On sitting, standing, walking, and Tim Parks

March 30, 2013 at 5:41 am | Posted in Books | Leave a comment
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We sit too much, those of us who write for a living. Or use the computer for a living. Hmmm, that’s a lot of us. Some health writers are even suggesting that we stand at our desks. But long ago I read that the best thing we can do for our legs is walk with them and the worst thing we can do is to stand on them.

I write for an NGO four days a week – to leave one day a week for my own writing, which would normally be fiction. But now with a non-fiction commission I spend the time on that – and towards the end or even before that I know I’ll be spending three days on that. It will be like a mini-PhD. I must be mad.

But it’s what I wanted – to make the leap from editing for a living to writing for a living. I’ve made that leap and I’m happy with it. (I used to love editing, when it was playing with language and ideas, and getting inside the heads of some very smart writers. But it changed, the technology changed and I changed. All that’s another story.)

I’m happy writing all the time, but yes, it does involve an awful lot of sitting. One of my English Literature lecturers at ANU told us that Charles Dickens used to write for one hour then walk around London for an hour, write for an hour, walk for an hour … imagine him coming back and scribbling down some of the conversations he’d overheard in the London streets – no wonder they have that authenticity and immediacy and wit. A later English writer, the very witty and very prolific Tim Parks, wrote a book called Teach Us To Sit Still – a memoir about writing, illness and meditation. He had developed a strange, embarrassing, seemingly-undiagnosable, painful ailment, and tried everything to cure it – and that journey he recounts is fascinating. It’s in the ACT Library system and it’s worth reading so I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s worth reading anything Tim Parks writes – novels, essays, memoirs.

Now, in the light of this new concern about sitting shortening our lives, it’s tempting to think that Tim Parks was simply sitting too much. But a lot of people do that, some of them nearly as prolific as Tim Parks, and not everyone gets sick from it in the prime of life.

In any case, I’m trying to get up from my writing more often, and on Saturday morning I walked around the lake with a friend. It’s about five kilometres. It was 8.00am and exceptionally calm, the sky brilliant blue and the white oblongs of the carillon reflected in the water perfectly still like an abstract painting. We walked, talked and watched the cormorants drying their wings and the black swans gliding along leaving pale ripples behind them like ruffled satin.

Then we saw two wildlife officers fetching a sturdy cotton bag, something struggling and obviously heavy inside, out of the lake.

‘That’s a big fish,’ said my companion. ‘What sort of fish is it?’

And the man said, ‘It’s a kangaroo fish!’

A kangaroo had jumped into the lake. A fisherman had seen it – and rung them. They must have been close by. The kangaroo was shivering. Imagine what a shock it had – hopping along, Boing-Boing-Boing – then suddenly Splash! I don’t even know if kangaroos can swim.

So that was a diversion from writing. I’d like to do it every day. But isn’t it a contradiction to have to drive somewhere to walk? If I lived near the lake sure I’d walk around it every day. Easy to say, I know. I went back refreshed and invigorated and wrote for hours. But I get into that world and forget to have a break.

My breaks are to read some of the dozens of fabulous books I’m desperate to read but don’t have enough time for. I’m sure lying on the sofa is a good break from sitting. I’m reading Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, Instructions for a Heatwave. If you haven’t read her novel before this one, The Hand that First Held Mine, just go out and get a copy – or get it on Kindle or from the library – it’s riveting and humane and wonderful. This latest is very good but I’ve only just started.

Of course there are other breaks: domestic ones plus Argentine tango lessons plus doing yoga plus drinking wine plus going to films and plays – and haven’t there been some good plays and films on lately?… But if I do any more stuff I’ll never get that book written.

To conclude, and keeping somewhat within the theme of this piece, although obviously going way beyond it too, one of my favourite quotations is by Antonio Machado (I discovered it in Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken, also available in the ACT Library):

‘We make the road by walking.’

Words Simenon would never use

March 24, 2013 at 9:52 am | Posted in Books | Leave a comment
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Siri Hustvedt, in the last paragraph of her Author Note in Living, Thinking, Looking begins the paragraph with “Every book is for someone”. True. And of course every blog is for someone. There are many contemporary words I dislike. But blog is one I like. A combination of Biography and Log. And it, like a ship’s log, should be regularly updated. Someone somewhere will read this log and know what conditions were like for the person writing it at that particular time.
As alluded to a fortnight ago, busy-ness is the salient condition for me (and for so many) here and now. In fact, that is why I am writing this now instead of a week ago. I’ve been working overtime. We’re an NGO and they can’t afford to pay us overtime but we can take the time in lieu, which is how I prefer it. Time is far more important to me than money. So I took Friday off and drove with some friends to the coast. We had a long weekend with no laptops, no iPads, no phone range. We didn’t turn on the telly. We’d rented a two-storey wooden house on top of a cliff. Quirky charm and stunning views. Talk, laughs, swimming, eating, drinking, reading New Yorkers, walking, sleeping … relaxation hardly begins to cover the sensation of those few days.
And then the working week starts, with its treadmill (mainly because of the commuting). But I won’t talk further about that. Because this is a blog mainly about literature and language, I’ll tell you some words I think we should have a moratorium on. Challenging – because it has become the euphemism everyone uses for hard, difficult or problematic. People are trying to sound positive. But there are so many hard, difficult problems now that ‘challenging’ is practically every second word. I’d rather hear someone say that they were struggling against almost insurmountable odds than say their circumstances were challenging.
Another word I dislike is ‘significant’. That is the biggest cliche now. So I’d rather hear big, enormous, huge, horrendous, overwhelming, large or much more – anything than significant, or the adverbial form of it. There are so many that a page of writing will contain ten or a dozen! Clearly this makes a mockery of the meaning of the word.
I hate impact as a verb not a noun, and people often use it as both in the same sentence. We used to say ‘affect’. I suspect that so many people did not know when to use ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ they thought they would avoid the problem by purloining impact in the place of affect, and this caught on. This is unfortunate. It sounds graceless and awkward.
And I’d like to have a moratorium on ‘outcome’. We used to say ‘result’. Nothing really wrong with outcome but it’s every second word in every policy document, paper and chapter now. Can’t we swap ‘result’ for it sometimes? And we used to say ‘probably’. Gosh, it is years since I heard that. Now everyone says ‘likely’. Why is that? We used to say ‘the probable result’ but now it has to be ‘the likely outcome’. I am not saying it’s bad grammar. I’m saying that my ears are bored with the ubiquity of these phrases. I’d like a rest from them.
Of course I can get a rest by reading, say, Simenon. The New Yorker (Oct 10, 2011) had a wonderful article on him by Joan Acocella. As you probably know, Simenon was famous for writing first drafts and then getting that published. Instead of like the rest of us who have to write about 27 drafts before something looks publishable. His other famous feature is that he is meant to have slept with 10,000 women.
The article states that he would type about 80 pages every a.m. “Then he would vomit, from the tension, and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing.” (p. 21)
He had a lucky shirt to write in, which he washed every night, and he had four dozen pencils, sharpened. He wrote a novel in a week and revised in three days. (So the rumours about first drafts were wrong – but not by much.) The author said that he would get into a trance and then, chapter by chapter, the plot would come to him. He would average five novels a year. Acocella writes: ‘Despite the vomiting, Simenon appears to have enjoyed himself for many years.’ (p. 126) The article was called ‘Crime Pays: The dilemma of Georges Simenon.’ Funny and fascinating. Simenon never used challenging or significant or impact as a verb or outcome. He was readable. He would have been more readable if he’d been less prolific but a few of his books are very good.

“Busy-ness”: an update on writing and living

March 11, 2013 at 1:10 am | Posted in Books, Quotations | Leave a comment
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I haven’t updated this for a long time because of much busy-ness: Chaucer wrote, “Great peace is to be found in little busy-ness”. He was correct. But who is not too busy these days? So sometimes I take a Sunday off and do nothing. (Sundays will be my time for blogging from now on.) Of course my doing nothing is busy compared with some people’s idea of doing nothing. When I say I do nothing, I mean I take the time to sit in the garden, do yoga, read a non-work book, meet friends and perhaps tidy my wardrobe.
What I have done since my last blog: finished my novel. Researched on who to submit it to. I have written a lot of publications, which I have not been able to put on my Publications List on my website because Crazy Domains refuse to answer any emails. There is no other way of contacting them. The contract runs out soon and so I can then be released to be able to get a competent domain registrar. I have about eight new articles published, including one in press that is a chapter in Penguin’s Bush Nurses (to be published 20 March). So this has been frustrating.
I am still reading The Guardian Weekly, New Yorkers and many wonderful books. More on these next Sunday. I have my four day a week writing job and more news next time on another book commission. Not official yet. Let me end with this quotation from Julian Barnes from The Guardian Weekly 20 July 2012. ‘Life and reading are not separate activities. When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life; you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic and for this serious task of imaginative discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.’

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