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

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Monkeys with Typewriters


Writing is a thinking job, not a typing job. – Scarlett Thomas

Of the millions of drivers on the road I wonder how many are qualified lawyer-mechanic-physicists? To be honest I wonder if anyone out there has professional qualifications as a lawyer, a car mechanic and a physicist? There will be kids out there driving tractors around their parents’ farms who likely don’t know their left from their right. Driving really isn’t that difficult. Once you’ve grasped a few basics you’re off. Still, if you want to become a skilful driver you need practice and to pass tests; driving is about more than knowing how to change gear and remembering to take the handbrake off before you release the clutch. Driving is all about natural laws and human rules. There is technique to being able to drive well.

I have an O-Level in Applied Mechanics—I came top of my year—and yet my dad had to remind me to check my car’s oil and water levels as well as the tread and air pressure of the tyres. I had drawn diagrams of the 2-, 3- and 4-stroke engines (I really loved the design of the 3-stroke) but I couldn't relate any of that to driving a car. I had a head crammed full of formulae talking about force and energy and velocity and all that stuff (now long gone) but what had that to do with driving? Actually quite a bit.

There are rules you need to obey when you drive—in the UK you drive on the left-hand side of the road—and there are laws: the safe stopping distance in feet (in dry conditions) is speed2 ÷ 20 + speed assuming a reasonably good co-efficient of friction of about .75; better is .8 or higher while conditions or tire quality might yield a worse factor of .7 or lower. There are so many variables to take account of and we’ve not even got round to reaction speed of the driver if he’s hung over or on the phone to his wife. Most of us just slam on the brakes and pray. And most of the time that’s all we need to do.

So what has all this to do with writing? Everything. Just as thousands of people get in their cars every day and (somehow) end up where they set out to go without dinging someone else’s car, thousands of others will start writing novels which they will (somehow) get to the end of and actually manage to say what they set out to say without wrecking the English language in the process. In the majority of cases their goals will be reached in the most unspectacular of fashion: no wheelies, doughnuts, flying off ramps, cadence braking or the literary equivalents.

The title of Scarlett Thomas’s new book, Monkeys with Typewriters, relates to something called the infinite monkey theorem which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Writers, however, are not random word generators and as much as we’d like to take complete ownership of a novel once we start to read it, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there was a human behind these words. That the book could have come about by pure chance is neither here nor there: it didn’t. Writers are important and we love them.

A machine can easily be programmed to say, “She was very sad”. But a machine can’t create an original image that explores sadness.

But can you teach writing? It’s a question that has long polarised opinions. When, during her first year of teaching, one of her senior colleagues had found out that Scarlett was teaching her creative writing students literary theory she wasn’t at all happy about it:

“What do you think you’re doing?” she said, after a group of them had tried to “borrow” a sofa they needed for their seminar presentation on structuralism. “Just teach them the difference between first person and third person and let them write, for God’s sake.”

roland-barthesIt was at this point in her career as a lecturer that she had been using Barthes's essay The Death of the Author in her coursework—which she hoped to simplify by introducing her class to typewriting simians—when she realised that it was as, if not more, important to teach her students what to do before they sat down to write than it was enough to provide them with the basic tools—pen, paper, knowledge of grammatical persons—and let them muddle their way through. This book has taken a while to evolve but it set out to fill a gap:

No one, it seemed, had written a contemporary writing book that covered everything. There were plenty of books out there, though. Some focused on ‘giving yourself permission to write’. Some suggested automatic writing. Some had exercises in perspective and general technique. Some of them were very good. I encouraged all my students to read On Writing by Stephen King, How Fiction Works by James Wood and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. But there was no single book I could give my students to read that covered everything I thought they should know.

She began “giving lectures, which was a very unusual thing to do on a creative writing programme”, she “analysed pop culture alongside classics not just to make the lectures more accessible, but because [she] wanted the students to get used to seeing plot, structure and writing techniques in the world around them.” Seven years later she had … I suppose ‘amassed’ would be the right word here … this book, all 480 pages of it, including the 80 pages of notes and appendices.

Did she manage to produce a single text that contains everything? Sadly, no. But that doesn’t mean this is not a worthy addition to those other three required texts she mentioned above. And she really does try very hard not to say, “This is the way you have to do things.” She speaks from experience and her experience is limited but that’s the case with everyone who authors a textbook, which is why I think aiming to write a single book that would meet every new author’s needs was setting the bar a tad too high. If indeed that ever truly was her plan.

But can you teach writing? On her blog, Shannon, who describes herself as a “[r]ecent graduate from UCSD with a B.A. in Literature-writing” has this to say:

You can’t teach writing. So why even bother going for a degree in it, or to any workshops or conferences at all?

Because you can’t teach writing to people who don’t love it, who don’t have any talent for it, who don’t want to lose themselves in it every time they set a pencil to paper. And for those talented writers willing to live and die by their pen, you can refine them, shape them, mould them, guide them. I’m going to use the super-cliché “diamond in the rough”. Because that’s what you do in writing courses–you help those with potential reach a fuller potential.

I think Scarlett would agree with her because a number of times in the book she basically asks her readers/students: How serious are you about writing?

I used to tell people off for wanting to write novels simply to make money (very difficult) or for the sake of vanity (futile). I also used to give slightly haughty lectures about the novel being an art form, not a place to show off for the sake of it, or string a lot of clichés together for a few quid. Then I realised that if the people sitting in front of me wanted to make money above all else, they’d be doing business studies, not creative writing.

Signing up for one of her classes or buying this book only indicates a certain level of seriousness. Towards the end of the book she raises an important question:

It’s worth asking yourself at every stage how much you do care if your novel is lost in a fire, or in a computer accident. I always ask my students the following question: If the only copy of your novel was stuck at the top of a mountain would you go up and rescue it? I tell them if the answer is ‘no’ then they need to rethink what they are doing.

Like me Scarlett believes that anyone is capable of writing a novel. Whether it will be a saleable novel is another thing entirely but that’s something every one of us has to ask once we’ve completed a book: Will anyone else want to read this? She reckons that if you’re writing the kind of novel that you would be willing to climb to the top of a mountain to rescue, that is a measure of “how important it is likely to be to other people.” And, up to a point, she’s right; we all have ideal readers.

Supernanny_cover_tinyOne of those clichéd bits of advice that newbie writers often receive is: Show, don’t tell. (Even Scarlett can’t resist slipping that one in, although worded a little differently.) In this book she doesn’t tell you how to write, rather she demonstrates by example. If you’ve been a fan of hers and read all her novels you will be at a definite advantage, although she includes plenty of other touchstones from Hamlet through to Supernanny. I approve wholeheartedly of her decision to reference films and television shows. So much can be learned from them, even the bad ones.

The book is split into two sections, Theory and Practice, each containing five chapters. The first five chapters—almost half the book—focus on plots. That feels like a lot. Okay she deals with the two, the three, the five, the seven and the eight basic plots depending on who you’re reading and I have to say I personally found this a bit hard going because a) none of it was especially new to me and b) I’m not a plotter. This does not mean my books don’t have plots but they arise naturally in the course of writing and none of them align neatly with most of the ‘classic’ plotlines: in Living with the Truth a stranger comes to town takes Jonathan on a veiled quest which results in his (albeit late in life) coming of age. In essence what these first five chapters deal with is the question: How do stories work? All of us will have seen so much TV that we will know … instinctively, it seems, but it’s really learned… how stories will pan out even if we can’t break down what we’ve just watched and turn it into an equation. The Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp does this in his book The Morphology of the Folktale which Scarlett discusses at length in the fourth chapter. This section reminded me of my O-Level in Applied Mechanics. These equations form the bedrock of our lives and when we drive our cars there are dozens of variables at play: speed, velocity, centre of gravity, inclination, time, acceleration, mass, energy, power. We know all these words but the majority of us couldn’t define even one of them except in layman’s terms and the same goes for most literary terms; tragedy, for example, is not simply a sad story.

The second part covers the following:

  • How to Have Ideas
  • Styles of Narration
  • Characterisation
  • Writing a Good Sentence
  • Beginning to Write a Novel

For my money the best chapter was the first. Again she said nothing I’ve not come to realise myself after writing five novels but I would have loved to have known about some of this stuff right back at the start. I could only find one use of the word ‘inspiration’ in this book and she uses it to mean a goal rather than a brilliant idea or some kind of muse. She writes:

It turns out that our imaginations are very good at doing new things with specific material we give them. But they are not so good at coming up with new material on their own.

We could sit around waiting on ‘inspiration’ striking or we could take the initiative. We have to trick our brains to get good ideas. If we ask ourselves a question our brain will take the easiest route and provide us with the quickest answer that will be predictable at best and probably clichéd, too. Our brain, like a sat nav, is designed to provide us with the most direct route. Only if we put obstacles in its way will it consider the scenic route. What we need to do is magic up a writing prompt and she provides a handy matrix (downloadable as a docx file from her website), which has proved to be successful for herself and with her classes, and explains how to use it. The objective here is to jump start the imagination. Once—to use another of those physics words—momentum has been achieved then you’re on your way.

Again, at the end of this chapter, she underlines:

If writing feels to you like a job or a chore, then your idea isn’t good enough. It’s as simple as that. If you are not in love with your idea now, then you never will be. So dump it and find a new one.

Writing your first novel will in many ways be easier than any other book you will ever attempt, from one perspective at least: there will be things that you are still passionate about. As we age our passions tend to go off the boil a bit. That’s why I’m struggling with my own book at the moment. I’m still at the thinking stage. At that’s fine. As Scarlett says in the final chapter it takes her about a year of preparatory work before she starts writing proper—she then explains at length what she does during that time (a mixture of gathering, sorting and thinking (she describes three kinds))—and I think that’s an important thing for new writers to appreciate. She also brings up three things in this chapter which I found very interesting and hadn’t seen anywhere before:

  • Narrative question (you’ll actually need several of these, but the main one)
  • Thematic question
  • Seed word

Narrative questions will intrigue your reader and keep him reading. Will Cinderella go to the ball? Will Hamlet kill Claudius? Will Odysseus get home? Will Dorothy get home? Will E.T. get home?


Your thematic question is an important question that you will never answer. It is important how you frame this; it should be a universal, open question (‘What is power?’) rather than a personal, limited question (‘Should I be kind to my horse?’).


Why do you need a seed word if you already have a thematic question? The two are closely connected, after all. Well, when you find the correct seed word for your project it will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. While constructing a thematic question gives you focus and purpose, finding the correct seed word is quite magical.

These are not easy questions to answer even after one has completed a book but I do get where she’s coming from here and I think keeping these three points in your head as you write will be of great help. It wasn’t until I came up with the word ‘left’ that my last novel came sharply into focus for me. I realised I was exploring leftness—that was my seed word, a neologism would you believe it—and after that, even though I didn’t know how it would all end I did know what the book was about. ELDoctorowFor me I need to have been writing for a few thousand words before I know where I’m going which is why Scarlett opens that final chapter with this quote from E.L. Doctorow:

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Driving home in the dark I’m always on the lookout for some familiar sign. It’ll be too dark probably for landmarks but a building, a sign or a tree will catch my eye and I’ll know where I am and there’s always a moment of relief at that point. I need to hit that point in a novel before I feel safe, even if I know it’s going to take me months to actually finish the damn thing. That point in Milligan and Murphy was when I wrote the line, “There are no reasons for unreasonable things.” At that point I knew what the book was about.

Scarlett is keen to point out that there is no right way to write a book and she provides many examples of books that go against the grain and work, but no one will know what kind of writer they are until they start writing. She admits that her first novel was not very good—she began her career writing formulaic crime novels (her first three books feature Lily Pascale, an English literature lecturer who solves murder mysteries)—and that it actually took her some time to find her personal style.

I’ve talked a lot about driving in this article and the thing about driving is that the only way you’re going to learn is to get behind the wheel of a vehicle weighing over a ton that’s capable of demolishing a brick wall and heading off into the unknown. There is little in this book that will make the experience of writing your first any easier. It doesn’t matter how she breaks down the numbers (which she does in a variety of ways) or how much you know about how to write, writing is still hard work:

Writing a novel, like running a marathon, is both absurdly easy and absurdly hard. On one level it’s just putting words on a page or putting one foot in front of the other. It’s doable. It’s even somehow natural. But it requires great strength and determination to keep going, especially when it gets tough.

If you have never attempted writing a book and want to there is a lot of useful information here. You may not know what’s she’s on about when she’s referencing Oedipus the King or The Republic but who hasn’t seen Toy Story or an episode or two of Frasier? There are novels you will likely want to read after going through this book if you’ve not come across them already (The Bell Jar for one) and plays you’ll want to see (Hamlet gets touched on a lot) and even old films that you might want to rent again (like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which I honestly cannot remember ever having seen) but I think you’ll probably be surprised by how prepared you actually are. Reading this book might help you realise that.

You can read an excerpt here where she talks about how she decided on eight basic plots.

GIVE AWAY: Due to an administrative cock-up at Canongate I got sent two copies of this book so if you’ve waded through the above and would like me to send you a copy drop me an e-mail. I won’t send it to the first person who asks (unless they’re the only person to ask) but I’d like to see it go to a good home so if you’ve written half a dozen novels already but still fancy a copy then go buy your own.


ScarlettThomasScarlett Thomas has taught English Literature at the University of Kent since 2004, and has previously taught at Dartmouth Community College, South East Essex College and the University of East London. She reviews books for the Literary Review, the Independent on Sunday, and Scotland on Sunday. She has written eight novels (discounting the crime novels), including The End of Mr. Y and PopCo. You can read my review of Our Tragic Universe here.

In 2001 she was named by The Independent as one of 20 Best Young Writers. In 2002 she won Best New Writer in the Elle Style Awards, and also featured as an author in New Puritans, a project led by the novelists Matt Thorne and Nicholas Blincoe.

She is currently studying for an MSc in ethnobotany, and working on her ninth novel, The Seed Collectors.


Ken Armstrong said...

Excellent points about inspiration. If I tell myself I can write anything about anything today, I'll surely get nothing done but if I have some specific goal, idea, notion... *something* then I can write anything with that and do just fine.

Jim Murdoch said...

I tend to avoid writing prompts, Ken, but I actually do okay with them. I've started posting little articles on a site called Story Lane which I've been quite enjoying because I can go off-topic which I don’t care to do on my blog; my blog, my rules. It's why I like commenting on site's like yours and Lis Hanscombe's because I always get to talk about something I wouldn't normally talk about. I guess that's why I write longer comments than most people because they're mini-blogs for me.

Art Durkee said...

I sit around waiting for inspiration to strike all the time. And it does. Constantly. Pretty much daily. I've lost count of how many dreams have been turned into art of whatever kind in my life. More ideas appear in my imagination than I'll ever have time to turn into art. All I have to do is listen and pay attention, and the ideas are always there, in me form or another.

So much for that. Polemics that minimize the role of inspiration in creativity usually emphasize the workmanlike nature of craft. But the point of inspiration is for all that wonderful workmanlike craft to have something to work on, to actually have something to say. I see a lot of writing that's brilliant craft with nothing to say, which ends up being pretty boring.

Jonathan Chant said...

As ever, thought provoking and informative. Great post Jim.

a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a gibbon text...

Ken Armstrong said...

Your comments are treasured. Sometimes silently, I know, but nonetheless...

Jim Murdoch said...

I suppose I could say much the same, Art. Every day there are things I could pursue but I find when I'm working (I use the term loosely) on a big project like I am at the moment I tend to ignore a lot of the ideas that come unless I can somehow rope them into what I'm focused on. The exception there would be poems. If I get an idea for a poem I'll just write it there and then but then most of my poems are drafted in five minutes. I may potter around with them for months afterwards (and do) but the groundwork never takes long. And then I can get back to fretting about how hard it is to write novels and what the hell am I doing thinking I can write another one?

Jonathan, I must be slow today but I stared at your comment for a good couple of minutes before it dawned on me.

And, Ken, that's my new name for you: the silent treasure.

Anonymous said...

Ray Bradbury found his inspiration by going for walks; Stephen King has mentioned the same -- although he was hit by a car and nearly died a few years back. It's the thought that counts.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've actually just finished reading Stephen King's On Writing, Milo, and was quite impressed by it. I've never read anything else by him although for a long time I've held the sneaking suspicion that he's a far better writer than he gets credit for. What struck me was how much we agreed. He, for example, is a pantser—had I been a betting man I would have put money on him being a plotter—and, like me, places one or two characters in a situation and records what happens; he never knows how his books are going to end. He has tried plotting and says those are his weakest books. He also speaks up for the positive aspects of boredom, as do I; we never have the time these days to be as bored as we need to be to allow creativity to find a way out of it. I came away from reading his book feeling quite encouraged. That said I don't feel any desperate urge to rush out and read one of his books.

As far as going for walks goes, we used to go for walks regularly when I was a kid. Dad would tell us to stick on our coats and announce we were going for a walk and that walk usually lasted two or three hours. I remember the first time my daughter was there when he decided he was going for a walk and I decided to go with him my daughter wanted to know where we were going:

      "We're just going for a walk," he told her.
      "But why?"
      "Just for the pleasure of walking."

She really had a hard time grasping the idea that walking could be an end in itself.

Brad Frederiksen said...

I went through a Stephen King reading phase, in my late teens/early twenties I think. I suppose it was formative reading for me, but from where I am standing today I would say it's only formative in the sense that it gave me a point of entry into this comment stream. That's not to say that I couldn't have taken my point of entry from a passionate critique of the dubious idea that monkeys with typewriters have it within themselves to randomly reproduce Shakespeare, or that I grew more interested in reading technology reviews and spending my time alone trying to program stuff to do what I wanted it to, until I passed out after dinner one night and hit my head hard on a tile floor just when my brother was there with the wherewithal to resuscitate me, but I guess it doesn't matter where one takes ones entry point from so long as the person you're responding to sees you responding positively; even if it's only enough to do some of the work that it takes to lift yourself off the floor and get yourself part of the way in a car to the doctor... which takes us in a roundabout way back to the Stephen King Monkey!

Jim Murdoch said...

I just typed "Stephen King phase" into Google, Brad, and came up with 102,000 entries. I frankly expected more because this is not the first time I've heard that expression. He does seem to be one of those writers that people are attracted to at certain points in their lives. There's a question on Yahoo Answers 'What age is appropriate to read Stephen King?' and most of the answers are around the twelve or thirteen mark but I can't find any answer to 'What age is appropriate to stop reading Stephen King?' As I've said, I've never read him so I can play devil's advocate here a bit. That's a horrible monkey by the way.

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