The Urge to Write

My wife called my attention to Elena Ferrante’s weekly column in The Guardian.  (That tells you something about our respective political leanings: she, being more liberal, is a frequent visitor to The Guardian, while I read The Telegraph.)

Elena Ferrante is one of my wife’s favourite writers; she, too, is Italian and has written the Neapolitan Novels, a four-volume work about two perceptive and intelligent girls from Naples.  The real identity of Elena Ferrante – a pseudonym – has been the subject of intense debate and speculation.

In her column on May 12, Ms Ferrante wrote: “If you feel the need to write, you absolutely should write. Don’t trust those who say: I’m telling you for your own good, don’t waste time on that. The art of discouraging with kind words is among the most widely practised. Nor should you believe those who say: you’re young, you lack experience, wait. We shouldn’t put off writing until we’ve lived enough, read sufficiently, have a desk of our own in a room of our own with a garden overlooking the sea, have been through intense experiences, live in a stimulating city, retreat to a mountain hut, have had children, have traveled extensively.

“Publishing, yes: that can certainly be put off; in fact, one can decide not to publish at all. But writing should in no case be postponed to an “after”. When writing is our way of being in the world, it continuously asserts itself over the countless other aspects of life: love, study, a job. It insists even when there’s no paper and pen or anything, because we’re worshipers of the written word and our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down. Writing, in short, is always there, urgent, and distances even the people we love, even our children who ask us to play.

“The sense of guilt arrives afterwards, when we’re done. If it arises before that, if we can’t repress it – if, in other words, the responsibilities of affection prevail – well, maybe that’s a sign that writing doesn’t have sufficient power, that our vocation is fragile and that, fortunately (yes, fortunately), on the human plane we are better than artists, most of whom are so full of themselves, so egocentric.

“But be careful: we have to refrain from taking our barren, proud, cruel creative deliriums for a mark of quality. The yearning to give written form to the world isn’t a guarantee of good literature. Writing, even when we have a strong vocation, doesn’t necessarily produce memorable work.

“Oh, one can be successful, of course, transforming the fury of writing into a lucrative job. But one can never contain writing within a professional framework, complete with résumé, salary, bonuses. Success and the bit of prestige that comes with it prove nothing, especially if one’s literary ambitions are high. We remain dissatisfied and, successful or not, the writing will continue to remind us that it’s a tool with which one can extract much more than we have been able to. The exercise lasts obsessively, desperately, all our lives. And if others say to us, it’s enough now, you’ve given all you could give, we don’t trust that, we shouldn’t trust it. Until our last breath, we’ll torment ourselves with the suspicion that, just at the moment when we seem to have won, we have lost.”

Many of Ms Ferrante’s comments resonate with me.  When I started writing my first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas, I wasn’t planning to write a novel.  I thought it would be interesting to write down a Sicilian romance, bits of which I dreamt.  But, I couldn’t stop.  It became a whole story that was crying to be told.  Since then, I have learned a great deal about the craft of writing, which is much more that having a lovely story and good English language skills.  (I’ve mentioned these skills in earlier posts.)  Suffice it to say that gaining skills does nothing to extinguish the longing to write – if anything, the longing becomes a craving,

Ms Ferrante says, “Our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down.”  How true!  I find myself lying in bed thinking about how to resolve a character’s particular dilemma, when, suddenly, a near perfect piece of language will come to mind, and my task, hours later, becomes the recreation of that piece.

Poet Laureate

When I think of a poet laureate, the image of an ancient bearded Greek with a wreath of laurel on his head comes to mind.  The tradition was revived in Italy in the 14th century.  Nowadays, some twenty countries and eighteen US states have poet laureates.  Wikipedia says that the laureate “is a poet officially appointed by a government or conferring institution, typically expected to compose poems for special events and occasions”.

In the UK the appointment is made is made by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister.   The role does not entail any specific duties, but there is an expectation that the holder will write verse for significant national occasions.  The position dates from 1668 when John Dryden was appointed by Charles II.  Traditionally, in addition to a financial stipend the appointee received a quantity of good wine.  The current UK poet laureate is Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed in 2009 for a fixed ten year term.  Her compensation is £5,750 and a barrel of sherry.

In the United States, the Library of Congress appoints a ‘Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress’ annually.  The laureate receives a stipend of $35,000 per year, serves from October to May, and is given the responsibility of overseeing an ongoing series of poetry readings and lectures at the library, and a charge to promote poetry.  No other duties are specified.  The current laureate is Tracy K Smith, who in April, 2018 was nominated for a second term by the librarian.  Ms Smith, born in 1972, is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Universities, has published three collections of poetry, and is currently professor of creative writing at Princeton.  Her poetry collection Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011.

Tracy K Smith

Ms Smith was interviewed in the April 9 issue of Time Magazine.  She was asked why poetry matters today.  Se said, “Poetry requires us to be humble and beholden to something other than our own opinion.  That’s important.  There’s too much in our 21st century lives that is telling us we’re the most important thing, that our initial gut reaction is incredibly valuable and not vulnerable, and that our opinions as consumers are more important than anything else about us.  A poem says, ‘No, no.  You have feelings  You have fears.  You have questions.  Let’s get back to the voice and the vocabulary of being human.”

“What do you feel is your duty as poet laureate?”

“I think it is my duty to say, ‘This is something everyone has permission to do.  A poem is not something you need an advanced degree to comprehend.'”

“What’s next for you?”

“I’m co-translating a contemporary Chinese poet called Yi Lei.  And I’m working on a libretto for an opera with Greg Spears, about land held by descendants of people who were enslaved on that land, and what happens when that land becomes extremely valuable.”

Ms Smith strikes me as a person I would like to sit and talk with about the creative process and how she teaches it.  She is clearly quite an accomplished artist at a relatively young age, and I particularly like her answer to why poetry matters today, because, I think the same answer applies to literature, generally.

Chick Lit Book Covers

Last week there was an article in The Daily Telegraph with the title ‘Chick lit book covers are putting men off, says author’. The article was written by Hannah Furness, Arts Correspondent for the Telegraph, though her Telegraph web page suggests she is more Royal Correspondent.   In any case, I agree with her article:

“Pink, glittery book covers are putting readers off works by female authors and should be made more gender-neutral, a best-selling novelist has said.  Jojo Moyes, who wrote Me Before You and its sequels, said the public did not want to read novels that were marketed to women with cliched cover designs.

Chick Lit

“Ms Moyes said she had been ‘lucky to get a wider audience’, thanks to covers that appealed to male as well as female readers.  ‘So many women who write about difficult issues are lumped under the chick lit umbrella’ she told the BBC.  ‘It’s so reductive and disappointing – it puts off readers who might otherwise enjoy them.  If it was up to me, we would all discover things in a huge massive jumble  The boundaries are being blurred, with women writing domestic noir and thrillers.  Supermarkets want things that are easily categorised, but people don’t want to read something pink and glittery.’

“Several female authors have insisted their books are marketed differently. In 2014, Jodi Picoult argued that many books considered great works of art by men would be put within ‘pink fluffy’ covers if they had been written by a woman.  In 2015, Joanne Harris highlighted a ‘growing gender division’ in fiction, which saw a ‘sea of pastel pink in the romance section (as if men were neither interested in romance, nor expected to participate in romantic relationships)'”

When I’m in Waitrose, I frequently glance at the books for sale, and I find they usually fit into one of two categories: last years best-sellers by well know authors or recognisably pink and fluffy chick lit.  So, I agree that supermarkets want their products to be easily recognised.   And, I suppose that if I were a slightly bored female shopper, what might appeal to me would probably be a juicy romance or last year’s novel by Dan Brown.  It would have to be an impulse decision; after all, there is a well-stocked Waterstones on the floor above.

I have discovered that there are literary agents who specialise in chick lit  I was looking on the internet for literary agents who might represent me and my latest novel, which I consider literary in the sub genre of inspirational.  So, I tended to exclude any agents who specialise in ‘commercial fiction’, non-fiction, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers and childrens’ books.  Lots of agents show the covers of their clients’ books on their websites.  And another turn-off for me was the predominance of pink and fluffy covers.  Maybe these agents and their clients are brilliant and maybe they could find me a great publisher, but I felt I would be less likely to be wasting my time by focusing on the agents who want to look at inspirational, literary fiction.