Thursday, 30 April 2009

Learning To Write

It all starts with a signature. The first thing they’re taught to write is their own name. A reasonable enough gesture. A waxy-crayon seal, braiding their affirmatory identity. The first cheque issued on the overdraft of self. Seminal scratchings of disclosure on the tree bark of life. But soon it’s time to get serious and dead-head the flowery script, with that same old dead hand of regulation. School’s habituation and practice. As it should be, yet, the method by which they’re taught letter formation prompts more questions than poses solutions. As I survey a string of tracings, joining the dots, finger writing in the air, the wipe cleans, those that keep their word, and those which don’t and just blot. All of which I am supposed to support at home. I curly cue the trails and flicks of her spidery undulations. I try and brace the straight-backs of her tall letters against the top of the scaffold. I’m supportive alright. I can see the economy of starting ‘o’s’ at ten past, inducing seamless transitions into ‘d’s’ and ‘g’s’. I honour those ‘h’s’ for planting the seed for joined up calligraphy. But I do consider those ‘f’s’ unnecessarily elaborate and baroque.

Certainly not how I go about it. I am forced to check my own conventions. Uncramping my hand from the fountain pen, I realise that my application is always on its nib, rather than the words it ladles on to the leaves of my journal. It’s as if it were an inky dowsing rod, that must forever contend against me running dry. Inked gush must flow, whatever verbal precipitate settles from it. Why would anyone even presume to maintain a journal ? But for now, I’m only taking a dip into the signature me. More graph- ology than -ic. As I uncover our deviations from the standard arrangement, I wonder whether she will, in time, adapt this received stroke to her own personality. Will she be able to sit down and assert herself with her own idiosyncratic flourishes ? Or will she slip into tramline, baldly submitting to featureless pre-formation ? What hope any animated revelation there ? Or worse, what if her handwriting mutates into a simulacrum of my own ? Her script matching mine, a confluence as incontestable, as the superimposition of our two stained bands of DNA analysis might show. Would my ghostly imprint underwrite everything of hers ? Would she be bound and shackled by the very same lexical building blocks that wall me up in mute rage ? There can be such a thing as too much support. Suzanne, you’re on your own with this assignment. At least you’d better hope you are girl.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Good Housekeeping

They say everybody has at least one book inside them.

And mine is gestating. Continously. As we speak. Ongoing, but not outgoing. For it is my personal journal.

When I was Confirmed, a wizened aunt gave me a beautiful calfskin covered notebook. I was in the dark as to her predetermination; whether I was supposed to relive and relish my secular sins, or solemnly to contemplate and renounce them like an account-keeping Protestant (ie, we don’t service wash our dirty laundry like the taigs). Which was it to be, God and ink, or nod and a wink, for squirreling away girlish secrets ? She had given me no guidance, just this richly aromatic leather-bound book, between wax-paper protective covers. In a world of wood-chip, formica and crimplene, this indubitably was an object of pulchritude. Not one I could gaze upon and be enchanted in any ornamental way, but one I could appreciate for its exquisite elegance all the same. So I never dared remove it from its waxy sheath. Its fresh, otherworldly waft, never stopped calling me every time I opened the drawer in which it was cradled. But it was far too sublime to stain with any of my inky swell. Until I fell pregnant.

Not that I conceived of it as a personal record of joy, either for me or for my issue to come. There is precious little to savour in here. (Good gracious no, neither she nor I must ever be allowed to read back on it). For any such brooding sentimentalists, there are baby books which require far less exertion. Though after a while, even this was ultimately too much for my husband, for all the alacrity he evinced on being bequeathed one from his mother. A trip to the Town Hall to register Suzanne’s name, left him too emotionally played out to lovingly duplicate the details on Page One of our own private muster. All that marks her entry in the world of the book, into the World, is her pointillist attribution through Ultrasound. Like an unfinished jotting. A sketch. That would be about right then, where he is (un-) concerned

Who am I to talk ? For I’ve just owned that my journal is hardly intimately shipshape, nor fondly Bristol fashion either. Due, in the main, to it arising out of a poser of post-natal, deep-impression. The mound of flesh that was me, sinking submerged into every reclining chair fabric we were possessed of. Mushily up hard, against the low mental activity that was silting up my champing mind, during the vacant-stared chores of nursing. There were only so many nano-seconds available in the day. Pelvic floor exercises, or turning my hand to re-engage the cogs of the gray matter ? A no-brainer in the parlance. Yes, why not ? Let’s properly record this new ordering of the cosmos. Of my corner of it at least. And so I finally took up the hallowed journal. An inhalation of the leather deep into my lungs. She still smelled divine. (Banish the faint ichorous fume, still attending to each recall of inaugural contact with my firstborn). A fresh start for all of us, anointed in the blood of slaughtered infant innocent (er of the donor calf that is, not my daughter).

But what to write ? Write wrongs, gibberish, write anything. Any manipulation would serve as physiotherapy for a debilitated mind. Any verbiage can be sown in the hope of bringing forth life in a desert, should life-affirming waters chance percolate and yield them nourishment. But I needed more than chance. I needed to assert sureity. I may not presently have much sense of myself, nor an outline of my pneumatic form, but if it has palpable solidity, there in my journal, I must bear some tangible existence. I needed to begin with some brass rubbing over the crypt in which my gist had been consigned. I’d start with shadings. Sketches. Impressions. Steer clear of fully-formed words at this stage. Just something to get my fingers cupping a pen. To get some feeling back.

* * *

And right at this moment, it might actually come in rather handy. I do not hold it up in competition with all those published manuals I mentally shredded. But as I flick through its leaves, it might refresh my memory as to certain timings. Like a baby cook book.

Not that I am particularly concerned, as to whether Amy is early or late with regard to some key developmental stage. Not being one of those mothers who marked each of Suzanne’s achievements, by dashing to the phone to elicit intelligence, as to the present disposition of her nearest rivals. Due, in the main, to neither Suzanne, nor myself, having any peers with whom we rubbed up against socially. Suzanne, is in my eyes and will forever be, peerless. (Just so long as it is only I, who remains friendless).

No, this is with reference more, as to how long I have to endure the current, particularly doleful cycle. Teething (grit I, through unflossed and nightly ground gnashers). This one is for me. As I lie back in a warm bath. My first protracted soak since being wreathed in sweat with Amy’s birth. I’ve brokered a watching brief from the troubles (small ‘t’), primed to respond to any baby monitor incursions (murphy’s law they’ll both sleep through blissfully this evening). Actually, the negotiations were instigated by him, having remarked that I was beginning to reek. In an environmentally-redolent sort of way, rather than his nose being helplessly led by some favourably sour hormonal hook. How did things get to such a pass ? Now would be a good time to review. I don’t intend to leave this tub, until the immersion tank can no longer revive the water that bestows on me it’s sheen of mock sultriness. By the cold light of day, I want to have been rebaptised into life.

So here I am, casting back for jottings with which I might divine the immediate future. But my testimonial falls way short. What was I so busy doing when I had Suzanne ? What was I thinking ? I can hardly upbraid all the textbooks now, if I couldn’t even keep my own record up to scratch. I place the journal on the lip of the sink. So now I’m thrown back on trusting my own sense impressions, an altogether different reading proficiency. For Amy’s composition is unmediated and rudimentary.

Close my - well yes, why not begin with her eyes ? That’s pretty elementary. For the eyes have it. Well, we’ve already forded the blank milky blue mists therein. And now, as the recondite cones and rods gradually cohere, I can see the pixilated pixie of myself captured in her iris. (And presumably in return, my eyeballs are tattooed with her indelible image). For this is how we must both entreat the world for the foreseeable future. Through the eyes of one another. Myself, staring back at me. Shrunken and minute. Now I feel wholly contained. Like a matrioshka, the eye of the pinprick doll reflected before me, itself accomodates another pair of yet smaller likenesses. These in turn yield further refraction upon refraction. And so on until infinity and negation. I contain her until she releases me from within her inner core. When I am left glassy eyed. Spare the rod and spoil the child indeed.

And smell. So primary a sense, even that of the troubles (small ‘t’) persists in full working order. Apparently. Amy issued into the world almost totally inodorous. Yet the world’s scents have already begun to permeate her. Absorbing my maternal infusions, her internal still regurgitates them as ubiquitous baby smells, such as milk and sick. Neither her hair nor her pee have much of a discernable whiff. She, no doubt, would be able to sniff my milch cow out in a dark room, but I’m not sure I could reciprocate and locate her uniquely as my heifer. But soon she will be responsible for imprinting her own olefactory wake. She will go airborne and assail the world, parachuting in her spoors of being, existence and occupation. Later yet, a blended admixture personal to her. The scented carbolics with which she unblocks her pores and which, in turn, quarry their seal on her. Her brand musk of choice. Perhaps the insinuation of cigarettes, a tincture of hair lacquer, a sprinkling of fried food, or any of the plethora of human bouquets with which she will choose to shower herself. And the ones she’s not in control of, yet is inevitably responsible to; the spray of pheremones, Nature’s genetic spaying if you’re not careful. And I should know. Hmm, this soothe-saying’s going terribly well don’t you think ?

Touching. Whenever she’s cupped in my arm, Amy sports her feelings on my sleeve. Tears or vomit leave their frank impress. If teething she gnaws. If blissful, she wrinkles. The crook of my arm contains the whole of her heartfelt range of expression. Forever questing after moulding herself into me, as if seeking perfect fleshy union. Yet her emotions remain untrammelled. Sheathing her like an exoskeleton.

Nevertheless, from the canon of Suzanne, I know what lies ahead. The die is cast and stamped. Stuttering remouldings, a succession of anchored push-offs, before shucking me like a peach stone as she derives a new level of emotional assertiveness. But the autonomy has shaky legs and so the process of puckering up to Mum, necessarily starts all over again. I am drafted in to drape copiously around her bruisable self, while from within she confronts the world with its brickbats and burrs. She reclaims my pliant carapace of love, as maternal obligation prohibits me from armouring myself. Yet I can feel the pressure building up inwardly. Since I know full well, as each occasion arises, she will wrench away this intimacy. As she effortlessly moults me, my bones are left broken, bloody and dessicated. A push-me, pull-you continuum, until she can fully unfurl her wings and fly the nest. By then, her emotions would have calcified into the hermetic, impenetrable crannies and crevices of her inner skeleton, while mine will simply have been scooped out, leaving me a fleshless husk. A dusty fossil. For that’s what maternal love can do to you.

Suzanne is four years old. I’ve known her all my life.

I pull the plug out, but still recline. The lukewarm water gently slaps and slurps around my flesh archipelago as it forges on towards the gurgling vortex, without so much as an excuse me. Where it squeezes past, where it sucks me down into the enamel, I welcome the meagre embrace. But the contact soon drains away and I am left shored against an unforgiving coldness.

I have forbidden myself exactly this kind of speculation in my journal. I am just to let them grow and merely monitor the process. Why ? Do I strive to preserve their childhood, to pickle it in aspic, so enabling me to let them roam free in real life? Then why am I left beached here so high and dry ? What started as an exercise, now leaves me aerobically in debt. Who will sanction me to be free ? How the hell have I permitted all this to happen ?

I rose from the empty bath and wrapped myself in my towelling robe. It smelt slightly of mildew. I pulled the belt tight around my midriff, so that the flab spilled over it as the breath was pressed from my abdomen. I knew now why my husband collected minature ships in their airless bottles. Those were the dimensions of his window out to the world. Mine occupied the surface area of a closed book and the aperture of an open teat. Though I am not enchained to respond to my taskmaster on a daily basis, my overseer mocks me with the quotidian nature of my life therein. I cannot escape the consuetude, that which my journal returns me to constantly. The entire scope of my life tapering, as witnessed by my own testimony. Ostensibly, the journal is a riddle of my life, with no nuggets of self left behind, once the child-scourings have been sieved through. I should have drowned my journal at birth. Or at least let the ink run irreparably free, when there was still water in this bath. I used the sleeve of my robe to dab at the wet imprints of my fingers on the soft leather. (The wax protective sheets having long since been forsaken). But they appeared to be set permanent, now woven as part of the very grain. Like livid throttle marks. I escorted it out the bathroom with me. Could always resort to blubbering for smudging the ink. I’ve enough tears to blot each page.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Pot Bellied

Had a blazed row with your child ? Worried they might be aheading down a kush-ty path of life ? I reefer you to the following parental guide for how to get your offspring unloaded.

It's from a novella, but we couldn't use it due to er artistic reasons ... Please advise on any amendments to the txt spk, as it's not my first language.

"Look, I know you won't stand for any of my lectures hectoring you. I'm sure you have no respect for me or a single word I have to say. Given the damning evidence of that text you mistakenly sent to me a while back. Being somewhat less than decorous about my ‘man tits’ and pot belly.

Let me see if I can reconstruct your vernacular precisely, oh yes, ‘splln out ovr hs towl lk stffn v knckrd sofa. spts n mols ll ovr lk polish pntrs ovrlls’ – your mother would thrill to your use of simile there, even if recoiling at recognition of the image conjured up (we’ll pass over spelling/grammar and chalk that one up to the new dumbing orthodoxy).

Then the coup de grace, your supplementary claim that you’ve suffered the stress of seeing – which apparently is more than I am capable of - my wedding tackle, the old jolly todger. When said belly couldn’t be contained any longer and shivered the towel down round my ankles. It’s feasible that I might be prepared to overlook all of that, (I mean after all it’s a self-loathing you’ll come to in time, especially as you’re loath to perform any physical activity to stem the genetic tide), were it not for your matchless choice of final metaphor.

An incriminating confluence, of the ensemble of my pubes and so called shrivelled snail, framed against the pallid flesh of my legs, resembling a ‘smll lumpa hsh std i baccy, b4 derizzlas bn rlld up’.

I can only trust that said visual association puts you off smoking, as the textual one has put an end to my custom of wandering around the house, wrapped only in a bath towel."

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Writing Communities Are -

A contradiction in terms.

I am not talking about pure peer review sites. I am talking about any which offer the honeypot at the end of the rainbow. Usually the lure of being read by publishers/agents. Then, for all the bolstering hugs and reviews through smilingly gritted teeth, it becomes a bun fight of the highest (lowest) order. Community ethics in which virtually every player is out for themselves. Did somebody say 'like the real world' ?

I have just served a 50 day stretch on Authonomy. I was there during the flame wars when a gamer outplayed the existing players. Good luck to the geezer; suggests a) he has a ready-made market b) he can self-promote.

But I wish to state that I do not blame publishing house HarperCollins who set Authonomy up, for the monster subsequently unleashed. I would rather consider the culpability of many of the writers on that site, for turning it into an economy of monstrous need.

Why should HC be expected to manage the need they simply gave a conduit for ? Should they have had on-line counselling for anguished and hurt writerly egos at the click of a button ? (Next to the 'report abuse' button presumably). There were challenges aplenty to the rationale of the site and writers pleading with Harper Collins to redesign the workings of the site in line with the individual writer's suggestions. Writers seemed to view HC as an absent God who would not reveal itself through great pronouncements from on high. When what HC actually represents is an absentee landlord, collecting the tithes of website traffic for their shareholders, until they decide what they want to do commercially with the site. THEIR site, however the self-congratulatory teatime insurgents on the site, conceive they have wrested control of Authonomy to their own direction.

For those of you unfamiliar with Authonomy, Harper Collins openly admit to all submissions on the site forming their slushpile and that the members of the site effectively help them trim it down from 2000 manuscripts to 5 a month which they then guarantee to read and critique. Note, they do not offer to publish anything. An algorithm is embedded that calculates a ranking for each book and at the end of the month the top 5 get culled and read, resetting the table for 5 more the following month. It is a popularity contest which relies part on personality/friendships/alliances as well as literary merit and self-promotion. The gamer crashed into the top 5 on points 1 and 3. I can't comment on point 2 in relation to him as I never read his book. Despite him bringing 1500 new potential readers to Authonomy, a handful of whom stayed to read other people's books, his approach was considered indecent. To wit, it threatened vested interests already established.

So you have the prospect of 2000 books being whittled down to just 60 chosen ones in a calendar year. 1,900 or so, therefore ain't gonna get much of a look in. Yet the hysteria of so many writers if their rank dropped a few points was incredible. The self-promotion became increasingly desperate and shrill. Sledgehammers and walnuts and all that palaver. Nobody seemed terribly willing to do a bit of basic maths. Instead people speculated on other agents and publishers stalking the site for talent. Believe me, if any professional has a space on their roster, they ain't trawling through a 2000 book slushpile to fill it. Even one that has creamed off 5 top titles as a shortcut. To date the site has yielded one direct book deal. And not one from the top 5 interestingly.

More disturbing was the amount of writers on the site who came out in public with some mental disorder or other such as depression, bi-polarity and schizophrenia. Instantly we were both asked to take it into consideration when reviewing their books, but also we were rendered co-dependents by having to tread on eggshells around their presence on the site. Of course some folk had no such scruple and flayed them alive on the fora. The common or garden hunger of writers writ large by a factor of fifty when you open yourself up like that. Monstrous need indeed.

Then we have the genre wars. HC ask you to mark which genre(s) your book falls into. This is common practice in the industry, think how bookshops are organised. I loathe the practice as I think it diminishes the work, but I am a realist, this is how it is. Firstly there were the skirmishes over people who ticked virtually every genre. Let these people hole themselves, as no professional is going to take their offering seriously if it thinks it represents every single genre possible.

It's all just fiction right ? (Unless it isn't, then it's non-fiction). But the severity with which each fiction genre fought its corner under perceived attack. Paranoia centre. A distinct lack of community in evidence here. I was as guilty as anyone, of which more below.

The most oft posted review of a book started with "Though not my normal choice of reading...", before tactical voting being the better part of valour kicks in. My take was, if you don't like SciFi/Fantasy/Romance/Historical/or Literary, then don't read it. Then maybe you'll get other SciFi writer/buffs reading your SciFi novel, rather than a Literary Fiction type looking down their nose at it, or a Romance writer complaining about the unattractiveness of the beast with 3 backs and tentacles ...

Again, it is not Authonomy's fault that the obsession with rankings leads most authors to read just 2 chapters of a book and comment, in the hope of a reciprocal read of their own book and a possible vote to move it up. Just now a movement is starting up offline between writers to commit to read whole MS. Like thanks guys, where were you when...? Unless I really couldn't get beyond Chapter 2 because of the writing (which only happened twice in my brief sojourn), I DID read everything an author had uploaded of their book. To me it was just one writer honouring the sweat and toil of another. You know, like a Community of like minded souls ...

Okay, mea culpa time. Genre wars. Though I eschew the category as being of any validity, my work would fall into Literary Fiction. Since it delights in language, isn't plot heavy and has voice rather than character at its heart. Some of it is political, most is social satire. To give you an idea of the themes/subject matter, Binge Culture, Suicide Bombers, Teenage knife violence, you know like stuff you see in the news. I was brought up short time and again, by the distinct lack of interest in my fellow writers interrogating their chosen art form, ie language and literature. But I was more shocked by the propensity for writers to own up to wanting books for escapism. There seems no appetite for engaging with things in the world about us, only to flee it. Congratulations Thatcher/Blair, your work here is done.

Of course there is a place for escapist literature in the market, but to the exclusion of all else ? To judge by the writers plying their would be trade on Authonomy, yes. I can only propose that this represents self-censorship stemming from a perceived reading of what the market will and won't sustain.

I initiated a forum discussion about how Rowling is brilliant for children to seduce them into reading, but couldn't fathom why so many adults read her of their own volition. If it's as some sort of access course to re-enter the world of books, then that is a good thing. But do they then ascend to fantasy penned by adults ? I admitted I didn't know, cos I don't read fantasy. I stated that I felt such books infantilised adults or rather they let themselves be thus infantilised. Additionally, in their regression they might even pass their children moving in the opposite direction, as they are telescoped into premature adulthood by the information bombardment hurled at them in the modern world. I got lambasted for denying the inner child within me and told not to worry so much. Oh well, that's my teenage knife crime book invalidated then ...

To my parochial mind, the majority of would-be authors as witnessed by Authonomy, are happy to churn out competent versions of one twentieth century novel or another. No one seems inclined to have a stab at taking the novel into the twenty-first century, despite all the technological advances that permit experiments with the physical form if nothing else. Some Authonomites actually owned that they were happy to 'live the dream' of being a writer, simply by having their book up in virtual print and having 'readers' (for which read, 'fellow writers') peruse their work. All 2 chapters of it. So on the one hand we have an unquenchable hunger and yet, not one whit of the professionalism that it's going to take to ever stand a chance of being published.

The two reasons why I ducked out of Authonomy today.