While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Garlanded With Promises...

Apropos of nothing I started humming my high school's motto song this morning at work. Then I started thinking about the lyrics.

Motto Song

Cloistered in youth we grasp the veil of beauty
Garlanded with promises of happy days to be
There are the doors of fame and wealth and duty
Here at our hands the master key
Work at school, work at play
Uphill runs the stony path to glory
Not for tomorrow the task we have today
Nihil bone sine labore

[This is all from memory as I couldn't find the lyrics anywhere else online, but it's not the sort of song you can easily forget.]

It was strange experience singing this song two or three times a year (prize-giving and related practices) for five years. It was the only time most of us heard the words "cloistered" and "garlanded" in that time. And who talks about duty these days?

But now I feel some affection for this song, and even for the person/persons who composed these eight lines - - despite knowing nothing beyond the song itself. Perhaps it was the work of a frustrated poet, languishing in the high school English department of rural 1920s New Zealand - - and, for all the doggerel he churned out, this is all that persists? Or perhaps it was the stern headmaster and his music teacher love interest (the scandal surrounding the relationship would die down when they married the following year); her plonking out upbeat marches on the piano and him declaiming received wisdom about duty and hard work from his days in the Territorials.

This is how I imagine a lot of writer's work. It's certainly how I work. Something is stumbled across - - a remembered song, a concrete object, an eavesdropped conversation - - and so many questions are thrown up that the imagination just can't help filling in the holes.

Speaking of filling holes (a painful pun if ever there was): when I was at the dentist yesterday, I quickly slipped into my writing headspace to lessen the terror. What if you were afraid of the sound of drills (and why not?), but your father was a dentist who operated out of a clinic below your room. What would you do to drown out the sound? And off I went...

A writing headspace is a handy thing, I tell you.

It even makes research fun. At least the initial stage of research where you have an idea and you're reading around the subject, watching films and steering conversations in particular directions. This sort of research throws up hole after hole for your imagination to fill and claim the territory for your story. (The kind of research that comes after you've written your first draft and certain holes left in your story can't be filled by the imagination - - when you really need to know what sort of gun a newspaper reporter would use, or double checking how much weight you can gain in nine months - - isn't so much fun.)

The best thing I've read about this phenomenon - of filling holes with the imagination and the requisite withdrawal from life to compose false lives - is Ghosts by Paul Auster (the second novella in his New York Trilogy). A young private eye named Blue is hired by a man named White to keep surveillance on a man named Black. Black spends most of his time at his desk, reading and writing, but from his vantage across Orange Street, Blue can't see what Black is writing. Only his imagination can fill the holes in the story of Black and White. And when the imagination does not suffice (the surveillance lasts more than a year; Blue is a P.I. not a writer) he begins to interfere with Black in order to find answers...

It really is a solid piece of thinking wrapped up in a solid piece of writing. (For more of Auster's thoughts about writing and reading fiction, his 2006 acceptance speech for the Prince Asturias Prize is a good start).

The "solid thinking" stage of the writing process is the one writers (myself included) most often omit. Or they start from solid thinking and go about finding the rest of the story. For me, "solid thinking" should enter the equation after the "stumbling across X and letting your imagination run wild" stage. Not everything your imagination inserts into a given hole is a perfect fit. You need to stop and think: how does making Mr Y afraid of drills affect the rest of his character? Is there room for the character this creates on the stage with the guy gaining massive amounts of weight and the girl obsessed with another rock'n'roll suicide?

Then there's the swathe of solid thinking required upon revision. For me and the retooled Novel A, this stage is still a ways off. It's time to dive into a completely new draft. Perhaps that was why I was singing the Motto Song this morning: I was psyching myself up.

Nihil Bone Sine Labore : Nothing good comes without hard work.


Darren said...

If only I had a scanner here. when i was moving we found a program from the 2003 prize giving. It had all the songs on it. 'come lads lets lift our voices'. oh and nice job with the title change

James Broadbent said...

I still have my old blue books in an old box in my parents attic. It has the words in. I can remember the next verse actually. "Forward we press, inspired to high endeavour, scoring the fruit that hangs upon the lowest bough. What we have learned will fortify and ever steady or hand upon the plough. Work at school work at life, uphill runs the stony path to glory. Under this banner with joy we face the strife, nihil boni sine labore." I actually liked this song, far better than the other school song.