Thursday, 24 April 2014

The writer; and the books - Jo Carroll.

A few weeks ago, at the Oxford Literature Festival, I saw Orhan Pamuk - and, in the middle of all his words of wisdom, came this gem (roughly, I didn't take it down verbatim):

It's not the books that make the writer, but the hours spent writing. The writer is the man or woman at his or her desk, working with words, playing and teasing and rearranging until they say what they are meant to say. The books are an afterthought.

It took me up short - for I'd spent the whole day listening to people talking about books, and here was someone saying that a writer has to forget about the books and concentrate on the writing.

I see what he was getting at - the razzmatazz of literature festivals is writings' window dressing. It bears little relation to the hours spent arguing with a blank screen on a computer.

Far be it from me to argue with Pamuk, but I'm not sure it's as clear cut at that. To be fair, I don't think he does, either, for his books have such a strong political content that they are much more than the musings of an individual in his room. He wants to communicate, and that implies a reader or listening.

But I wonder if the whole writing thing can be thought of as a process, a continuum, if you like - beginning with those solitary days of fighting with ideas and sentences - days when you have to ignore any thought of an end product because it feels as if you'll be ninety before you get the bloody thing written. Then, slowly, and sometimes magically, it takes a shape and you dare allow someone to read it. The writing is no long simply something between you and the computer, but it involves readers. And if the writer is to think about readers, the work is constructed anew - for the reader must be accommodated. It is a different entity from the one that lived between writer and screen, for now it has a life of its own - in the mind of a reader.

Eventually, with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and countless cups of coffee, it has a its own shape - and often that is a book-shape.

Even so, Pamuk's premise was a wonderful reminder, in the middle of the love-in that is a literature festival, that no amount of backslapping and calling each other 'darling' is going to make anyone a better writer. It's biting our nails over our computers that is the real work.

But we ignore our readers at our peril.

And if you fancy reading more of my words - you can find some here.

8 comments:

Lee said...

I disagree about readers. Leave them be, for they are perfectly able to look after themselves.

Kathleen Jones said...

I heard Orhan Pamuk at the Pietrasanta literature festival in Italy last year - he was fantastic. Of course it's the process that's important - that thing we create for the reader to re-construct. Lovely post.

Susan Price said...

A beautiful post, Jo. Thank you. It would have been nice to see your name in the title box.

I agree entirely that it is the process that makes the writer. Anyone who finishes even a short story that more or less works - even if it's flawed - has done a difficult thing. If they then go on and improve it, an even more difficult thing. It's the practice that perfects, that makes the writer. So far I'm with you, Lee.

But, almost every craft wants, deserves, looks for an audience, for appreciation and encouragement. Think of a craftswoman (or man) making a beautiful cabinet with perfectly fitted doors and beautiful inlays. Partly, even mostly, the artistry is for their own satisfaction - but it's almost certainly made for someone. And it's the appreciation of other craftspeople that spurs the artist on - that makes another think: I want to make something as beautiful as that. Or even, I can do better than that. Or, I can see how to do it differently.
It's not exactly competition - or only partly that. It's - here's a phrase I've learned recently - 'peer-to-peer learning.' The other craftspeople in your audience know exactly how difficult it is to achieve some things. They're not dismissive of skill. They understand from the inside out. So their criticism is more valuable than anyone else's.

Lee said...

Perhaps it's the appreciation of an audience that spurs you on, Susan, and I do understand that many craftspeople feel this way. I don't happen to be one of them. Or, to be more accurate, like anyone else I enjoy appreciation -- for a moment or two. Perhaps the moment might become five if it were David Mitchell's or Hilary Mantel's appreciation (irony, folks). Otherwise, the only thing that matters to me is their writing, which is teacher and critic enough. In fact, I suspect that if you want to move beyond craftsmanship - which is not to denigrate craftsmanship -- I suspect that you ought to ignore the views of most if not all of your peers. Their fiction is not your fiction.

Skyline Spirit said...

pretty nice blog, following :)

Susan Price said...

I think, as so often, Lee, we're closer in agreement that it seems, and slightly at cross purposes.

I'm not much interested in appreciation for its own sake, either - I agree that Mantel's writing is teacher and critic enough, without needing to meet her. And I frequently do ignore the views of friends, agent, publishers... I might listen to them, but ultimately, it's what I want in my writing that counts, tiny and unimportant as my canvas is.

- So far, I think, we agree.
But I feel that too much isolation for any artist has to be damaging, as isolation is for all people. Okay, it may push them into greater originality at the beginning - but it will end with them talking to themselves in a corner. The audience is valuable as a sparring partner/sounding board/reality check as much or more than as a source of applause.

Susan Price said...

And Skyline Spirit - hello! Welcome!

JO said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my musings - especially Susan and Lee, who have had a lovely time tackling this!