Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Paperback Writer...

Paperback Writer..., originally uploaded by ChernobylBob.
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I arrived late and perspiring at the novel-writing workshop. Four would-be novelists and the tutor were seated around a table. I apologised for not being punctual and received amused, forgiving or complicit smiles, reminding me that it was art that we were about today, not commerce or industry.

Two rows of paperbacks divided the table. The tutor said that these were what she considered to be exemplary novels taken from her bookshelves and that we might take a note of the titles. I switched my phone off, took out my pen and notepad and looked eagerly along the rows. Three Tracy Chevaliers, two Jeanette Wintersons, two Virginia Woolves, an Alice Sebold, a Dodie Smith, an Emily Brontë and an Angela Carter. It was here that the small, glistening soap bubble bearing aloft my frail hopes wobbled and popped--that's how I would have described my disappointment in my novel--and we hadn't even started yet. Lurking obscenely in the shadows cast by these female titans, the weaker sex was represented by Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot (never heard of it), Conrad's monumentally racist Heart of Darkness and Orwell's Animal Farm , admired and selected, we learnt later, because the book was a famous early polemic for animal rights.

The tutor was in her early twenties and spoke with confidence and authority. Good fiction writing was a marriage of the two sides of the brain, she said: the critical left side and the creative right side. Writer's block, she said, was procrastination brought on by bringing the critical left side of the brain into the writing process either too early or too completely and smothering the murkier, more instinctive right side. The best way to prevent this happening was to wrong-foot the left side of the brain by writing first thing in the morning, before it was fully awake.

Now that we knew which parts of our brains to bring to bear on the page, she gave us some writing exercises. She asked us to complete the sentence 'I remember when ...' and keep writing for five minutes. I remembered when my albino hob ferret Suleiman the Magnificent was best in show. I wasn't asked to read my reminiscence out and I was relieved about that.

Next she asked us to complete the sentence, 'The first time I saw your face ...' Following some fruitless, left-side procrastination, I plunged in and wrote about the time I lifted the lid of the hutch and saw that Fatima had given birth to six kits: three hobs and three jills, including the lovely Selwa, who won best in show the following year.

Finally we had to complete the sentence 'It was getting darker and darker ...' For this I wrote about the time the ferret judge was so slow getting through the various classes that the chairman had to park his car beside the cages so that the judge could examine the ferrets by holding them under the headlights.

This I was asked to read out. My voice was so hoarse with nervousness I struggled to get to the end. When I looked up, the faces around the table registered indifference or incomprehension, depending on which side of the brain had been used to listen.

Moving on to choosing a theme or topic for our novel, we should look into ourselves to see what we feel most strongly about, urged the tutor. For example, a friend of hers was currently writing a play about the people whose homes were being illegally bulldozed to make way for the Olympic stadium. 'Homes are being illegally bulldozed to make way for the Olympic stadium!' I burst out in surprise. 'But I haven't read about that in the papers!' She looked pityingly at me. Of course I haven't read about it in the papers, she said. It's something the government doesn't want us to know about.

I couldn't believe my ears. 'Are you saying that the press is controlled by the government?' I said. Of course, she said. That is exactly what she was saying. Was I not aware of the oppression we lived under? She herself had been under surveillance by MI5. After sending an email to an animal-rights activist serving a prison sentence, she found that her phone was being tapped. She knew it was tapped because every time she lifted the receiver she could hear a tapping noise. But she let those MI5 boys have it with a series of long and detailed accounts of her love life and eventually the tapping noises ceased.

I looked around the table at the faces of the other students for corroboration of this appalling state of affairs. They looked back at me impassive, inscrutable. 'So I've come here to learn about writing a novel,' I said, 'and instead I've found out that I'm living in a police state?' She nodded once. Welcome, said the nod. Finally, you made it.

And then we had to move quickly on to some more exercises because it was almost lunchtime and we had a lot to get through.

Source Citation
Clarke, Jeremy. "Critical lesson." Spectator 20 Mar. 2010: 53+. Academic OneFile. Web. 6 Apr. 2010.
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