Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Walking and chewing gum at the same time

The following appears at the beginning of an article in The Telegraph about the burden of e-mail:

In the London Library, the natural habitat of the London writer, there are two main rooms where people work. In one, the Reading Room, people do exactly that - read.

In the other, the Computer Room, they tap away on computers.

Over the past couple of years, I've noticed an odd thing. The really prolific and distinguished writers - A N Wilson, Sir Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett - tend to sit still, reading in the Reading Room.

to which I responded:

The reason "the really prolific and distinguished writers" have so much to write about is that they do exactly that. It's the old principle from Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time for everything.

They have learned what our parents tried to hammer into us that you can't do two things at the same time to which we responded by sticking a piece of chewing gum in our mouths and walking out the door taking care to slam it behind us of course.

Oh we knew it all, didn't we?

One of the most common pieces of advice given to an up-and-coming writer, other than to write about what they know, which I've already passed comment on, is to read. And here we find old, established writers still doing exactly that. Why? Because writers need something to write about? Partly. But even Bennett, who excels in his ability to make the trivia and minutiae of existence endlessly fascinating, still feels, I imagine, the need to keep his writing skills sharp, and there is no better way to do that than by reading great writing, preferably not your own. But I suspect it is something simpler than that: reading has not turned into a busman's holiday for these men. They still enjoy the act of holding a good book in their hands and turning the pages not knowing what they might contain.

Reading is one of those activities that often gets fitted in. Most of mine has been done on buses and trains clawing back the time. My wife and I even picked where we lived to give ourselves more time to read on the bus. But we all know what Burns said about man and his plans even if we don't know what "agley" means exactly.

The thing is, and this is something that embarrasses me no end, I find reading hard. This is nothing to do with old age hanging round the corner; I've always found reading hard. With a few exceptions, writers like Philip K Dick and Richard Brautigan, I struggle to get through most books. I persist in reading for the same reason that I insist on eating my greens, because I know it's good for me. I just wish I enjoyed it more. Of course, now I'm older I relish the greens I used to have to force down as a child but I still don't take as much pleasure in reading as much as I'd like.

The problem is always the same: subject matter. I find it hard to read something I'm not interested in no matter how technically brilliant it is in exactly the same way as I find it hard to listen to certain types of music. Can I draw the reader's attention to exhibit one: opera. I don't like opera. I don't get opera. I have listened to all kinds of opera from Die Fledermaus right through to Eight Songs for a Mad King and I don't like it. Any of it. Okay, maybe a bit of Carmen. It bothers me that I can't acquire a taste for it but there you go. Sometimes when I'm listening to the soundtrack to Alien Resurrection I skip over 'Priva Son D'Ogni Conforto' but mostly I'll listen to it in the vain hope that one day I'll actually enjoy it. Just don't expect to find me sobbing into my glass of Chianti during the death scene in Tosca any day soon.

I just wish there were more books out there that excited me as much as hearing The Wall for the first time. (Okay, so it's a rock opera – sue me). The irony is that, opera excepted, my musical tastes are expansive; there not much I don't like though a little thrash metal does goes a long way.

There're still a couple of Brautigan novels I've not read yet. I think it's time I broke down a bought one of them for a treat. Thankfully my wife bought me a copy of William McIlvanney's, Weekend, for Xmas but it won't last forever.


Sara said...

Jim, I'm a reluctant reader too, but not across the board. I get excited about contemporary poetry and contemporary novels... most everything else starts out as a chore. Sometimes, though, I'm pleasantly surprised. Like when I finally read The Scarlet Letter all the way through instead of asking my friends how it ended.

La delirante said...


First time here :) Really liked your post! I think Borges said that he is proud of the books he had read more than the ones he had written. I think it is a great quote :) I believe that to be a good writer you have to be a good reader in the first place :)

I am an avid reader myself and from time to time I feel the need to write something. Not very often though :)

After many months I wrote the second part of a short story :) If you wish you can have a look at it. It is my latest post.

Dave King said...

I am sure our paths must have crossed before, if only in a past life; we seem to be on two trajectories that have a point somewhere in common.
In a past existence I chose my job for the time it gave me on the bus. I had a lot of travelling around to do, some longish journeys, and would get myself, if possible, at the front or rear of the bus (less disturbance) and get on with the book of the moment.
Also: when I was a boy we had a definition of a Mexican: the only person who can sing, chew gum, juggle and go through a revolving door wearing skis, all at the same time.

Roberta S said...

Hi Jim. Interesting post.

As for me, I don't buy books, I just read what is passed along to me. My favorites are the Classics and other very old books. You won't be able to wrestle a book out of my hands if it was published in the 18th, 19th, or early 20th century. When I am reading old books, particularly books by Dickens, I find I have more to write than I have time to put to paper. I can't find that same magic in modern books although it may be that I don't read enough book reviews to decide with any real wisdom what to read next.

I am an addictive reader so when the kids were growing up I didn't read. It was too risky. Kids could go hungry, house could burn down, once I got my nose in a book. So I didn't read. Now I read, every single day, for a couple of hours and dearly wish I could read even more. Kids got 3-square a day, but as for me, in the meantime, I was starving for want of book nutrition.

Jim Murdoch said...

Sara, thanks for the feedback. To be honest I'm not really reluctant when it comes to reading just incredibly choosy; I'm working on it.

La delirante, glad you found the blog. I've left a few notes on the first part of your story on your site. Didn't have time to do the second part.

Dave, I can't remember half the people I've met in this life let alone all my others. The good thing is that I've found someone in this life who is suitably entertained by my ramblings.

Roberta: I'm sure your children are grateful to you for your self-control. I've never read any Dickens - FAR too long - besides, if I wait long enough the BBC will dramatise 'em all.

Slutty McWhore said...

Hello, Jim. Hope that you had a great Christmas and - Happy New Year, too! Just wanted to pop by your blog and say thanks (rather belatedly) for leaving such a kind comment when I was having my meltdown last month.

How is your novel going?

I wonder if you've ever heard of "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. I've been blogging about it recently and thought I'd mentioned it to you, as it's a book with some really great tools for unblocking creativity.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for popping by Ms Mac. (I don't care what a girl does to make a buck I'm not comfortable calling her "Slutty"). I'm glad you're feeling better and I have to say it was interesting to see how many people rallied round to your meltdown even people like me who had only just run into you.

A few people have been making comments about The Artist's Way recently. I'll be honest I'm not sure it's what I need because I can write (a couple of short stories in December and a dozen poems), I just can't get a character to come into focus. Literally I have my Thelma and I'm trying to cast Louise. And like any partnership that works you can't imagine any other pairing once it's established but getting there is another thing entirely.

I'm not not working on the book though. The whole first part 'Thelma' is alone and so I keep pottering away on it. I think of my writing very much like music, it needs to flow literally from the first sentence of a book through to the last. I haven't got the first section flowing yet. Maybe once I do the next 'note' will be obvious.

Slutty McWhore said...

Hi again, Jim. Well, I'm inclined to believe that if a lot of people have been making comments to you about "The Artist's Way" that somebody somewhere is trying to tell you something.

"The Artist's Way" isn't necessarily for people who're 100% blocked. In fact, Julia Cameron, the author, was apparently pretty goddamn successful even before she started to write it. Her problem was that she always felt she needed a drink before she could create.

The whole point of the book, I think anyway, is to allow people's creativity to flow from a more natural, "joyful" place, and not from a place of fear or worry. So far I've REALLY been getting a lot out of writing the "morning pages", as it forces you to address issues you might otherwise have ignored.

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