This year I almost didn’t go totally broke, which for a freelance writer/whatever is pretty good going, or so I’m told. I spent a month having a long-overdue love affair with the place I grew up. I swam. I went to weddings. I started a PhD. And so on. But for some reason the thing I think of, immediately and exclusively, when I think of what I did this year, is ‘write a book’, I guess because this is a thing I’ve wanted to do for awhile (well, forever, really). And then I did it and people kept looking at me funny when we spoke, like, why aren’t you more excited about this?. And I looked back blankly, because I didn’t know what the appropriate facial expression for “I don’t know why I’m not more outwardly excited about this; but also I’m more excited than it’s possible to convey” was.
I think the way we represent music and musicians on paper is interesting, and I tried to refute – or at least address – the old adage that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.
The process of making meaning with written language can not be understood by looking backward from a finished page. Process can not be inferred from product any more than a pig can be inferred from a sausage.
I’ve been working on a new idea. It’s taken a while to get there, but the journey has been quite fun and I’ve seen a few cool things along the way. Here’s roughly how it went:
When I was young, I’d always have these busker’s editions lying around - 100 Great Pub Songs, 100 Hits of the 40s and 50s and so on. When I sat down at the piano to play I’d grab a book, flip open a new tune and play it. It would take a couple of times to work out how the melody fit over the chords, and to get it up to speed, and then I’d be rocking through Downtown or The White Cliffs Of Dover. After that, I’d think of other songs to play or just start making stuff up.
A little book of 12-second songs would be a great thing to have around. It’s a warm-up or a sorbet course between serious practice sessions for musicians. And I can always orchestrate a few and make some quality letterpress prints too.
Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.
But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.
They’re recovering from a big night out. One of them, husky-voiced, tiny and blonde, is reliving her drunken antics; another of them, also tiny and blonde, has slept with a man called Joe.
I love this time of year, because Miranda always cracks me up with her descriptions of the husky-voiced freshers.
This is the text of an unpublished letter by T. S. Eliot that I found framed in the downstairs bathroom of a house near York in which I was playing a gig. I totally agree with his attitude in the first paragraph (I’m reading “poem” as “song”, naturally ;o): “…how else is one to write a poem except as an exercise?”
19 Oct 1942
Yes, I think it is a nice canzone, and I think this sort of thing is worth your going on with. And how else is one to write a poem except as an exercise? It seems to me the only way to get the proper humility of the writer towards the thing-to-be-written. One lets the thing-to-be-said look after itself. The opposite method produces expression of ideas, or personal sentiment, or usually a mush of undigested ideas and vomited emotions. All the thought about what the poem is to say should take place some time before the poem is started. Once begun, it becomes an exercise in form. And the other thing is to keep a big dictionary and look up the words one uses.
But I don’t think it is a good thing that the writing of verse should be taught in universities: I have often expressed a doubt whether English literature should be taught in universities at all: the chief result is to produce people ready to take jobs teaching other teachers of English etc. Anyway, as for instruction in writing, you will never get in universities the right people to give it. The only hints I have got in universities about writing were from men whose business was to teach me something else. Teaching in universities can never be a satisfactory substitute for apprenticeship: the only way in which to learn anything from another man about an art as well as about a craft. But most writers don’t want to learn anything, and most are either illiterate already or become so as soon as they leave their places of tuition.
T. S. Eliot