Another Post Where I Go On About Tom Drury

After deciding to spend the Christmas period reading The End of Vandalism again I think I can safely say that it is one of my favourite books. It’s hard to tell when you first read something if it’s a favourite or just fresh in your mind, but Tom Drury’s first novel was not only as good as I remember, it was improved by a revisit. The crafted layers of repeated motifs are invisible the first time around, but reveal themselves in unexpected ways when you come back again.

It is amazing to me how little of a novel actually sticks in your mind. I guess it shouldn’t be. 350 pages of prose can cover a lot of ground, and Tom Drury covers more than most with his rotating ensemble cast and countless walk-on bit parts. I thought I remembered it pretty well, but there was plenty that had drifted out of my mind. But the stuff that I did remember, and remember as being some of the most emotionally wrenching stuff I had ever read, was just as powerful the second time around.

Do you have to say spoiler alert for a book that is 22 years old? I’ll say it in case these first two paragraphs have inspired you to go read it. Spoiler alert, guys. Spoilers.

The section of the novel where Louise discovers that her unborn baby has died but has to go through with the birth regardless is written in the most unflinching way. I cried the first time I read it, and a little more the second. Drury’s writing style is so spare and minimal, picking out the details that really speak. The tiny nuances of the way people talk, the power of a handful of words. I mean, look at this bit.

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Or this bit,

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The book is littered with these careful little moments that reveal so much depth. The book feels airy as you are reading, but the weight it carries is astonishing. It feels like what Drury has done is curate a series of moments out of the lives of his characters, finding the poetry that rises up like an emergent property, greater than the sum of its parts, like you would expect a good novel to be. It is so hard to explain why this book is so good, there’s not a great deal of plot to hook a person with, but it’s loaded with character.

Like I said in my last post, re-reading is something I want to do more of. Recently I have been reading tons of short stories in the literary journals I am exploring and for years I tried to read as much and as broadly as possible, but going back to something that resonated so much and spending more time with it has been well worth the time, if not just for the pure love of it, but for what it gave me. I can see why some people dedicate their lives to studying a single book or a single writer. When you find something that resonates the depths that it has can seem endless, and the way it seems to change with you can feel pretty surprising. I’m not going to dedicate my life to only reading the works of Tom Drury, there’s too much else out there for me to do that, but I have no doubt I’ll be reading the other two books in the series again soon, and all of them again after that.

My Nerdy Boring Schedule

I’ve never been good at organising or scheduling myself and when it comes to writing my time has never been especially well planned. I have too many projects on the go at any one time and often no plan on how to tackle any of it. So I end up doing too much at the same time and achieving relatively little.

If something doesn’t come naturally to you, but you need to do it, you need to find ways of implementing it. You need mechanisms that make up for your deficiencies. I work hard, that comes naturally, but, if left to my own meandering devices, I don’t work efficiently. And if time is short – and it always is – then you need efficiency. I trained a kind of orderliness into myself for my day job because it was absolutely essential, but it did not come naturally, or easily. So I’m trying out a boring little schedule for my writing to see if I can improve how much I can get done. It tells me what to do so that on any given evening I can just sit down and get on with it.

Be regular and ordinary in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. Gustave Flaubert

And so my new writing schedule looks like this. Monday, submissions. Tuesday, fiction. Wednesday, blog. Thursday, fiction. Friday, nothing. Weekend, fiction.

Doing nothing on Fridays isn’t new. My average Friday is get home, eat dinner and then watch YouTube until I fall asleep. It’s just that in the past I would have felt guilty about it. Now it’s scheduled, so I’m fine. My wife helped to come up with the schedule and having a day where I deliberately don’t do anything is all down to her It’s a good idea – even a necessary one – and I never would have come up with it myself.

And having a whole evening set aside for submissions is essential at the moment because I am submitting a lot. Submitting work to places can be a lot more time consuming than it seems, if you take care with what you are doing, and I think you should. But researching publications, reading what they have already published, formatting your manuscript to meet their requirements, writing the cover letter, checking everything so you can be confidant in what you have done, all of that takes time. I spent this Monday doing submissions as this is the first week I am trying this schedule out and in the time I had available I was able to do three. Even though it would have been good to do more, in the past that would have spiralled out and eaten multiple evenings that really ought to be spent writing. Browsing the statistics on duotrope is one of those compulsive things can really get out of hand. But Monday is done, three is how many I did, I’ll do more next week.

This blog was something else that tended to get a bit lost. I’m not entirely what sure this blog is about exactly, other than me just blathering on about the booky stuff in my life, but I knew I wanted it to at least be regular, and reasonably frequent. It didn’t used to be. I used to manage about one post every two months. So I tricked myself into writing a blog post every week by declaring on the front page that that’s what I would do. It worked too. Aside from a couple of weeks ago when I was away on holiday I managed to do one post a week, for what that was worth.

But of course the real purpose of all this is to create the space to finish the fiction I start, and we’ll see how that goes. The truth is I never know how much time I am going to get in an evening. Sometimes it’s hardly any, and sometimes even if I have a lot I still don’t get much done. Sometimes writing works and sometimes it doesn’t and scheduling it doesn’t make the words come any better. But the space is there waiting for it.

Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life. Lawrence Kasdan

You never really switch off from being a writer. I carry a notebook everywhere I go and I’m constantly grabbing it to get something down quickly. Mostly it is full of sentences that come to me while I’m doing something else. I don’t tend to write ideas down, but I have to snatch at the sentences before I lose them. If I forget an idea that I thought sounded good I assume it can’t have been that good at all. But if I lose sentence, that stings. This week I wrote the same sentence down four times throughout the day, all phrased every so slightly differently. Getting it just right is delicate work, but when it flits through your head you have to grab it. So it’s not like I won’t do anything until my scheduled writing evenings, but that’s when I can get some serious work done. That’s the bit of my week that is for nothing else but writing.

Lincoln in the Bardo, Toby in the Lake District

This is where I have been this week.

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After a very long time without a holiday we finally managed to get away and have the most perfectly tranquil few days that I think it is possible to have. It ticked all the boxes on my short list of boxes to tick. Nice coffee, nowhere to be, nowhen to be there, a good book, and a nice view.

We got out a little bit, but November in the north of England isn’t always the best getting-out conditions. We did manage a little walking, taking our inadequate footwear on an adventurous hill climb along steep ravines that eventually took us to our destination; a waterfall with a rainbow in it.

Here’s the water fall with the rainbow in it;

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But never mind the holiday snaps, what did I read?

I read this years Booker prize winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. This was one of the short-listed books that I wanted to read but I didn’t get around to it until after it had won. The structure of this book is astonishing. It’s like a faux montage of historical texts, snipped and bound together to create a wider view of a short period of time during the American civil war when President Lincoln’s son died. Early on there are some lovely moments when the historical texts contradict each other a little, throwing doubt of the accuracy of any of the reports that followed. The book then seems to become a charming Shakespearian tale of the ghosts that inhabit the tomb that the president’s son has been placed in. All these elements coalesce into a story about loss and grief and letting go and moving on.

The two elements, the American civil way and the grief of losing a child (as well as the grief of losing a father) come together in some brilliant scenes where the ghosts inhabit the president and we see inside his head a little, but still with the lens of doubt about the authenticity of the reports we are given. And the way the story focuses on such a short span of time and uses that to muse on a much larger historical subject is masterful. Simultaneously small and sweeping in scope. I can’t think of another book I have read that is like this one.

And reading it in such a condensed way was lovely. It’s not often you can sit and read next to a lake for hours on end. Oh go on then, one more holiday snap.

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Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

This week I read Bad Dreams, Tessa Hadley’s short story collection. I have been reading an awful lot of short stories lately, partly because I went on a literary journal buying spree a while ago and they have been slowly arriving in the post. But I bought Bad Dreams because Tessa Hadley judged The Bridport Prize in 2016 so I figured since she read my story I should take a look at hers too.

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I thought Bad Dreams was absolutely brilliant. That’s why I’m writing about it here. (I don’t blog about books I don’t like, I tend to just put them away and move on.) The stories are made up of the most mundane ingredients that slowly come together to make something greater. All of her stories have a kind of airy triviality about the events and the characters, how small their lives are, how inconsequential it all seems, but then by the end of the story those trivial details have transcended and become bigger and more significant. I absolutely love how she does this. This is what realism can do so well. Taking all this stuff that is boringly familiar on the surface and contextualising it so that it seems almost magical.

A couple of the stories really stood out for me. Her Share of Sorrow is about a young girl who discovers reading, and then writing, and sets herself to writing a novel. Her family discover the novel and make fun of it a little, and so, crushed by this, she retreats and finishes it in secret. See how small that story sounds? But it evokes the private thrill of writing so perfectly that it almost has a transcendent quality.

But by far the best, for me anyway, was Silk Brocade. As soon as I finished reading it I instantly read the final few pages again. It is about two dressmakers who are hired to make a wedding dress for an old acquaintance. It about loss and change and drift and reunion in a most unexpected way. As much as I want to describe the clever, heart-breaking ending, what I think you should really do is try and read it for yourself. If you like that kind of thing. I think it is one of the best short stories I have ever read.

I enjoyed this collection of shorts so much I am certain to try one of her novels later. If I can ever make it through the mountain of short stories that I have recently acquired – made more difficult by the fact the Jeffrey Eugenides new short story collection Fresh Complaint came out recently, as well as the 50th issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, which is particularly lavish, even by their high standards. Here, look at it. Who can resist this?

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The Importance of Structure

One of the things that is most important for me when writing is that I should understand the structure of what I am trying to write. I might not always know what the structure is when I start, but it is essential that I figure it out along the way. Often when I write I start with something very loose and unfinished, often just a scene or a few sentences that seem like they go together, but along the way if it doesn’t start to take shape I’ll probably just abandon it. My computer is littered with stuff like this. Interesting little ideas, quirky scenes and phrases, but not necessarily stories. A story has to be story shaped.

Recently I started working on a new piece. At first all I had was one sentence, which I scribbled down and then expanded into a scene. Then I wrote another, separate, unrelated scene. What’s it going to become? It might turn into something, but it might just fizzle out. A lot of them do. For it to become something it has to stop being a few strands that feel like they belong to something else and become a complete whole. Something that when you read it leaves you feeling like you have the totality of the thing. And that doesn’t necessarily mean following the usual route of a story. It doesn’t have to mean disruption of the status quo, rising action, resolution. It doesn’t necessarily mean beginning-middle-end. It might do, but it doesn’t have to. It just needs to feel complete.

In a recent essay on the Glimmer Train bulletin, writer David Ebenbach wrote an interesting point on a difference between a novel and a short story.

“What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things. That’s why you have the hundreds of pages leading up to the climax; those pages suggest the philosophy that you can only fully understand that climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it… The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different. The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything”

This is an interesting idea, and a useful way of thinking about form. Novels are about movement, change, impact, cause and effect, consequence. His definition of a short story, the detail the contains the whole, is fantastic I think and really captures something of the magic of a good short story. And thinking about these different narrative forms in this way, as being essentially different in both what they are trying to do as well as how they are trying to do it, means that thinking about how to structure them becomes a little more apparent. I remember when I was young and showing short stories to my mum she used to tell me that they felt like unfinished novels. That was probably because I hadn’t learned the shape of a short story. The condensed, rounded little thing that lets you hold the entirety of it in your hand. It’s very different from a novel, that needs to move and sweep and before it lands.

The structure of a story doesn’t have to feel obvious to the reader, but if it is there they will feel it. Like how you can’t appreciate all the architectural complexity of a building just by walking through it, but you can get a sense of the wholeness of the thing. Structure delivers the reader through the story, and lets them know where the edges are. And for the writer it is the boundary that you are going to work within.

One of the best moments, for me anyway, when writing, is when the structure emerges and I can see the whole of the thing. Suddenly it is manageable, even if there is still a lot of work to do. I know where I am starting from, where I am trying to get to, what to fit in, what to leave out. Learning what to leave out was a big step for me. The first novel I ever wrote didn’t leave very much out at all and I think the first hundred pages or so were chronologically continuous and so the structure, such as it was, was like a slow walk down a long corridor. I am trying to develop a better sense of the motion of a story and the planks that let you walk along it. The way the ending connects to the beginning, the way it all flows together, so that it feels complete and satisfying and whole.