We live in a culture obsessed with speed: fast-food, Twitter, overnight celebrity, instant make-overs and cutting edge techno-gadgets. We drive too fast, desperate to get ahead literally as well as metaphorically. And when we get home we surf TV, scroll through Facebook, eat, drink and talk on the phone. Apparently, the only thing we want to slow down in the modern world is the ageing process – and it’s no surprise that our solution to that problem is a quick injection of Botox or a lunch-time facelift.
Far from being an oasis of tranquillity, the world of books is not immune to the demands of 24/7 society. Publishers – keen to get a new writer’s name on the radar – are at the very least likely to commission a book a year from each author. Some want writers to work even more quickly. Six months is seen by some as a reasonable gestation period for a genre book; three months is not unknown. (Literary writers get more leeway, but the pressures are still there. Prizes must be won; the public must be satisfied.) After all, the aim is to get the book out there, in front of readers, on Amazon.
As for other writers, with that brilliant, world-changing novel as yet unwritten, the answer is surely to write one as soon as possible. Until the thing exists in tangible form, then the dream of being a writer will never become a reality. One solution is to sign up with NaNoWriMo, a global writing project which takes place every November. Writers log in, pledge to produce 50,000 words by the end of the month – and off they go. Some fall by the wayside, but the organisers report that last year more than 300,000 reached the target: “They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle-school English teachers. They walked away novelists.”
Up to a point. Those NaNoWriMo completers have certainly written enough words to fill a novel – although a fairly short one in contemporary terms – but this is inevitably a process that privileges speed over quality. Even if it’s accepted that these 50,000 words form a work in progress, the value of writing that much that quickly is unclear.
My own experience is that writing a first draft without reflection can in itself be a strange form of evasion – you keep writing in the vain hope that by producing lots of words the problems in your narrative will resolve themselves. But sometimes it is essential to stop and think – and question. Before I completed my first novel, I began two other novels that hit the wall at 30,000 words. I fell short of NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 goal, but wrote in that spirit, churning out words against the clock, smoking furiously. (I was young then, and thought this was part of the deal.)
There are pros and cons of writing under pressure. Every writer is different, and this applies to speed of production as much as it does to style. In the “speed” corner we have George Simenon, who would have been a NaNoWriMo natural, with an average novel production time of four weeks; and John Grisham, who wrote his bestseller The Pelican Brief in 100 days. One of the most notorious writers both at and on speed was Jack Kerouac who penned On the Road in three weeks, aided by Benzedrine. The result, produced on a 120-foot scroll manuscript, prompted Truman Capote’s killer put-down: “That’s not writing, it’s typing”.
In the slow corner is Donna Tartt, whose career does not appear to have been damaged by producing a novel every decade. Then there’s Tom Wolfe, who took 11 years to write A Man in Full and J.R.R Tolkien, who began writing what was to be The Lord of the Rings in 1936 and finished in 1952. But the daddy of slow writing must be William H Gass, who took 30 years to write his masterwork, The Tunnel.
I’m not suggesting that one group is superior to the other, but it’s important to remember that along with their unique voice each writer found their natural speed. My last novel took four years to write and that seems to be my optimum pace. Some writers need to take their time. Writing a novel isn’t like going on The X Factor – itself a concept which is looking stale – and though impatience and dissatisfaction can fuel determination, they can also be a snare.
After all, the writing is the only phase of a novel’s life that is ours alone. If we do find an agent, a publisher, an audience, our book belongs to other people. Just as an artist is usually more at home in a studio than a gallery, we are in our element when we are sitting at our laptop, inventing worlds. There are no quick fixes if you want to write the best book that you can. And writing isn’t about endings; it is a way of life.
Thanks, Nora, for inviting me to your Christmas Blog.
I appreciate being asked. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I am and would love to use this moment to talk about compassion. At Christmas this is something we should practice more of.
I’m aware of the devastation caused in Mexico and how I felt when I heard about it. My first thoughts were about you. If you, and your family, were ok. When you write you inhabit an insular world where for a period of time your mind is elsewhere, not focussed on the present. It’s a surreal position to be in.
I started writing so that anyone who was suffering may gain a reprieve through my books. I know, when I’m having a bad day, I look forward to the chance to pick a book up and escape. The reality is, for some, there is no escape.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose everything and have nothing. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be in a country separated by a wall. I lived in Berlin in the 70’s and witnessed the devastation the wall caused there.
When I was in the police, Christmas was a time of celebration but also violence and loss. Violence from domestic disturbances fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Loss from, Burglary, Robbery and Murder. It’s as if a notion of survival arises and brings out the worst in people at a time when people should come together.
This isn’t a case of bah humbug. I enjoy Christmas with my family. I feel blessed to be in a position to experience this.
As a writer my hope is that anyone who reads Rubicon over the Christmas period is afforded some pleasure. If I have achieved that then the effort has been worth it.
I’ve gone from one life of service to another. I enjoy seeing reviews where my book has had a positive impact on the readers’ experience. In the police you could see the impact your presence was making. Sometimes positive other times not so!
I would like to thank you for your support this year and everyone else who has contributed to making readers aware of Rubicon. To all those who’ve read it, Thank you. To the team at Fahrenheit Press, all those who’ve reviewed it, thank you. To me, writing is a gift and must be used positively to entertain and provoke questions for readers. I’m in a fortunate position to be able to write. I am thankful for that.
Compassion isn’t a passive act it takes practice and effort. The results are amazing though and the benefits to society immeasurable.
Wishing you and all your readers a peaceful and happy Christmas.
By Trish Nicholson
Before being sucked under the spells of retail elves and their Christmassy shelves, let’s take a not-too-serious look at the meaning of gifts over the ages.
The proverb ‘never look a gift-horse in the mouth’ is known across Europe in languages from Icelandic to Russian, but for anyone unfamiliar with this advice, it means we should not judge the intrinsic value of a gift. Experienced horse-dealers amongst you will know that the age and condition of a horse is gauged from its teeth: when you notice that the lavishly gift-wrapped box of chocolates your cousin sent you is nine months beyond its use-by date, you know you’ve been given a useless old nag.
It may be the thought that counts, but what, exactly, were they thinking?
In its purest form, giving is caring with no expectation of reward. It may demand equal commitment in learning to accept graciously. During a hectic working life I dashed off for fleeting visits to a favourite elderly aunt whenever I could. When the time came for me to leave, my aunt would press into my hand a package of squelchy spam sandwiches made with love to protect me from starvation on my 60-minute rail journey home. I could never stomach the sandwiches though I learnt to appreciate the gift with a full heart.
Like storytelling, gift-exchange emerged during the dawn of human history. The gift of an antelope steak given in good faith, accepted with grace, and later reciprocated with a well-knapped spear-head, created whole networks between families, clans and tribes. In time, the exchange of gifts developed into the first trade deals as the relative value of each item was arduously negotiated, but the significance was always more than economic – it created relationships based on trust. Even stories were bartered. Itinerant storytellers have long earned a night’s lodging with a good story, as Odysseus did in Homer’s Odyssey.
Barter remains important in many parts of the world. While living in Papua New Guinea I acquired my treasured collection of clay pots and shells through barter. And travelling in the Amazon, I exchanged my wellington boots for a two-metre poisoned-dart blow-pipe in a Yaguar village (a keep-sake that caused sensational hassles at every airport security check). Both transactions involved forging relationships – telling stories and learning to understand each other.
But in the same way that stories multiplied and diversified across the world, so did the forms and meanings of gift-giving.
A Viking chief was expected to be generous to his followers in dispensing loot from raiding expeditions. By gifts of gold to award valour and encourage loyalty, great leaders became known as ‘Ring Givers’. However, evidence of buried gold hoards suggests that some chiefs preferred to hide their ill-gotten gains underground – the Norse equivalent of an off-shore account. Gifts in exchange for loyalty are still a widespread practice, from the discount offered on your store loyalty card to the appointment of corporate raiders to plum jobs in government administrations.
Perhaps the most dramatic ritual gift-giving is the potlach ceremony, developed to a fine art by the Native American Kwakiutl peoples of the north-west coast. Any social or personal milestone provided an excuse for a potlach, but the biggest feasts for the greatest number of guests, the longest speeches and the most lavish gifts were preserved for the installation of a new successor to the chieftaincy. And everyone in the tribe was expected to dig deep to contribute.
Potlach was all about status. The volume of goods distributed boosted the social standing of the giver, as the value of each gift reflected the status of the recipient, and the more guests to witness the transaction the more powerful the event. To fall short in any of these calculations courted political suicide. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see all of this in world leaders’ rounds of state visits funded by hapless tax-payers, not to mention presidential inaugurations.
Gifts often involve a catch. Even Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity to children, celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5, was conditional upon each child’s past behaviour recorded in the Big Book. The medieval tradition, where Saint Nicholas’ helpers included frightening characters representing Satan, may have been the stick accompanying the carrots. But modern Zwarte Piet is a clownish trickster throwing tiny gingerbread biscuits into the crowd like confetti. As commercial interests focus on December 25th in line with most of Europe, the devil is forgotten and smart kids claim two Christmases.
Most religions recognised the importance of gift-giving either in shared celebration, as sweeteners to the gods or as a form of wealth distribution. Christians may follow the example of the Three Kings with their Christmas presents, but festive gift-giving features also in the Jewish Hanukkah and Hindu Divali, while giving alms to the needy is a central tenet of both Islamic and Sikh faiths. Although offering a small gift is a daily occurrence for Buddhists, I had not expected to be given an apple by the abbot while visiting a monastery in Bhutan. Luckily, I always take pens and postcards as little presents when travelling and found a spare pen in my pocket to reciprocate.Exchanging gifts appears to be a universal human practice but cultural awareness is advisable. Social occasions for gift-exchange occur throughout the year in China, but in a culture where maintaining ‘face’ ranks highly, what to give, to whom, when, and exactly how much to put into the ‘little red envelope’ poses an etiquette quagmire to the unwary.
My apologies if these reflections disrupt the Christmas gift-list you had already ticked off during the summer sales.
I may be a little biased, but to be on the safe side, I’m giving everyone books this year.
Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist, author of narrative non-fiction and a former columnist. Her latest work, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, is the only global social-history of storytelling. Trish’s other books include two travelogues: Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and read her articles on www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com where there really is a tree house.
By Nora Vasconcelos
For anyone travelling around Seattle, there’s an exhibition that cannot be missed. The extraordinary artist Chihuly has developed an amazing glass garden located next to the Space Needle at the Seattle Center.
Over there, all sort of shapes and colours come to live to give the visitors a unique experience.
The refined soft textures of the glass mix with some of the other elements that surround this singular sculptures shaped by Chihuly to create a fantasy world in which one can get lost for a short or a long time, depending on how slow everyone wants their experience to be.
So, if you happen to be in Seattle this summer, don’t miss the chance to get yourself lost into this wonderful magic glass world!
* All photos courtesy of Jorge Vasconcelos