Friday, October 20, 2006

Praktiss Makes Perfekt

There’s an old joke about the man lost in New York. He stops a passer-by, obviously a musician, carrying a cello in its case and asks him how to get to Carnegie Hall.

The musician looks at him thoughtfully and says, “Practise, my boy. Practise. It’s the only way.”

And I think that’s the way it is with writing. I always marvel at those who claim to have written their first book at an advanced age. It must have been terribly hard work, mining those words from a very deep seam, if you haven’t done a bit of opencast shovelling beforehand.

I was some ten years old when I first got into print with my family newspaper (I always deny having been a press man but this is an exception). The type was set up using a John Bull Printing Outfit which restricted you to three or four lines at a time, making the procedure pretty laborious. Fortunately the circulation was restricted to three – my mother, father and a maiden aunt who lived with us at the time and it seems to have run to no more than two or three editions. Probably I ran out of “e’s” in the John Bull outfit.

But you see the point. I always thought I could write and even the differing opinions of countless editors have never dissuaded from repeating the exercise. As a teenager I was the dramatic critic for a local newspaper, who were only too pleased to find someone to work for peanuts. They were less enchanted when I wrote that I was unsure whether to send the cast of a recent amateur theatrical production a congratulatory telegram or a “get well soon” card. I was unaware that the editor’s wife was playing a leading role, which just shows how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and accurate research is a sine qua non for a writer.

The first writing job that actually produced some revenue for me was as a copywriter for an advertising agency. In Victorian times this would have given you an outlet for some flowery and purple prose but now means that you have to get the message across in the least number of words, taxing your artistic abilities to the limit.

And no professional scribbler can afford that luxury item, writer’s block. I can honestly claim never to have been afflicted with this psychosomatic disease. I have, however, had frequent attacks of a malady with very similar symptoms, extreme idleness. This has the same effect upon productivity and I suspect that those who claim the former as being their disease are really using it to cover for the latter.

For me it strikes most severely in the summertime and usually coincides with spells of good weather. Writing whilst lolling in a hammock is difficult even if you are J.K. Rowling and write all your stuff by hand. Using a computer, as I do, it’s an impossibility. Then there’s the grass that needs cutting and a myriad other jobs that get in the way of the artistic process during the summer months.

But this does not stop you from thinking about what you might be writing when you finally get around to it. And once you have the thing worked out in your mind, putting the thoughts down on paper becomes far less of a chore than if you were to sit gazing at a blank computer screen or a page of paper. And there is no doubt that the more you write, the easier it becomes to express your thoughts.

It is, of course, no guarantee of quality, as readers of this column will undoubtedly be prepared to testify.

During my lifetime, I have started innumerable projects that have lingered on and then died as the dread disease has stricken me. They are filed away in a drawer marked “Too Difficult,” awaiting a resurgence of interest on the part of this author to have another go at finishing the book. Naturally, this will be impossible during the summer months for the reasons stated above but now, as the evenings shorten, they might have a chance and I may take them out and dust them off.

So, as winter draws on (as they say), I am sure I can look forward to an increase in my productivity. But then, on a cold winter’s day, with the logs crackling in the fire and a pleasantly fugged up atmosphere around the place, I feel an attack of my old disease coming on. Extreme idleness has struck again.

Then I take a look at my bank balance and head to the computer. It’s a remarkable cure but is, I suppose, only applicable to those who earn their crust by the pen.

And my bank manager has never heard of writer’s block - but I suspect he knows a bit about extreme idleness and can recognise the symptoms when he sees it. Perhaps I need to get some practise in.


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