Robin Yassin-Kassab

Writer Talk

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Notes for a talk to the Dumfries Writers Group tonight. It’s pretty narcissistic, but narcissism is what I do. I’ll also talk about the practicalities of finding an agent and a publisher, and about blogging.

Where does the urge to write come from?

It comes from the fear of death. From where all human effort beyond eating comes from. Maybe eating too. But the fear of death is only one way to say it. Writing is the attempt to control what can’t be controlled, to impose pattern on confusion, to battle time by recording it, to immortalise thought and sensation, and so to make them sacred. A vain but very human enterprise.

The film director Werner Herzog said, “I believe you can discover a very deep, ecstatic truth by fabricating.” I’m not sure what this means, but I’m sure I agree with it.

Also, for me, fabrication is a channel for passion which might otherwise express itself as anger.

But to be more specific, about my own case: I returned to Oman from Sri Lanka with tropical bacteria eating their way up my leg. I was hospitalised for two weeks. The leg was nearly amputated.

While I was lying there, reading Bellow’s Augie March, worrying about my rotting body, about death, I decided to start writing. Just to write. I’d always wanted to be a writer, because I’d grown up with the idea, probably learnt from my grandfather, that writers were the most valid type of human being, most worthy of fame and respect, the most honest, the ones who see most clearly. The ones who win immortality. Proper Writers.

But I’d never written. Not in a sustained way. So I started, and discovered something remarkable: a writer is someone who writes.

It is. You see, I’d thought a writer was a culture hero. I’d dreamt about being rather than about doing. Dreaming about being a writer but not being one made me very depressed, with the insignificance of my job and with my life in general. Once I started doing the writing, however, I became much happier. Writing became an action, a process, and no longer an impossible ideal. The glory of it is the constant engagement and struggle, not the book in the shop window. The book in the shop window was actually something of an anti-climax, although I remember an hour-long drugs-free cocaine rush on the hot pavements of Souq al-Khoud the night my agent called to say she’d sold the novel.

To make a novel you need characters and you need a journey, because the human Ur-plot is a journey – of departure, initiation, and return. This is how we understood life when we were hunter gatherers, and this is how we understand our lives now.

The journey can be enacted on any scale. It could be: depart to the pub, argue with girlfriend, return home changed. It could be depart up the Congo, see the heart of darkness, return home with wiser eyes.

Plot – the mechanics of the journey – arises from conflict, and from the character itself. “Character is plot,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said. The conflict could be between characters, or within the heart of a character, or between the character and some greater power.

When I started I had two characters, a man and a woman. They had no distinctive features, no history, no identity. But they came into focus as I worked. It seemed the more I wrote the more I uncovered them and their story. As if it was all pre-existent, and I just had to chip away to reveal it. Chipping away, that’s what writing is like. A struggle to chip away at your own limitations and blindnesses, at the layers of cliché and received thinking built up inside.

In my novel the conflict is between the main protagonist and his wife, and between the protagonist’s parents, and between atheism and Islam. The protagonist’s journey is from belief in atheist and nationalist myths towards an Islamically-tinged agnosticism, from denying and ignoring an unwelcome piece of information towards accepting and digesting it, and from being a bad human being towards being a better one. The novel is also in some very partial way a glimpse of the world’s journey towards September 11th and what followed. In some novels, the world is a very important character.

It is amazing to watch your words slip your conscious control and take on their own life. I belatedly discovered I had written about some of my own life issues, without planning to. For instance, I was a teacher (a good teacher), and the novel is filled with bad, or strange, teachers. Also some of the father stuff looks suspiciously like my relationship with my father, although mine is a very different character. And it’s astonishing to see the characters behave according to their own logic, and not yours. Whenever I bent the characters to my will I failed. It would have been a better novel if I’d allowed them more freedom.

Do I enjoy writing? Not so much enjoy as thereby feel justified in existing. I have bad justification anxiety. When I’m not writing I worry: what’s the point of me? or What’s the point of the universe? Or more positively, I sense that the universe, and my chance to glimpse it, has a point, but the chance is passing me by. I am wasting my time. It is all waste – until I start writing. Writing helps me to stay awake, to notice, to engage. Perhaps I feel I cheat time by recording it. Otherwise, I can’t explain why it’s good, other than to say that writing like praying is beneficial to my mental health. And the exhilaration that you experience when you write a good sentence is like nothing else. The whole process is wonderful. Except when it hurts. When you write a bad sentence, or chapter, or book, or when you fail to write at all. And when it hurts it hurts as much as a wayward child. All that investment. The late nights and early mornings. The emotion. The sense of potential. When you see it going off the rails, when it reads back flat, you feel anger, terror and despair.

But more on the process: After a lot of writing – by hand – and a lot of crossing out, I could see something of a structure. Structure was the product of a million tiny decisions rather than the imposition of a single decision from above. I did a year of part-time writing before I saw a novel in it. Then I moved to the computer (always keeping a pen nearby to work through knots) and started laying it out chapter by chapter. Within each chapter, I worked scene by scene. The writing became much easier at that stage.

Editing is a difficult stage, or at least a different stage. It doesn’t have the same flow to it as writing on a blank page, but it can be very stimulating. I did most of the editing when I still had three chapters to write. Or to complete. Surprisingly, the tension increased as I reached the end. I could see a hundred little things to do on the way, and I couldn’t relax until the job was finished.

In retrospect, I have ideas on what’s wrong with the novel, or what I would like to do differently. The first thing is, when it moves beyond the main two characters, the novel’s dominant genre is satire. And satire is the easiest thing to write. I’d like to write prose just as exciting but calmer, if you know what I mean.

Second, the last third of the book becomes very digressive. Allan Massie in the Scotsman was kind enough to call the book ‘remarkable’, but felt that it could lose fifty pages. One reason I kept those late chapters in was simply that I liked them. By the time I wrote them I’d become much more fluent and exuberant, and I was proud of myself. Another reason, more serious, was to set up belief systems to parallel the main two that concern my characters – Islam and atheism. So I have episodes to show other religions such as pyramid-scheme capitalism, reductive brain science, black nationalism and art-as-spirituality. I don’t particularly regret the structure, even if a straightforward plot movement would have sold more books. Damn, I like Thomas Pynchon as well as I like Truman Capote. But I recognise that my novel is more of a narrative than a novel, and I would like to be able to deliver a nicely tied together plot, with suspense and pay off and the rest. I’d like to understand how to do that.

Anita Sethi in the TLS also liked the book, but wrote that the style at times degenerates into ‘theoretical disquisition.’ I think this is true, and those sections and word choices look ugly to me now. For that reason I wish I’d put it in a drawer for six months after I’d finished writing.

And now for the ‘difficult second novel’, which contains at this point much more difficulty than novel.

D.H.Lawrence said this: “Publishers take no notice of a first novel. They know that nearly anybody can write one novel, if he can write at all, because it’s about himself. A second novel’s a step farther. It’s the third that counts, though…If [a novelist] can get over that ass’s bridge he’s a writer, he can go on.”

It took Nadeem Aslam a decade to write his beautiful second novel Maps for Lost Lovers. Zadie Smith, so I hear, considered getting a real job while failing to write her second. Ralph Ellison never finished his.

Here are some of my problems. Nine months ago I moved from Muscat to Castle Douglas. This change has thrown me in every direction. The time in Scotland feels like a pregnancy, and I feel that now something new is being born. Whether human child or demon I know not.

Another problem is the self-consciousness that comes with being published. I ask myself the useless questions a Proper Writer is expected to ask, like What kind of a writer am I? and What kind of writer should I be? Some questions help, but not these. Because I don’t have answers to them, I feel less qualified to write a novel now than I did five years ago. Five years ago I didn’t ask the questions.

I might have told myself that as a published Proper Writer I could now choose what to write about. This might be wrong. Perhaps I should only write about what I must. Perhaps there is no should.

In my failed attempts at a second novel I was trying to do too much, and trying to do contradictory things. I wanted to do something brisk and pared down, yet also felt I had to be flowery, like a Proper Writer. I wanted to write something concerned with memory and timelessness, but also something locked urgently into time. I wanted my setting to be both Edenic and apocalyptic. Perhaps I’ll be able to tie these contradictions into an artful tension when I’ve written a few more novels, but not yet. I’m not capable.

I wrote what seemed to be two thirds of a novel, and then started again, in the first person. That time I wrote about half a novel, whatever ‘half a novel’ means, before I came to a halt.

And come to a halt I have. It stopped being fun. The flow stopped. This has been tremendously depressing, as if the Scottish dark wasn’t enough. But I feel I am just out of the trough. I’m reading a lot, and scribbling little nonsenses in notebooks. I have a couple of ideas, which may or may not lead to products. I may skip the second novel and move directly to the third, or I may revisit the second. Maybe I’ll never achieve another finished product. But I remind myself that it doesn’t really matter: writing, like life, is a process, and it’s only the process that counts.

(Since I’m linking to reviews, you’d better read the best, by the lovely Aamer Hussein.)

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 21, 2009 at 1:28 am

One Response

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  1. This is a great post mate and delightful to read. Very insightful!


    April 21, 2009 at 1:47 pm

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