Category Archives: Writing

Poem of the Week #21: Excuses (Bukowski)

once again

I hear of somebody who is going to

settle down and

do their work,

painting or writing or whatever,

as soon as they get a better light

installed,

or as soon as they move to a new

city,

or as soon as they come back from the trip they

have been planning,

or as soon as…

it’s simple; they just don’t want

to do it,

or they can’t do it,

otherwise they’d feel a burning

itch from hell

they could not ignore

and “soon”

would turn quickly into

“now.”

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Poem of the Week #20: The Art of Poetry (Borges)

On a related note to my ponderings below about the craft of writing

The Art of Poetry (Jorge Luis Borges)

To gaze at a river made of time and water
and remember Time is another river.
To know we stray like a river
and our faces vanish like water.

To feel that waking is another dream
that dreams of not dreaming and that the death
we fear in our bones is the death
that every night we call a dream.

To see in every day and year a symbol
of all the days of man and his years,
and convert the outrage of the years
into a music, a sound, and a symbol.

To see in death a dream, in the sunset
a golden sadnesssuch is poetry,
humble and immortal, poetry,
returning, like dawn and the sunset.

Sometimes at evening there’s a face
that sees us from the deeps of a mirror.
Art must be that sort of mirror,
disclosing to each of us his face.

They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders,
wept with love on seeing Ithaca,
humble and green. Art is that Ithaca,
a green eternity, not wonders.

Art is endless like a river flowing,
passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and yet another, like the river flowing.

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Letters From Santorini: The Mission

I came here to write.

I came here for many other reasons as well. To escape London for a time, to become involved with Atlantis Books, to have the chance to do some serious reading, to meet attractive women and interesting men. But writing was the mission (as I’ve mentioned before). I hadn’t really written anything for about five months before I came out here, though I’d been working my current idea around in my head for most of that time.

I came here to write, and I have been writing. I passed the 30,000 word mark a few days ago on a long project, something that might eventually turn into a novel. I’m in no man’s land now – I’ve never been this far into a project, the idea (or my will to write it) invariably disintegrating at the 15,000 to 20,000 word point. The work has taken on a life of its own, which makes it easier to continue with and finish. It has weight. It is already half alive. I know how to finish it, and I know that I will finish it. All it will take is time – a few more months. Certainly before Christmas, barring some kind of disaster.

I don’t know if it is any good. Actually, at the moment I know that it is no good – the first draft of everything is shit, as Hemingway said. That is the maddening thing about writing – whether you are writing well or badly, the first draft of anything is always the same. Clumsy, flawed and repetitive, with the rare good idea or sparkling sentence simply serving to highlight the dross that surrounds it. It is only when you are redrafting or editing that you discover if what you have been writing turns from lead to gold…or remains as lead.

I now know that writing is full time. Not in terms of the hours actually spent writing; there is a limit to how much you can write in a day. But it needs to be committed to psychologically. Even here, since I am running the bookshop, my other commitments are a little too strong. You can have a job and write (indeed, in almost every case you need to have a job and write!) but you can’t have a serious career or a job, one that requires sustained mental energy, and write on the side. Or at least, I can’t.

Back in London, working full time and writing in my spare time, I felt like a fraud. When I was writing, I felt that I wasn’t committing to it fully. “You aren’t a writer,” I told myself, “This is just a hobby for you.” When I was at work, I felt like a fraud. “You aren’t committed enough to your job,” I told myself, “Your mind is on your writing.” I can’t commit to a serious job and write at the same time – there is an overexpenditure of energy that is in short supply, almost an ethical or moral contradiction.

Above all, what I’ve discovered here is that writing is a way of life rather than a profession or a hobby. I’ve met two writers out here, Cas and John. Before coming here, I probably wouldn’t have called them writers. Will they ever see their names up in lights, their books published and laden with awards? Perhaps. Probably not. Not because they aren’t good enough, but because commercial success in the artistic field is rare and depends on a vast degree of different factors, of which actual talent is a fairly minimal influence. Contacts, marketability, how well your writing chimes with the spirit of the time and the prevailing literary tradition, and dozens of other factors are all crucial. You could write a book twenty years too early or too late. In a different time it would have been a huge success. In this time it may be ignored.

But it doesn’t matter whether Cas and John achieve fortune and glory. They’ve had the courage to choose to live as writers, to try and experience the world as fully as possible and make a creative intervention in that world. Whether they share that intervention with themselves and a handful of readers or with thousands across the world is irrelevant and, by and large, out of their hands. They have earned the right to be called writers. You become a writer by choosing to live as a writer, not by winning the Booker Prize or getting reviewed in The Guardian. None of my friends back home, creative and brilliant as they are, have had that courage to fully commit to an artist path. Neither have I.

At least, not yet. My plans post Atlantis Books have changed – it would be premptive to say what they have changed to, as nothing is certain yet. But suffice it to say, the next year will be when I discover if I have to courage to commit to this course, to stick with and see it through, no matter whether it brings me success or no. Writing is a life. It is a life I want to lead, and now, more than ever before, I can begin to see how it might be done.

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Venice and Farewells

“But in vain I set out to visit the city: forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered, [Venice] has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

On first coming to Venice, one does not want to leave. The beguiling streets and endless canal vistas call out to be explored for months, or even years.

Yet over time, Venice reveals absences – not in itself, but in those who travel there. Any loss or void in your life is magnified by the city until it becomes unbearable. Lack of love, lack of purpose, lack of contentment, lack of knowledge. Perhaps only the perfectly happy can be content in Venice. Perhaps even they are shown the critical flaws in their own perfection.

Whatever it is you are missing, you have to find it outside of the city. Venice is a place where love, like the ending of a story or anything else, is often lost but never found.

One more note – you also know you are ready to leave the city if, even for an instant, you treat it like  your home. Even a single instant of normality (in my case, becoming absorbed in a newspaper whilst drinking coffee besides the Grand Canal) is enough to shatter the illusion, to let you know the bewitching spell of the city is ending and that it is time to move on.

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Venice and the Secret People

It is strange how easy it is to lose people in Venice. The main streets and sights crawl with people, but take two turnings and you are alone in a canal street or small square as beautiful as San Marco or the Rialto.

It is as though the people exist only through your will and imagination – they disappear at the whim of your mind. That is why it is best to come to Venice on your own. Travelling alone, you lose only strangers. Come with one you love, and you could lose her forever in the shifting streets if you close your eyes, become distracted by music playing, or forget for an instant what it as you loved about them.

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Venice and Stories

I am deafened by stories in Venice.

At each opening window, fragments of an opening dialogue can be heard (even by those like me who speak no Italian). A father lectures a flirtatious daughter who will inevitably disobey him. An old widow is lost in memory, and tells her guest (a reluctantly dutiful nephew, perhaps) a story of when she was young and beautiful. Or a moustachioed officer with the touch of grey at his temples discusses a duel he fought with the son of the man he killed.

Just around the corner of each deserted alleyway is a crucial character who must be followed – a girl with long flowing hair in a backless top, an old merchant who cheated me from my fortune many years before, the friend I left for dead long ago on a distant battlefield. Everytime I sit down, the view in front of me becomes the first few pages of a novel, the first thousand words of a short story.

But there are no endings to be found here. Venice is a city where stories begin and do not end.

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Venice and the Thieves’ Magician

Once, long ago, Venice was plagued by a gang of thieves who had in their employ a magician. Each night he would wander the city, scattering his spells into every alleyway and backstreet.

He charmed these streets to draw in passersby, irresistibly drawn in by the siren song of cracked plaster and overflowing drains. These curious travellers would be met by the thieves, their throats and purses opened by quick razors and gold rings cut from their fingers, their corpses discarded in some quiet canal.

Today, the thieves are gone. The carabinieri hunted them down years ago, the last one a senile old man bedecked in gold and jewellery from his glory days, but insensible to the world. However, the spells still remain in place, despite numerous expensive efforts by the Venetian government to exorcise them. (Indeed, two mayors have lost their jobs after very public failures to counteract the magic.)

So, when people wander through the city today, they find their feet rotating to point down battered, silent alleys, their legs conspiring to propel them to their doom. Travellers are compelled to wander the backstreets of Venice forever, waiting for an end that will not come.

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