Monday, 31 March 2008


I haven't posted a blog for a few days because I'm not sure that blogging is for me.
Blogs seem to be an uncomfortable confusion (or combination, if you prefer) of writing for the general public and writing to a private person.
Most of the blogs I've looked at seem to be by people who are loquacious and enjoy making public day by day the minutest details of their private lives, written with the unchecked flow of coffee-time conversation with a friend.
That's not me!
Nor do I have anything so significant to say every day, or even frequently, to make my blog worth visiting often in expectation of finding something new.
So I'm reconsidering...

Monday, 17 March 2008

Hand, eyes - and mouths

Mark's comment about my last blog and my father makes me think some more on this topic of craft skill.
For me, the most beautiful features of the human body are the hands, the eyes - and the mouth (though I suppose I mean the lips).
Mark is right. My father 'thought with his hands'. With his eyes (and after years of experience) he could look at a wall, for example, and tell you it was an eighth of a inch - a couple of millimetres - out of vertical. With his eye and his hands, he could cut a piece of wood (when making a mortise and tenon joint, for instance) to a millimeter of accuracy without measuring it.
But what he was not, with me anyway, was physically affectionate. The men around me in my childhood (the 1930s and 40s) were like that. There was a cultural taboo on tenderness. I don't remember ever being hugged by my father, grandfathers, uncles, or any man. For tender physical affection you went to women. You went to men for vigorous action. One form of my father's physical affection was fights with rolled up newspapers. The game was to hit each other with the rolled up newspaper to see who could land the most blows. It ended sometimes with both of us in uncontrollable laughter (good) and sometimes with me in floods of tears (bad).
Two mistakes.
One: It's a mistake to suppose that men who 'think with their hands' do not think with their brains. My father never did more than draw a plan for something he was making, whether in wood or in his garden, than sketch it out roughly on a piece of paper. This was nothing more than an aide memoire for what he imagined in his head. The rest was down to the skill of hand and eye - and what he'd learned from experience. His garden was a masterpiece of design, colour, and understanding of how it would look in each season. Yet he always said he hated 'head work'. Who had taught him that craft skill wasn't head work as well as hand work? What he was not good at was talking about what he imagined. His mouth was used for eating and drinking and telling funny stories. That's why he liked pubs.
The second mistake is to think that what my father called 'head work' - writing a novel - has nothing to do with the hands or the mouth. I think with my hands as much as my father did. (What's the strongest of your five senses? Mine is my sense of touch and then my sight.) I think best - imagine best - when writing words with my hand. Just as my father was making things by cutting, planing, and joining wood, I am making novels by 'cutting' words (out of the lexicon in my mind), joining them together and refining them by their association with other words.
But I only know they are 'right' (what I imagined) by speaking them with my mouth.
The great Gertrude Stein, the first writer to compose modernist prose in the twentieth century, said that she felt words with her eyes. I know what she means. To me, words are tactile objects. I feel them with my eyes. Words in my mouth are like pebbles, shards of glass, leaves of trees, flowers, etc., and often feel 'of the air, airy'.
Nothing is real until it is imagined. Nothing imagined is real until it is made as a visual, tactile object. The visceral quality of music. The sensational quality of paint. The erotic potency of an actor speaking brilliantly orchestrated words on the physically sacred temenos of a stage.
'We are such stuff as dreams are made on,' says the great Master. But when that line is quoted, how many of us think of that word 'stuff' rather than the emphatic word in the line: 'dreams'. How many of us dwell after hearing 'dreams' on the word 'made'. (And this 'stuff' is 'made on', not 'made of' - a frequent misquotation.)
For me, all true art involves the maker's hands, eyes, and mouth in the employment of the imagination.
Selah to that sermon for today!

Saturday, 15 March 2008


One thing I don't like about this blog of mine is that I can't reply to comments by writing under the comment. Suggestions welcome for a site that is clear and simple but allows replies after comments.

So today some housekeeping. First, thanks to everyone who commented. For me, this is the pleasure of the blog. I'd like to reply to some of you.

Ted: The pencils I used to use were Berol Turquoise 2B. I liked the colour and the softness of the lead. But I think they've stopped making them and am now using an equally nice Stabilo Swano HB=2.5, maroon with a red eraser on the end. I agree that 8 pencils for writing Postcards sounds very few, but I do use them till there isn't enough left to hold them. And maybe I forgot to mention in my notes now and then when I started another.

Linda Newbery: I agree with Philip Pullman about things being discovered in the process of writing. But for me, unless I do a lot of background work nothing much is discovered while I'm writing. I need huge amounts of 'raw material'.

Anne: What I gained from watching my father working was a profound respect and admiration for skilled craft. It seems to me the world - the human world - depends entirely on skilled craft. Everything we use, down to the smallest, insignificant object, has to be invented, designed and made. That was one of my unstated points about the pencil as an example. It was also from watching my father at work that I first realised something else. Everyone is redeemed by their work. My father was at his best, as a person, when he was absorbed in his work. He was at his worst when he had 'nothing to do'. When he retired, he kept an amazing garden. He was one of those people with green fingers. That stopped when he couldn't garden because of his arthritis and failing strength. His mind was alert enough. But because he had no intellectual interests - reading for its own sake, music, art, history, etc - his last years were spent 'doing nothing' but watching TV and complaining about it.

Tracy: Commonplace books. An old name for notebooks that I like very much. The best commonplace book I know of is W.H. Auden's A Certain World, first published by Faber in 1971. It is chock-a-block full of poems, passages from books, pithy sayings, jokes, Auden's reflections and comments. It's arranged alphabetically according to the topic of the entry or some other title. In his Foreword Auden says 'Here, then, is a map of my planet...The bulk of this book will make pleasant reading, but there are some entries which will, I hope, disturb a reader as much as they disturb me.'

Lucy: You mention liking writers who make the mundane and everyday interesting. For me this is the feature I like most in novels, poems and plays. Showing how the ordinary is extraordinary is the quality I'd most like to achieve.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Tools of the Trade

What is your favourite tool for your work?
I have two. One of them is paper. The other?
When Henry David Thoreau gathered together the things he needed to take with him into the woods, an expedition after which he wrote his masterpiece, Walden (1854), one of the great books of American literature, he made a list of every item. Walden describes what 'a necessary life' and a basic economy of work and leisure might be for 'freedom and a prospect of success'.
Thoreau was an inveterate maker of lists and notes. His Walden list included pins, needles, the dimensions of his tent, 'matches (some also in a small vial in the waist-coat pocket), soap, two pieces.' He even noted old newspapers (used for cleaning?), the size of his blanket, the quantity of 'soft hardbread', and the paper he would write on. Every smallest item was included. Now, there is an exhibition of those items in the Thoreau museum. But one item he took with him is missing from the list and from the exhbition. The tool he used to write with.
His notes, his measurements, the labels on his specimens, his letters home, his journal: he wrote them all with a pencil. But he didn't list it in the items he took with him, nor as something essential to the 'necessary life'. But we would not have known what he did and thought without that simple tool of his trade.
The irony is that he could only spend his time indulging in his experiment in the woods because his family had made the money he needed to live on and buy the things he needed from manufacturing the best pencils produced in the USA in the 1840s.
How could he miss his pencil from his list of necessaries? Perhaps because it had become so much part of what he was, so much a part of himself, that he didn't 'see' it as an object outside himself.
My father was a skilled woodworker. His workshop was full of the tools of his trade. Many of them he had made himself. When I was a boy I used to watch him at work for hours and marvel at how he managed his tools. They seemed to be part of his body. And he was as fiercely possessive of them as of himself. You were in bad trouble if you even touched them without permission. I cannot think of him without a tool in his hands.
For me a pencil is like that. I love the look and feel of it - though it must be the right kind. I love the smell of the wood when I sharpen it. I love the act of sharpening it with a little chromium-plated penknife bequeathed to me when an old writer-friend died. I love the feel of the pencil sliding over the paper.
For me, the problem of writing is to get the words heard in my head down through my arm and out of my fingers onto the paper. Quite often - usually - something happens on that journey down my nerves and muscles that diminishes what comes out of my fingers, as if the words lose some of their energy and their arrangement and even their sense - their fuel - on the way.
So I want the words to be written as close to my finger ends as possible so that nothing more is lost between my fingers and the page. (Quite a lot is lost, or rather another change in the words takes place, if I type rather than handwrite.) A pencil - even more than a pen - is the closest I can get to my fingertips, to my hands, and the lines of connection to my brain.
A pencil is the most visceral - of the body, of the flesh, of one's own being - of any writing implement. It is made of 'renewable' organic materials: wood and graphite. It has been refined in design over hundreds of years. How does the 'lead' get into the pencil? Why are some round, some oval, some six-sided? How and why are some made 'harder' than others? Which woods are they made of? Where are they made and why in those places? They look such a simple object, and compared with most of the things we use they are. I believe it's true to say that there are only sixteen processes in their manufacture.
If you'd like to know just about all there is to know about the pencil, its history, design and making, try to get hold of a copy of The Pencil, A History, by Henry Petroski (Knopf, USA, Faber, UK, 1989). Fascinating.
I was talking to a class of 16 year olds many years ago and telling them how I use a pencil to write the first drafts of my novels. A boy asked me how many pencils it took to write a book. I had never kept count. But I did next time, which happened to be Postcards from No man's Land. It's an eight pencil book.

Sunday, 9 March 2008


Do you keep a notebook? I mean, for stray thoughts, ideas, quotes from books and what other people say, etc? A collection of jigsaw pieces for thought. I use those lovely little Moleskine pocket notebooks, 14 x 9 cms, bound in black, with lined pages.

I was looking through my current one today for a quote I couldn't remember, and thought you'd like a sample of a few entries, some my own, some other people's. Four of my own first:

The journey to complete self-consciousness is the main job of human beings.

The great writers are good at the summarizing significance. They pin-point the universal in the particular.

What people call 'stress' is simply not having time for - or not giving time to - encounters with themselves.

Happiness is the state of feeling that your life is as it should be. Unhappiness is the state of feeling that your life is not as it should be.

I'm not sure if the next one is mine or someone else's. I don't mention a source. But I'm lazy like that sometimes. In any case, if it isn't mine I wish it was, because it's a nice [i.e. precise] truth.

Sport is a form of idleness, for the spectator as well as the player.

Some by others:

'The novel is a meditation on existence seen through imaginary characters.' Milan Kundera.

'Nothing is more important for teaching us to understand the concepts we have than constructing fictitious ones.' Ludwig Wittgenstein.

'Sometimes an expression has to be withdrawn from language and sent for cleaning - then it can be put back into circulation.' Ludwig Wittgenstein.

'I've nothing in my head but false teeth.' Samuel Beckett in old age when out of ideas.
'I'm up to the cataracts in work.' Samuel Beckett in old age when full of ideas.

'Nothing destroys love so quickly as embarrassment.' John Fowles.
'The essential rule of a good travel book: it must be about the traveller, not the travels. But it is not all about the traveller, nothing about the travels; but simply, that as the traveller travels, we progressively travel into the traveller.' John Fowles.

More another time, if you like.

Friday, 7 March 2008

How Fiction Works

When I visit schools and colleges, I often hear from both teachers and students how difficult they find it to study the novel. How do you tackle it? What do you concentrate on? What do you need to know about the novel as a form? Help is at hand!
How Fiction Works is by James Wood, one of the best reviewers and critics around these days. He teaches at Harvard, where he is Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism. He knows what he's talking about. His book is written for what we used to call 'the intelligent reader'. That is, not only academics with special interests, but anyone with enough personal interest in a topic to want to know more about it.
How Fiction Works is in fairly brief chapters dealing with key topics such as character, language, dialogue, and the nature of 'realism'. And each chapter is in numbered paragraphs or sections, each dealing with one point. You can read a passage, lay the book aside while you think it over, and then go on. As criticism, it is like a story told in episodes. There is a historical perspective, an understanding of modern literary theory, and a choice of texts as examples, all of which are worth reading for themselves.
If this makes the book sound dry, be reassured. It isn't. Wood is witty, writes without resort to obfuscating jargon, and, as all the best critics, is astute in his selection of quotations. What you're getting, as well as a study of how fiction works, is Wood's reading of various kinds of fiction. And that's what I enjoy most in criticism and which marks out the best of it for me: the pleasure of keeping company with someone whose reading helps me to read with more insight and with more understanding than I can achieve on my own.
If you're studying or teaching fiction and the novel in particular, I can't recommend the book highly enough. If you simply love fiction and want to think about 'how it works', this is the book for you too.
Replies to comments.
Inge of the jam. It was delicious. Thanks.
Inge of the typewriter. Have you kept up with your new 'walk to work'?
Thanks to everyone who encouraged me in this bloggy enterprise.
Please let me know what kinds of things you'd like me to write about.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Walk to Work

Thanks, Anne, Alex, Chris and Nicholas, for your welcome. I hope the people who read this blog will include as you do, people of all ages and genders. Just as my novels are adult novels for young people and young people's novel for adults.
Thanks, Nicholas, for hoping for a new book from me soon. I'm afraid you might have to wait a while. I'm busy writing a book of short stories of different kinds 'about' young people (six so far, I want about 12 or 15), and working on an 'adult' novel, which is being stubborn and won't 'go'. (But then, what's new about that!)
I have no idea what you're meant to write on a blog. The few I've read seem to be by people who lead terribly busy lives, meeting all sorts of people. My everyday life is about as active in that regard as the life of a hibernating hedgehog. As opposed to the activity of my mind, which is more like that of an over-active tortoise.
I guess, being a 'log', blogs are supposed to be some sort of diary. That's not my style. So you'll get whatever comes to mind. And I have no idea whether it will interest anyone.
For example, every day I take my 'walk to work'. That means leaving the back of our house after breakfast, walking down a path (Roman in origin) between two fields, then through the north part of the village, by the church and school and through a newish estate, which leads to a cycle path (which used to be a railway track) beside the tree-lined little river in the bottom of the valley (which readers of This Is All would recognise as the path Cordelia and Will use to get to their kissing tree), at the end of which I walk up the hill, along a lane through two fields and back home.
I walk the same way every time. They say familiarity breeds contempt (or boredom). For me familiarity breeds interest, at least when I love what I'm doing and love the people I'm doing it with. By following the same route each time I see the small changes that occur every day, as well as the change of the seasons, the people who walk their dogs, the teachers arriving at the school, and the wild life - today, with the sun sparkling on frost, two deer in a field, a woodpecker hammering away, a blackbird with its beak stuffed with leaves and moss (its that time again!).
And my walk to work is a meditation. Because it's so familiar half my mind can think about the day's work, give myself a good talking to when I'm feeling down in the mouth, get my body moving as well as my mind. One of the day's best pleasures.
But I have no idea if that interests anybody else. However, whether it does or not, it's the blog for today.
Now it's back to the blank page.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008


Welcome to my new blog.
Will look forward to reading your comments.
I'll be posting entries often from tomorrow.