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Tom Eaton

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Terrified by a blank page

Where does this fear come from, this terror of writing things down?

I had forgotten the horrors that haunt the blank page until I announced my creative writing course a fortnight ago. For me writing is a career, a job, even a chore, sometimes a joy and always a compulsion. But in email after email I found the same tension: I want to come, I’m dying to come, I will come…but I’m scared. Sticks and stones can break our bones, but it seems that words reduce us to gibbering blancmanges.

For the blancmanges who do come to my course (and let me punt it shamelessly by mentioning that there are plenty of places left and that the Book Lounge’s couches are unmatched in comfyness) there will be a chance to transform into less wobbly puddings, perhaps even to discover something resembling confidence. For the rest, thought, there remains only the horrible white expanse of that first page, that awful seething mass of black letters, ants rushing about on the tiny carcass of a good idea.

So what is this fear of writing? Is it the anxiety that comes with exposing ourselves, the dream where we’ve come to work naked? I’m not convinced, simply because not all writing is painfully autobiographical (especially not the stuff that sells). Can if be fear of ridicule? Again I doubt it: most inexperienced or anxious writers show their work to people whom they can trust to be, if not gushing, at least kind. Of course, there is a worse fate than ridicule: silence. Perhaps we fear the mortification of standing alone in the silence – grown 7-year-olds to whose birthday party nobody has come.

This conjuring of childhood horrors is significant for I suspect childhood, or more specifically childhood schooling, lies at the root of our fear of writing. It is possible that our anxieties have been heightened by adult literary snobs and aloof grownup writers but I believe that the damage has been done long before we encounter those cobwebby killjoys.

When we are five or six creativity is a smear of primary colours on a piece of paper. If our parents and teachers can muster enthusiasm, our efforts are praised, put in drawers, framed and generally smiled upon. (Sometimes we branch out with a doodle in crayon on a wall although this work is generally less well received by adults.)

As our hands and eyes get cleverer so do our drawings and paintings. And then, somewhere around our ninth or tenth birthdays, we intuit a new reality: somehow we decide that Painting Is For Babies and it is time to evolve. The crayons and paints are quietly packed away and the letters of the alphabet (whose forms we have been dutifully squeezing out of leaky fountain-pens or sticky ballpoints for years) step forward to claim hegemony.

Suddenly creativity is no longer a process of adding colours and shapes but of removing or denying mistakes. We begin to rub out words, Tip-Ex over entire lines. Creation now implies anxiety; of being exposed as a bad speller, of not knowing Grammar, of having ugly handwriting. We have left the Eden of pictures and entered the wilderness of writing.

(This eviction from creative Paradise might account not only for people’s fear of writing but also for their child-like confidence in critiquing the visual arts. Our intimate relationship with pictures ends long before we have learned either aesthetic self-doubt or critical thought, perhaps the reason why so many intelligent adults are so easily dismissive of visual arts. When your last drawing – of a windmill, done in exciting tones of blue and red, when you were eight – was met with universal adulation it can be extremely difficult to acknowledge that you don’t know what you are looking at or that the artist you are critiquing knows more than the eight-year-old you. “I could do that,” we say, giving voice to a part of us never damaged by adulthood.)

Even the word describing the creative act became fussy as “art” gave way to “Composition” (somehow implying a dark twin, Decomposition). I always disliked that word, perhaps because my writing was anything but composed and was usually a variation on a theme by Sellers and Milligan or a one-paragraph report on a showdown between a time-travelling Spitfire and a battalion of Roman balista-operators. But if I disliked it my little classmates feared and hated it. And little wonder as they were stood up against a wall (those pretty pictures of stamens and the planets and rearing horses spelling out the alphabet could just as well have been bullet-holes) and told to read the sad huddle of word-refugees cowering on the page in their shaking hands. Short of reading to an empty room there can be little that can crush the delight in words more efficiently than reading to twenty or thirty bowed heads in a room smelling of anxiety.

How sad that this should be the case; that so many people should be frightened of something as simple and natural as transcribing the conversations or describing the pictures in their heads. What a pity that so many will never meet one of their closest friends – their writer’s voice – because they are too frightened to sit quietly and listen.

On Thursday evening I had a glimpse of what writing could be if we allowed it to become a normal, even banal, part of our everyday lives. At the Book Lounge the venerable Contrast was celebrating its fiftieth year in print and contributors and benefactors were reading extracts from the new issue; outside in Roeland Street the city was going home. The noise of rush-hour mingled with the poetry, and the poems survived, thrived. They did not need to be protected or read to aficionados in a hushed and sound-proofed auditorium: they were part of the modern world, like raindrops on a windscreen. A meditation on the crucifixion was combined with the revving of pimped Hondas at the traffic lights. An ode to a lover was briefly accompanied by a man on a cellphone saying, “No well then that’s just tough shit if she can’t get it down, I told her…”; a delicate observation of a grain of sand was almost drowned out by a group of young labourers running past in a clatter of unlaced shoes hurrying to get the train. Writing in the world, in the city, on a street corner, being enjoyed or ignored depending on one’s tastes and circumstances.

If only writing could always be thus; as free and uncomplicated as a newspaper blowing away down Roeland Street.

********
For more on my writing course to be held in March, click here.

Write well, write now: a new creative writing course

What is writing to you? A chance to slip into a different skin? A holiday in a country of your own creating? Or simply an itch you need to scratch? Whatever it is to you, you can learn to do it and do it well.

Whether you have half a novel in your desk drawer, a jumble of images and phrases in your head, or just a sense that you want to write Something, come and learn how to get it written and how to get it right.

Spread over four evenings in the cosy and inspiring Book Lounge in central Cape Town, my course offers an adventure down the highways and along the byways of creative writing. Learn the skills, dodge the pitfalls, understand the secret world of the writer, and discover the freedom and focus of writing well.

Week 1: Such stuff as dreams are made on
We discuss where our ideas come from; how to catch them and pin them down; what you want to write and why; how to start, and much importantly, how to persevere. Unusual hands-on exercises will also introduce participants to new ways of looking at the world and finding the stories hidden all around us.

After the first week’s session you will write a short piece of prose which you will use as a literary laboratory in which to hone your new skills.

Week 2: Sowing the seeds
We discover the secret of the narrative formula; the difference between plot and story; tread the fine line between archetypes and stereotypes; cut through the chatter to find your voice as a writer; and finally indulge our inner Dr Frankenstein to create a character…it’s aliiiive!

Week 3: The difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug
We explore the powerful tools of precision writing: the secrets of good dialogue; the difference between talking and saying; showing and telling; when to enter and leave a scene; and finally we declare war on adjectives, adverbs and exclamation marks.

Week 4: The P-Word
How to polish your work to a bright gleam through rigorous editing; the do’s and don’t of publishing (what happens next and what doesn’t happen next); editors and the Wicked Witch of the East; agents and other myths; and the dirtiest word of all – money.

In the week following the course you are welcome to email me your polished and edited prose piece from Week 1 and I will give you detailed feedback on your writing.

When: 2, 9, 16, 23 March 2011, 7.30pm – 9.30pm
Where: The Book Lounge, Roeland Street, Cape Town
Cost: R2,000 (including materials)

To book your place in the course please email me at tomeaton (at) mweb (dot) co (dot) za. Please note that the course size is limited to allow for maximum personal attention for each participant, so book early to avoid disappointment.

Tom Eaton has taught in UCT’s creative writing programme and is the author of three novels published by Penguin SA. He was a columnist for the Mail&Guardian for four years and was co-founder and head writer of satire website Hayibo.com. He has also written two television series (MNET and SABC2) and had two feature film scripts developed (Videovision and Bob Films).

Age of the Dinosaurs, Age of Mammals, Time Of The Writer, Age Of Youtube

A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in Time of the Writer in Durbs there by the sea.

As with school, university and the working world, it wasn’t memorable because of what I learned or the worthy discussions I attended, but rather because of the people I met: the organisers with their missionary zeal, the taxi driver with his exquisite Indian head-shake, a side-to-side flick of vertebrae that speaks volumes, most of them damning; and of course the writers.

The writers were marvelous. There were the monstrous narcisists who live in a parallel universe in which their every sigh and shrug is applauded by an invisible host of slightly horny young readers. There were the earnest and fey academics who have never been away from an institution of learning for longer than a summer holiday and who don’t understand what you do (“You mean magazines don’t give you tenure? But how on earth do you get grant money!?”). There were the accidental authors, people like myself, who felt like terrible frauds, expounding as evasively as possible their theories on writing that they had quickly cobbled together in the bus on the way to the venue so that they weren’t shown up by the bloke who had gone to Cambridge to get a PhD in Talking For A Very Long Time.

And of course watching all this was the audience, everyone from naughty students press-ganged into helping organise the thing, right through to those hunched and itchy-looking creatures in raincoats who sit seething in the second row, planning their question about narrative fiction and the hegemony of the Western war machine, which ultimately comes out all in a rush, with lots of hand-gestures and in complete silence because they haven’t switched on the microphone.

It was solid fun, but as the week progressed an elephant began to take shape in the middle of the room. We dutifully talked around it, and listened attentively to those who were speaking about something rather than just speaking. But it soon became clear what the elephant in the room was; and I suspect it is an elephant that sits in every room wherever writers meet.

Put simply, the elephant was our readers, or indeed, any readers.

I’ve been to a few get-togethers with crashing bores, and when you stand and listen to their conversation, a din like that of sea-birds begins to form over the noise of words. One sound starts stabbing up through the rest: “aye”. If you listen long enough you just hear “aye aye aye”, like gannets on a rock. This noise comes from three words that are being constantly repeated at these sorts of events: “I”, “my” and “mine”.

At Time of the Writer a fourth “aye” was added to that dine: “writer”. It was added with the intention of helping develop a book culture in this country, but all it did was trap the discussion in the language of vanity, whether in the form of old-fashioned self-love or the more pernicious self-adoring verbosity of academic language, and drag attention away from the question of who was reading all the books endlessly being written by me, myself and I.

I think the Durban event is an admirable one, and I wish it well, but the Age of Youtube and Twitter has arrived. For writers to get together for a week to discuss writing, instead of planning for the mass-extinction of book readers, is rather like Stone Age cave painters having get-togethers to discuss the merits of ochre- versus blood-based paints, as the first flakes of snow start falling outside.

Yes, our schoolchildren need to write in their own languages, as someone has pointed on out this website. But why even talk about writing when there is so much reading still to do?

Andre Brink Ate My Baby!

At least that was what I hoped to find someone screaming as the 7de Laan Omibus rattled interminably past on this Sunday afternoon.

For those who have not yet discovered their inner soap addict, the 7de Laan Omnibus is not an ancient double-decker that becreeps the streets of Jozi. Instead it is all 583 episodes of 7de Laan from the week just ending, shown all Sunday long in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention.

Days of Our Lives has done marketing cross-overs for some time (old school Dool pros like me will recall the recent Rolling Stones concert at which Austin and Carry rediscovered each other, the light glinting romantically off Mick Jagger’s moist and prehensile bottom lip, and I suspect we are about to enter a whole NASCAR phase with the implausible EJ Wells at the wheel of Shaun Brady’s supercar).

Local soaps have generally been a little coy to indulge in full-blown marketing ploys, and have tended to stick to breaking news (“Gosh, bru, how’s that hectic thing in Bali, hey?” “Ja, pretty hectic”). But 7de Laan started pushing the envelope, to borrow a phrase from the test pilots, when Matrone and Hilda foisted their boerewors on us.

But this week the Laan went one step further, when the plot reached out of the telly like that soggy child from The Ring and grabbed our very own AP Brink and Karina, plonking them down in the Laan’s bookshop for one of the stranger launches of ‘n Vurk in die Pad’ to date.

I thought he handled himself beautifully given the plot constraints, and brought a faintly tragic air of reality to the scene, rather like someone playing a cello at a Jonas Brothers concert.

But I must confess that I was disappointed.

Where was the titanic battle of wills between Brink and the Laan’s own Top Author, Ryno? At least they could have arm-wrestled while sneering out pithy retorts, or had a fire-eating contest to prove which of them had spent more time on the left bank of the Seine? (Obviously ABP would have won, leaving Ryno to skulk out saying, “I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little fork too!”)

Where was the scene in which a tormented Brink, hounded by his cigar-chomping publisher, clutched at his eyes and sobbed, “I…I just need…more time! You don’t understand! None of you understand!”? Where was the scene in which Karina’s boerewors fails to be shortlisted by Matrone and she storms out, slamming the set door hard enough to make the wall flex like one of those wow-wow boards they use to make thunder noises in school productions of The Tempest? And where were the accusations of baby-eating that mark the truly great soaps?

“Andre P. Brink! You ate my baby!”
“Madam, I assure you I only deconstructed it.”
“You monster!”
“Shall I make it out to anyone in particular, or just ‘Best wishes from’?”
“Make it out to Stacci. Two c’s and an i.”

Buddy, can you spare a Nobel Prize?

R.W. Johnson reckons South Africa’s usual Nobel suspects got their gongs by hopping on the Apartheid bandwagon. Apparently young Nelson was taking the long view when he planned his career: go to school, train as a lawyer, get nicked, bounce a baseball against a stone wall for 27 years, and then…jackpot, baby! “I’d like to thank my warders, without whose patience this wonderful award would never have been possible! And Hendrick V, is he here tonight? Hendrick, are you out there? Oh, I think he’s been perforated by a tapeworm, but okay, HV, I love you, man! Geez, who else? There’s…I’m…Oh, they’re started playing me off the stage. Thank you! Thank y…”

So what hope is there for a young writer growing up in the R of SA? How can this callow and coddled thing ever hope to dangle Swedish gold around his pencil neck when he’s been so cruelly liberated by history, so unfairly tolerated by the political system of his day? Should he just stop writing now, as so many of those rejection slips urged him to do when he was at University and kept sending inspirational Winnie the Pooh stories to The New Yorker?

No.

There will always be new windmills to tilt at, even though he’s not entirely comfortable with the allusion because he’s never read Cervantes and is more or less winging it on general knowledge. There are stories that must be told. Or at least synopses to be written.

I shall write on the beaches, I shall write on the landing grounds, I shall write in the fields and in the streets, I shall write in the hills; I shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this solipsist or a large part of him were subjugated and starving, then my imaginary empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the imaginary pod of exploding killer whales I have at my command, would carry on the struggle, until in God’s good time, my Editor, with all her power and might, steps forth to the rescue of my ego. Or until they tell me to stop being such a poseur by whipping out my bloody laptop on every bloody field, beach and landing ground, because only total wankers write in public.

I will not cease from mental fight, nor will my sword sleep in my hand, til I have watched Chariots of Fire enough times to the end to get the full quote right.

All of which has brought me to this decision. I can and will win a Nobel Prize by fighting the fight of my generation and my class. I will win my Nobel Prize by creating a body of work that critiques the shortage of internationally popular causes in South Africa.

I have already begun to plan it: ‘Why Won’t Anybody Listen To Me?’ (Acme and Acme, 2010), ‘Somebody Really Ought To Do Something About The Crime and That’ (self-published, 2012), and ‘Waiting For The Barbiturates’ (e-book, 2014).

The Brinks and the Jonkers were the Sestigers. We think Le Roux might have been one too, but we don’t know how to pluralize ‘Le Roux’ because Afrikaans Second Language was an awful long time ago: we suspect it’s got an apostrophe somewhere but we might be making that up.

So, yes. They were the Sestigers. We shall be the Tsetse Flies. They opened eyes. We shall close them. Let us embrace our calling, and accept that suburban ennui is the new angst. Come on, young middle class writers! Join me as we storm the barricades at the end of our road, lay siege to Woolies Foods until they restock with blueberries, and singe the literary world with the white heat of our boredom, cutting through the bullshit like a hot simile through a cliché!

Let us fret about capitalism over drinkies at La Frommage Exquisite on Friday afternoon! Let us decry the dehumanizing effect of an online life by posting important thoughts on www.whatireallywanttodoisidirect.org!

Once more unto the beach, dear friends!

We are Les Miserables of the burbs! We have come to correct the politics of today! We are political correctors!

(Cantabile, con brio, con chocolo malto)

Do you hear the people sing (which is not to dismiss the efforts of the tone-deaf, who have their own special skills)?
Singing a song of angry men (and women, who have more reason to be angry than men)?
It is the music of a people (or nation-state, or tribe, or clan, or collective)
Who will not be slaves again (because slavery is WRONG)!
When the beating of your heart (or whichever significant organ your culture privileges)
Echoes the beating of the drums (or some other affirming symbol of cultural heritage)
There is a life about to start (unless you have chosen to remain child-free, which is also your right)
When tomorrow comes (if God wills it, or physics demands it, whichever you feel more comfortable with)

Cover me. I’m going in.

NOTE: the opinions expressed in this posting do not necessarily reflect the views of the author, his holding company, the state in which they are licensed to trade, or the Government of the Republic of South Africa. All reference to anything are fictitious, or made up, and bare no similarity to anything, at all, either real or imagined. The exploding killer whales are real, though. No, they’re not. Except they are. No. Yes. Come on. Seriously. Really? Perhaps.

A Suitably Rich Boy

Vikram Seth, who received a R2-million advance for A Suitable Boy, at the Jaipur Literary Festival today:

“Good books get praised, bad books get praised. Good books get ignored, bad books get ignored. The world is, at best, indifferent to writers.”

Yes, sir, Vikram! Sign me up for some of that indifference! And then it’s dinner and dancing ’til dawn, rounded of with cigars on the poop deck and long maudlin chats about how nobody pays us nearly enough attention.

Oh, and tip the waiter in Euros, darling. Pounds aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on these days.

Mind the gap

Loitering in fiction section of a Bookshop, God knows why as new books make me anxious and depressed. But still, vanity frogmarches me down the shelves and the alphabet to the E’s, just to see if my novel is there. I realise I am walking like middle-aged men walk in sex shops, just before they are offered help by a clerk and blurt, “No thanks, I’m just looking.” Crabwise, raincoated, tumescent.

It’s not there, and there’s a brief and familiar argument between my two rival gangs of Greek choruses, standing at stage left and right. Gang A: “It’s not here because they’ve sold out.” Gang B: “It’s not here because they’ve sold out and haven’t re-ordered.” Gang A: “But they sold out.” Gang B: “YOU sold out.” Gang A: “Yo mamma.”

But they’ve become dull over the months, and in that time I’ve become more interested in examining the gap where my novel once stood than wondering what the gap means for global literature and my career.

The gap is usually demarcated by two pillars, obelisks in the desert that have not yet crumbled. Usually they’re worthy tomes by Easton and Eatwell, or Easter and and Ebbings. In more ratty bookshops they tend to be less terse and waspish, as harried staff re-shelve books by title instead of author: observe the Eagle Annual of 1958, then my gap, and then a collection of annotated Eggnog recipes.

If the bookshop is ratty and frequented by academics the pillars are usually very worthy and utterly unreadable: The Agony and Ebony (filed under ‘Ebony’ by accident), a postcolonial biography dwelling on Michelangelo’s Moorish influences; and either its sequel or something on quantity surveying by Edelstein, Edelstein, Edelstein and Smit.

But in this Bookshop the gap is somewhat more telling. It is constructed thusly: Dostoevsky, GAP, Eco.

How pernicious this writing stuff is. How it lies, constantly. Sit snug and smug between Fyodor and Umberto and you’ve made it. Provide a tennis court for fishmoths while the Russian and Italian loom on either side, and it’s as if you never existed.

I don’t mind the gap, but I do mind that it makes me so vain, and so erratic.

Overheard at the Cape Town Book Fair

Malcontents among the fruit flies, two English visitors sat ruminating about the slabs of Book Fair Meat on their plates. I had asked to share the corner of their table, for there was no room at the inn, and she had waved a blinged finger and redistributed her collagen into what, in her girlhood, had been a smile.

As far as I could tell through one disdainfully turned ear, the Book Fair Meat was an immense disappointment, although he seemed to be enjoying being disappointed.

“I suppose it’s what you get,” he said, secretly relishing being stiffed by natives.

“Stringy,” she said. “From there?”

“Over…don’t look, yes, that enormous Afrikaans fellow. Behind him.”

“The Afrikaans one gave it to you?”

“Behind him. He was literally putting books down on all the chairs, like you do with towels on the deck chairs.”

Presumably one can put down books on deck chairs in a figurative sense.

“Dear me,” he said.

“Is it stringy?” she asked. Apparently stringiness was on her mind. God knows it was all over her neck and wrists.

“No,” he said. “Quite, eh, sort of needs something.”

“Do you want another?” she asked helpfully.

Remarkably, he said, “Perhaps.”

End of coffee, end of scene.

This means the end of the horse-drawn phonograph and the little doggy that looks into it

A first posting, a pebble tossed off a bridge, a canyon cautiously whooped into. Does this require full sentences? Does it count for marks?

I am presented with so many Categories, with a capital C, that they march off the bottom the page. Thank God they aren’t alphabetical or I’d see them disappear at M and lose my nerve completely. But nonetheless they are imposing.

‘Zimbabwe’
‘Genre’
‘Academic’

In that order.

There’s political satire in there somewhere, but it’s probably fairly weak.
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