Are you a writer, and if so do you live in fear? If yes and yes are your answers to this double question, then you need The Way of the Fearless Writer: Ancient Eastern wisdom for a flourishing writing life by Beth Kempton (Piatkus, £14.99).
Ms Kempton herself has already overcome her own fears to write other books, such as Wabi Sabi: Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life and Calm Christmas and a Happy New Year: A little book of festive joy. In The Way of the Fearless Writer, she offers fifty writing exercises to help others “open the floodgates for” – brace yourself – “all sorts of things to come up and spill out”. If that image for your writing doesn’t appeal, think of it instead as an invitation to go on a “sacred journey”, not through arduous perfectionism or the “tyranny of critique”, but on a path of “ease, discovery and wonder” “.
We’re sold. Where do we start? On page 33, apparently, after much useful scene-setting (“when you begin a writing session with a ritual, you carve out a circular space off to the side of your day”). The first step of the first exercise is to step away from the world (“close a door, or go to a café perhaps”). “Switch off your phone and get quiet.” We must next light a candle and “mindfully breathe”. We open our notebook (“or laptop”) and record the moment of doing so, via the date, location “and any other sensory observations”. Then we… “Simply keep writing”. If the page remains obstinately blank at this point, maybe “Pull out an existing piece of writing and go deeper on it”. That’s more like it – we have pulled out a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald and are going deeper on plagiarizing the witty bits (which is more or less all of it). Just as all sorts of things are starting to come up, however, the next step in the exercise calls on us to “prepare to wrap up”; lastly, we must “return to the world”.
This is our (Othello-ish?) cue to blow out the candle.
“Many people cannot comprehend that authors can be perfectly ordinary – not rich, well-connected, eccentric, but just like themselves.” So wrote – in the TLS, in 1991 – the admirable Hilary Mantel, who died last week. The author of Wolf Hall (2009), as well as other widely praised novels, some delightfully provocative essays and the memoir Giving Up the Ghost (2003), was also once (take heart) an aspiring novelist with no publications to her name. The oddities that came with finally breaking into print – with the novel Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985) – were her subject in that short piece published in the TLS just over thirty years ago.
I was in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia when I got the news that my first novel was to be published. For some hours I was almost dumb with shock. That evening I went to a party – a party where there was a real drink, instead of the brain-death liquid that ex-pats brew in the privacy of their own bathrooms. Under the influence of a gin and tonic, I managed to whisper that the thing I wanted most in life had happened at last.
“Have you any idea,” a man said [to] me, “how many books are published in the course of a year? And how few of them get even one review?”
Things are little better back in the philistine West. The question of how these seemingly ordinary people get their names into print begets both a “savage disappointment” and a “dogged impertinence”:
People will quite happily ask a writer how much she earns; they wouldn’t ask a plumber, or a lawyer. If you give an answer, they’ll compare you unfavourably with Jeffrey Archer.
Living in expectation of such treatment has consequences. Treat a writer as a “freak” and you drive them into the company of other writers. (We hear that this sort of company is dangerous enough on other grounds.) They are suddenly “living in a ghetto”, and “the kind of life that was once their subject matter has disappeared from view”. What is there left to do but to “write a book about someone who is writing a book”?
“Nothing so compelling, so irresistible, had ever been posted on the hoardings of the metropolis before. Some gazed at it with awe, as if it were the final achievement of modern art; others jeered … everybody, however … was forced to stop and look at it.” Why did the poster reproduced here have this effect on those who first saw it on the streets of London, in the spring of 1894? (The recollection is that of a contemporary expert in the field, Charles Hiatt.) Because it was the work of Aubrey Beardsley, being his first essay in the form; it was commissioned by WB Yeats’s enterprising theatrical associate Florence Farr. The poster was a bigger hit than the plays it advertised – one by Yeats, the other by a fellow Irishman, Dr John Todhunter – at Farr’s Avenue Theater near Charing Cross. Whatever naughtiness the lady depicted here is looking on, she is doing so through a gap in a spotted veil – a pattern with distinctly syphilitic connotations that were not lost on the less innocent passers-by.
To the collection of literary anniversaries for 2022, let’s add Beardsley’s – he was born on August 21, 1872 – and be glad that this most literary artists is the subject of an exhibition that opened this month at the Grolier Club in New York. Decadents of all stripes have until November 12 to pay sophisticated homage, via Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young. Drawn from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection of the University of Delaware, the exhibition includes not only a copy of this striking poster but Beardsley’s drawings for the Yellow Book and the Savoyas well as letters, books and assorted ephemera.
The seventy-fourth issue of Banipala “magazine of modern Arab literature”, announces that it is also the penultimate issue of Banipal. First published in 1998, it was launched by Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon in the face of an “abysmal lack” of Arabic literature in English translation. The world has changed, they note, not least technologically. There is now a “global landscape” of Arabists out there; it is time to “hand over to the next generation”. The digital archive will remain available via libraries and other institutions. In the meantime, the current issue of Banipal has remedied our ignorance about Iraqi prose poetry and the “peerless” literary critic and translator Khalida Said.
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