Tearing sentences to pieces

June 20, 2017 at 9:00 am | Posted in Tim Ferriss, writers' habits, Writing | Leave a comment
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Schine novel

They May Not Mean To

Your worst fears

According to Tim Ferriss, ‘the worst fears of contemporary men and women are getting fat and getting too many emails.’ Well, no wonder we’re all having anxiety attacks!

The Slow Carb diet in Ferriss’ book The Four-Hour Body should solve the first problem and spending regular time unsubscribing from unnecessary emails will liberate more time to spend on what’s important. Easier said than done, I know!

My subscription to the Literary Review (hard copy plus online) is as important to me as my subscription to the Guardian Weekly. I’d unsubscribe from anything before these. The Literary Review is ‘for people who devour books’ and the editors recently warned me that if I let my subscription expire I’d risk ‘missing out on everything relevant and stimulating in our society’. That kind of chutzpah can only be rewarded; of course I renewed. (Even though it eats up too much time!) Reviews are one page, in plain English and reviewers are clearly chosen, apart from their profound experience relevant to the book’s topic, for their wit and intellectual dexterity. You can subscribe at https://literaryreview.co.uk/

At the public library I reserve many of the books they (and the Guardian Weekly https://www.theguardian.com/subscribe-guardian-weekly ) recommend and the only problem is time. So much easier and quicker to read than to write, don’t you find?! I’m working on two writing jobs, one short and one long.

It is harder and takes longer to write a short piece of writing than a long one. As Blaise Pascale said, ‘I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.’

Three perspectives on creative projects

It since expanded but that’s another story, and it is still a fairly short project. As for the longer project I am  in the honeymoon stage, but I know I’ll think later of Flaubert writing to his friend about the agony of rewriting Mme Bovary: ‘Once again I shall have to set about tearing all my sentences to pieces.’ Of course that was fiction and my project is non-fiction but it still takes creativity and much tearing up of drafts and rewriting.

How do others view the process of writing a longer creative project? How do you, dear reader? Let’s take some perspectives from three very different people.

Sir Winston Churchill:

‘Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.’

Mia Freedman ( www.mamamia.com.au ) writer, entrepreneur and famous blogger. This is from her book, Work, Strife, Balance (MacMillan, 2017):


  1. This is awesome.
  2. This is tricky.
  3. This is shit.
  4. I am shit.
  5. This might be okay.
  6. This is awesome.

Marina Abromovic, performance artist, believes there are seven stages to a project:

  1. Awareness
  2. Resistance
  3. Submission
  4. Work
  5. Reflection
  6. Courage
  7. The gift

I like the first two best, for their humour. Simenon famously wrote first drafts that were pretty well perfect but he’s the only writer I’ve heard of who did so. I’ve written about his methods in my March 24, 2013 post.

Since I’m working on two serious projects and spending most of my time on them, let me quickly share two novels I’ve read recently on buses, trains and before dropping off to sleep (not because of the books, I assure you). Cathleen Schine is like a contemporary Jane Austen in New York. Her novels are pitch-perfect, witty explorations of relationships and the dynamics of family life.

I can’t imagine she goes through the awful middle stages of her creative projects. Her prose sounds so effortless surely she’s like Simenon and it all pours out in a perfect first draft, ready for the publisher! Well, however she does it, I’m glad.

They May Not Mean To, but They Do (Farrrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016) puts a twist on the title from Philip Larkin’s famous poem, reversing its meaning to apply to the older generation’s view of their well-meaning but meddling middle-aged children. Aaron Bergman has cancer, heart failure and Alzheimer’s, and his wife Joy, smart and independent, insists to their children that she is doing fine, looking after him and – at 86 – still working as a conservator at a museum.

The novel is about ageing and agency, responsibility and guilt, and it is unpredictable and funny. Everyone will recognise the family dynamics where the people we love spark affection in us sometimes and exasperation at others.

Schine describes the indignities of old age but her characters face them with dignity and the novel is strangely uplifting, partly because of the humour but also because of the uncannily accurate depiction and genuine flavour of the charm and grace of ordinary life.

Now I’m reading her novel The Three Weissmanns of Westport (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) and I don’t want it to end. It is laugh-aloud funny, and trenchant about love and loss, and also suspenseful and wise.

Years ago I read Schine’s The Love Letter (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995) and I agree with the Boston Phoenix’s summary of it as ‘a comic tale of lust and language’. I was very happy to learn recently that she has written seven other novels. Her website is at www.cathleenschine.com and I couldn’t resist pasting her alternative bio below.

‘Here’s my moderately amusing other official bio:

As a child, Cathleen Schine dreamed of growing up to become a graduate student. Years later, her childhood ambitions were realized when she entered the University of Chicago’s graduate program in medieval history. There, it was noticed that she had no memory for names, dates or abstract ideas, and she was thus forced, tragically, to abandon her life-long dream. Before this disappointment, however, while on a fellowship studying paleography in Italy, Schine made an important discovery: she liked to buy shoes. So when the welcome of academia was rescinded, Schine was able to pursue a career in this area which was rewarding but short-lived, as she could not get a job. In debt and increasingly desperate, Schine turned to the lucrative world of free-lance writing. Having failed as an intellectual, she discovered her calling as a pseudo-intellectual and went on to write for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Family Circle She lives Venice, California.’

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