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

Saturday, 16 February 2008

White pebbles and burning issues

I remember once, I'm not sure how old I was, wandering down a beach on the west of Scotland picking up pebbles. I was on a white pebble kick that day and dropped each brilliant specimen into my jacket pocket. When I got home I emptied them out onto the bunker (that's kitchen counter to the rest of the world) and there wasn't a white one in the lot. Oh, they were all whitish, off-white, peelie-wally-looking things, but gathered together they really weren't that pretty at all. They'd dried out and lost their gloss.

So, what do we learn from this? None of the pebbles had changed. They hadn't gone off or been discoloured by something in my pocket. I can't blame it on gamma rays in the atmosphere or anything. Gremlins didn't dip in and swap them over when I wasn't looking. It's simply that when taken out of their familiar environment and examined individually it's far easier to notice their flaws.

Think about when you've written a poem and you're still in the zone or whatever expression makes sense to you. That poem, at that time, is the best thing you've ever written. It's dripping with inspiration. You sit back and beam at it with pride. And then you stumble on it five or ten or thirty-five years later and you think, how the hell could I have written this crap? What must I have been thinking?

Before Kafka died, he gave instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn his writings. Brod thoughtfully saved the papers and assembled them for publication based on his own editorial judgements and the world breathed a sign of relief. Monica Jones wasn't quite so considerate and made sure Larkin's diaries were burned in accordance with his instructions after his death but she still hung onto a few other papers. Rudyard Kipling was another. He fiercely guarded his privacy but didn't leave anything to chance. He destroyed many of his own papers himself and, after his death, his wife and daughter deprived scholars of many more.

I've never binned any of my writings. I've certainly never burned them – there's something uncomfortably ritualistic about that. That said I chucked out all my paintings, all bar two that my wife kindly framed and which now grace our living room. Every piece of music I ever wrote – and there were a good few of those – ended up in a skip. All I have left is a cassette tape with one atypically jazzy piece on it and I'll be honest I'm not even sure where that is these days. Do I regret throwing them away? YOU HAVE NO IDEA. The only piece of writing I don't still have is the first poem I wrote when I was about nine, and I so wish I had it; it was in Scots and described a man's last few minutes leading up to his hanging. Blame the Burns they were force-feeding us at the time.

I was looking back on some of my early work and I came across this one. It's not the worse thing I've ever written – I have been responsible for some awful dross over the years – but I do remember how I felt after I wrote this. I was so full of myself. I mean we are talking bag of wind to the power of cocky:

Les Étrangers

a preoccupation with anti-heroes:
almost faithless voids and phantoms...
other trees struck by lightning,
impotent as daylight –
residues; threads forgotten.

unlearning... life-long friends –
wasteland agnostics
who believe in words
but deny their meanings...

things burned out.

fugitives running from
their roots... (metaphysics)...
into blind alleys;

again in chains.

10 June 1978

To be fair, I'm probably not the best judge of this piece. But then I'm probably not the best judge of any of my work, especially the juvenilia. I'm wise enough to realise that a lot could be learned by laying my poems end to end. I'm not sure it's anything that couldn't be learned faster and easier some other way, though, and, to be honest, I only held onto the first 452 poems (contained within 4 hardback jotters bought from Woolworths) out of sentimentality. Two or three of them did make it into print but I wouldn't cry buckets if they were lost.

Actually most of my earliest work is quite readable, not very good, but you know what I'm on about. Then, after I left school and started to expose myself to the rest of the world of poetry, the Ezra Pounds and Basil Buntings, I started to think I was clever. (Now those are the kinds of cool names real poets should have). Thankfully that phase didn't last very long but it did produce 'Les Étrangers' (or 'Les Estrangers' as it's recorded in my note book).

Oh, and I haven't the remotest clue what it's about so make of it what you will. You can even like it if you must.

Words are precious. But who decides that they are? Did Max Brod do right by Kafka? No doubt his relatives thought so when the royalty cheques started rolling in, but does that make it right? I don't think it does. Of course Brod can argue that his friend was not in his right mind when he made that decision, but we only have his word for it.

Which brings me to my point. ("And about bloody time too!" cries the audience, "You're into the last paragraph.") I don't have hard copies of anything I've written on-line. I haven't saved copies on either of my computers or on disc. This is not because I don't think what I've said (what I'm saying right now, in fact) isn't worth saying (if it wasn't worth saying, I wouldn't say it), it's just not the stuff I want to live on after I'm gone. And that's my choice. These are my words. Not yours. I've no immediate plans to start deleting my archives but you never know. You never know. So, if there are some old blogs of mine you've never got round to, you might want to think about checking them out – or saving them all for posterity – while there's still time.


Conda Douglas said...

There's only one type of my writing that I want disposed of when I die: my diaries. I don't think it will be a problem though. Anybody who reads these really personal lists of events and the weather will be bored to tears in a half page!

Unknown said...

For the most part other people save my crap. I try to save it only to the extent that I am still working on it... all of it that I run across I am still working on.

I regret having lost the short story so many decades ago that my mother remembers as the one that she likes. She keeps asking me if I have found it again. She has never liked as well any of my other attempts over the years. Since it was my mother put up with and encouraged most of my youthful enthusiasm, and had to listen to me, and had to listen to me talk about what I was trying to do, I hold it still to this day a measure to write a story that she would enjoy.

I do have assortments of earlier work laying about. I don't find it all so terribly bad. I do still have the faculty to remember what I might have meant then. But I also have for years been a practitioner of either throwing away everything that is total crap, or working harder to try to produce less of it.

Another thing Pound said was that all a writer ever has of worth to say in their life they could put on one sheet of paper... that was bombastic hyperbole... then again, a life as a writer can be spent trying to figure out which of all the papers is the 'one.' I am still sorting through my old papers and making news ones in search of that one special key to the mystery.

Unknown said...


Movie I watched this afternoon, Angel in Krakow has a character a bit loony who insists that the angel (a scruffy overweight Polish guy sent down to earth from Heaven to do a good deed daily) read his writing, his diary, that reads, "Monday. Yes. Tuesday. Yes. Thursday. No." then insists the angel read on to the next page, "Friday - Theology!" The angel looks at the writer who bursts out laughing as if the final mystery has been revealed. The angel says, "Oh, you are a..." "Journalist," shouts the loony guy.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm not so sure that Pound was that wrong, Gabe. When I look back over all my writing most of it has been me working out things. It's why I keep drifting back to the same ol' topics time and time again, I'm trying to find better, more accurate, more concise ways of saying what I've been trying to say all my life.

I've often wondered what odd lines of mine like that would make it into a book of quotes. I have several books like that and even the greats like Wilde and Shaw are lucky to get a page to themselves; most end up with two or three entries. I could probably warrant half-a-dozen on a good day.

Carma Dutra said...

I kept all of my college essays and papers. It's a good way to make comparisons. Inadvertently through moving I lost a few stories and was sorry that I had. Why would someone throw away something they created unless they thought it was garbage?

But then again it is all a matter of preferance.

Anonymous said...

A good post, Jim. Hang on to it all: it's to do with where & what you've been.

I have stuff in a tattered ring binder from my teens. Awful, awful rubbish, nearly all of it, trying so hard to be Ginsberg/Kerouac. But my English teacher, the poet Brian Merrikin Hill, read it all with great forbearance & spoke to me quietly & kindly about writing from what you know.

Jim Murdoch said...

As an exercise for myself, Dick, I've been taking part in the daily-ish challenge from Unskilled Poet's site. Normally I can't be bothered with these things and I'm not sure what prompted me this time but I've managed to pull something together for every one. I don't feel the need to add every one to my canon of work mind (which I keep in a four-ring binder and is so heavy you could beat someone to death with it, a metaphor which never ceases to amuse me). Some of them made it. I usually give the poems to my wife and ask, "Is it a keeper?" but she thinks I should hang onto everything.

It was the blogs I was thinking about, not that I have any pressing need to delete my early entries yet. I'm still coming to terms with what they mean to me and I'm not sure I've an answer yet. I was thinking I might rework a few into articles and repost them on some of these sites I keep joining but never quite get round to writing articles for. We'll see.

It's like the article in The Telegraph a wee while back revelling in the title Philip Larkin - poet or pop star?. I grued when I read it (I felt embarrassed for the man) and I thought about the poem I wrote for one of the girls I used to work with who happened to mention how she hated pulses – I wrote a poem in lisp entitled 'Repultith Pulthiths' – and how I'm glad no copy exists; it's not what I want to be remembered for.

It's not that I think the poem was garbage to pick up on your point, Carma, because it actually wasn't, it was quite clever, but it served its purpose. It was designed for one person's pleasure. It did what it was intended to do. It made her happy. I got a hug out of it. All was well with the world for a few minutes.

Conda Douglas said...

Gabriel--that's hilarious. And I have to say the loony character's diary is far more interesting than mine!

Unknown said...

I have a friend who for more than 20 years has written a weekly column for the NY Times Real Estate Section on historic buildings in NY. His fascination is in the lives of the people who lived in the buildings, not so much on the buildings themselves. He will as much tell you that in 1896 Mabel Smith raised and sold rabbits in the garden that was behind the brownstone at 20 West 34th Street as to tell that it is the building where Brooke Astor lived out her last years.

He spends his professional days reading old records, pouring through personal diary entries, handling old photographs, wandering from library to museum, talking with folks that know the recent past, sifting through the most mundane of details of the human history.... and once a week he writes a column.

He took me to a private library one day in Manhattan that has a collection of documents that is kept in a vault that people need to wear face masks and gloves to enter. There are no windows or any sunlight that would accelerate the decay of the books. Actually, he took me to the part that could be entered and showed me the locked door for the part that we could not enter.

I have, from my friend, gained a very deep respect for the incredible value of the personal diary as a window on the lives of common people of our past.

I do not keep a diary.

At the Thomas Edison Historical Site in West Orange, NJ many years ago they built an underground vault for document storage. It is temperature and humidity controlled. They say that they have 1M documents connected with Edison stored there.

Dave King said...

Jim, just a couple of anecdotes.
I recall picking up a shell from the beach when I was quite small. I took it home with the intention of making something from it. What, I have no idea, but I was on that sort of kick at the time. I was inconsolable when at last I realised that it was utterly useless. How could something that beautiful be useless?
The one piece of writing I wish I still had was the first poem I ever finished to my satisfaction. I was into cycle racing at the time, and it was a ballad, the story of a race told from the perspective of the victor. (Me, I suppose!) it was a parody of the John Masefield poem about a fox - can't recall the title off-hand. Rubbish, but I wish I had it.
Don't know how either of those might help anyone, though.

Jim Murdoch said...

Very interesting, Gabe. I think you would appreciate the Stephen Poliakoff
drama Shooting the Past if you have not seen it already. It's about a photograph library that is threatened with demolition and to be honest the drama is almost worth watching simply for the photos let alone the stories that get woven from them.

Unknown said...

Jim: I will check out Shooting the Past. After I get my copy of Fresh.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I save all my poetry & fiction, too. And I tend to think there's something worthwhile in it; that's harder to maintain when actually reading it, but, still, there's the occasional spark or jolted memory in what otherwise ought to be tinder.

For awhile I didn't make any effort to save my blog writings. Then I realized how much I'd written and in the rereading how much more interesting it was than that ancient yellowed juvenilia. So now I archive it in a Word file. And once a year or so I remember to do a backup.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glenn, backing up once a year is probably not often enough. I keep copies of my work on two separate machines. I also use Word's own backup option when I'm working on a piece to make sure I have two copies in case one gets corrupted.

In Word when you hit Save As select Tools from the menu bar, from there select Save Options from the pull-down menu and tick the Always create backup copy box. It will then always save a .wbk copy of your document in addition to the .doc file.

The reason I'm a bit paranoid about backups is due to the fact that, due to a computer mishap, when I was transferring the final copy of my first novel from floppy disk to my hard drive I managed to corrupt the damn thing and the last backup I had at the time was only 40000 words long. I literally had to rewrite the last 10000 words again working from, what I'm grateful to say were excellent, notes. I have to say there was no talking to me for a good couple of days after that.

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