growth with no end in sight.

‘What’s new about new media? Not much!’

When you strip away the technology that allows the Net to exist you find much that is familiar. Diaries are not new in themselves and the many online diaries I have scanned have much in common with diaries I have kept in Five Year lockable books, in A4 hardback books, in scrapbooks and Arch leaver files. The best online examples have simply learnt how best to operate within the medium, just as we all write differently whether it is an essay written in exam conditions on sheets of lined A4, a letter to a relation on unlined Conqueror, or a post-card to Mum when we’ve been somewhere fancy.

Erika suggests that writing web content is very different than writing for print, on the contrary, the writing process is the same, only the platform is different. For a time I thought this was the case because typing and clicking on the keyboard you could find your words ‘published’ on the Net almost as quickly as they could be written. Whilst there are those who can write well, straight from the mouth, most of us benefit from the simple exercise of writing, editing and redrafting – if not from a modicum of preparation followed by a careful look at grammar, spelling and punctuation. Indeed, when asked recently to make a presentation on new media the title I finally put to the piece was ‘What’s new about new media? Not much!’ My audience of corporate communications professionals from around the world were delighted by what I had to say, especially that whatever the medium, good writing, for video, for presentations, for in-house newsletters, or for a PR Release, or for the Web depends on the same fundamental considerations: What do you want to say? Who is the audience?

Anais Nin

Self-publishing or vanity publishing occurred in print where no publisher could be found. The worst work of this type comes from writers who lack the self-discipline to edit what they write, or have nothing worth saying. Anais Nin self-published some of her fiction – it isn’t very good. Her best and most read work remains the erotica she had published and her diaries. Here you need to read the seven volumes of her Journals. These Anais wrote, rewrote and edited, not simply to protect the names of some of her lovers, but to make the diaries worth reading.

Web journals are flexible containers, even more so than the hardback books and arch-lever files I once used. However, the web is at a disadvantage by not having pages. In the past I could go a year or two committing entries to a diary and never feel the need to turn back the pages. However, with the web you are limited to look again and revise entries from last week or last year and to make such changes seamlessly.

Journal writing is a natural vehicle for daily content

Journal writing is a natural vehicle for daily content. In fact my excuse for spinning through dozens of online diaries has been to identify online diary best practice in the expectation of defining criteria for use in corporate intranets or extranets. However, whilst there is a benefit to refresh and update website regularly, an ill-thought through diary like posting on the Internet is not good corporate practice. Rather I see the value of the online diary in the corporate arena as a way people can collectively, and rapidly, build a database of activities and roles. Instead of a team visiting a production line, or a cost centre in an office to undertake an audit to observe and measure functions the individuals within teams can build their own picture of how things are being done and so more easily identify ways to improve things. Keeping such diaries could harness our natural desire to network in an office environment. Recently a student was in the office on placement and kept a diary, when this was shared around the office it was remarkable to realise her perceptions of what it was we did as a business and the roles each of us played.

The more you sing, the better your voice

There are other benefits to be gained from keeping a diary beyond what is written down, simply put, ‘The more you sing, the better your voice. The more you write, the better your writing.’ The Net has a vociferous appetite for new material, so the more we practice our writing skills the better, keeping an online diary is one way of doing this. The best advice for a wannabe writer is to read a great deal, the same advice is relevant for any of us using the web – take time to read and review as much as you can until you identify styles and approaches you admire and that work.

I’m encouraged by something I picked out of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Capricorn.”

‘I had to learn, as Balzac did, that one must write volumes before signing one’s name. I had to learn, as I soon did, that one must give up everything and not do anything else but write, even if everybody in the world advises you against it, even if nobody believes in you.’

Flexibility in the online diary format has its problems

Flexibility in the diary format has its problems. Whilst each of us will find a way forward that suits us we would all benefit from identifying and sharing what we consider to be online diary best practice. My own 25 years of paper diary writing taught me many lessons, not just how to write, but what to write where to write it and how much to put down. Those early entries in a Five Year diary are rarely insightful, nor was the time I filled loose pages in an A4 ring-binder, because before I knew it I’d be writing for two hours a day and filling gaps with bus tickets and sweet wrappers. For me, a single A4 sheet in a hardbound book worked for over ten years. A full page was the minimum (say 400 to 500 words) though special times would warrant a few extra pages. Having different diaries for different things can work too, but again, before you know it the diary spreads like a wild strawberry plant.

Anais writes about how her Journals must be selective:

‘It seems to me that I follow only the most accessible thread. Three or four threads may be agitated, like telegraph wires, at the same time, and if I were to tap them all I would reveal such a mixture of innocence and duplicity, generosity and calculation, fear and courage. I cannot tell the whole truth simply because I would have to write four journals at once. I often would have to retrace my steps, because of my vice for embellishment.’

(Henry & June, Journals, July 1932 Anais Nin)

Mel Brooks put it differently.

‘Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him.’

For a number of months I kept a dream diary. During this period not only did I find I was recalling three, four even five dreams a night, but I was spending what time I could stay awake during the day analysing them. It’s vital to be selective, to recognise a natural ebb and flow of interest.

There is no rigid answer, different formats will work for different people and depend as much on the amount of time that can be given to it each day.

Three months online with Diaryland and a pattern is emerging.

Three months online with Diaryland and a pattern is emerging. Despite believing I’d do so I have not gone back to a paper diary. In fact reliance on electronic gizmos is increasing. I use a Sony IC55 solid state recorder to take notes (acquired a week ago, already indispensable) and a Psion 5 palm top (acquired a year ago). Entries get written up on the Psion 5 on the train. The IC55 is used in the car, on foot and around the house. Entries from a variety of old hard-back paper diaries, childhood ‘Five Year’ diaries and folders from expeditions abroad, are being typed up too. Once a week all entries are backed up and downloaded from the Psion 5 to either a MAC or PC. Here they are spell-checked and edited, then placed online. So far I have the last six weeks posted online, with a smattering of entries from October and November 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1990, as well as various other more memorable childhood and teenage excerpts from the 60s and 70s.

For simplicity and readability, good humour, and decency take a look at the diary posted by Claire Warnes here is a fine example of the art of keeping an on-line journal. For a selection of worthy homepages take a look at those promoted regularly Tripod

Of course, I now want someone to pay me to do an ‘Ellen Levy’ for YEAR 2000. Like Ellen I would use modern tools to help me with the task. I’d use a solid state recorder (Sony IC-55) in place of a notebook, and a hand held computer (Psion 5 Series) rather than a laptop. Content would be loaded onto a PC every night. Voice recognition software would turn my audio notes into text files and the two sources combined, then edited, and then posted on the Web.

I’d undertake to post the first draft of all entries within 24 hours of writing them. Entries would be edited or left, at my discretion over the next week during which time I’d also decide whether or not to add pictures, audio-files and even video-clips.

On the other hand I might find living life more pleasurable than observing it.

On writing a diary – January 1st, 1993

François Truffaut

François Truffaut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fig. 1. Francois Truffaut knew himself – what he read, why he read and what he thought in letters and notes.


Written on 1/1/1993 in a hardback journal

I’m not writing a journal or a diary

‘It seems to me that I follow only the most accessible thread. Three or four threads may be agitated, like telegraph wires, at the same time, and if I were to tap them all I would reveal such a mixture of innocence and duplicity, generosity and calculation, fear and courage. I cannot tell the whole truth simply because I would have to write four journals at once. I often would have to retrace my steps, because of my vice for embellishment’. Anais Nin

(Henry & June, Journals, July 1932)

This has become many things:

  • a record of what happens to me and around me each day
  • a notebook for whatever I’m reading
  • a record and analysis of dreams
  • a place to try my hand at exposure and expression while avoiding cliché’s like that one
  • a place to describe how it is, or isn’t;
  • a place to practise lies
  • a place to drill, thrill and hone my skill
  • a place to underplay, exaggerate or avoid
  • a place to lose myself in Truth
  • a place to mouth off or to get off
  • a place to play
  • a place where a blank pages means something as a day missed is a day when I’m too ill, too depressed, too drunk or too bored with it

Writers keep diaries to record events – a writer’s journal

I do this; working up events until they have become more real than reality as I obscure what happened with scene setting detail and by bringing narrative order to the muddle of a daily life. At times I write as a drill, to practice, at others because I feel an obligation, it is what I do most days, every day. I use these pages in an attempt to extract a writing style and extricate myself from the bland, for many years without success.

Lately a form has emerged as I tripped and stumbled over a keyboard I’ve been hacking at the undergrowth until I have found my way, happily pursuing forest paths and following streams back to their source. I keep a diary as a record of events: what I did, where, with whom. At times I reduce the diary to bullet points, satisfied that I’ve not lost the day forever to obscurity. As a painter I had to draw what I saw, from reality, not straight out of the mind or by copying. As a writer I hoped at first that I could write candidly about reality and once I had established that I could progress to fiction.

Am I writing postcards to myself?

How for example would I describe this house? How would I describe the room in where I am sleeping? How would I describe the view from the window? The desk at which I am writing ? How we made love this morning? These are the things about which I should write.

It all counts. It all mounts

Words tripping over words, hardback notebooks labelled and stacked, files in boxes and files on discs, on zips and here, online. It’s a matter of finding the words, describing chronologically the actions which make the event and in so doing transporting the reader into my head.

This writing is never supposed to be a draft of anything

I would allow my diary to be read by Suzi. Knowing she would sometimes read it I could write disinformation, instead of writing about me, I could write about her, and as I would in a letter and could express my love for her instead of my doubts; as all authors do for their readers I could write what she wanted to read. Hardest of all was the need to leave out my lust for other women (I was 17 when we met, 18 when we went out with each other and 25 when we broke up)

I liked to indulge that rush of blood you get on seeing someone you could imagine being with !!

I had an affair with Louise without getting a finger near her … because I wrote, and imagined, and connived to seduce her, in my mind I dated her, despite how often she told me she had a boyfriend in London – foolishly I admitted some of this to Suzi. In so doing I smudged our relationship; I became a Janus, committed to looking in different directions, holding onto Suzi whilst hoping the relationship with Louise would take off – it didn’t.

The search for ‘Janus’ set off a string of memories

The search led me to the ‘Oxford Companion of Classical Literature’ and so to considering Hedes, looking up ‘sentinel’ and finally pursuing Juno until I read Janus and it all fell into place – a riddle solved. This in turn sparked off a vivid memory of being told by Mr Byers at Mowden Hall School sometime in the early 1970s.

I read how Francois Truffaut said he felt it was necessary to read everything to give the mind food and things to smart against, ways of gaining new ideas and having old one revived. If this is the case I can justify reading trash: ‘The Sunday Sport’ and ‘Viz’ as well as my favourite current authors: Anais Nin, Henry Miller, not only required reading classics like ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Ulysses’, but also books I loved and read in the past which need to be reread: ‘Time Enough for Love‘ (Heinlein) ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (Tolkein), ‘The Nania Chronicles’ (C. S. Lewis), even that child’s book on history (Ladybird) which begun with a picture of a caveman and later had pictures of the Golden Hynde, my earliest books and what I thought of them.

‘Mind Stimulation’ digging up the psyche, that’s what I’ll call it!!!

So how many diaries or journals do I need?

  • a dream book
  • a diary for a straight log of what I did during the day
  • a journal as a notebook (as here)
  • a memory jogger
  • something for assessment/analysis of what I am thinking and reading
  • a scrapbook.

How many is that?
Would four do the trick?
Could I try it for a year?

I kept a five year day for eight years in my early teens: the five lines per day are hopeless unrevealing: I washed my hair, cleaned out the rabbit kind of thing. Some rare moments bring back the day or event. I began to record dreams in my mid-teens, tiring off it when I found I could recall four or more dreams each night taking several hours to write them up the following day. I kept a scrapbook and dairy in a ring-bind folder when I went on an exchange with a French boy and repeated this around my 17th birthday, filling a folder in one month and so realising I needed a different approach. This is when I settled for a page of A4 per day every day, not less and rarely more. Being able to write as much as I liked I found myself filling a dozen pages plus and so quickly lost the detail that would have otherwise identified the day, month and year.

Dreams already (usually) go on a pre-formatted template on the Amstrad

I’ve been wanting to buy a scrapbook again for ages but haven’t come up with an easy solution – it needs to be in a bound book form for simplicity’s sake. The ‘Journals’ (this) I have, which leaves the diary. If I take this route it will be strictly a ‘page day job’ – none of these twelve page epic per day entries. It would be a mere (better than nothing though) Logbook. Though never as dry. From this I could write expanded entries (as I am currently trying to do with the 1980s).

Anais would hide her diary

This secretiveness was a product of the treachery it would have revealed, especially to her husband Hugo who would have been unable to handle it. I hid my diaries for another reason – how vulnerable the inner thoughts can make you, and how many impressions, concerns, agitations are fears of the moment which would usually, sensibly, remain hidden.

It’s that probing around in my skull for scrap of anxiety or mystery which most concerns me.

I don’t want to indulge, I don’t want to look for fault. I don’t want to dwell on previous relationships (such as Suzi), unless I know also I will keep them in the past, unfortunately diaries, like minutes in a meeting, eventually prompt you to ‘do something about it’ Actions points, 1,2,3 …

Reflections on keeping a Journal, Henry Miller, Anais Nin and other writers

Henry Miller, photographed by Carl Van Vechten...

Henry Miller, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1940 Jan. 22 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


This entry was written up in a hardback, A4 exercise book of some 100 pages on 16/10/1992. In ink, using a Sheafer fountain pen. Most days between March 1975 and December 1993 were covered – then we got married and this evening past time ended – until the birth of our daughter in June 1996 when for good reason there was something to write about – daughter in 1996, son in 1998 – then a shift to a blog and quite soon keeping a journal died in favour of a) reflection on life based on what I’d written and b) keeping a writer’s journal and c) from 2010 almost exclusively in e–learning. There are other blogs on family life, swim teaching and coaching and the memoir of a First World War Machine Gunner.


Friday 16th October 1992




The date in the diary used to have some relevance, without them the day couldn’t exist, couldn’t begin, had nothing to contain it. Now I write when I want, about whatever moves me, when something moves me. I wait in ambush, capture a thought then run with it.


I’m reading like I’ve never read before. At last I’ve found a rich vein of literature which I enjoy:


  • Anais Nin,
  • Henry Miller,
  • Bill Bryson,
  • Evelyn Waugh,
  • Clive James,
  • Bruce Chatwin,
  • Ken Russell
  • and Brian Keenan.


I want to write like Henry Miller, to describe sexual encounters with verve and honesty, to describe my humdrum life as though it had a purpose.


Writing in hindsight H.M. knows that he becomes a reputable writer – this is the narrative thread, the goal he is aiming for. But to copy his style will be like learning to stand upright on a log as it spins, to control it and guide it through calm waters and torrents, even over waterfalls and through the sawmill ‘til the pulp has been turned into paper, the words written in the book and the novel on display in the High Street window.


I somehow manage to have four books on the go at any one time.


Only this can satisfy my boredom freshold: Sexus (Henry Miller), ‘Volume Five: Journals (Anais Nin), ‘Neither Here Nor There (Bill Bryson) and ‘The Letters of Henry Miller and Anais Nin’ Is that all ? In between I have to dip into old (and find new) enthusiasms: ‘Enthusiasms’ (Bernard Levin) and ‘Biographies’ (Clive James).


For the first time I want to quote from them, mark their books as I read them, read what they read, pursue my passions, stir harder the feelings they unsettle … then have a go myself, turn my own hand to these pages.


Bursts of enthusiasm get me through the first 2,500 words – then I rethink it, rework it, but then like running into a tall fence of chicken wire I suddenly can get no further, like a deer reaching a fence in front of a motorway. I must learn a way to get from start to finish in one breadth, not to need to go back over and plod about in the Passchendale of last week’s cloud burst.


I’m finding that no amount of rejigging will save a piece, but rather like a completed painting reworked, the image becomes increasingly muddy as further efforts to repaint it fail. Instead I must relish the write, from start to finish, like the instant prose of an examination taken in lumps of three hours. That’s it ! Set the themes in my head, then run with it for three hours.


I want to get the story of ‘Arts Foundation Girl’ posing four me nude right; I want to get my peaks and troughs of love and Suzy Bean right; I want to get stories of pure invention, be it ‘Little Green Hannah’ or ‘Rewind’ right !


Reading Henry Miller and Ana’s Nin is fascinating as a record of how a writer goes through the pain and ecstasy of the creative process. It’s heartening (and disquieting) to know that I could get nowhere for years; I could still be writing in this manner in a decades time. Fine ! Just so long as I have lead an interesting life to boot.


‘By now I was so feverishly inspired that I took a trolley and rose into the country. Ideas were pouring into my head. AS fast as I jotted them down others came crowing in. At last I reached that point where you abandon all hope of remembering your brilliant ideas and you simply surrender to the luxury of writing a book in your head. You know that you’ll never be able to recapture these ideas, not a single line of all the tumultuous and marvelously dovetailed sentences which sift through your mind like sawdust spilling through a hole. On such days you have for company the best companion you will ever have – the modest, defeated, plodding workaday self which has a name and which can be identified in public registers in case of accident or death. But the real self, the one who has taken over the reins, is almost a stranger. He is the one who is filled with ideas; he is the one who is writing in the air; he is the one who, if you become too fascinated with his exploits will finally expropriate the old, worn-out self, taking over your name, your address, your wife, your past, your future. Naturally, when you walk in on an old friend in this euphoric state he doesn’t wish top concede immediately that you have another life, a life apart in which he has no share. He says quite naively – ‘feeling rather high today, eh ?Ó and you nod your head almost shamefacedly. ‘ (Henry Miller, SEXUS)


And so I can (and will continue) to quote.


Again, on writing, on experience, satisfaction and method of writing, Henry Miller says, ‘It was revealed to me that I could say what I wanted to say – if I thought of nothing else, If I concentrated upon that exclusively – and if I were willing to bear the consequences which a pure act always involves.’


His search for ‘Truth,’ for his ‘Voice.’ Satisfying this ‘must’ called writing. If only I had my Anais (!) …


When I drew ‘Arts Foundation Girl’ I drew the sex and warmth of a horny 19 year old, I drew the revealed lust and smell of sex, I drew with my penis. I held it in my write hand and stroked it across a series of pages capturing what I saw and the way in which I saw it. I wouldn’t sleep with her because that would extinguish the passion I was playing with – I let my excitement add fluidity and texture to each mark on the page. I drew with my entire body, with my hole being. Each time I tore off a page to start again it was like squeezing my balls to stop me coming, each time I got Lucinda to pose differently, to close her sex and turn her back on me, I was reducing the volume, turning down the heat, keeping my dick at heel. If I’d slept with her I wouldn’t have wet dreams still about the moment, that heated game of ‘look and see.’ She is a story I must write and rewrite, draw and redraw.


On France Henry Miller says his friend Ulric had gone to Europe and how this man’s experiences so different from how own approach (and my own).


‘I had more in common with Ulric than with any other friends. For me he represented Europe, its softening, civilising influence. We would talk by the hour of this other world where art had some relation to life, where you could sit quietly in public watching the passing show and think your own thoughts. Would I ever get there ? Would it be too late ? How would I speak ? When I thought about it realistically it seemed hopeless. Only hardy, adventurous spirits could realise such dreams. Ulric had done it – for a year – by dint of hard sacrifice. For ten years he had done the things he hated to do in order, to make this dream come true. Now the dream was over and he was back where he had started. Farther back then ever, really, because he would never again be able to adapt himself to the treadmill. For Ulric it had been a Sabbatical leave: a dream which turns to gall as the years roll by. I could never do as Ulric has done. I could never make a sacrifice of that sort, nor could I be content with a mere vacation however long or short it might be. My policy has always been to burn my bridges behind me. My face is always set toward the future. If I make a mistake it is fatal. When I am flung back I fall all the way back – to the very bottom. My one safeguard is my resiliency. So far I have always bounced back. Sometimes the rebound has resembled a slow-motion performance, but in the eyes of God speed has no particular significance.’ (Henry Miller, SEXUS)


How often have I fallen and bounced back? Have I been an adventurer seeking experiences to write about ?


Quitting J.W.T. and tumbling from a flat in Whitehall Court to a back bedroom in a shared accommodation in Lewisham ? My trip to Gottingen, my run to Grenoble and the Alps ? Have I failed to be either one thing or the other ? Neither reckless idiot on the street of Paris, nor diehard executive in the U.K. Go don’t let me become an Ulric – nor let me stumble far into misery that I will be a pain to myself and my family.


I have enough experiences to write up a lifetime.


Like Henry Miller I make the idle boast about the number of words I have written. To an outsider it is lie a revelation of a serious malady. How could I do this to myself ? I could see it at one of my mum’s coffee mornings, happy to join in as the scrounger of lives I suddenly announce to her genteel gathering ‘I’ve been masturbating since he age of eleven. For the first fifteen years I keep it up once, twice, sometimes four times a day – nearly 5,500 times.’ They look at me in dismay, they look at mum and sympathise, you hear them remarking how much better it is to have me at home than in an asylum. And so I feel when I tell Dad I have diaries which contain a million and a half words, and stories of various half-finished kinds making up another million. It’s not that tears fill his eyes, it’s not that his lip begins to quiver, but you know he is feeling despair – not that I’ve ailed to climb the ranks of some international, not that I’m so impoverished (and inclined) that I’m temporarily living at home, but because I have expended so much time and effort getting nowhere: flagellation in a corner for my own self-satisfaction. Must I prove anything to him or anyone else ? I’ve shown that I’m incapable of boxing up my words in neat little, affordable and predictable packages, incapable of deriving any satisfaction except from my own way of doing and saying things.


I move my life from place to place in boxes: from mother-packed trunks and Tuck boxes to boarding school, to Post office cardboard boxes filled with my books and stationery in London, to the yellow post office boxes I filled with scraps of Paris. ‘My Life in a box.’ Now I keep it in pieces of furniture – cubes which stack one on top of the other. Ready for the next get away. So where next ? To Paris first, then Prague or Milan ? Anywhere to enliven my reflections.


Anais Nin wrote in 1946 about the awfulness of television. Fifty years later I feel we are going through a new phase.


So much of experience is television that fiction must go beyond the first reflection of reality and reflect the reflection. Instead of holding a mirror up to reality, we must hold a mirror to the reality already reflected from our T.V screens. Our fictions must be that much more extreme, more violent, more cookie, bigger, bolder, brasher, faster. Audience are used to gulping it all down in an over-spiced smorgasbord of channels. Can I deliver given this context ?


‘The secret of full life,’ wrote Anais Nin, ‘is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates he vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters, meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a great amount of people, more people, more countries, This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch with a great amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision. ‘ (Anais Nin. Journals. Vol 4)


For the second night in a row Darlingest has been typing a marketing essay into my word processor.


This morning I came down at 5.00 a.m. and joined her – two hours later I am still writing. We were joined by Mum; she too wished she was up and at it. I agree. She should be painting – not worrying about the time of day, or night, what the neighbours think or would-be purchasers of her house might think. We joke in the family that Mum like to keep the house tidy and bare, as if it is continually up for sale. I must get her to read Anais Nin’s Journals – about a woman’s struggle to find her creative outlet.


Between them Henry Miller and Anais Nin have written a ‘how to …’ book on writing.


Ray Bradbury, in one slim volume, ‘Zen in the Art of Creative Writing,’ with an abundance of gusto, does what they wrote across a string of books.



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