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Why I’d say yes, yes, yes to the Bad Sex award

By Sally O’Reilly, The Open University

Sexual intercourse is getting on a bit. Not only has it been boosting the human population since we emerged from the primordial swamp, it’s more than half a century since Philip Larkin noted its arrival on the cultural scene in his poem Annus Mirabilis. Until then it was, Larkin writes:

A shame that started at sixteen

And spread to everything.

For thousands of years, sex had lurked behind curtains and in the sub-text of innuendos. Suddenly, it was a matter for discussion, celebration and artistic exploration. This was good news for sex, perhaps, but not for writers, as Ben Okri has just found out after winning the Literary Review’s 2014 Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

I speak from experience, having essayed a few torrid moments in my last novel Dark Aemilia. Given that my protagonist had inspired the later, bleaker Shakespeare sonnets, which give a compelling insight into the pain of unrequited or rejected love, it seemed appropriate that she and the infatuated Mr WS should engage in an obsessive sexual romance. So the script demanded that they take their clothes off, and, having taken them off, that they engage in the sort of sex that was likely to obsess them.

In our lust-soaked culture I felt there was no way the reader would accept a chastely sanitised Lurve without some robust consummation. But I worried that the spirit of bad writing might be chasing me down the Jacobean corridors, so I kept it brief. The fairly elliptical bouts of shagging which enliven my narrative will not give EL James pause for thought – there is no throbbing, few body part references and not a silken cord in sight.

But perhaps omission, metaphor and suggestion are sexier than, well, sex. It is difficult to write about the act of love without resorting to knicker-dampening cliché, or the most appalling schmaltz. New words should be made available if we want to carry on depicting “scenes of a sexual nature” – and the fact that the language of raw physicality is limited is demonstrated by the rarity of raw physical writing.

Most novelists don’t explore the animalistic elements of our being in much depth. When we write about eating and drinking, we focus on the food and the wine, not the act of chewing and swallowing. The delineation of everyday living doesn’t usually include trips to the loo – though in my first novel I did have an explicit weeing sequence, written from the point of a man. And vomiting is relatively underexplored. Orgasm has had far more literary attention than the ungovernable heave.

Which brings me back to the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Given that both Booker prize winner Richard Flanagan and Haruki Murakami are on the shortlist, it’s clear that being a great writer is no protection against poor sex prose. (Other former nominees include Jonathan Franzen, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.) So who is writing about sex well? Where is the excellent literary shagging to be had? Is the library scene in Atonement a best-practice example? Are there brilliant sex scenes that have slipped my mind?

As in fashion, pop music and all forms of culinary art since Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, it has all been done before. It’s hard to “make it new” as Ezra Pound exhorted writers to do. Readers have already been shocked by the inchoate loin-count in Lady Chatterley’s Lover; the joys of compulsive teen masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint; the fetishisation of the “c” word in Tropic of Cancer and by Fear of Flying with its “zipless fuck”. It says something about the current state of sex writing that the most exciting innovation of the last five years has been the mainstreaming of “mummy porn” in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Perhaps the way lies ahead not in explicit writing but in experimental fiction. DH Lawrence wrote about sex very badly indeed – ludicrously, insanely, improbably. In an attempt to be honest, direct and – yes – animalistic, he boldly overwrote where no man had overwritten before. Conversely, he also wrote about sex with courage and originality, using impressionistic sensory description to convey the sexual sensibility of women in a way that few male novelists have attempted since. And he should also get some points for his willingness to write about bad sex. Paradoxically, the sex in contemporary bad sex writing usually attempts to depict very good sex indeed. It’s as if the couplings described must emulate how we imagine the pretty writhings of Hollywood’s finest.

So where does this leave my future relationship with the sexual paragraph? Will my characters get down and dirty again? I’m not sure. If I can find a way to write about the “inchoate” without sounding like a breathless purveyor of lady porn, I may give it a try. I’m certainly not put off by the idea of winning a Bad Sex award. With so much dire sex to contend with, it would be an accolade of sorts.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

When is a problem ‘wicked’ as opposed to ‘tame’ ?

Fig 1. Creativity Problem Solving Precepts

My Mindmap 7 From the OU MBA Module ‘Creativity, Innovation & Change’ (B822)

The term was coined in the late 1960s by someone born in 1919, (Ackoff) it isn’t contemporary street speak, or even in Norman Mailer‘s words ‘Beatnik’; rather, in this manifestation of the word it is the opposite of ‘tame’.

(Ackoff might be ‘messy problems’ while I mean Rittell here)

Put it this way, a tame problem can be contained and tamed, like a lion in a cage.

  • Chess is a tame problem. Science problems are tame too.
  • But in the social sciences most issues are complex, hard to fix, shifting, and a lot of bother as they appear impossible to resolve and whatever you try impacts on the problem.

Like trying to catch water in a sieve?

  • It is vital for me to understand that a problem is ‘wicked’ before I try to tackle the thing with a creative problem solving technique. Not meaning to be flippant, but I don’t figure out a chess move by finger painting – though a mind-map or brainstorming might help?
  • Or not?
  • I am hopeless at chess because it doesn’t respond to my intuitive approach to everything.

Is the problem ‘messy’?

  • Probably, if it requires finger painting, even Flipcharts and PostIt Notes.

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber

Rittel and Webber’s (1973) formulation of wicked problems specifies ten characteristics, perhaps best considered in the context of social policy planning.

According to Ritchey (2007) the ten characteristics are:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
  1. The solution depends on how the problem is framed and vice-versa (i.e. the problem definition depends on the solution)
  2. Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
  3. The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.
  4. The problem is never solved definitively

ABOVE FROM WIKIPEDIA 9FEB12 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem

Messes and social messes

Russell L. Ackoff wrote about complex problems as messes: “Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess.” [19]

Extending Ackoff, Robert Horn says that “a Social Mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity—systems of systems—is among the factors that makes Social Messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.”

According to Horn, the defining characteristics of a social mess are:

Ackoff, Russell, “Systems, Messes, and Interactive Planning” Portions of Chapters I and 2 of Redesigning the Future. New York/London: Wiley, 1974.

  1. No unique “correct” view of the problem;
  2. Different views of the problem and contradictory solutions;
  3. Most problems are connected to other problems;
  4. Data are often uncertain or missing;
  5. Multiple value conflicts;
  6. Ideological and cultural constraints;
  7. Political constraints;
  8. Economic constraints;
  9. Often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking;
  10. Numerous possible intervention points;
  11. Consequences difficult to imagine;
  12. Considerable uncertainty, ambiguity;
  13. Great resistance to change; and,
  14. Problem solver(s) out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.

Norman Mailer left a comment in my blog

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-wg-boiHyA9Y/TpCC-H9a7WI/AAAAAAAAHuM/33PrP1vZs2o/s400/The%252520Spooky%252520Art%252520Norman%252520Mailer%252520SNIP.JPG

I’ve been blogging since 1999.

In 2003 I went through a Norman Mailer phase.

I read everything and would post thoughts. Looking back at this diary and its 15,000+ pages I stumbled across a comment that is by all accounts from Norman Mailer himself in which I quote him regarding the writing process and how you live the life of a fictional character for many years. His comment suggests that it had been years since he had lived one of these characters and he thought it was about time he did so again.

I regret not picking up on this. His opinionated and sometimes rambling novels appeal to me as they often read like a diary: unedited stream of consciousness like Proust, Henry Miller, Haruki Murakami or Virginia Woolf.

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.

STYLE

‘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.

Character

‘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.

Stamina

‘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.

Some extensive thoughts on Writing and being a writer by Norman Mailer

‘The Spooky Art’ Mailer (2003)

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.

I then read an inadequate biography on Norman Mailer through which Mailer appeared and I liked him. About this time one of the English Broadsheet newspapers, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ serialised ‘The Spooky Art’ so I bought it. (July 2003)

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.

STYLE

‘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. (This is an example of what Steven Pressfield describes as ‘resistance’ – I will do anything but engage, like sitting an exam, in a piece of long-forming narrative writing and when I do I block around the 70,000 word Mark, try to edit and do my head in).

P78

‘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.’

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.

My plan should be to have no plan. To hop on my skis and run with it. (reading this 8 years on I have a premise in mind).

Mailer continues in a similar vain here:

P80

‘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.’

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.

Character

P82

‘Unless your literary figures keep growing through the event of the book, your novel can go nowhere that will surprise you.’

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

P89

‘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.’

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 illudes me. Offering reasons and meaning is the simplest way to make a reader feel empathy for the predicament that the characters face.

P90

‘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.’

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

P98

‘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 abut, 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.’

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.

Stamina

P101

‘It’s as difficult to become a professional writer as a professional athlete.’

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 illudes them.

P102

‘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.’

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.

P102

‘A large part of writing a novel is to keep your tone.’

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.

P102

‘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.’

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.’

Norman Mailer : boxing, writing and the role of ‘man’

I take notes from a biography I’ve just read on Norman Mailer; their aren’t many:

Norman Mailer on a wife, ‘He won’t have anything to do with a woman who has a career.’ Sounds like my late father; he had to be a kept man.

He spent six weeks during the break up with his fourth wife trying to look after four children. He claimed he could have done it for years if necessary,’but in no uncertainty that the most interesting part of his mind and heart was condemned to dry on the vine. So he could not know whether he would have found it endurable to be born a woman or if it would have driven him out onto the drear avenues of the insane.’ I’m sure that looking after kids is both physically and mentally draining. But perhaps this is just one of my many excuses not to write a thousand words a day (let alone a thousand words an hour).

Mailer was interested in boxing an expression of ego

On writing. When he taught Jose Torres he ‘was teaching me not how to think or what to think but to think.’

In a Life piece on an Ali-Joe Frazier fight in Madison Square Gardens Mailer said that ego was ‘that extraordinary state of the psyche which gives us authority to declare we are sure of ourselves when we are not.’

The Spooky Art – Norman Mailer on writing

I find ‘Harlot’s Ghost’ extraordinarily ‘synchronous’ as Julia Cameron would put it in ‘The Artist’s Way’ that open on the table is an article by Norman Mailer from the Daily Telegraph, a paper I never buy (caustically right-wing, conservative/republican in p.o.v) but that I bought yesterday because I began to leaf through its pages in the Imaging Centre at Eastbourne General Hospital when I was there yesterday for a CT Scan on my head and chest.

‘Can a novelist draw on his friends and family without incurring their rage and tears?’ Asks Norman Mailer who then quotes a description of Kitteridge, the protagonist’s love interest in ‘Harlot’s Ghost.’ Darlingest must have left it open for me.

Norman Mailer describes how in life there is rarely a beginning, a middle and an end

‘We live in and out of ongoing plots every day of our lives, but they are discontinuous.’

Anais Nin described her life as a multitude of threads, threads she unravelled in her journals she never got to grips with plot, which is why she failed as a novelist; she couldn’t let go.

‘One could argue that our love of plot – until it gets very cheap indeed, comes out of our need to find the chain of cause and effect that so often is missing in our own existence.’

Norman Mailer continues, staring out from a picture of the author as a young man in 1965.’

On to plot or not

‘The decision you make while writing fiction can leave you uneasy. I look to find my book as Igo along. 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.’ Norman Mailer

Not to plot

‘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.’ Norman Mailer

On exploiting family:

You cannot write about people you care about and not hurt them or, to the contrary, even worse, allow too little to be wrong with them. They then come through as boring. That is the first mark of bottom-level amateur writing

On using your imagination, not relying on what I call ‘method writing’ in which you have to do what you characters do: get drunk, have a car crash, go to a brothel, have an affair …

‘Part of the art of being a novelist is to play that delicate game of obtaining experiences without falsifying it by the act of observation. Generally speaking, it’s easier to take in such knowledge when you are part of an event that is much larger than yourself – like the fall of the Twin Towers.’ Norman Mailer

From ‘The Spooky Art’ by Norman Mailer.

I’m reading ‘Harlot’s Ghost’ so I give you this on marriage

‘A devil’s game. I believe in matrimony, you know. I do think sacraments are taken between God and oneself, and are just as binding as legal contracts are supposed to be in all of the corporate, judicial, industrial world, much contract can be broken, but not too many, or society’s ills reach critical mass. By analogy, I think too many sacraments are violated, God communicates less with us.’ Norman Mailer

I caught this idea as it ties into another novel I’ll neverwrite called ‘Splat’ tat takes Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Atomised’ in a less European, more ‘destruction of the family’ direction.

On bereavement

‘For many months, I would open my eyes with the uneasiness of those bereaved who awaken in the morning without being able to tell themselves at first what is wrong. They know only that someone is gone. Then memory presents itself like a hangman at the door.’ Norman Mailer

On depression

‘Inhabiting a depression was not unlike camping out on the marble floor of a bank. Sharp sounds damped into murmurs, echoes told you more than clear speech, and you always felt cold.’ Norman Mailer.

I’d say it was like being in a dry dock on a deserted Tyneside shipyard

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