I never bought into the whole religious thing. I thought it was all a big hustle. Didn’t ever think there was a God; didn’t think he conveniently favor the Jews if there was one. What were my sins? Kissing Barbara Westlake when I should have been hanging up my coat? God, there’s much worse. The Germans putting us in ovens. First attend to that. (32-3)
I envy people who derive solace from the belief that the work they created will live on and be much discussed and somehow make him “immortal”. All the people standing over Shakespeare’s grave and singing his praises means a big goose egg to the Bard. A day will come when all of Shakespeare’s play, for all their brilliant plots and iambic pentameter, will be gone with every atom in the universe. After all, we are all an accident of physics, not the work of intelligent design but, if anything, the work of a crass bungler. (73-4)
Excerpted from Woody’s Allen’s autobiography Apropos of Nothing.
We drove right to the border of Nova Scotia and Dad said, “Let’s go to Nova Scotia.” So we did. It was cool.
We came to Hartland which has the longest covered bridge in the world. So we went into the covered bridge. It was neat-o.
We had to go across the Saint Lawrence River. Montreal is on an island. Well, instead, of going on a bridge over the river, we went under it via highway.
After we watched the election – which Stanfield lost and Trudeau won (Boo! Boo! Boo!) – we changed the channel and watched The Lucy Show and Dick Van Dyke.
This morning I woke up and somebody was knocking at the door. So mom got out of bed and opened the door. It was dad with the dog in his hands. Then he said, “She was sleeping on my stomach.” So we took her and mom went to the other room with dad.
One thing that will haunt me from the pandemic is the sound of my therapist’s laugh on-line. It is the most awkward thing, blurting, loud and constant.
It was odd because I had hardly noticed it when we met in person. And yet it was a monstrosity over the computer, so much so that I eventually stopped showing up for my sessions. I paid her, but I just couldn’t listen to that fucking laugh any more.
Ernest Hemingway: Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.
And then there is advice on what you are writing.
Toni Morrison: Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through.
Kurt Vonnegut: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Ian Fleming: Make sure that you don’t like your protagonist too much – or at all.
Finally, there is the broader advice, how to understand exactly what you are doing.
Joan Didion: Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.
Alice Munro: There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I think honest feedback is very important. But it’s also hard to find. Other writers can be useful, also they can not, because they’re doing the same thing, and sometimes they want you to become like them.
A machine starts up and then stops. There is a long pause, and then it is there again, gaining power for a moment, stopping again. It continues over and over, unable to reach the critical point, like a fly dying on the window sill, buzzing to life, only to end up on its back, eventually dead. But this fly never stops. A technician checks on it. All seems in working order.
There is the air conditioner too, quietly rattling, surging, like waves coming into each other, briefly chaotic and then together, then spreading out. It is a normal sound, like the talk down the halls and laughter, wheels of a passing gurney, buckets opened, doors closed, indistinct clicks and things dropped.
And then there are the two notes of another machine, a higher note followed by another an octave below. More is to come. But it never does. There are just these two notes and then silence, the air conditioner, the dying machine, and everything else. Food service is on the way.
The notes again, higher and an octave below, but the concert never starts. The technician edges back into my room. “Lunch?” “Just not hungry. Thank you.”
Three years after going up into Northern Ontario with my school, I went on a family car trip to Prince Edward Island. It was 1974. I kept another chronicle, this one with post cards glued in. I threw that out long ago but still have a few notes.
Mom said, “One of you kids will have to come in the front seat.” So we were quiet the rest of the way.
Deadline: We are halfway to Montreal from Kingston and I just saw an old train station! End of Deadline.
Martha came out to where we were and picked up an Ajax bottle and a stick and started whamming the Ajax bottle with the stick. Soon me and Bobby went back and caught smelt. Of course we threw them back. Martha thought we ate them.
We were arriving in Charlottetown and we never got there because we never got the right course. Well, we were turning around and dad backed the car right into a ditch and there was a house right there. The man came out and told us about more accidents that have happened there. Soon the tow truck pulled us out of the ditch. It was probably easy.
It rained so-so-so-so hard that you could barely see through the windshield. It was raining so hard, some cars had to stop. But my dad kept going.
The next day, I woke up with the dog on my bed and the door was open! Well, I had breakfast.
I am deep into this blog now (eight years and 1,250 posts) and so this is as good a time as any to finally take a swing at that. What is this blog? Why am I doing this? My writing process! Let’s see if I can narrow that down to a few tips.
ONE: Your process is a personal thing. You can’t just do what people tell you to do. You have to figure out your own process. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond Series, wrote every morning and then went for a swim. Woody Allen writes longhand. I text myself notes on the fire escape.
It can take forever because I am all thumbs (literally) and the typos and formatting are an issue, but I feels like it works. (That said, whatever you do, don’t email yourself notes from the same account as that confuses Gmail, which then labels all of your emails to yourself as junk.) You just have to figure out routine works best for you.
TWO: Maintain a work ethic. Like my father always said, “Life is work. If you don’t like work, then you’re going to have a tough time in this life.” Writing doesn’t happen by osmosis. You have to do the work. There is just no getting around that.
THREE: Watch what goes on around you in life. Look at the details – how people move their hands, how they walk and scroll, how they look back at you – and write it down. The best characters (read: biggest fuck-ups) are right in front of you.
The only problem is that people are all boring as hell in the end and you’ll have to clean that up – in other words, make it fiction.
FOUR: Move around. Do something. Get outside. A moving brain is a thinking brain. Go for a walk. Take a hike. Go jump in the lake. (More advice from my father.)
The more you move, the more your brain gets going. It’s called kinetic thinking. This is especially important when you’re stuck in the story. When you start to move around and think about that – the moving that is – the narrative solutions tend to pop into your head.
FIVE: Write what you know. Write the exact thing that is in your head. Write it. Name the names. Name the jerks you know. Describe them exactly as they are.
Don’t worry about what anyone might think. Not your partner, not your mother, not your kid, not even you. Nobody. That’s the prime stuff, the lunacy of people. Let yourself go nuts on that. That’s where everything is to be found.
SIX: Review and edit. And then edit it again. And when you’re done that, you guessed it. Edit again! Maybe then you might be ready for an editor.
SEVEN: Do the research, whatever is needed. Read up on the backgrounds of everything that you can. Visit the places. Do it for anything that comes up, the park that’s outside the building, the people walking past, the plane overhead. Read about whatever it is.
The most fulfilling reading will always be non-fiction – even if it is fiction. Biographies, the most fictitious of all, are the most revealing. Tales of exploration too. Those are the fullest.
EIGHT: Don’t listen to any of the experts. Screw them all. They are writing about it because they don’t know any better. Like me. Forget about the plot points. Disregard character arcs. There is no structure to any of this. Let your story unfold as it is. Let the characters live their lives.
Listen, I understood from the beginning that the pandemic was going to be a tough thing. I knew that I would have to stay indoors, wear a mask and carry on the good fight against depression and gloom.
What I didn’t know was that the rewards for The Aquarist Club (Level 793 of Fishdom) would be basically nothing.
Truth be told, I expected that I would have to grapple with the horrifying statistics of so many deaths, to talk with friends and colleagues suffering through their grief and, indeed, only be able to attend my mother’s funeral on-line.
But if The Aquarist Club is going to take 35 levels to achieve, including four timed rounds, five Hard Levels and three Super Hard, there would have to be more than a Bonus Hammer and Bonus Hand. Right? At least three times that, ten times!
And even if my knee replacements have been delayed another week and I have to do the Covid test again and a Cat Scan to find there is bullshit in my lungs, and then have to self-inject blood thinners into my gut twice a day, I can do that. I can.
But…but if you have to decorate an entire Aquarist Club with rugs and chairs and pictures and everything else, there absolutely has to be more than an fucking sailboat as the premium reward.
The ongoing racism of this conflicted country was inevitable too, as was the social upheaval, the protests and anger at least a hundred years overdue. I wasn’t even surprised that I lost my job, like so many other people did, even if the Values & Beliefs Chair went too far and called me discriminatory – not in the good way. And I can cope with all of this. I really can.
But, holy good god, there’s got to be more than 78 lousy gold coins for finishing the Aquarist Club. What does 78 gold coins even buy? A third of the cheapest decoration, if that. And that is simply too much. Too damn much.