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I recently watched the 1968 film, The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster. It’s based on a John Cheever story of the same name, published only a few years before. I’d read this about a decade ago, and much of the detail in the film was totally absent from my memory, not surprisingly, as it turned out, when I got another squint at the text.. The premise, and plot, is simple. Set in a vaguely dated America – filmed in Westport, Connecticut – the hero, without much introduction, and already dressed for the project, suddenly decides to ‘swim home’, by using all the pools in the gardens of his wealthy neighbours.

In both original and adaptation, that’s what, simply, he does, and as he passes through the lives and parties of those neighbours, little shafts of light, metaphorically, fall on his backstory, so that by the time he arrives home, weakened to the point almost of collapse by his journey, we are not quite surprised to find that the home stands locked and empty, the ironwork of its garage doors (in the told tale) and its gates (in the shown one) rusted.

As always, similarities and differences between the told original and the shown adaptation fascinate me. Why have such changes been made? Why have they not? Sometimes it is to do with the differing agendas of the producers of that adaptation. The First Blood adaptation, and its follow-on franchise is a good example of that. But here, with Cheever’s story, filmed in the same few years as it was written, the differences seem to be more to do with the nature of the medium into which the story was being re-cast.

The movies, as the name might imply, are about moving pictures. The short story, written down (or even remembered) is about words and what they mean to us. Movies favour action, and actions, whereas short stories favour meanings and significances.

In Cheever’s story the descriptions of the actual crossing of the pools is almost perfunctory. In one paragraph near the beginning he crosses five in as many lines. In the film the camera follows him stroke for stroke, in close up, in long shot, medium shot, trick shot, and sometimes, repeated shot! A sequence in a horse ring shows him and another character – not present in the short story – leaping the jumps over and over again. In the written tale, the ring is by passed ‘overgrown’ with the jumps ‘dismantled’.

The film is a wordy showing of the story. The original, an almost wordless telling of it, at least as far as dialogue is concerned. At several pools people do exchange words with him, but the conversations are fragmentary and hardly ever developed, passing into reported or recalled speech, dissipating into further narrative. In the film, conversation dominates, often beginning with the written story’s openings, but taking them further. Much of the narrative is retained, but re-cast in the mouth of the protagonist himself, either addressed to other characters, or as if in monologue.

Several new characters are introduced, and existing ones are examined a little more fully. Notably the twenty year old girl -in bikini, of course- who accompanies him on a section of the journey, until his interest in her becomes frightening, is a pure introduction. And so is the lonely boy with the flute, at the drained swimming pool of the Welchers.

A told story takes as many words to tell as it takes to tell, but a shown one has to run for long enough to justify the ticket price of the bum on the seat. That alone might explain the additions, and perhaps the bikini. And the told story, in this case, seemed almost like a thumbnail sketch, a hurried tale, skipping over the landscape, and barely dipping into the pools, with the conversations as truncated as the descriptions. The film, by comparison seemed slow, with its endless repetitive images of Lancaster swimming, leaping, walking down tunnels of trees. Filled out with montage shots of woodland, water, leaves, flora and fauna, none of which, to echo Hemingway’s concerns, ‘belong to the story’, the film struggles to fill its minute count.

The hurried narrative of Cheever’s tale is packed, not only with barely described actions, but with questions posed to the reader. Why does Ned Merrill do this? Why do that? What does he think? What has he forgotten? And beneath it all hangs the question of just what is his backstory, and his future? The film is a little more forthcoming, providing a hot-dog trolley that he has made, now being used by his neighbour who bought it at a sale. In both versions we get the growing inkling that not all is as it appears, that he is not what he seems to be; that his popularity is based on a past that has gone, and has worn thin to the point of antagonism for some of those he encounters.

There’s an essay on Cheever’s story in The reference Guide to Short Fiction, published by St,James’ Press, in which comparisons are made with the mythic Odyssey and later versions of it. Film struggles to do internal reasoning, the posing of questions, and speculation as to their answers. The short story can excel at it. Here’s the root difference between the two, even when the story they are both trying to convey is essentially the same. The film, being more explicit in this, loses some of the density of the short story, but even the short story, respected as it is, left me wishing there were a more tangible context for the dislocations I sensed.

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There is an old saying, along the lines of ‘never put off until tomorrow what you can put off indefinitely’.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Arthur Rimbaud – well, the only thing really (the gun running stuff reads like a Carry On/B Movie crossover, and what I liked most about the Illuminations – at least, the ones I’ve read, was the fact that they were called by that name) – is the fact that he managed to walk away from writing. Others have tried; some repeatedly. Philip Roth for example, who died shortly after succeeding at his last attempt (which might be the trick).

Quitting while you’re ahead must help, but quitting – bearing in mind the adage that ‘you ain’t beaten till you quit’ (which doesn’t necessarily imply being beaten into quitting) – isn’t just a matter of having been a success or failure. It’s also an acceptance that your ‘body of work’ is suddenly a dead body. It isn’t going to grow any more. It is, in fact, a ‘corpse’ of work (and calling it a corpus only sugars the pill), and perhaps one that won’t be preserved too well: it will begin to disintegrate, to rot. Bits will detach, moulder away, be mis-laid, lost, buried, perhaps in an unmarked grave.

Walking away from writing (the phrase itself rather a circumlocution – I mean giving up; stopping doing it; finishing it; putting down the pen; switching off the keyboard.) is like stepping out from cover. Suddenly you’re exposed; stripped; dispossessed; not even failure, perhaps, to hide behind; success already receding into the background.

Suddenly you’re a has been, or (no worse but just as bad), a might have been, a certainly wasn’t, a who? A what’s your name? A what do you do? Nothing.

Quite an undertaking then. Worth putting off, I’d say, with one more attempt at least to write something worth having written.

BHD being toast?

Robert Frost famously, well, perhaps not famously but certainly reportedly, in the biography of him that I read a few years ago, advised his students not to write ‘unless you have something to say.’ I’ve cited the quotation before, but I come back to it again and again. It has a rider that changes what you might have thought of as its rather unhelpful finality: if you haven’t got something, he would, apparently, add, ‘go and get it’.

Having something to say seems to me to be an entirely laudable reason for writing, and trying to get it said might well be a long job, involving many attempts that either end up saying not quite what was intended, or failing completely. But there comes a time, I’ve found, when, only occasionally, one finds oneself, or to put it more bluntly, when I’ve found myself feeling that I have said what I had to say, and that consequently the tank is dry, the larder empty, the cupboard bare, and all other similar metaphors.

It’s an unpleasant place to find yourself, especially after that moment of euphoria when you first begin to think that you’ve nailed something (other than your literary thumb). I’ve experienced it in a couple of genres, I think – one can never be sure about these things – and certainly in poetry. It hasn’t stopped me writing poems, but it sure did slow me down. It was nearly ten years ago when the drowning of three boys in Ullswater challenged me to be a poet who wrote about something that mattered, or not. The Ullswater Requiem took several months to evolve, and I’m sure I’ve told the story elsewhere. But after it was finished, far from being the spur to a flurry of other poems, it created a sort of hiatus. I came to a stop. What else was there to say that I could say that would stand up to comparison with it?

To feel like that didn’t require anybody else to endorse my assessment of UR. It was, I knew, whatever reception it got, or whatever anybody else thought about it, simply the best thing I had written; the best thing that I had conceived of writing. I still feel like that about it, whatever level the poem stands at in relation to other people’s best or worst. It took some time to recover any sense that it was worth me trying to write anything else.

A similar thing happened to me on the way to this blog post. Nearly two years ago now, I wrote a couple of flash fictions, and then a short story (short enough to be regarded as flash fiction by some definitions) which had a similar resonance for me. One of the flash fictions (perhaps the starting point, and the least developed) has been published. The other pieces still have not, and, I suspect, might be impossible to place for a variety of reasons. A good friend and valued critic panned absolutely the one that I see as the pinnacle of the trio, yet, yet, for me it remains a high point: the high point when it comes to what I might have to say.

I’ve suggested to students before now that success as a writer is something that has, or has not, already happened when you put down the pen, or close the keyboard. Public, or private approbation, publication, is only the recognition of that already accomplished success. Success in sales, or celebrity is an entirely different matter, as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Nathaniel West might testify.

So.

At the moment I’m wondering what to write that will advance what I perceive as my writing trajectory. I’d be tempted to say that it is ‘no easy place’, but I said that back in 2004, in a poem that provided the title of a now out-of-print 2005 collection (the poem, In My Claude Glass, was included in the Maryport Writers anthology New Stories for Old Stones).

I was at a public rehearsal of Patchwork Opera’s Footstep a couple of nights ago. A multi-media group, of poets, songwriters and film makers, they had put together a story based in Carlisle (England), and which featured a poem by local writer Kelly Davis. A full performance scheduled for August 29th at Carlisle’s Old Fire Station.

In particular this caught my ear, because it was written in the Valanga form. I devised and named the form about ten years ago, whilst working towards an M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus.

The exercise wasn’t appreciated by my assessors, it must be said, but it served the purpose of allowing me to write a poem I wanted to write in a particular style. I had been looking at the pantoum form, and the way that lines repeat in a sort of ‘ripple’ down the length of the poem. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted a repetition that would build, expand, like…I thought, an Avalanche! The poem was called Avalanche (originally, The Avalanche of Emotion…which was too much, and most of it wouldn’t need saying if the poem did its job!). I called the form Valanga, as a bit of a dig at the British (English? Establishment?) preference for Arts that aren’t home grown.

Kelly’s, to my way of thinking, successful use of the form, had resulted in her poem being taken for publication…but the editor had asked for some shortening…saying it was a bit ‘repetitive’. The editor, Kelly told me, was ‘forthright’: a good quality in an editor, especially if you are going to disagree with them!

The use of repetition is traditional in poetry (and elsewhere), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that use must be for tradition’s sake. Repetition can be used in several ways (some of which, I’m sure I’m not yet aware of!). It can render a phrase, clause, or sentence (or even a single word for that matter) meaningless, comic even. It can add emphasis on each subsequent usage. It can fade like an echo, or like someone leaving, or crying in a wilderness. It can explode, like an avalanche, progressively filling our consciousness. It can test a form of words against a variety of background contexts that will give them meanings totally at variance with each other. It can make music, beat, and rhythm.

In poems like Louis Aragon’s Ballade de celui qui chants dans les supplices it can be heart-breakingly powerful, where the opening refrain becomes an assertion of human courage, endurance, hope and intention against the certainty of death:

 

“Et s’il etait a refaire

Je referais ce chemin….”

 

….Which I translate as:

 

‘And if it was to do again

I would do it the same…’

…which I know is not a word for word translation. You can find the poem, with a word for word translation in The Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950, which I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to write poetry influenced by our European tradition.

A similar power, in a quite different context can be found in Josephine Dickinson’s lament for her late husband. From the collection Scarberry Hill (Rialto,2001), comes the profound and moving Instead of Time .

Again it is the opening lines that are repeated, this time with a slight variation to end the poem:

 

Do you not hear the sea?

Snow still falls on your grave

(I threw a red rose)

The wind still blows.

 

This stark quatrain of simple, single syllable words beats like a muffled drum, and I have testified before to feeling the hair stand up on my neck when I have recalled it to mind, let alone read it again. The first time I heard Josephine read it (she stood tall, slim, silent and motionless as a pillar of dark slate) not only did I listen in stillness and in silence, but without breathing for fear of breaking the spell; and that spell was woven to a large extent by the repetitions of these words.

At the other end of the scale, the repetition of a single word or phrase ad nauseam can reduce an audience to hysterical laughter.

Perhaps somewhere in the middle lies that tradition I mentioned, in the provision of choruses to both songs and poems. Choruses bring us back and send us round again, like a merry-go-round fun-fare ride, like a marching song. But it’s not only verse, lyrical or otherwise. I’ve even attempted a ‘chorus’ short story, though it didn’t quite work out that simply (Last Chorus in Burton on Trent, from Second Time Around, 2006). Repetition is a powerful tool of more general oratory. Can you remember Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock asking his members if they were ‘ready for power’, and by that repetition generating a storm of response that some commentators suggested he himself was not ready for?  And what about the Shakesperian repetition that undermines its own ostensible meaning in Mark Antony’s famous eulogy…Brutus is an honourable man…?

Well, me ducks (that’s my midland accent)….Twenty Two Years ago today I was diagnosed with Hairy Cell Leukaemia (that’s the first time I’ve spelled that without getting it wrong first time) Since then, in the words of my haematologist (I’m doing well with the spelling today), I’ve been ‘at risk of cure’….Glad to be among you still (hope the feeling’s mutual).