My Writerly Influences

If I try to think of writers who have influenced me the most and try to select an exemplary passage of their writing, I don’t find the classics springing to mind. Oh, sure I’ve read plenty of books by the greats: Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy, Tolkien et cetera, but when I think about who has really influenced me as a writer and as a person, it’s actually a team of comedy scriptwriters. A merry troupe who have the power to send my writerly heart jitterbugging across the metaphorical dancefloor.

Below is an excerpt from the Dead Parrot Sketch; performed by Monty Python’s Flying Circus (MPFS) and written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman:

‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

I used to think of myself as an iconoclastic writer until I began to read about literary style and realised that it had all been done before. Stream of consciousness? Woolfe, Joyce and Faulkner. Experimental fiction? Kafka and crew. Economical and understated? Hemingway. Drugs influenced? Dick, Huxley, Thompson, Sartre. Surreal comedy? Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

All aside from the last item on that list are people I was largely unaware of when I started to write in 2013. And so when I tried to write all that weird, self-reflecting, experimental, terse, tripping stuff that writers like me write, it was with no understanding of the fact that I was coming into the station several decades too late.

What I did understand, though, is that the surreal side to my writing nature came from MPFS. My style, if I can be said to have one at this early stage of my literary (haha) career (hahaha) has been heavily influenced by their work. It’s actually something I’m trying to shrug off, so don’t sue me if you can’t see it so much in this piece.

Take the passage above. Look at the way that the dialect is indicated by spelling and apostrophisation. More than a little reminiscent of Dickens I think. And yet, in these enlightened days, we are told that we should indicate regional accents a little more subtly. Perhaps just pick a few key words used by folks from that neck of the world. I find myself bent by the rules, but a part of me longs for the straight path that MPFS marked out.

Some things are still in vogue, though. For example repetition. The way that the same information is presented over and over, but in different words. Sheer poetry! This is present in my writing too.

Another aspect of style is the mounting of tension that happens over the length of the speech. This still happens, particularly in horror writing, where the emphasis is on showing emotions rising to a climax. I have used this to good effect in several stories recently.

I’m out of word count, but I’ve mostly covered what I wanted to say; aside from this: my brain huuuurts!


Aspects of Style and Structure (more thoughts)

(continues from Aspects of Style and Structure)

Word of warning: the following is going to make no sense unless you look at the examples in the link above so perhaps save yourself some time and skip this piece altogether. End of the day, it’s just an exercise for the OU (MA in Creative Writing) and, as such, is for my enlightenment only. The more I write about style and structure, the more I’ll understand what the terms mean and how to apply them to my own writing. Okay?

Aspects of style are things like tone, point of view, imagery, rhythm and sentence structure. This is what I’m going to be talking about below.

I picked out three examples of Imagery (an aspect of style), one of which was exemplary, one interesting and another problematic. The exemplary example is a part of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which concerns a tree being eaten by ants and then resurrected in the form of seedlings using the remaining mulch as food. It’s an image that the mind can easily grasp in terms of being able to picture the scene, but on another level it works as a non-visual image of the way nature renews herself. The interesting example is a portion of a scene from Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk in which a doctor is grabbing the narrator’s foot. You can just see the guy on the bed with his arse hanging out in the air as the doctor took Polaroids of it while junior doctors looked on. The language is innovative in that it does not use clichés but instead invents phrases that invoke the image in readers minds and makes them smile. The problematic example is from Spring Fever by P.G. Wodehouse, which (deliberately I guess) features heavy use of cliché. The effect conjured is that of an author at the top of his game having a bit of fun with his audience. He has a distinct style and is milking it for all and sundry. And, of course, we smile indulgently in recognition of this.

Sentence Structure is next up as another aspect of style, and again I chose three examples. The exemplary example is from On Being Ill by Virginia Woolfe, featuring VW’s familiar style: long sentences that run on, hang together superbly, maintain interest, impart information and give a comprehensive impression of the entire contents of the author’s mind on that particular subject. This stream of consciousness style has the effect on the reader (certainly on me) of invoking a sense of involvement on the flow of thought and the argument contained in the flow. The interesting example comes from American Pastoral by Philip Roth and is an almost tongue-in-cheek example of the kind of effect that you get when you introduce lots of examples of compound (hyphenated) phrases into an sentence. They have the effect of merging what seems to be a formal type of expository writing with a narrative style in a way that both informs and yet moves the story on gracefully. The problematic sentence was written by myself because I couldn’t otherwise find a good example. It mixes styles rather ungracefully (as is the intent) in a way that makes a violent action scene seem more like a sensual ballet in a field of ripening corn while the sun sets in the background. A totally inappropriate mix, in other words, that would send any decent critic (or reader) into fits of laughter.

Point of View is the final Aspect of Style and Structure discussed. The exemplary example comes from A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch, which employs an effective (and beautiful) use of third person close (otherwise known as third person limited or limited omniscient). We are taken deep into the mind of the character here and the effect on the reader is of making them privy to something sublime. You really have to read this to appreciate it. The interesting example is The Collector Collector by Tibor Fischer, which is told from the point of view of some kind of a vase. The book, nonetheless, is very readable and has the effect of making the reader aware that there’s more to life than seeing the world through two eyes at the top end of a face fixed to the front of a head perched on the top of a body. Make you appreciate the point of view of others. And the third example; the problematic one, is from The Serpent Bride by Sara Douglass. The main problem here is head-hopping, i.e. having the point of view shift from one person to another between sentences. Done badly, this has the effect of confusing readers and breaking the spell of the book; that willing suspension of belief one gets when one is immersed in a text.

In summary, these examples have taught me that there’s a lot of depth to the subject of style and that the more I deliberately read as a writer, consciously watching what writers are doing with their words, sentences and phrases, the more I will learn how to emulate these effects myself.

In a sense, though, it’s not about learning to blindly copy a style in a blatant and overt fashion, but it’s more about absorbing these techniques naturally into my own style. The end result should be that I’m able to captivate, entertain and (hopefully) inform a reader – not by showing off my own clever style, but by having such a way with words that the reader is entertained (etc.) in spite of my presence in the prose.

In other words my style should be such that I have successfully gotten out of the way of the reader’s enjoyment of it.

Teju Cole – Open City (more thoughts)

(continues from Teju Cole – Open City (half way thoughts))

I was wondering why Cole chose to write this book (Open City) in this way and my first thought was that it’s a deliberate choice. In my mind, he wants to express the alienation he feels in his own life.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that an author, who was born in the US to Nigerian parents and then raised in Nigeria, is going to express, in his first novel, how he feels within his own skin and life and to use, as a vehicle for that, a character who is part Nigerian and part white European.

Putting myself in his place, I would feel the pull of both cultures and (so it would feel to me) both sides of my personality. In his position, I would be wondering where I belonged and would be exploring this in my fiction.

The author’s wondering becomes his character’s wandering. The character does this to express the author’s exploration of his own inner landscape. The character’s attractions are extensions of those of the author.

But of course I’m going to make these connections. And I’m free to do so. However this doesn’t mean that I am right. The author could have worked these thing out in (and out of) his psyche long ago, or may not even have had them at all, and so consequently his novel (Open City) could be an expression of how another person might see his or her life.

But either way, this is the effect the book has on me: it makes me think about myself, my attitudes to racist attitudes and how they are expressed in novels like this. This book makes me think about my own place in the world and the state of the world I’m in and the experiences that other people, maybe even people in skins that look different (on the outside (obviously)) to mine, have. And it brings me a little bit closer to sympathy in a situation where empathy is, perhaps, difficult.

That said, I get about. I’ve had the experience of being the only white person for miles around in various countries of the world and it is … interesting. But not life-changing.


Teju Cole – Open City (half way thoughts)

So, I’m reading this book called Open City by Teju Cole. I’ve reached as far as page 120 and I have to confess that I’m finding it difficult to care much about the main character, Julius.

The whole book so far is about him walking around New York and Brussels and recording his impressions. He talks about the birds he sees, the people, the parks, the streets and about his aimlessness.

He works. He had a girlfriend. He’s capable of engaging with people. But he spends most of his time alone. Walking. Listening to classical music. Watching birds.

This is basically a character study posing as a novel. Thoughts, feelings (or the absence thereof) and actions (walking) don’t really constitute much of a plot. There’s precious little dialogue. It’s just thoughts and impressions. And yes, I’m repeating this to give you some idea of how uninteresting it is to read repetition.

The narrator’s mother is Belgian and his father is (was) Nigerian. But at first, we are left to find this out ourselves (aside from reading it on the back of the book), which is interesting because it makes me think of another book I read recently (Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison) in which the author; a ‘black American’ asserts that there is an unstated and yet accepted assumption that the American novel reader is white. The book I’m reading now makes me realise that I automatically assume each character in a book to be white unless I’m specifically told otherwise. It’s an interesting realisation.

Anyway, he’s not white. And his experiences increasingly reflect this as the novel progresses. He is able to walk around places he would not be able to as a white person (Harlem for example) and talk to people he would not be able to as a white person (radicalised Muslims for example), which is kind of interesting because his thought processes seem to be much the same as mine (I’m white).

I worry about whether saying things like this is seen as being racist. Lord, let this continue to be my biggest problem in life.

So, bored so far. Hopefully, something exciting is going to happen soon. The book won prizes, so I’m holding out for this. Please let it be soon.

(more guff on the same subject at Teju Cole – Open City (more thoughts))

How to Store Ripe Fruit

Look, I promised not to kill anyone this year, and I’m going to keep that promise. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t wait until next year. After all, it’s already October and I’ve drilled holes for air and there’s a tube for food and … but wait, let me explain. Let me tell you a story.

Once, when I was in a dark place, I came upon a fragile beauty. Let’s call her Aliana.

Look her up on Google. Type ‘aliana’ and click on search. Then click on images and there she is. No, not the child, although she once was as innocent. Aliana the woman. The ripe fruit.

I don’t want to tell you this. But I must. She wasn’t meant to be taken. She was happy in her way. A carefree life of smiles and sweetness. Everyone loved her. They all wanted her. She could have had anyone. But she got me.

Some apples have passengers. Alive in dark tunnels. Moving. But you don’t know that, when you first bite. You’re distracted by the sun rising over the lake or the mist hanging just above the field. You take a bite and you suck at the juice, but still, a little escapes onto your chin, so you begin to chew and use the back of your hand to wipe.

Then, just as you’re about to lick your skin you notice that the sweet juice is red. Red? The apple is red but the flesh should be white and the juice should be anything but red! You’ve already swallowed half of your sweet mouthful, but you stop chewing to examine the apple. And that’s when you see it.

Half of it.

You bring the apple closer to your face and that’s when it starts to move. You gag instinctively. Fear of poison. But that’s overridden by your fascination; the little drama on the stage of your apple. You watch, hypnotised, as what’s left of it backs out of its tunnel. It’s tiny, enraged form comes into view and you realise that that it’s longer than you thought. Thicker. Juicy in it’s own way. More red than you believed possible. And as it moves, you see the bleeding end seal itself. And then it’s loose. You see the eyes, the teeth, the determination; all in the split second before it launches itself towards your thumb.

You scream and fling the apple from you, but too late. A pain. Quick bite of something sharper than a razor. You grab at the back of the thing, but in the second it’s taken you to bring you other hand up and your fingers together it’s already gotten itself under your skin. Just the tail end remains, and that slips from your grasp like the worm that it is.

Your eyes are wide. You stare at the hole in your thumb. And that’s when you realise that you should have spat. Should have retched. Should have thrown the contents of your stomach onto the ground. But by then you’ve already felt the sharp pain in your mouth and another inside your stomach. She’s in.

So that’s how Aliana wormed her way into my life and ate her way into my heart. Of course it didn’t hurt at first. She was gentle with me. But also, she was not as fragile as I thought she’d be.

And, of course, she was beautiful. Even when she was angry, her flashing eyes made me want to seize her by the shoulders and thrust my face into the warmth of her throat. But those are stories for another time. This is just the part about how we met, and how she ended up in a box under my bed.

Oh, didn’t I tell you about that? She’s there now – muffled rage; banging on the lid. Haha – Banging On The Lid. Sounds like some cheesy pop-song from Transylvania. Well she can bang as hard as she wants – there’s no-one here to hear her. Only me.

So, what shall we do now?

Interviewed by a Madman

Q: What is your ultimate horror?
A: In the light it’s easy to think that I have no fears. In a comfortable, air-conditioned office, the thunk of the cleaver, the spray of blood, the un-named body part skittering away into the dark corner seems not to loom, but to sit comfortably on the desk like a plush rabbit. So I guess my ultimate horror is going to be loss of limb in the dark.

Q: Is there something you can’t bear to touch?
A: It used to be woodlice; but I dared myself to pick one up and now the only fear I have in that direction is that I will hurt the little fellahs. Same with other bugs. I suppose that I can sensitise (or de-sensitise) myself to all kinds of things, like dark lanes, snakes, even the loss of body parts, but not other things – like the feeling of accidentally slipping over the edge of a high building and falling to my death. So it’s deadly things, like ice on a mountain ridge, unexpected oil on the parapet or loose gravel on the twisty road high above the plain that I can’t bear to touch. Oh, that and the edge of a razor blade.

Q: What sound sets you on edge?
A: Unexpected ones. Especially in the dark when you wake from a deep sleep knowing that you just heard a … something, somewhere in the house. And then, impossibly, you slip back into sleep and are awakened again. And the sound is in your bedroom. And you know for a fact that the doors are locked and the window are barred and it’s impossible for there to be anyone there. Because she’s dead.

Q: What do you see when you peer into the void?
A: They say that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. So that’s what’s in my void: fear. So I don’t look downward when I peer into the void. I look up and I invite the light. I cover it over myself like a blanket against the cold. I protect myself. I turn my back on the dark and walk lightward.