Exhausted and not quite Happy 73

Sorry to have been away. Putting on this show is really exhausting. It is not exactly fun either – the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is really scarey, because with competing shows numbered in five figures, just letting people know you exist is a struggle. Actually the Edinburgh Fringe is in one sense a good example of an absolutely thriving, vibrant and creative artistic event – arguably the best in the world – in which the great majority of what is going on is nothing to do with taxpayers’ money. I am sorry to say I an almost entirely against taxpayer spending on what some officially sanctioned fool has decided constitutes worthy art.

One great pleasure of Nadira’s involvement in this project has been meeting Stella Duffy. I knew of her before, but had not read anything by her as far as I remember. Her Medea is rendered in blank verse, and both the rhythms and the imagery are absolutely fantastic.

I have been read to by Nadira many, many times – I presume this is the fate of all partners of actors – and actually I am lost in admiration of Stella’s use of words, and the sustained intensity of the evocation of emotion. Images are artfully set in clusters of words, each carefully selected and placed.

It has given me severe self doubt about my own books. I know I am not trying to write poetry, but I do tend to slap words on the page just as they enter my mind. I have actually started to revise bits of my new book to try to make the writing finer – something I have never done before. Most of Murder in Samarkand I just wrote once, and never looked at or revised. Indeed, at one point I produced over 40,000 words at a sitting, without sleep. I thought that was quite an achievement. Now I am feeling less sure.

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73 thoughts on “Exhausted and not quite Happy

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  • Guest

    “Most of Murder in Samarkand I just wrote once, and never looked at or revised.”
    That is the only way to write, it comes from the heart and tells the naked truth, don`t EVER change that with…”I have actually started to revise bits of my new book to try to make the writing finer – something I have never done before.”… That starts to cloud the truth!. Always write from the heart, readers know Craig, the readers know!.

  • glenn

    MIS is a fine read as it is. Doubtless it could be jazzed up, just as my comment here would be improved upon were I a real literary critic, but it flows just fine as far as I’m concerned. It’s a noble thing to self reflect and have doubts, and probably unavoidable after attending an event such as that in Edinburgh. But surely MIS was not to create a fine work of literature so much as to tell the story, to make the point, to inform your reader. In doing so, I’d say it sits very favourably along the work of other insiders who have important information for the world.

  • evgueni

    I liked Murder in Samarkand, the style of it was very readable but more importantly it was the truth. I divide books into three categories – keep, give to charity, and recycle. Yours will stay on my bookshelf.

  • Tom Welsh

    I suggest you avoid “fine writing” like the plague. Poetry is a specialised art form, but the kind of writing you do calls for plain, simple, down to earth English – which is exactly what you already write.

    If you go chasing the will-o’the-wisp of “fine writing”, you will run the risk of actually coming across as pretentious. Good factual writing gets its meaning across as prosaically and plainly as possible, and has achieved its goal if it is clearly understood without undue effort.

  • Jon

    I am not sure beautifying prose for books such as Samarkand or Catholic Orangemen is necessary – the reader might be in danger of getting lost in the poetry of words rather than concentrating on what they mean, and of course their wider significance about Western democracies!
    Biographies on the other hand – though they are not an interest of mine – probably require a greater level of editing, cutting, restructuring, and I wonder if there is a great more opportunity for improving turns of phrase and accuracy of syntax. Your having written your previous books will undoubtedly help, but presumably you can send an early manuscript to an editor, who would advise?

  • Clark

    I thoroughly enjoyed Murder in Samarkand. I found it to be a “real page-turner”.
    Yes, my one experience of working at the Fringe was much as Craig describes. I had one day off. The company wanted me to walk around Edinburgh advertising our show by wearing a sandwich board. I told them to naff off, and I went exploring instead.

  • Clark

    I suppose Craig could always write spontaneously, and then review, re-edit, etc, and then release both versions. Then readers could take their pick.
    Craig, there is no need for the “severe self doubt” you mention. MIS is a fine book.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Yeah, Craig, your books are excellently-written in terms of structure, prose style, the depth of narrative engagment and of course, wrt the evocative, humorous and truthful depiction of important events to which you, in your various specific positions, have been privy. Persoanlly, I can’t put them down; they are compulsive reading. Your sense of personal and societal humanity comes across very powerfully.
    You see, wrt writing, it’s horses-for-curse. Different types of writing necessitate different techniques and styles. So, obviously what works well for an epic or classical play or poem wouldn’t work at all well for most non-fiction.
    Wrt state funding of some of th arts, I think it’s a complex area. I don’t think there ought to be an all-or-nothing approach, esp. in the context of the transnational cartelisation and inherent class elitism of many of the ‘private’ and institutional means of production and distribution. Many books agrresively-promoted nowadays are simply, for example, ghost-written celebrity biographies. I know that much excellent art would simply not be produced, we would never hear of it or of those artists, they would never be picked-up by the corporations that can enable an artist to live and work in and at their craft, had it not been for judicious state or local investment. Yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Of course, as with the purely private sector, it doesn’t always work out. The returns may not always be short-term and simply financial in nature – but then, since when has art been about ONLY about making a fast buck? Not to say that a fast, or even a slow, buck would not be very welcome, of course, nor that there’s anything wrong with bucks in general! Not at all. More bucks, please, lots of them!
    If we’re happy to spend on war and arms, on torture and what constitutes, in essence, organised crime (as we do; we subsidise these sectors hugely), but not on the arts, it’s a very sad day for our society.
    Yes, now we’ll get a deluge of posts about art under communism and Cuba and the USSR and J. K Rowling and Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin and Old Uncle Tom Cobbly and all.
    Anyway, good luck with the play and may its ‘Argo’ roll on fair seas!

  • Paul Johnston

    I remember my English teacher raving about Conrad and how great his English was. He always added how Conrad didn’t learn English until quite late in his life.
    However I found the books just boring.
    Beautifully crafted language cannot mask a bad story.

  • Vronsky

    Horses for courses, as Suhayl says. I think the point of departure would be Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ – I’m sure you’ve read it. There the suggested aim is simplicity and clarity, and I think you do that well – it gives a directness to the books that is necessary given their subject matter. You can see it in action in the stark language of ‘Shooting an Elephant'(though it’s an art that conceals art). Wouldn’t there be a terrible incongruity between elegant prose and such dark affairs? I suppose something like Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Bitter Lemons’ might be a counter example, although one reviewer used the phrase ‘lyrical indifference’.

  • Deep green paddock

    No easy answer here.

    K.I.S.S. is good, but art that is contrived by labour is usually called (at best) artful,and often feels wooden and contrived. Artful seems like a stealthy rebuke as much as a compliment. However it IS possible to transcend even that.
    Also, it is a shame that the most artfully arranged words often go straight over the heads of an audience, with only a moment to process what is being offered. Occam’s (e)razor springs to mind.
    Know your audience.

  • Nextus

    That seems like a strange admission from one of the most eloquent writers I’ve had the pleasure to read. I think you’re just suffering from normal artistic insecurity.
    Craig, I’ve praised the quality of your writing on this forum previously, in particular your remarkable talent for distilling absurdities. The verbal rhythms you employ are very effective: you write as you think. Free expression embodies the natural flow of intuition; whereas chopping, substituting and shuffling according to a deliberate agenda tends to create Frankensteinian monstrosities that require continual reappraisal and refinement to heal the rhythmic wounds.
    I tend to write the latter way, and it’s exhausting. While the results have been lauded by publishers and professors of literature, they’re often more verbose and less communicative than the first brush. They also lack character, like a geometric vector image compared to the evocative strokes from the natural hand of an artist. When I read your blog, I feel like I’m sitting at the feet of a master, and I pick up tips constantly.
    I notice a few of your more ‘literary’ contributors habitually tangle metaphors, allude to obscurities, and contort clauses, seemingly in the belief that these are the hallmarks of verbal virtuosity; in fact, they are the paraphernalia of poetic pretension. They provide a good contrast to the honesty and immediacy of your natural penmanship.
    As regards your books, it seems to me that the thematic flow lurches around a bit (perhaps a reflection of momentary obsessions); but I couldn’t argue with the quality of your prose. I confess I haven’t much interest in Alex Burnes – I’d never heard of him till you blogged about him – but I look forward to the forthcoming lesson in the craft of punchy and poignant biography.

  • Eddie-G

    Murder in Samarkand is a great book; people who know better than me can decide if it is great literature, but who cares really? It’s a 400-odd page endeavour, it would be a shock if someone decided it could not be improved in any way, but again that’s not the point. It was an account written in your voice, rich in detail, and shocking in its revelations. What more do people want from a non-fiction book?

    Ps. It’s probably heresy to say this, but if there’s writer alive I wish I could emulate, it’s Bill Bryson. Wit aside, he can capture in 3 lines what it takes most people 3 pages to explain. His rough and ready Shakespeare biography is what I often turn to when I am looking for ideas to improve my own writing.

  • deepgreenpuddock

    I am reminded of a very bright, very likeable Chinese student I taught a couple of years ago. He was an exceptional mathematician and specialised in various aspects of advanced electronics.
    His english was very straightforward, and very correct, although he was not a linguist, but his speech and writing was rather ‘beautiful’ in its simplicity and the way it captured exactly what was required. Qualities of the mind, like clarity, seem to shine through the form of expression.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Having said all that, then, the message might be: Do what works best in relation to what you’re trying to do. Thir’s mair than wan waye tae gie craic! So, esp. in fiction, one needn’t be afraid to use the language, to push envelopes, where appropriate. The King’s/ Queen’s English or contemporary orthodoxies of ‘less is more’ and so on, need not impede us. Again, though, I would say that, wouldn’t I.
    Nextus, wrt “a few of your more ‘literary’ contributors”, vis a vis “obscurities… tangled metaphors and contorted clauses”, you wouldn’t be referring to anyone in particular, now would you? (!!).
    Not that I would ever resort (perish the thought and jings ma Boab!) to posting obscure vignettes from the various corners of the multiverse through darkened lenses and etiolated mists over pre-Raphaelite islets (and crooked stiles) in pretentiously flowery prose…
    Artistic insecurity is catching! Need some three-chord rock.

  • John K

    It’s a common second (or third) book syndrome, I think. But writing is like any profession, you need to practice to improve.
    However, more experienced writers tend to get more and more prolix – just look at Jo Rowling (no K), Philip Pullman, Wilbur Smith etc. Partly publishers and editors get frightened to tell you to edit down, partly they and the author think longer is better, etc.
    If you’re revising to polish or cut out unnecessary verbiage, fine; if you are just adding more and more words to appear more “literary”, I would say “don’t do it”.
    One of my bosses once told me he could cut 10% from any text without losing any of the sense. I don’t think that’s always true, some writers *are* concise and spare in their prose, but I know what he meant.
    I recommend Ursula Le Guin’s “Steering the Craft” on the art of writing.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    You see, I agree with everyhting everyone’ said here. But, to be Devil’s Advocate for a moment, there is argument that the current fixation around spareness and minimalism in literary style is, in part, a conservative reaction to the explorations that ocured post-WW1. In some ways, literary style tends to reflect th impact of concepts derived from technology and politics. There also, in the past, have been huge influences from science and psychology: Freud and Jung had a big effect, for instance.
    One can find numerous articles in the MSM, ‘How to’ manuals, MLitt course (taught by ex-MLitt tudents), etc. reinforcing these contemporary orthodoxies. They then come to be taken as received truths.

    Now, obviously, unnecessary words – words that impede, rather than contribute to, understanding and communication – need to be cut. Even published things can be cut further, though there is a time to stop cutting. I mean, I’ve trimmed the same story (a post-edited story, that is, i.e. ready-for-publication) for different publications from 3,000 to 1500 words for the purposes of space in those particular outlets. It loses something, but also may gain and you often have to change the story to make it still hang together. Which is fine. It’s a balance, it’s what works best for the specific story.
    The other point is, in fiction, one needn’t be restricted to linear ‘storytelling’; as I said, thre’s more than one way to allow a narrative to unfold in the reader’s mind. One can utilise many techniques, including, for example, some of those more commonly used in religious texts or texts derived from multiple oral sources, words from different languages and dialects, etc. Every langauge is a different take on the universe, so through words, one can open-up worm-holes.

  • Nextus

    I’d qualify as a ‘literary’ contributor too, Suhayl – I’m also good at tangling metaphors and tripping up on tropes (as well as alluding to a lot of alluring alliteration). Sometimes I say a lot more than I need to, and that’s why I admire Craig’s ability to express his thoughts with great precision. Verbose? Verboten!
    Q; How do you find a worm-hole?
    A: Cover it in talc and wait for it to fart.

  • ingo

    Don’t doubt yourself, Craig, because what and how you write is you, myself like so many others, have enjoyed your excellent dynamic, almost providing a vision of the the Fergana valley, for the reader to pleasure, your writing rolls along, it must have been a feast turning it into a radio play, it is versatile and easy readable, comes from thwe heart, a quality I especialy enjoyed, no frills, as it comes, like a burn gazundering down the steeps, the reader is taken on a journey.

    That said, you could decide that a certain paragraph of your forthcoming autobiography is penned in a more floral muse, for reasons of the beauty of Afghanistans mountain and fertile valleys, for the beauty of the people, women, or for any other poetic Weltanschaung you detect in his annals and records. There’s a first for everything.
    Your books I have in my front room, have been lent out to friends, the fourth person is now reading MIS, the more who read your books, the more…. tiddly pom. You can be proud for many reasons, but especially for your writing, thank you.

    My best to Nadira, three deep breath, curtain, lights….. tadaaaaa!

  • Nextus

    That should be:
    “A: Cover the worm in talc and wait for it to fart.”
    See. Sometimes I even fail to qualify my pronouns. Bah!

  • de Quincy's Ghost

    What’s that Steinbeck, where he remarks that he doesn’t generally favour hooptedoodle, but just in case anybody fancies, here’s a spare chapter that isn’t doing anything else …
    John K – thanks. I hadn’t known of that essay, but will bear it in mind. Her writing does the job so beautifully you hardly notice it’s being done.
    I dunno, I’m not a writer. But I read a lot … I tend to find myself admiring an author’s cleverness, or “style”, or whatever, only as a side effect, when they’ve made their point clearly, told their story well, got their facts across intelligently, whatever it is they’re doing, rather than for the sake of its own sake. Especially since we’re talking non-fiction.

  • Nextus

    Ingo, I find your notion of a “floral muse” very appealing. I would be happy to encounter one at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Or Leith docks, if I get really desperate.

  • Owen

    Craig, MiS is such a great book because you come across so strongly in it. I had a pretty good idea of what you were like from it before I met you. As a book it has a fundamental honesty that makes it extremely compelling. You render the events in a straightforward manner that doesn’t feel glossed and spun. In particular, you are incredibly honest about your faults as well as your strengths, I guess as a result of the meat grinder you were put through. The lack of dissembling makes your retelling of events clearly partial but also far more powerful and believable.

    Perhaps the only improvement it could have was the elements David Hare put into the radio play from your ex-wife, only as they put it in slightly more context (though in a more deliberately dramatic fashion). Still, don’t be embarrassed of your writing, it is excellent. I’m eagerly looking forward to your next publication as I am interested to see how you approach history.

    As a note I wonder if you have read The Guns of August (also called August 1914) by Barbera Tuchman. A favourite of mine (and Pulitzer prize winner) as it so stitches history, personality and a sense of story more familiar from fiction that factual writing. I think a lot of historians take on a particular faux academic style that may be rhetorically helpful but damages the readability to no real benefit. I very much enjoy genuinely academic history but that is a different thing to history intended for the general intelligent reader.

  • TFS

    So you pie Mr Murdoch and you get a 6 week prison term…..

    What will Mr Blair for treason in taking the coutry to war?


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