On Writing ‘A January Tale’

ON WRITING A JANUARY TALE

I have nearly finished the typed draft of a new story, despite having been struck down and delayed with flu. I won’t be able to show it to you for some time as I shall first seek some organ or other in which to publish it. If no one wants it, it will go here.

Outline

It tells the story of two friends who have long been estranged but who are seeking to rebuild their relationship, not really knowing how. The only thing they know is alcohol and the old habits through which they first became close, including a drinking game in which as students they used to compete to show their superior knowledge of literature. The game has many expressions, but in this case it involves naming the most iconic moments in literature. Before long, they begin naming moments that the other friend thinks is a loaded suggestion, and this soon becomes deliberate in a sequence of strike and counter-strike. So they launch their coded broadsides at each other through these proxy references, not knowing if they are killing something long sick, or else purging the body of its poison.

Origins

I have written before about friendship, especially male, and the idea has weighed on my mind since. After receiving recommendations from colleagues, including At Swim, Two Boys and The Body, I went for a long, late evening walk, as is my wont, wracking my mind. Eventually, as I was coming back to my flat, seemingly empty-headed, the idea of two chaps standing outside under the porch together coalesced with all the old stories I had been raking over as well as with the ideas about loneliness and distance that I had thought about for the recent blog post.

Development

The story clearly had legs. Firstly, it seemed to touch upon miscommunication, particularly of the male type, with which I am intimately familiar. There’s that reluctance between men to open up and discuss anything, especially if it needs discussing, without the assistance of alcohol. It also touched upon that root of so much manipulation as well as miscommunication: the ability to pour your own meaning into something wide open to interpretation.  

But it also offered a glimpse into what often brings men together in the first place, that of the shared endeavour or activity. Such a preposterous little game would seem odd to a casual observer, but like any game, it has rivalry, frisson and, above all, something in common. Being particular to a small group, or a pair, would only recommend it to them even more as something unique, their own little world.

It is part of the question of the story: will it be enough? It might have been when they were under-ripe undergraduates, but much has passed since then. It is part of my own experience to find the things that as a student I thought were the most important things in the world don’t really matter any more, and the games we played have been locked away with all our other toys. There’s also a part of me, a very big part (some might suggest the greater part) that is still more boy than man, even if I do have a mortgage now. Reviving an old game like this might be desperate, and it might be too late; it might also work.

This game, and all else that such men might have in common, opens up an opportunity to explore something else I have long been thinking about, which is a kind of negative capability, the author putting things out of view, making something that is visible to the reader or audience still mysterious and private between the characters. (I shall write more extensively on this idea later.) When both characters speak through proxy references, they hint at things which we can, at best, only partially understand, either because we have insight already, or else because we know the content of the literary references. Yet we can’t know, unless I reveal to us, quite what these references mean to each man, or why one would be conciliatory and another be provoking. 

Next steps

The foul hand manuscript all done, the typescripts half done, and the leg-work in finding a place to send it not yet done, and the waiting that follows not nearly begun, it will be a while before anyone sees it. Most organs take three months, sometimes as much as six, to ignore you and not reply, so you have to keep close watch on all your submissions. None has yet accepted one of my submissions so I hold no great hope. But that can always change.

Can Writing Heal the Brexit Wounds?

Channel 4: Uncivil War

I have not seen the recent Channel 4 drama, Uncivil War. I doubt I will. I expect it will be too painful. But I have heard much in its praise, especially from partisan sources on social media which suggest it does not take sides and that it paints no one in a particularly flattering light. One comment I saw – from a leave supporter – suggested that anyone who was able to watch it without reflecting upon their own position was beyond reason. 

This got me thinking about how art might start to respond to events. It has to respond at some point, but because we are still undergoing the process, it is less able to do so, unable as I think we are to take a clear perspective on things. But perhaps the time is arriving, and this drama in particular is the first sign of art trying to help us process the pain?

Healing

Some kind of healing will be necessary. The archbishop of Canterbury has called for some government leadership in order to facilitate this, though I wonder if, rather than imploring the government, it were better the church seize the initiative and do it instead. Either way, he is right that this mood cannot be allowed to fester. He has a model to follow in this in the Church of Scotland, which held a service of unity following the 2014 referendum, though I know of none of its work in this area since that time. 

But what of the rest of us? Just as I argue Welby cannot simply wait for the government to take the lead but should seize the initiative himself, so too I argue the rest of us have a duty to do the same, whatever our place in society. If I am right about Uncivil War, then television and drama might already have made a start here. 

Harming

There is, of course, a danger. Words can heal, and words can harm. A cursory glance over social media should reveal just how ghastly some people are determined to be right now. Even in more formal work, there will be a number of people who relish opening fire at those who vote differently to them, or share a different vision. Such behaviour is the outcome of a petty mind, impossible to reason with; the product of character that desires not to reconcile but only to denounce. Most recently, the BBC version of Poirot at new year falsified history in order to associate the leave vote with fascism, so it has already started. I therefore state, with total confidence, that poisonous, tendentious and polemical work will naturally constitute the weakest work, most worthy to be disposed.

The form it should take

As suggested above, the perspective that time lends to us will enable us better to make sense of what we have been through, and I don’t believe we are securely in that place, even if one good drama has made a start. Sometimes, these events will need to be tackled head on. At other times, it might help to explore these things through allegory.

It is easy to conjecture how. Take some of the factors of these times:

  • long term friends falling out
  • irreconcilable interests between different parties, factions or groups
  • paranoia, denunciation, suspicion
  • political rhetoric and its power for good and ill
  • identity
  • borders

and anything else you care to mention. All of these things can be discussed in drama, literature, art, music, whatever, without having to revive the myriad ghosts that lurk behind the spectre of Brexit, and this might help to reduce the inflammation. 

My own contribution

I have a first draft of a novel which does some of what I argue for, totally by accident. The story requires a hard political border and tension between two states. I invented a parallel world in which one of those states is the former capital city of the other, but which seceded several generations before. I conceived of the idea before the 2015 general election, when Brexit had not come into view, whilst out walking on Southborough common, soaking up the beauty of the place in the sunshine and contemplating the difference between my life in Kent and my old life in London. But if anyone were to read it now, not knowing these things, they would naturally see Brexit in it. I am comfortable with that. My world being a false creation, I can present secession without presenting a view on it, or alienating those who do come to it with their own views. 

Now I just need to redraft and get the blasted thing published.

Conclusion

It helps that I conceived of this story before Brexit, for I might not have been able to handle it so dispassionately in this atmosphere. But that only makes it more urgent that we try: feeding feuds and despising your neighbour, chewing the gristle of old grudge – this is easy, even satisfying; to reconcile requires good will and determination, which is in short supply at present. That is why Welby, and all of us who desire to reconcile, should find ways, including ans especially in writing, to seize the initiative, for otherwise we will be in the power of those who relish discord.

Publishing my writing on this site

I am still going without success in getting my work published in other places. More on that another time. For now, I have decided that some – and only a little some – of what I have done shall go up here. I write so that I may be read, naturally, but it would be a pity if all that I have done should stay in the drawer whilst other of my work wait upon the decisions of unknown gatekeepers.

To begin, I have put up a gothic pastiche called O’Nealius which I wrote in order to entertain, and also instruct, the younger of my pupils when studying the gothic genre. I have also put up something I think I must have written about a decade ago, which I now call The Last Word, and which I can barely remember composing. I found it squirrelled away when I began preparing to move house, amongst other hand-written pieces. It was the only one of several that had aged at all well.

In poetry, under the title Verses from my Youth, I have a number of pieces which I composed mostly when I was a student in thrall to verse. At this distance, I can hardly comprehend the work as my own, but that perhaps is why I feel able to publish it now. I shall be adding to this page as I unearth more of these dusty old lines. The first, Aurora, was my first artistic success, and still holds up well. I faintly remember writing it by candlelight in my flat in Aberdeen, during some bitter winter, whilst listening to Mike Oldfield’s Music of the Spheres.