Friday, April 02, 2010

Robert Harris on being a "real" writer and me on the kind of writer I think I am

I recently Robert Harris' latest thriller, "The Ghost”. The narrator in the novel is a ghost writer commissioned to write the autobiography of a British Prime Minister who bears a strong resemblance to Tony Blair. Like “Enigma” and “Fatherland” before it, "The Ghost" has been made into a movie. both of which were made into movies. "The Ghost" has also been made into a movie. The film is re-titled "Ghost Writer" and stars Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan. It was the last movie Polanski made before the Swiss sold him out to the Americans and arrested him at the Zürich film festival.

The book was, on the whole, a disappointment (see
my review on but, Harris, who was once a prominent journalist, has some interesting things to say on the process of writing and what it means to be a “real writer”.

I’d like to share three quotes with you that resonated with me.

“Of all human activities, writing is the one for which it is easiest to find an excuse not to begin – the desk’s too big, the desk’s too small, there’s too much noise, there’s too much quiet, it’s too hot, too cold, too early, too late. I had learned over the years to ignore them all, and simply to start.”

This is something that I think all of us who try to write will identify with. There are times (usually when I have no time) when nothing will stop me writing, but give me deadline and suddenly all other forms of human activity are more easily engaged with than writing.

“A book unwritten is a delightful universe of infinite possibilities. Set down one word, however, and immediately it becomes earth bound. Set down one sentence and it’s halfway to becoming just like every other bloody book that’s ever been written. But the best must never be allowed to drive out the good. In the absence of genius there is always craftsmanship. One can at least try to write something which will arrest the reader’s attention – which will encourage them, after reading the first paragraph, to take a look at the second, and then the third.”

The goal of leading the reader from one paragraph to the next and keeping their attention, seems to me to be a worthy one and not always easy to achieve. I'm writing a longer piece of Victorian Erotica at the moment and my constant anxiety is "Is the reader still with me"

“I was still smarting at the crack about not being a proper writer. Perhaps I’m not. I’ve never composed poetry, it’s true. I don’t write sensitive explorations of my adolescent angst. I have no opinion on the human condition, except perhaps, that it’s best not examined too closely. I see myself as the literary equivalent of a skilled lathe-operator, or a basket weaver; a potter, maybe: I make mildly diverting objects that people want to buy.”

This frank and disarming statement made me think about how I would describe myself using the same metaphor.

I write little bits of erotica. I try to do it well. I try to pack some truth in there and make it memorable. I try to reach people's emotions and have my characters take up residence in their heads, at least for a little while.

I see myself as a cabinet-maker, working slowly by hand, to produce objects that people are initially attracted to because of what they do and which they come back to because they value the craftsmanship.

1 comment:

Craig Sorensen said...

While my perspective on deadlines is different, perhaps owing to my nine to five job which has kind of conditioned me to them and left me very comfortable when they rear their head, I relate well to the rest.

The cabinet-maker analogy is a good one. I like cabinet-maker over some sort of artist in that it implies a functionality. To me, that means the story is down to earth, and real. Not that I don't like taking certain flights of fancy, but that I like the reader to be able to see the tale as both real and interesting. Also, by crafting rather than creating art, you invite the reader to be part of the story. Cabinets need to be filled with the purchasers stuff to be complete.