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Monday, April 16, 2018

The rage against tips!

An interior illumination
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for my long-poem and epic adventure,
Thaliad (Phoenicia Publishing)
Amazon reviews: paperback
Hardcover only here
Why on earth do I sometimes fiddle around an answer a question on Quora when I could and probably should do a blog post? Who knows? Here's a Quora question I answered a moment ago, perhaps partly because I'm in a good mood and just wrote a poem when I should have been doing something else entirely, and perhaps partly because I still didn't want to do what I should have been doing.

(And here you can find more Quora-fritterings by me.)

"What are some tips on staying motivated enough to finish writing a book?"

Marly Youmans, novelist and poet
Answered 2m ago

I’m feeling a bit allergic to the word tips: no tip can make you finish writing a book. Only whatever it takes for you can make you finish. And only you can answer the question of what it is that might be whatever it takes for you. That is, you will (or will not, as it turns out) make use of your own inner drive, passion for playing with words, impetus, dogged refusal to stop, anger, joy, or whatever it is that lives and burns in you and will take you to the close.

But I will say that I have known some wonderfully gifted people who began many books and stories and never could finish anything. This was a sadness to me, but they lived other lives, and perhaps it was not a sadness to them. They gave writing books a try and then moved on.

The grand thing about finishing is not having a completed manuscript; it is that you are somehow larger on the inside than you were at the start, and also that only bringing a thing to completion teaches you what you need to know in order to write that book. That sounds circular, and it is. In the realm of making books, much is mysterious.


  1. I thought this was about tipping your server at a restaurant. I'm relieved to see it's about writing tips.

    It's true that you can't finish a book until you know enough to finish it, and that's why I like to write not what I know, but what I'm curious about, because that leads you to your first point, that we are expanded and hopefully improved by writing a whole book. Maybe a reader is expanded and improved by reading a whole book, too.

    What I tell people is that they need to fall in love with the process of writing and not think about the book. What I don't tell them is that a finished first draft is usually not a finished book!

    1. Just back from an overnight escapade--made it to Ithaca before Odysseus (Michael is reading the Emily Wilson translation, and it was his birthday. Went to the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell and pigged out mightily all over.

      That does seem to work for readers, too. But I am now at an age where I am willing to stop before I am finished. Earlier, I was too obsessive.

      I suppose that if they are meant to write a book, they'll figure out that the first draft is not the finished book.

  2. You're right, tips are for other fields of human endeavour (eg, Always add a tsp of gasoline when making marmalade. A child will grow quicker if you put a pine cone in their shoe. Rub a sliced onion over your face when contemplating an outdoor dance; mosquitos hate it.) The writing style is typically rural-folksy.

    Writing fiction is tipless and involves accommodating thoughts of hideous menace. Over the last six months work on my latest novel got shoved to one side while I dealt with other books in later stages of development. When I returned to Rictangular Lenses it was as if I'd burned all my clothes, divorced my wife and moved into the garden shed. I was another (diminished) person and the characters in the novel were out of focus, spoke with barely audible voices and led their lives in a country I wot not of.

    The first three attempts at resuming the story consisted of adding one uncertain sentence followed by a period of despair. But we must always remember that the difficulties of writing fiction are self-inflicted. Theoretically I may walk away from RT.

    O yeah.

    1. Love, love your tips! I should have thought of the pine cone in the shoe. Might have formed discipline and drive in the progeny! I also like the idea of "accommodating thoughts of hideous menace," and you moving naked into the garden shed. (Sort of a reverse Eden--naked man in the garden.)

      I like it when comments are better than the post...

    2. You know how to shine light into a drab life.

    3. Nobody will think you drab when you are à la William Blake in the garden.

  3. Ah, you sent me flittering through the collected works which was my Mum's and not often consulted. It brought me heart's ease:

    Can I see another's woe,
    and not be in sorrow too?
    Can I see another's grief,
    And not seek for kind relief.

    But yesterday evening another William brought me equivocal experience. The Guardian recently and enthusiastically reviewed Much Ado and it occurred to me I'd forgotten the play completely. Decided to re-watch it on DVD and heard this from sweet Beatrice:

    Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmaster'd with a piece of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?

    No doubt you are familiar. I just wanted to say I disown it. The marl I'm familiar with is shot through with gold dust.

    1. "Hear the wren with sorrows small, / Hear the small bird's grief and care." I do love Blake, though parts of him I have been too lazy to master.

      Both Williams are dear. In the sense of lovable and also costly, demanding of that most expensive tribute of time. I do like reading the plays still, and that's a play I like...

      I had a friend who always called me Marl. The odd thing is that she was not a Northerner (Yankees are the great snippers-off of names) but a Nashville girl who grew up and spent a great part of her life in Mexico.

      Judging by me, I would say that a clod of marl may be sometimes wayward... But I would be grateful for any gold dust that might be visible!

      Your quotes from two Williams made me think of a poem by a George. The "valiant dust" made me think of "rack me not to such vast extent" and Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch / A crumb of dust from heav'n to hell?" And in the same poem is the self as bird: "O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid, / O let me roost and nestle there." So the bird/human link and the lively crumb again...

    2. Younger daughter, Occasional Speeder, got married years ago in a CofE church. Her experience of Anglicanism was, to say the least, tenuous but she was marrying into a fairly devout family and the nearest church was pretty strict. Her choices of hymns were all shot down for theological reasons by the vicar. Typically the I Vow To Thee My Country words attached to Holst's Jupiter: "too nationalistic", he said. Later it formed part of the wedding and funeral services for Princess Diana, the one at St Pauls the latter at Westminster Abbey.

      Like many British pagans and in fact the majority of the British population, OS thought that Blake's Jerusalem was a hymn, in the sense that "hymn" has a precise meaning. There are of course Christian allusions ("holy Lamb of God", "countenance Divine", etc) but the fact that Blake's aim was to reverse the Industrial Revolution on behalf of those who were suffering under it, means it has been seen as "socialistic", as if the broader more humane aims of socialism and the Anglican church could not co-exist.

      To anyone prepared to ignore a few theological rough edges. Blake must surely be seen as an asset to Christians and to humanists. Mind you William was good at hating. I can't be sure of the words but:

      I saw evil on the street today
      It had the face of Castlereagh.

      As to WS I think I have belaboured you before on this. One of my most rewarding investments was spent on the BBC's complete series of Shakespeare DVDs, now available at a mere £71, half what I paid. Not of course for sharpening up on Hamlet or As You Like it (although both performances are terrific) but on re-familiarising oneself with Two Gentlemen of Verona and Timon of Athens. Not that you need any sharpening up I suspect.

      I'm a bit uneasy about "rack me not to such vast extent". I realise "rack" has broader connotations but it's the original meaning that still disturbs me.

    3. Isn't anything related to the worldly martyrdom of Diana nationalistic? I mean, given the outpouring support of the people with flags and emblems and flowers and so on... Princess Diana, that is. Got to get those titles right!

      The "dark Satanic mills!" I'm not sure that your Anglican priest's instinct was against socialism and not something closer to home for him--Blake's shorter "Jerusalem" was often read as an attack on greater Anglican churches, I believe. That might be asking a priest to relish an attack on his own culture and beliefs and choice of life by a pronounced Non-conformist! And maybe that sense of the poem has worn away now, but I expect that when your daughter married, it was still a dominant reading of the poem--maybe still is? It's certainly still easy to read it as the outcry of a Non-conformist against the state and its church, and the desire spoken by a prophetic voice for the New Jerusalem to appear quickly. He surely relished his stay in the country (more nakedness in gardens!) and longed for all of England to be rid of smoke and factories and be one "green and pleasant land."

      You always give me too much credit on things literary! Thank you for the honor, but despite a lot of years and a lot of reading, I'm well aware that all I know is but a fleck compared to what there is to know. Plus I have, in my own opinion, a rather poor memory. The advantage is in rereading, I suppose!

      I'm sure Herbert meant the harsher, bolder sense of "rack." He was, after all, bold in his renunciations and bold in his poems. And what word better to express a "crumb of dust" stretched from heaven to hell--perhaps across many heavens, as he says? And it contrasts so well (such a metaphysical clash of opposites) with the nestled bird. And also makes more powerful the transformation of all in the final two lines, where "ev'rywhere" is one.

  4. Earlier you said - gracefully and generously - I like it when comments are better than the post...

    So what do I like? I like conceits, I like evidence of a subject grasped, I like modesty, I like advice delivered offhandedly the better for effect, I like seeing an unexceptional baton accepted, carried, and handed on greatly enhanced, I like openness, elegance of expression and well-disguised effort,

    As a guy with a load of cut-rate batons I have asked someone else to fashion a tribute:

    Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.

    It is perhaps blasphemous and is definitely open to misinterpretation. But it has rhetorical flair and it comes from a play (plays, actually) I was surprised to find moving. A bouquet of pinks interspersed with a few nettles, then. The English way.

    1. Pinks and nettles! Thank you.

      Blasphemous? I think a great deal of Western people thinking words might be blasphemous--and here you think I might say these words are so--comes from a lack of perceiving that some things are literal and some things symbolic. But even in the literal the symbolic can be a living pattern...

      Of course, a person either lives in a world that is full of living patterns and archetypes, or he lives in the world and does not see or rejects the existence of living patterns (in which case I think he still lives in a world full of living patterns and archetypes, but he's just stubbornly refusing to see!)

      "Heaven" is quite often used as a word for ascension to a higher reality, and your line is related to that idea. In fact, I think that the word is used in different ways, both sacred (and there we also find variation) and profane.

      That's an interesting line because I immediately also think of Daedalus and Icarus. The father knew well enough not to use his knowledge to fly too close to heaven!

  5. "The grand thing about finishing is not having a completed manuscript; it is that you are somehow larger on the inside than you were at the start, and also that only bringing a thing to completion teaches you what you need to know in order to write that book." I am writing this down -- thank you!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.