Sunday, November 20, 2005

Slash and Burn

I recently attended an Arvon course with Lindsay and Adam Thorpe, up in Yorkshire. The venue was an 18th century mill owner's house, formerly owned by Ted Hughes. It's a magical place, and the last time I was there - in 2003 with John Burnside - I wrote a huge amount. Mind you, that was poetry, and poetry courses tend to be marked by two things: voluminous writing and equally voluminous wine consumption. On our last evening there, the centre director Steve congratulated us on drinking twice as much as the novelists who'd been there the week before. We gave ourselves a round of applause... and uncorked yet more bottles. As this new course with Lindsay and Adam was a novel writing course (actually entitled Work in Progress), I assumed that there would be less drinking, but hopefully as much writing.

Alas, I was wrong, at least about the writing. I wrote one new scene of 1500 words, and revised two others, in one case making one scene slightly longer, but the other - on Adam's advice - was cut in half. The course began on a Monday evening, with an introductory dinner and then everyone introduced themselves over the first of the week's bottles of red or beer or whatever one's fancy is. I announced that the week, for me, would be all about quantity, not quality. They were to be famous last words, as the week would show.

Tuesday morning I skipped, as it was one of Lindsay's overviews of fiction, which I've heard before in the monthly workshops (he gave me official leave of absence for the morning!). So Adam and I went in to the village to visit Sylvia Plath's grave. It was raining, and there was a funeral in progress at the church. Somehow very apt. We talked a lot about writing, and about films, and Adam was very interested to hear that I've just written a book on Tarkovsky. I explained that the book was for people new to his work, or for people whose faith has lapsed, to which Adam uttered the classic reply, 'I'm not new, and I'm not even lapsed!' All in all, an enjoyable morning, but no other work was done. In the afternoon, I had a tutorial with Adam, and he asked me to cut one scene - where Seton recounts how he saved Haussen and his crew in the Firth of Forth - in half.

Although I didn't think there was much wrong with the scene, I did the cutting on Wednesday, and found myself enjoying it. It was actually a lot better once I had slashed and burned, and began to feel that the novel as a whole might benefit from some liberal pruning. Little did I know it, but slash and burn was to become the watchword of the week. But I was still getting very little done, and began to slide into a despondent panic. There was only one thing to do: I went to the pub in the village, and worked on some poems instead. I reasoned over a pint or two of Timothy Taylor's wares that I had had similar slumps on previous courses; the 2003 stint with John Burnside was a classic case in point, with wild mood swings caused in no small part by the spirit of the place, the spirit of the bottle and my own personal life at the time. So, after about my third or fourth pint, I had my poems in some semblance of order (I was submitting a small collection to a competition) and decided that I would no doubt snap out of my current creative impasse.

I regained a bit of ground that night. I'd been feeling fidgetty all evening, and around midnight I decided to set my laptop up in the barn and, fortified with a few cans of Grolsch, began to revamp one of my pre-existing scenes which, like the scene I'd cut in half for Adam, was near the beginning of the book. But I still wanted to do something else, and decided to jump ahead and start writing Part III of the book, which begins in the New World, in Boston. This is out of character, as I've so far been writing the book in sequence and have only gotten as far as Part II (there are four planned parts plus an epilogue). But I was fed up with Parts I and II, and decided that what the novel really needed was some earthiness. Hitherto, alchemy has been equated with more spiritual things, so - in a mood which could safely be described as Miller's Tale-oriented - I wrote more or less in one go a scene where the hero of Part III, the chymist George Starkey, decides to spend some alchemical gold on a prostitute. The piece essentially showed him entering the tavern where the girl works, a girl whose cleavage has been the subject of great rumours at Harvard, where George is studying.

Although I was quite pleased with the piece (which, when further developed, will give me an opportunity to send up the Puritanism of Boston and also put some tantric sex into the book), it was still only 1500 words or so - a far cry from the 5,000 I'd hoped to do during the course of the week. In fact, the novel had gotten shorter. Luckily, I was not the only person with this problem, as other people on the course also found themselves slashing and burning rather than writing. We even joked that the course should be renamed 'Slash and Burn' not 'Work in Progress.'

Lindsay saved the day in a rather unexpected way. During a late afternoon tutorial with him the next day, he asked me - in reference to Part I - two questions which related to the problems of that part of the book. Namely, why doesn't the hero, Haussen, fall for his new Scarlett Johanssen-y servant, and why does Seton perform the transmutation at all? During the talk, I realised that what I had been doing wrong was thinking of the novel purely in terms of the plot, which had long been worked out in advance. I realised there and then that I should really be thinking about it in terms of relationships and dynamics: in the senses of dynamic relationships, the dynamics of relationships and the dynamics between relationships. I could feel the scales start to fall from my eyes. But I still had Lindsay's two points to consider, so I went for a walk.

Colden Clough is a steeply wooded valley, the sort of place that appears in Lovecraft stories. Luckily there were to be no enounters with multi-dimensioanl entities that would rob me of what sanity and liver functions I had left. Lovecraft aside, the Clough is a place where I'm acutely conscious of the feminine; it's a place where the veils between mortals and the Goddess are thin. I asked for help. To my immense surprise, I immediately got it: Haussen was a widower. That would explain why he is reluctant to take the serving girl by surprise on the kitchen table, and why he needs to believe in the reality of the transmutation. Part I is essentially his passage from grief back to life again: the transmutation restores his faith, and he is then able to start a relationship with the serving girl.

Feeling profoundly grateful and relieved, I went back to the house to tell Lindsay. Suddenly my lack of productivity seemed irrelevant. I now had the mindset that would enable me to complete the book, and would also enable me to make the whole thing more lively. One of my concerns all along has been that the book is too distant at times; Adam had hit the nail on the head during the Tuesday tutorial, when he said, 'I want to be more engaged.' Now I had the key to that engagement: the reader's with the story, and my own engagement with writing it.

I found Lindsay in the front room relaxing over a drink - something I felt I had now earned the right to myself - and, almost as proudly as if I were a father announcing the arrival of a new baby, said to him the magic words, 'Haussen's a widower.'

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