Friday, February 10, 2006

Writers Block Party

For months (years?) now, I have been telling myself (and anyone else who'll listen) that I am going to write a book. This impresses some people. They coo wide-eyed and say "How amazing!!" and encourage me into believing that I really am the next big thing about to be discovered. What they don't realise is that it's easy to say "I'm going to write a book" - anyone can do that - but actually sitting down and writing the bloody thing is a completely different matter. In fact, when I say, "I'm going to write a book" what I'm actually saying is "I haven't written a book yet" which, when put that way, is far less impressive.

My friend N can see right through the "I'm going to write a book" claim. Firstly, he's a published author so, unlike any of my other friends, he can reply "Done that". Also, he knows better than anyone that just saying "I'm going to write a book" is an empty boast. If I really wanted to do it, I'd have done it by now. Or at least I'd have mapped out the skeleton outline and figured out a basic plot. All I've done is had imaginary conversations in my head with Mark Lawson for Newsnight Review. (He loved the book by the way).

So, seeing right through my empty claims, and realising that I needed a kick up the arse, N kindly invited me to join his writers group. It's a smallish group of wannabe writers who meet once a month to read each other's work-in-progress and comment on it. All criticism is constructive and friendly and the idea is that a clean pair of eyes (or eight clean pairs of eyes) will shed new light on the writing and improve it before it is sent to an agent or publisher.

They added my name to their email list at the beginning of the week so that I could take part in the pre-meeting discussion. The first thing I noticed as the emails began flying back and forth was the other names. I have never seen such as set of quintessentially English names in my life. It was all Emma Johnson and Jennifer Clark and Anthony James and Richard Bellamy. These are people who have never had to repeat their surname when trying to get through to a switchboard operator ill- versed in Anglicized Russian surnames. They have never been told to spell out (again) their first name by an officious doctors' receptionist who asks "and how are you spelling that?" with such derision that you wonder if you'd rather prefer to go home without the prescription and sod the symptoms.

I was fairly certain (though I hate to make generalizations) that these are not people who have many Jewish friends. Not that there's anything wrong with that; why should they? It's just that I hate being somebody's first Jewish friend. Firstly, you get the "Funny, you don't look Jewish" comments. I've had this all my life. The blond hair and blue eyes don't help. If I'm in a particularly mischievous mood I will reply "Oh? What do Jews look like then?" and watch them squirm as they try to reply without using the words 'nose' 'hook' or 'swarthy'. Or else you get the well-meaning "I hope you don't mind me asking, but do you eat potatoes?" or the less well-meaning (and, in my case, unnecessary) "Don't you miss bacon?" (3000 years of rich culture and it all comes down to not eating sausages). Secondly, the problem with being somebody's first Jewish friend is that you find yourself instantly elected as official spokesperson for the Israeli Government. You know that as soon as your new-best-friend asks for your views on, say, the recent disengagement from Gaza, you are going to be quoted every time that topic arises at any dinner party or pub conversation that he/she takes part in. "Well, my friend R.x is Jewish and SHE says 'blah blah blah'" ….and you find yourself the mouthpiece of every shade of Jewish opinion ever mooted.

Still, I needn't have worried. Despite my reservations about the names there were no cultural exchange questions and I didn't find myself having to justify Ariel Sharon's foreign policy. In fact, it was a scarily nice evening with a frighteningly nice bunch of people. The conversation took constructive criticism to a whole new level. I always thought that constructive criticism was when you basically told someone that their work is shoddy, but you did so in a polite way, indicating how they can improve. So, for example, you might say "The plot of your story is good, although I suspect that William Shakespeare might have got there before you. And when you do a re-write, you might like to adopt some of the basic rules of English Grammar and punctuation." I mean, I've seen those guys on Newsnight review and when authors get the knives out for other authors, they can be really cutting. But there was none of that at this particular writers' group. It was all "Thank you so much for sharing!" and "It's such a pleasure to meet these characters again - we've missed them!" There was no sarcasm. No Sniping. No backstabbing. Only two and half hours of mutual creative masturbation and counter-congratulation. In fact, I was half expecting a group-hug and a pairing off to give each other head-and-neck massages and eat lentils before we left the pub at the end of the evening.

Perhaps all this over-the-top loveliness is just as well, because attending the writers' group was clearly not enough of a kick up the arse in N's opinion. He saw fit to suggest that, for our next meeting in a month's time, I prepare some writing for the rest of the group to read. And since they were all too nice to say no, they promptly agreed. And I was basking in their reflective niceness and so didn’t feel able to object. So I have one month to prepare at least 5 pages of A4 double-spaced typing to share with the group. They say that you should start by writing about what you know. So I might write a short semi-autobiographical piece about a Jewish single-mother who dreams of writing a novel and suddenly finds herself out of her depth among real writers with real talent. I think I might call it "I hope you don't mind me asking, but do you eat potatoes?"

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

R if your book shapes up half as good as your blogs you'll have no problems writing a beautifully scripted book or is it scripting a beautifully written book either way you know what i mean.

As for the duvet i can see your dilemna, perhaps you should consider sleeping under the duvet and not on it, this may dispell any of your supersticious concerns (you could always ebay it.

H.F-G x

4:22 pm  
Blogger R.x said...

HFG - or is that Jason again? All very confusing. Either way, thanks for your very kind comments. When I do finally write the sodding book I will send you a signed copy.
I would love to Ebay the duvet - if only to put "Dead Grandfather's Duvet" in the Item Description box.

4:47 pm  
Blogger baldricka said...

Love the ebay comment! I always look at the things with interesting descriptions first, although in this case maybe not! However if it was a bargain...

8:25 pm  
Anonymous Jason Strugnell said...

Nope, me not HFG. Sounds like a discount carpet warehouse.

I'm very intersted to hear that you're a writer. I too am very familiar with the feeling of procrastination. Getting it down on paper is the hardest thing.

There are two kinds of writing. First the kind that brings you money-maybe knocking out generic trillers & romances. The second the is kind that you do for enjoyment. I can can only do the latter, but it would be harder to pack in the day job, by this method.

Keep on writing. It's the only way to improve, apparently.

As a bit of a writer myself, I don't know about you, but I find it hard to plan. I mean, how much planning are you supposed to do? Personally, I don't like the idea of knowing what the ending is before you sit down to write. I like the idea of starting without knowing what the ending will be

5:39 pm  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

As someone who has actually started a novel, I can sympathize. The entire thing is outined in my head. In terms of actual written pages, I am probably at around 75, but the plot keeps taking unexpected turns. I love writer's groups and wish I were in one now. Nothing as motivating as being around other writers sharing their work....I've actually rather liked being somebody's first Jewish friend. Has always made for interesting discussions. Might suggest shortening your title to perhaps just "Eats Potatoes."

9:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reference to potatos will raise a laugh across the Irish sea. Of course, the Irish eat the ol' potatoes too, in industrial quantities. For example at an Irish wedding, the main course is often meat, with turnip and then: roasted potato, mashed potato, and boiled. And sometimes chips. On the same plate. At the same time. And someone always asks "have you enough there?"

I'd like to report that there is some deep cultural reason for this, maybe a to the ghosts of our starving ancestors, but the contemporary advantage is more practical- like a sponge, the potoato in all forms is the most effective means to absorb 15 pints of Guiness and a bottle of Paddy's Old.

9:41 pm  
Blogger R.x said...

baldricka - are you still nursing that ebay addiction?? we have to get you some professional help. but then again, if you want a bargain, i'll work out a price for you and throw in a cheap rate for shipping...

Jason - i was convinced you were HGF - how odd - this is getting very confusing. either way, i'm not a great planner, and prefer to jump straight in and start writing. but experience shows me that the finished piece is much better if it's been planned well.

mcaryeh - only 75 pages? that's a shame. you should definitely finish it. maybe we should swap our works in progress (off line, naturally). i will hang on to 'Eats Potatoes' as a potential title...

anonymous - thanks for irish perspective. a main course of five different types of potato on one plate sounds like my kind of heaven. it sounds like irish and jewish weddings are a bit different. i'm not sure we'd manage to finish 15 pints of guiness between the 200 guests - we think we're being daring with the alcohol if we top up a cherry brandy...

9:45 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is HFG - does this guy Jason like offending people..thats my name..i'm not proud but i that's the hand i've been dealt!!

5:55 pm  
Blogger kasamba said...

Without sounding sycophanic- I just want to say WOW!!!!
You write so well that I feel like smashing my computer keybaord and using the keys as scrabble pieces.
I am not worthy...
I am not worthy...

1:57 pm  

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