Writing Every Day

There is an article on How to Write Every Day by Leo Babauta in the February issue of The Florida Writer.  I found it interesting to compare my experiences with his.  Leo Babauta is a ‘simplicity blogger’ and author.  He created zenhabits.net, a Top 25 blog with a million readers. ‘Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness’. He is a best-selling author, husband and father of six children.  In 2010 he moved from Guam to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Leo Babauta

Mr Babauta says “I write (a) journal, blog posts, courses for my Sea Change program, books and e-books.  For fun, I’ve written 50,000 words of a novel NaNoWriMo, and another year I wrote 110,000.  For years, I wrote newspaper articles and opinion columns.”

For me, writing consists of writing about 125,000 word novels and 50 blog posts per year.  The motivation for me to write is the joy of creation, and not – as a retiree – my means of making a living.

Mr Babauta lists the following benefits of writing every day:

  1. My writing skills have improved with the years
  2. I’m able to write faster, type faster, with so much more practice
  3. I can clarify my thinking better because of writing regularly
  4. I able to think from the reader’s perspective, which helps me in a lot of life situations
  5. I am forced to reflect on my life, which deepens my learning
  6. I am forced to figure out how to motivate myself to write regularly
  7. I learn to create a regular practice, as I do with meditation, exercise and eating healthily
  8. I learn to overcome perfection and put things out there to be judged, which helps me to embrace failure and messiness
  9. I learn to overcome distraction and procrastination.

I agree with most of his benefits, but since I do not write for a living, I am not forced to write regularly.  Typically, I write for about three hours, four days a week; this leaves time for my pro bono charity consulting, exercise, household chores, etc.  With respect to number 8, I think that most novelists strive for perfection.  We get one chance to impress our readers: when the novel is published; it is not a give and take business in the way that blog creation is.

Mr Babauta lists these actions writers can take to write daily:

  1. Most important: Have a good reason. . . . “If it’s because is sounds fun, sounds cool, sounds nice, you’ll abandon it when you face discomfort. If you want to do it to help someone else, to make the world a better place, to lift someone’s spirits, to reduce your pain, to find a way to express your deeper self, then you can call on this deeper reason when things get difficult.”  (I agree completely)
  2. Block off undistracted time.  “All you need is ten minutes a day.  But you have to block off those ten minutes.”  (I agree about undistracted time, but for me, anything less than an hour is insufficient.  I find that I need to get in touch with the feel of the novel, and ten minutes certainly isn’t enough.)
  3. Don’t let  yourself forget (the time you’ve set aside).              (This isn’t a problem for a seasoned novelist: there is a passion to keep going!)
  4. Do it in a sprint.  “Some people think they need to write for an hour or two to make it count.  But a task that big will seem daunting.”     (Two hours isn’t daunting at all, if you’re committed to writing several hundred pages.)
  5. Practice mindfulness.  “You can treat writing as meditation.  It’s a way to put everything aside but you and the writing, to let your thoughts become words on the page. ”     (I agree completely!)
  6. Practice gratitude.  “As you practice mindfulness, notice the awesomeness of this moment of self-expression.”   (Right on!)
  7. Embrace imperfection.  “Writing is about letting go of our ideals, and just doing anyway, even if we can’t have perfection.”   (This is a difficult one for a writer of literary fiction.  One concedes that achieving perfection is impossible, and one knows that it’s counter productive to fuss too long over a phrase or passage, but ultimately, that phrase of passage has to feel ‘right’.  Edit, edit, edit.)
  8. Don’t let your mind run away (for a little while).  “Your mind will want to run away from writing.  This is normal.  The mind doesn’t like uncertainty and discomfort. . . . Don’t run.”    (This is what’s known as ‘writer’s block’.  The more one writes, the less of a problem it becomes.)

Review: Today

In my post of 3 March 2017 on the obituary of David Miller, literary agent, I mentioned that he wrote one novel: Today.  I have now read it, and share the consensus of other readers that it is a little gem of a novel.  Today concerns the gathering of friends and family of  Joseph Conrad on a bank holiday weekend in 1924.  Jessie, Joseph’s wife had recently been discharged from a nursing home.  During the weekend, Joseph dies unexpectedly.

Joseph Conrad was born into a Polish family in what is now Ukraine in 1857.  He traveled around Europe, and eventually settled in England, where he learned English.  He applied for and was granted English citizenship in 1886, but he remained a subject of Russia until he was granted a release from obligation to Tsar Alexander III in 1889.  Conrad had a nineteen year career in the merchant navies of France and England, rising from apprentice to captain. But in 1894, he gave up the sea, partly because of ill health, partly because of the lack of ships, and partly because he had become fascinated with writing.  Almost all of Conrad’s writing was first published in influential magazines and newspapers: The North American Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Illustrated London News, for example.  Nonetheless, financial success eluded him for much of his career, although a government grant of an annuity of £100 per annum greatly eased his situation.  His fame increased greatly with the publication of Chance in 1913, which is, ironically, thought to be one of his weaker novels.  Many of his novels include a maritime theme, and he is believed to be a writer who sailed rather than a sailor who wrote.  His writing style is thought of as poetic prose; his work is marked by exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas.  He suffered from gout, malaria and depression.  Conrad wrote some twenty novels and a long list of stories.  His best known novels include: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissis’, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes.

Joseph Conrad

Coming back to the novel, Today, it is written by a man who clearly admired Conrad and his work.  But Joseph Conrad, as a living character, never appears in Today.  Nonetheless, one feels his remote greatness by the way other characters react to him.  Today is a short, historical novel (160 pages) about the passing of a great author in 1924.  The setting and the culture of the time are accurately reflected.  The writing is fittingly oblique but engaging.  The characters, many of whom were real people – including Conrad’s son’s Borys (a disappointment to his father) and the younger, John; his wife Jessie, an ordinary, working-class, English girl, who was 16 years Conrad’s junior, and who was looked down upon by his friends, but was probably the supportive companion he needed.  And there is the middle-aged Miss Lillian Hallowes, Conrad’s loyal secretary.  At the end, Lillian receives not the typewriter on which she transcribed most of Conrad’s work, but, secretly, from John, the fountain pen by which the original manuscripts were written.  Did it really happen?  We don’t know: this is fiction.

I would certainly recommend Today.  Though it’s subject is death, it is largely about life.

‘Banned’ books

There were two recent articles in The Daily Telegraph regarding the ‘banning’ of books by Holocaust deniers.  The first article, by Olivia Rudgard, reads:

“A Cambridge college has removed a David Irving book from display in its library after a visiting Jewish academic complained.  Churchill College, Cambridge, said the Irving’s biography of its namesake, Winston Churchill , would now be held in a ‘closed access’ area with borrowers only able to read it on request.

“Dr Irene Lancaster, formerly a teaching fellow in Jewish history at Manchester University, encountered the books written by the Holocaust denier on display.  She said: ‘They certainly weren’t hidden away – they were sticking out like reference books.’

“A spokesman for the university said: ‘Holding banned or challenged books in no way endorses the views or scholarship of the authors.  Rather, they are accessible to scholars to allow them the opportunity to challenge and refute their contents’.  The spokesman added that the library was used by college members and visiting academics and not the general public, and therefore the books had not been on ‘public display’.”

Wikipedia says this about Irving: “Sixteen years after an English court discredited his work and the judge called him ‘antisemitic and racist’, the historian David Irving claims he is inspiring a new generation of ‘Holocaust skeptics. On the eve of a major new Bafta-nominated film about the trial, Irving, who has dismissed what happened at Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war as ‘Disneyland’, says that a whole new generation of young people have discovered his work via the internet and social media. . . . Irving v Penguin Books Ltd was one of the most infamous libel trials of the past 20 years. An American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, had accused him in her book, Denying the Holocaust, and Irving, then a somewhat respected if maverick historian, sued her and her publisher.”  (And lost.)

I had a look on Amazon where there are plenty of David Irving’s books.  His book, Churchill’s War, The Struggle for Power, has nine five-star reviews and one three-star review.  The 3-star review complains about non-delivery of half of the e-book.  The five-star reviews focus on the depth of research and the quality of historical writing.  Many of the reviews mention Irving’s reputation, but say that this work is not biased.

The second article, by Robert Mendick:

“Amazon has bowed to public pressure and quietly removed from sale dozens of anti-Semitic books that deny the Holocaust.  An outcry followed news it was profiting from titles such as The Myth of the Extermination of the Jews, by Carlo Mattogno, which was available as a download.  Dr Nicholas Terry at the University of Exeter, said Amazon had last week withdrawn form sale more than 30 books.  The expert on contemporary Holocaust denial added: ‘This is a major blow for Holocaust denying authors.  Amazon has been a major outlet for their sales’.  Despite the decision, Amazon still sells anti-Semitic literature through its website, and it is unclear what rules determine what material is acceptable and what is not.  The company refused to comment.”

I would make three points about all of this:

  1. Non governmental organisations should be free to exclude material which they consider objectionable.  The government should not have any such freedom.
  2. Amazon ought to be transparent about it’s policies, which should err in favour of exclusion of objectionable material.
  3. Any policy should be intelligent and selective, leaving ‘on the shelf’ quality, constructive books by objectionable authors.

Review: Days Without End

This novel, by Sebastian Barry, was the Costa Book of the Year in 2016.

Wikipedia says: “Sebastian Barry (born 5 July 1955) is an Irish playwright, novelist and poet. He is noted for his dense literary writing style and is considered one of Ireland’s finest writers.

Barry’s literary career began in poetry before he began writing plays and novels. While he was once considered a playwright who wrote occasional novels, in recent years his fiction writing has been more successful than his work in the theatre.

He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his novels A long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), the latter of which won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His 2011 novel On Canaan’s Side was longlisted for the Booker. In January 2017, Barry was awarded the Costa Book of the Year prize for Days Without End, hence becoming the first novelist to win the prestigious prize twice.”

Sebastian Barry

Days Without End is a poetical, historical novel, set largely on the American frontier in the mid nineteenth century; its themes are love and survival.  The two principal characters are Thomas McNulty, the narrator, an Irish immigrant, aged about 15, initially, and John Cole, a homeless boy of about the same age, from New England.  Their tale begins as dancing girls – yes, boys dressed as girls – in a mining town saloon where they offered the apparent fantasy of women to rough, woman-less men.  They then join the army, which meant growing up with soldiers in hostile geography made all the more dangerous by the presence of Indians, a largely unwilling enemy. Thomas and John face near-constant hardship of savage fighting, bad weather, poor food and non-existent pay, but they find a mission and true comradeship in the army.  An Indian girl is captured, domesticated by the fort commander’s wife and assigned as servant to Thomas and John, who are then drawn into the Civil War, fighting on the Union side through battles which amounted to human slaughter.  At the end of an army enlistments, Thomas, John and Winona, the Indian girl, who is treated as John’s daughter, settle temporarily in Grand Rapids where they are entertainers, but they are drawn back into the Civil War, leaving Winona in Grand Rapids.  They are taken prisoners by the Southern Army, and live through terrible hardship, but eventually find their way back to Grand Rapids, from which the three of them set out to help a homesteader in Tennessee.  But peace is elusive: Winona is wanted in a hostage exchange for the daughter of the fort commander.  Thomas accompanies her, and, after a bloody fight in which he kills an army officer, he returns her to the Tennessee homestead.  But then, Thomas is arrested for having left the army before his papers were signed.  In custody, it is revealed that he killed the officer, and her faces the death penalty.  I won’t reveal the conclusion.

The characters are well drawn, including minor characters: army officers, soldiers, entertainers, Indians and miscellaneous blacks.  From what I remember of my American history, it paints an accurate picture of America 150 years ago.  I’ve called this ‘a poetic, historical novel’  because the narrator, Thomas, speaks in the most picturesque language, which is un-accustomed but very effective.  It does, however, make the process of reading a little more laborious.  Also, Thomas, occasionally draws on vocabulary which in very doubtful for an uneducated immigrant boy.

Having said that, Days Without End is a unique reading experience, and a good story, well-told.