Insufficient or Misplaced Commitment
It will come as no surprise to serious Science Fiction fans that leading writer of the genre, James Tiptree Jr, was actually a woman called Alice Sheldon. It was to me, so you know where that places E@L as a Science Fiction fan, yeah? She struggled with success after her secret pseudonymity was revealed. It turns out she had frustrated lesbian leanings, and a whole lot of personal growth issues which distracted her from complete success.
We've just been reading a review on her biography on Salon. (You say "on" when the magazine is online, but "in" when you have the magazine in your hand, anyone else notice that?)
Sheldon's struggles remind me of a famous conversation between the minor British writer Stephen Spender and the great poet T.S. Eliot. The young Spender told Eliot that he had always wanted to be a poet. Eliot's reply was that he'd never understood this thing of wanting "to be a poet"; all he understood was having some poems you wanted to write. When what you really want is to write some poems, you don't let the ultimately ancillary issues of how a poet should live or whether you're an exceptional talent get in the way. Often, the difference between a minor writer and a great poet is a matter of insufficient -- or, rather, misplaced -- commitment.
The novel that E@L has not written is not written because he just doesn't have a novel to write, in that T.S. Eliot sense.
There is no story floating around, driving him crazy with the urgency to commit it to pixels/paper. He has lots of anecdotes and lots of crazy opinions - witness some of the posts on this blog, but no story, no novel. Whenever he tries to write something like a fictional story, he loses his easy-going E@L voice, and it comes out all wooden, pretentious, lifeless, unfunny, going nowhere. There have been a lot of false starts, too. Some of the beginnings have used standard opening ploys for expat novels, guaranteed to turn off most readers and publishers: the famous landing at Kai Tak, or being dragged out to Wanchai as a guest for the first time, spotting a pretty girl and later finding out she is a hooker, getting rolled by a prostitute... but all these scenarios have just run out of steam. They don't seem to go anywhere, they are just episodes. Plotless observations. You can't write a successful book without a plot!
OK, finally E@L admits it in public, HE HAS NO IMAGINATION! Now that's a minor fault, easily overlooked, if you work as clinical support for a medical company, but it's a major flaw for a writer.
He just always wanted to be a writer. He just couldn't imagine getting there. Actually he would be happy to have been a writer, with his opus vitae already complete, rather than sit through the tedious time-consuming and anti-social labour of actually thinking up a story, composing it as a novel, or several... and then typing for hours on end. Finding a delicious twist for the characters, making it unique, memorable and most importantly, saleable. All those fuck-me-boring details.
The advantage of already being a writer is that the likelihood of failure, or non-perfection (same thing) is past. The unwritten novel was bound to be a masterpiece, but it pales in comparison with the completed imaginary novel. This of course, as well as topping everything by Dan Brown on the NYT best-seller lists, was also taken up by a major studio for a series of Oscar winning Bruce Willis movies (you get a hefty percentage of the profits) and so now you are rich dude and can buy one of those plaid jackets with leather at the elbows and take up pipe-smoking, using it for pointing out issues of stylistic concern in the works aspiring writers who flock to your feet (in French village cafes), and have time to cultivate a whimsical half-laugh between exorbitantly well-paid speaking engagements.
A writer, sigh. Even to Stephen Spender's 'minor' standard. Stephen, you may recall, wrote the novels 'Goodbye To Berlin' and 'Mr Norris Changes Trains' which became a play called "I Am A Camera", of which Dorothy Parker wrote a 3-word review for The New Yorker, viz: "Me No Leica", and which became the musical called 'Cabaret.'
[AAaaahhh no he didn't! It was Christopher Isherwood. I think he may have been Stephen Spender's lover, which is what threw me! Apologies all you literature lovers out there! Now you see that 30's Literature is also not one of my strong points. Put it down to a "senior moment."]
Life is a cabaret.
OK, I started a story recently for MM's 7 day meme. In a rush of blood, I decided to set it in Russian literary circles during the height of the Stalinist terror in 1937. Don't ask why. Then I got bogged down in researching - WTF do I know about Pasternak and Mandelstam and Akhmatova and that lot? Well, a little bit. Don't ask why. Then I got bogged down in creating a 1930's version of the Internet - something Tesla might have invented if his ideas weren't 95% crazy. Why? Glad you asked. Because I had decided to parallel the mrbrown case with something that happened in that time... Osip Mandelstam's arrest for writing a poem against Stalin - "a 14 line death sentence" it was called. But now my story has bogged into three different and competing versions... I might just have to start again. I've got to get something out of this, to prove something to myself and to the readers of my blog who are not here to look for ass-candling photos.
But I just can't sit and write a story, it's not as easy as that. Not for me. I just can't churn em out. But to write a blog post, like this one with nearly 1000, words seems so easy. Why the fuck is that? suppose it's because the standards are so different. A story has got to be right, a blog you can fuck around with, yeah? A blog is an ephemera. A story should aim at being placed in the anthologies at schools forever. Maybe I am wrong on that. But I do have something I have to prove.
And it's not that I am actually a woman. Though I do have affinities for lesbians. Some of my favourite movies feature Sapphic delights - Lesbian Spank Fest, for one. Starring Alice Sheldon.
OTHER MONKEYS SAID
Oops (bad day, more coffee pp-pp-please) accidentally delted this correction and comment from Paul. Sorry dude, wrong button press, gone. This is why I quit working the old automatic CAT scan machines - Sorry Doc, I meant to press Brain Scan, but I accidentally pressed Brain Extract. Think Homer Simpson at the power plant...
Spender: 'World within World' and a handful of poems
Isherwood: 'Mr Norris', 'Cabaret' etc
I reckon both of the above, though pretty good, could have been better. And one of the reasons why they weren't was because they screwed around. The Balzacian view that every orgasm is a novel lost has merit.
Compare Auden: very deliberate decision made in his teens to become a poet i.e. didn't allow 'a career' to interrupt though did take on lecturing and journalism for periods. Worked out a disciplined routine and stuck to it fiercely - wrote in a room without windows preferably or with curtains drawn, nobody else allowed in there, all sounds shut out, beginning after breakfast EVERY day, insisted that you had to write something even though it may not be good. Spent 18 years as an unwilling celibate, often miserably faithful to a promiscuous partner.
Perspiration beats inspiration.
Is literature worth giving up sex for ?
And don't we all love Auden for it? As artist and photographer David Hockney said when photographing Auden's deeeeeeeeeply etched face, "I wonder what his scrotum must look like." Sounds like no-one ever found out.
I should have known that, I DID know that once. I happen to have read all those books, including Spenders.
Sad to watch a once good brain lose it... This blog is becoming like a rereun of "Iris" isn't it?
hmm I've taken my clothes, off meet you at the Kallang river for a dip. Are those my feet? Who are you???
I think the trick is to follow your obsessions, everytime I worried about "being" the thing everything got screwed up. I'm doing better now I don't. If you get my drift..
whose hands are these?