Thursday, 2 October 2014

The lives of other writers

Full title: Odd Type Writers. From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors
Author: Celia Blue Johnson
Genre: Nonfiction
Attributes: 200p, paperback
Publisher: Perigee (2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Few things work better to motivate the mind of a writer caught in a bad case of writer's block than anecdotes about other writers and their own survival strategies. Little stories of this type have the been-there-done-that attitude that somehow encourages the mind of the dispossessed to take up pen and paper and proceed, with renewed forces, to finish that text or to start that other one.
This is exactly what Celia Blue Johnson has provided in Odd Type Writers. The power of examples is what her book is running on, no doubt about it. Young or inspiring writers in particular may be inclined, every now and then, at crucial moments, to ask the obvious question, "How much work is to be put into the writing of a book?" It's only fair to ask this, don't we agree? Sigh of relief and frown of horror: it takes a helluva lot of effort and determination to make yourself write like mad. Don't believe it? Take the word of Alexandre Dumas Père, who never proceeded with his writing until he'd had everything daylight-clear in his mind. In his own words, quoted in the book:
"As a rule, I do not begin a book until it is finished."
This short sentence has the shine and appeal of a gem of wisdom. And Odd Type Writers abounds in aphorisms of this kind, easy to digest, easy to raise a brow at (in enlightenment), and, most importantly, easy to carry about. If anything, this book is a child of its own time: the product of a type of curiosity that takes delight in brevity, in easy-carrying, in headlines, in quirky information, in things to be tweeted, facebooked, pintrested, mentioned at parties.
And there's nothing wrong with all that. Why? Because a desperate writer (young or old, experienced or novice) doesn't need sermons. They want quick fixes. 'Get the jab, feel the rush, get back to work' kind of thing. And this book ticks the boxes alright.
Want to find out what’s the best time to wake up and start your work? The answer is ‘I don’t know.’ But here are a few examples, from page 61, where there’s a short list of authors and their wake-up calls:
“4:00 a.m.: Sylvia Plath
5:00 a.m.: Jack London, Toni Morrison, Katherine Anne Porter
5:30 a.m.: Anthony Trollope, Kurt Vonnegut
6:00 a.m.: W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Vladimir Nabokov, Edith Wharton”
… and the list goes on, till we reach the sleepyheads: Carson McCullers, who liked to wake up at 9:30 a.m., and W. Somerset Maugham, who opened his eyes at 10:00 a.m.
Do you feel like complaining about rejection letters? How about reading the chapter about Jack London, who after 650 of them (!) got to the point where he even started contemplating suicide. And that, while keeping a mental-asylum routine:
“His bedroom lamp glowed until 2 a.m., and he sprang back to action at the sound of his alarm clock at 5 a.m.”
Do you want to know if the job can be done quickly? Kafka wrote “The Judgment” almost at a whim, “in one great gust, from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.” and then had the confidence to declare:
“Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening of the body and the soul.”
Or would you like to find out how writers related to means of transportation? Well, in that case read how Getrude Stein could write comfortably on the passenger’s seat of a military truck, and how Sir Walter Scott composed the poem Marmion on a horseback.

Hemingway had his own quirky ways. He began his work day by sharpening numerous pencils, wrote facing the wall, so as not to get distracted by the outside world, wrote up to a point where he knew for sure what he was going to write the next day. And what's more, when asked what does it take to become a writer, he replied: "First, you have to defrost the refrigerator."
Image source: Thinking to Inking

This can go on for a long, long time. That’s how the book is organized: around imaginary questions (pretending that you, the writer reading these pages, might have the curiosity to inquire); questions which are given answers with a strong flavour of myth. Strong but sweet.
Let's not hide behind a finger: what would anybody expect to find in a book that says it upfront, straight from the title, that it deals in anecdotes about writers? This is not a compendium of academic reflections, and neither is it the transcript of a class in creative writing. It is a book you can have a coffee with. It's a chat partner. Pages you can read when you're out of mental gas, when you've exhausted your resources and can't resist any longer. And so it should be taken: as a welcome partner rather than a patronizing teacher. There.