Just a reminder not to be sidetracked by romanticised notions about writing, by long discourses on process, by all sorts of fascinating, seductive notions about what it is to be a writer.
Writing makes the writer. I do it curled up at one end of a sofa as I am right now, watching the fire that never did take off die in the stove in clumps of soot and ash. Or at my kitchen table as my kids spill juice on the countertops, or at a noisy cafe in some charmless mall. Or in the car if needs must…
In the past twenty five years of publishing, I’ve seen a lot of people drop out even though they are truly talented, capable, even world-class writers. It wasn’t because they didn’t have success (some did, some did not). I don’t think it was even a matter of luck. I think that there are traits one can acquire, or remember, or emphasize that will help keep you in the game, as a working writer. The first three are explained in a previous blog. What follows here are the next few that you might keep in mind:
Get people to help you
You are never going to write a perfect novel on the first draft, but if you are lucky, you’ll have a strong manuscript that will be easy to pass onto a select group of readers. Some of these readers will be friends who love books; others will be writers. The former may give you nothing but compliments on your new novel. Excellent. Take the compliments. Let your nice friends say all the things you long to hear so during those unbearable times when you are considering giving up writing for knitting, you have some reason to resist.
As for other writers who read your work, be very grateful to them. They may not “get” your novel; they may not like your novel, but they took time away from their own work for yours. Reward them by being gracious about their comments – no matter what they say.
Also, remember that you now owe them one. They may come to you with a manuscript in years to come. Read it.
Find the value in every comment, no matter how cryptic
Some writers will give you only impressions of the work, but if you read into what they say, you’ll find value. Stuff like, “I didn’t feel the urgency in the opening few chapters” may not seem useful at first. You might disregard the comment, justifying doing so with reasoning like, Does there have to be “urgency”? Isn’t intrigue enough? I can’t think there was much “urgency” in the classics…
Stop. Find the value. What this reader is telling you is that the story has no reason to ignite just where it does. You’ve opened the novel too soon, or at a boring place. Or maybe you are withholding too much action, saving it for later in the novel when it gets “really good.”
Save nothing. “Really good” has to start from page 1. So, the reader has given you a very worthwhile impression.
A of these vague comments will be complimentary. “It’s all so fresh…” is another amorphous comment with enormous importance, for example. Being “fresh” is about as a difficult a task as you can have in storytelling and makes up for all the “I didn’t understand…” comments that may come after it. You can fix understanding; anyone can tell you can be more clear. But how to be “fresh”? Not easy. For some, not possible.
So be patient with comments. Think about each one.
Find the value in every comment, no matter how bitchy
“I feel like I’ve met these characters before” is the sort of bitchy comment that makes you understand why so few critics of writing are people one can ever regard as true friends. However, you better check to see if such a remark is correct in its assessment of your characters. Either the remark is result of the reader not taking time to really read the book — and yet wanting to appear as though he has – or your characters are stale.
Some readers (who are also writers) will give you specific craft advise. Still others, will insist you completely rewrite the novel in some other construction that is closer to their own style than to yours. Take it all, thank them for their hard work, and give some consideration to their ideas. You need these people more than you realize, especially if you are successful. Successful writers are seldom schooled by others – who would dare – and yet all of us need it.
I wake up, remembering my father-in law turning my first novel over in his hands and saying, “This is pornography” while I sat on the hideous blue sofa wondering how a man can judge me so wrongly, my work and everything about me.
His own daughter would arrive an hour later. He would put his arm around her shoulders as she sat primly in her Laura Ashley summer dress, replete with flowers and ankle-covering length, as though she embodied everything holy in a woman. What he didn’t know was that his daughter’s husband was a drug addict and a bully. What he didn’t know what that her marriage was dissolving. What he didn’t know was that his daughter was miserable. What he didn’t know was everything.
Until she arrived, however, it was only me in the room and the novel he so hated and which he held tightly as evidence against me. Where was my husband at the time, that young man I loved so much? Distracted, in another room, helping with the tea tray, reaching a top shelf for his mother. Doing someone a kindness, anyway.
I wanted him to return and save me from his father, who stared at me through his reading glasses and spoke as though in curses, “I found myself aroused reading it because of its pornographic content.”
Because I am a writer, and because it is time for my regularly scheduled depression, I am remembering, too, a boyfriend who yelled at me (not in public but later, privately). He was cross that I’d confessed a shameful fact about myself to a friend of his whose fiancée shared the same secret. My crime was over-sharing. Even worse, I wouldn’t apologise or give any space to the shame he endured on my behalf. No, I wouldn’t.
Another image. My husband no longer the sweet young man I looked for to save me from his father’s unkind judgments and humiliations, but a presence that disrupts my creativity. In his greatcoat and tie, holding his gloves, pointing a finger, he is looming above me. Why did you have to write that? he insists upon knowing. He is referring to something he didn’t like, or thought improper, or that broke the security system he held in place with the muscle of his disapproval.
Because…I don’t know… why does it matter? I say, and I cannot explain. He’s rattled me. I cannot think. I ought to have said, Because I am a writer. This is what we do. If I were a photographer, I’d set up my lenses. If I were a painter, I’d paint. If I were a marksman, I’d shoot a paper full of holes.
And later, in his fifties, with all the gravitas his age grants him, another awful moment that plays in my mind today, along with all the others (because it is time for my regularly scheduled depression). We are in the living room, in front of the wood burning stove that in previous days he’d swept clean and filled with wood he’d freshly chopped. We are surrounded by canvases our daughter has painted, sitting next to a coffee table on which every game, from My Little Pony to Texas Hold ‘Em, has been played.
He’s yelling, Why HIM anyway?
This moment is shorthand to every ironic wrongness suffered by me in my marriage. The man he is talking about came months after my husband had moved out due to his own infidelity, not mine. I hadn’t done anything wrong, unless you take the line that once-married-always-married. In what is the safest of locations, my home with all its memories and messiness and marks upon its walls, he misshaped and transformed me. Here is what he saw: his sexed-up ex-wife who’d had a man in her life rather than live as a nun for a year.
And what provoked all that yelling? Nothing I was doing at the time. I’d dispatched the man elsewhere.; we’d repaired the marriage. He was angry about something he’d read a blog on my site, a blog about hammams. That had driven him into the tantrum. I didn’t hear the words so much as the disgust. I didn’t want him to even look at me, not because I’d done anything wrong, but because it felt like he wanted me dead. Isn’t that the great history of women in Britain? To die because some man thinks you’re a whore or a witch?
Maybe I am a little nuts. In a 1996 piece in the New York Times called, How Crazy Was Zelda?, Peter Kramer asks, “What is normal excitation and what is mania? What is individual and what is familial? When does literary aspiration become ’a complex about writing’’? This puzzlement is still with us — about an ailment that can appear all but indistinguishable from self.”
I’ve not been hospitalized, nor ever felt myself in the least bit mentally ill, but when I read (as I have done in the Kramer piece and elsewhere) about the relationship between a sparkling, provocative personality and psychosis, it does make me wonder. And reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to the doctors looking after Zelda in hospital, this line brought me to attention: Against her writing, there is the nervous strain of the work itself, the nervous strain of recapitulating old agonies best forgotten…
Do any writers manage to avoid those old agonies? It seems to me that I’ve virtually made a living off old agonies. I think there is a certain genius in taking the lemons that life throws at you, then squeezing. And F. Scott’s letters, themselves, make for hearty reading, managing at once to convey a wish to help his wife and to enquire as to what would be the best treatment, while also clearly allowing him his own literary and intellectual indulgences in expressing these concerns.
How do I recognize these two traits (authentic caring mixed with a little showing off) rolled into a single missive? Because I do it all the time.
Maybe it is a faulty precuneous— the precuneous being a part of the brain that lights up seldomly in normal people but is apparently over-active in “creatives”. There is an article called Creativity and Schizotypy from The Neuroscience Perspective by Dr. Andreas Fink et al. which concludes “that originality and schizotypy show similar functional brain activity patterns during creative ideation (i.e., reduced deactivation of the right precuneus) strongly supports the contention that similar mental processes may be implicated in creativity and in psychosis proneness.”
In the article, The Distressing Downside of Creative Genius, Cody Delistrasy explains that “Fink’s hypothesis is that the most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories. They cannot focus on one thing quite like the average person. Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off — and, as a result, creative people show schizophrenic, borderline manic-depressive tendencies.”
Shall I conclude, therefore, that I am insane (or borderline so)? Is that even useful? I am not so far gone that I will fail to interrupt my own work right now in order to both shop for groceries and then collect my son from school. I think such self-control in tandem with practical concerns puts me firmly into the sane category for the moment.
However, there is something odd about the way I think that I cannot deny. I am already wondering if my husband (with whom I reconciled, with whom I live quite peaceably at present), will decide this blog requires yet another display of his disapproval. I can almost imagine him shaking his head at his misfortune to be married to such a woman who, when she types at a keyboard, produces words that are not part of dinner recipes.
I can hear him already, (not actually hear him, you understand, I do not hear voices), even as I type out this draft: why did you write it in your blog, Marti? What did you want out of that? (Are you truly asking? I will tell you then. Listen.) I wrote it because writing is an antidote. Writing is a cure and corrective. I wrote it because I need my fingers to move over letters in order to think straight after yesterday’s argument about money. I wrote it because I have a head full of poisonous thoughts that unstick themselves from my mind as they take form on the page.
But did I need to write it publicly? Yes and no. I wrote it publicly because the cyber world contains within it both the privacy of my own thoughts and the public arena I need in order to share those thoughts and break their power. Also, I’m trying to save my friends some agony. To lean so heavily on a few, strong friends may over-burden them. By writing publicly, I avoid doing so. And if I don’t write, I might truly get depressed, not in this vague and transitory manner that only serves to concentrate my thoughts, but in a dangerous and more permanent one.
Maybe the cure for the overactive precuneous, is to allow it freedom to light up the brain. Maybe the best way to consider old agonies is to rob their of their power by embedding them in alternative narratives, ones that enhance a writer’s life rather than destroy it.
Virginia Woolf wrote that the perfect wife was “…intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it … Above all, she was pure.” (Woolf, 1966: 2, 285).
Woolf is of course speaking of Patmore’s The Angel In The House. I am no angel in my house. I stand up for myself. I fight. I write. I love who I wish and I am honest, too, even as it costs me. But sometimes I can understand how previous incarnations of women like me might have filled their pockets with rocks. Zelda, in your sanctuary, how I would have liked to visit you.
The marble table is heated and wet so when you lie on it there is almost no friction. To move a limb, you slip right, left, up, down as though you are skating on hot ice. The young Spaniard with a heavy beard and a red tank top loose across his shoulders tells me to lie on my back, then gently rolls me, his hand on my hip, until I am in the right position for him to work on.
This is a traditional Moroccan massage, done with special soap and exfoliating gloves and so much water you might be in a warm sea. He pours the water from copper bowls above me, bowl after bowl, onto my chest, my belly, my thighs, my calves. The feeling of the swell of water and the warm marble and the Arabic music is more pleasure than I have had in years.
The man is a magician. He swings a wet cloth into a pot of bubbles and then over my belly so that it feels like a hot cloud has settled upon me, the surface of warm bubbles shivering against my skin in a sensation I have never felt, nor even imagined. To think that there was such a pleasure of which I knew nothing. I have been reckless in the pursuit of love, never afraid to ask or describe to a man how I want to be touched, but I have never been touched like this, would not have known to ask. In the glowing light from candles set against the terracotta walls, a man whose name I don’t know, shows me what I ought to have been looking for all along.
He wears blousy red pantaloons rolled to the knee. He casts the thin hot towel replete with bubbles after waving it through the air to make the bubbles swell and multiply. Once I am thoroughly soaped he uses an exfoliating glove to scrub my skin – back, shoulders, thighs, feet – with enough pressure that every nerve is animated. I can feel the edges of my body, the membrane between myself and the pleasant air. It is painless, invigorating. He shakes the cloth over my calves. He blows against my skin as though putting out a match. Now begin again the bowls of warm water. I welcome each one.
Minutes pass. I am in a dream. The masseur is the intoxicator and the comforter one . “Are you all right?” he whispers. At first, I am not sure he is even speaking to me. I’m in a place so far away it seems impossible that I can be reached. He asks again, this time putting his hand on my shoulder.
“Yes,” I manage. “Tan bueno.”
Above me, the ceiling has been carved so that windows of stars and diamonds cast beams of light onto the glassy water. Below me, the tiled floor is warm against my feet. My skin tingles. My head is gauzy. The masseur (is his name Henrico?) helps me to a new table, this one covered in a towel, and I lie on my belly while he sprinkles warm oil on my back and begins something new.
Now, the messaje relajante, the relaxing massage. He rolls his thumbs down my back, kneads the muscles on either side of my spine. He stands in front of me, pushes against the hollows of my shoulders, working his fingers into my neck before at last letting his arms go, pressing lightly as they glide down my slick arms until his palms rest in my open hands and we stay like that for a moment, palm in palm, amid the red tiles and gauzy curtains, under the spell of the hammam. Then, just as suddenly, his hands glide back, reeled in as though on a fishing line, and he begins the process again.
If I lived in Granada, I would come to the hammam weekly, my skin growing rosy in the heat of a Spanish summer. Under the amber glow of candlelight against adobe, I might look for Henrico, or perhaps I would purposely not look for him or anyone, the anonymity being part of the experience.
His touch cost me nothing – only money. All my life I’ve been touched by men who have cost me so much more. A professional with a skill that seems too personal to be a profession, the hammam masseur is doing a job all the same. I didn’t even have to talk. Is it too dreadful a confession to say I have never before been in such circumstances with a man, where it was all so easy?
It occurs to me that I have spent my life entertaining men. Listening, nodding, telling them stories, making them laugh. Sex has been a balancing act, sometimes awful, sometimes okay, occasionally brilliant. But sex is so demanding these days, the bar so high. Sometimes, I wonder if sex education for girls should include a course on how to please a man without being injured.
What did it feel like to receive everything that day in Granada and to give nothing? To be entirely absorbed by my own body and by the sounds and shadows and water and oil? It engaged a part of me that was about not about sex, nor appetite, but a place that has yet to be named, cannot be imagined, must be experienced. It was an education in my own body, long overdue.
I had a massage twenty-five years ago at an aromatherapy centre in London. I went because some girlfriends wanted to go and because aromatherapy was relatively new then and I was curious.
I hated it. Inside the freshly painted walls of a Kensington clinic, a girl with a white smock and dainty hands rubbed ylang ylang oil over me as I counted backwards from a thousand, wishing at the outset that this forty minutes of pampering would end.
Given my early experience with massage, I was wary of getting one at the hammam in the beautiful city of Granada, where my son was taking a week of language classes during spring break. It was a weird time in my life. I was getting over a love affair that had taken place during the 15-month separation from my husband, and frankly I wasn’t over that either.
A hammam in Spain is not quite the experience one might have in Morocco, where they use black soap and exfoliating gloves and give no thought to anything so prudish as a bathing suit. But for someone as squeamish as I am at being seen in a bikini, and who had been almost incapable of lying on a table years ago in that white room in London, letting a stranger touch my back, it was a daring move.
I am used to English changing rooms where you constantly feel a draft through your towel, where one freezes in cold showers amid the cries of half-dressed children, and where the only steam comes from your own body in the chilly space beneath tubes of cold light.
But the changing room at the hammam—good god, I could almost have stayed there for the duration of our visit—there is no texture or temperature or sound that does not give pleasure. One enters through gauzy curtains, eyes adjusting to candlelight in the gracious, tiled room filled with lanterns and burning scented oils. Everything is lush: the smell of sandlewood and cinnamon, of burning wax from candles set in recessed ledges along the walls, the stone shower cubicles with shower heads wide as dinner plates, the mirrors that glow in lamplight and reflect only vaguely your dewy skin. The room is so beautiful, you wonder how it can house toilets, but there they are behind dark, carved wooden doors. The lockers are the same smoke-coloured wood, the floor warm beneath your feet, is marble. Nowhere could you could be cold or uncomfortable — steam and candlelight and Arabic music waft through the air and you float on a cloud of pleasure all the way to the vaulted rooms that house the bath waters.
And now, you are in bigger rooms, a warm mist softening every angle, green sugared tea on silver platters waiting for you in each of the rooms: the one with a cold rectangular pool beneath a rough plastered ceiling, the one with the marble columns that divide the warm pool, a rectangle almost large enough to swim in, and the hot pool – hotter than a bath and far nicer – in which you can lean into the tiled edges and look up to the stars carved into the ceiling above you, or admire the latticework through the glow of lanterns.
At some point a woman in a blousy red suit that flowed to her knees tapped me on the shoulder. It was time for my massage. I walked down a short flight of marble steps lit up by floor lanterns to greet a man so beautiful he might have been sculpted. He held a towel up like a flag, a shield for me to undress by. “Your bikini top,” he said in a heavy accent, and I pulled it quickly over my head rather than fuss with the laces.
Few things are better than food, but his hands were richer and more filling. I did not want him to stop touching me, nor the seconds to pass by as he did so. I concentrated hard on staying in the moment, not allowing myself to think about how my boyfriend used to knead my shoulders or how my husband, before him, knew the place in the very middle of my back that always wanted scratching.
I felt the pads of the masseur’s fingers against the muscles of my back, his knuckles on the recesses above my shoulder blades, his palms against the base of my spine. He rolled his hands against my flesh. He stood with his belly near my head and pushed against the tops of my arms. When finally he was finished, he lay the towel gently over me and I was drunk with pleasure. It took all I had just to sit up.
To imagine this had been taking place for decades without me. That these rooms had filled and emptied, that the ceilings carved in their sacred geometry had shown stars and sun without me. I could go every day and not make up for all the years the candles burned until they were level with the floor their wicks scorched, their bases sooty with ash.
I bathed for an hour, my thoughts in slow waves. Amid the quiet stones, the glowing waters, the steamy changing rooms, I thought how you can feed your body, care for your body, ask less of it for a few hours, ask less of yourself.