You Never Learn To Do It

Having been alerted to my own haphazard use of the full stop I now see it abused everywhere.  There is one particular book I am reading.  In this book it is placed most unconventionally.  Places where you wouldn’t expect.  Everywhere.  Are full stops.  Littered with profligacy.  Strewn.  Thoughtlessly.  Needless to say, it’s driving me mad, not least coming hot on the heels of having been accused of confetting it around the page myself.  Now, I find that I’m a starling at the top of the hedge, watching the gardener scatter birdseed punctuation and wanting to swoop down and gorge them all up.  Peck. Peck. Peck.  I won’t say who the writer is, it doesn’t matter, and I’m aware it’s a style that may charm some readers as much as it annoys me, for everything – and writing is no different – is a question of taste.  And when we acquire a taste for something, we always think we’re right.  I’ve long admired the acerbic put down that Muriel Spark gives to Miss Jean Brodie, a character who always knew she was right.  Walking through The Meadows on Edinburgh’s southside with her set of Marcia Blaine girls (the school where Miss Brodie teaches), they see a group of Girl Guides.  Some of Miss Jean’s Brodie’s acolytes express an interest in the uniformed brigade only to have Miss Jean set them straight with a clipped line of derision: “for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”  It’s the over-bearing pity that further inflates her full-bodied condescension that I so enjoy reading.  Oh, to be as sure of oneself as Miss Jean Brodie!  And when one reads such lines, one wonders how much of it was Spark herself?

That’s what I’m up to these days: in my flat, in my room, in a book, in my head, trying to get into Muriel Spark’s head.   I’m Russian dolling myself to distraction because I can’t get outside to look, watch, listen.  I’m thwarted from finding new things from which I can catalyse ideas, because that’s how it works, right?  One needs stimulus.  Half-started books (or half-finished, depending upon where the bookmark is) turn up everywhere: on sofas, under beds, tables, even floors – hastily abandoned like a teenager’s socks.  I look out the front window onto Scotmid only to see the same queue, different people.   Then out onto the backgreen where I see the same tree, different birds.  I’m suffering from a stimulation drought.  I dip into Olga Tokarczuk’s, Flights.  “I jot things down on scraps of paper, in notebooks, on my other hand, on napkins, in the margins of books. Usually they’re short sentences, little images, but sometimes I copy out quotes from the papers.”  Very good, Olga, but there is nothing to jot down!  And then she continues to goad me with talk of writing in trains and hotels, cafés and museum stairwells, waiting rooms and car parks.  Suddenly even waiting rooms and car parks sound appealing – those were the days!  Days of words exchanged on buses, of overheard whispers in the cinema.  Days of getting caught singing to Christopher Cross with your car window down, of dressing up on a Wednesday night just to see what cheeky comments B. will have.  Days of avoiding the scary pair of Rhodesian Ridgebacks on Leith Links, of baking a cake to bring out to E..  No longer.

All those days have been replaced with foraging in the empty fridge of inspiration whilst scrutinising writers and their writing and begging them to tell me how they do it, to teach me their tricks.  And then I rolled back the stone.  I came across a documentary about the late John McGahern and followed him while he carried a bucket down a Leitrim laneway to check on the cattle.  Every word he utters is a soft, slow, deliberate prayer.  In answer to a question about what the life of a writer looks like, he leans on the gate, pauses and says, “a good boring life in which not much happens except what’s going on in your head.”  The boring life he presents as a jewel, something to be cherished, leaned into.  His body is still and his face, though animated, flickers rather than dances.  He smiles into the camera, as if to apologise for his mundane secret and his eyes are alight.  Still waters run deep.  He is thinking, searching for the right words as carefully picking one’s steps through the bog.  And he qualifies what he has just said, in case we didn’t get this message that runs contrary to every other message on how to live.  ‘You want no excitements,’ he says simply, with that accepting look of a monk who refuses milk in his tea during lent.  And then he says the most extraordinary thing; something that dashes and builds my hopes simultaneously. “The thing about writing,” John McGahern says, “is that you never learn to do it.”

Well, now I know I have a few things going for me.  Firstly, if ever there was a good boring life with no excitements, I’m living it.  And secondly, if ever I thought I was going to master this art of writing, I know now, from the master, that I have another think coming, for I’ll never learn to do it.  But sure, doesn’t that take the pressure off you?  That’s John McGahern whispering in my head.  Another of the plus points about a good boring life in which nothing much happens is that dead people speak to me.  I know what you mean, John, – I tell him – but I promise to be more parsimonious with the full stop.  He didn’t answer me, although I’m sure Muriel Spark would have had a neat riposte to hand.  I’ll have a chat with her tomorrow evening.

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