Envying Georges Simenon

October 27, 2018 at 12:52 am | Posted in Simenon, writers' habits, Writing - tools of the trade | Leave a comment
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It’s been aeons since I wrote in this. I’ve been writing heaps, but not here. There have been paid writing and editing jobs plus rewriting a novel, ‘After She Left’, which will be published in May.

And all this time I haven’t been able to get Simenon out of my mind. I haven’t even read many of his novels, and none of the famous Maigret series, but I feel sick with envy at his productivity. (What is the noun of prolific? Prolificness? Prolificity? – Suffice to say that Simenon put new meaning into the adjective, prolific.)

The reason behind his prodigious productivity was that he had to make the money to pay alimony to all his ex-wives. The method behind it is even more interesting.

He had the reputation of getting his novels published after writing only one draft. That has since been disproved. He did two drafts – only two! I’m nauseated with envy and I think: if I could just copy his method, maybe that would work for me too!

A writer’s routine to emulate?

His routine was: up at dawn and put on a freshly ironed special writing shirt; scribble like mad for many hours with lots of sharpened pencils; finish the novel begun a few days before; vomit from the psychic stress of it; and go out and sleep with a prostitute. (I would hope that he added to that routine a penultimate chore: clean teeth.)

So, could I be like that? I can see myself in the ironed shirt – a man’s white cotton one, got from St Vinny’s or off a man’s back. I can see the sharpened pencils lined up on my desk. I can see myself doing that first draft, dredging it all up from my psychic depths to the extent that I vomit … no. I can’t. Nothing is worth that amount of suffering.

I don’t imagine anyone enjoys throwing up but I have a neurotic dread of it. I get scared my eyes will fall out. The last time I vomited was from food poisoning in late 2004. The time before was for the same reason, in Egypt on a 1st class train in early 1985. I take care not to do it very often. (I guess the silver lining of that neurosis is that I could never develop the worse one of bulimia, not that I should be making jokes about a serious condition like that.)

Fall seven times, stand up eight (Japanese proverb)

So I’ll have to put my dreams of being a female Simenon behind me and accept that I’m like every other writer, and that for us, writing is rewriting. I usually write a scene umpteen times before it sounds right. Or I think I get it right but my editor doesn’t think so and I have to rewrite several times in order to address all the problems in it. No. There’s no way around it. We just have to put in the time and effort. No prostitutes or toy boys for us, then – ha! – or at least not daily! (Easy to guess why Simenon couldn’t make his marriages work – I can’t imagine many women who would put up with all that ironing and sharpening pencils for a philanderer like that!)

And maybe we will develop an output of more consistently high quality that way. After all, Simenon might have nailed the gold medal in the productivity race but most critics agree that only a few were high quality; many, if not most, were just pot-boilers.

Maybe I have to accept the sort of output where it gets to be a quarter-century between novels. But I shouldn’t feel bad about it because I’ve been productive in other areas, typing away on non-fiction that gets into print, as well as novels that don’t. And at least non-fiction requires far fewer drafts than novels and short stories. Plus I feel actively happy that I have managed to make a living through writing without having to vomit every day!




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.

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