The makers of literature are those who have seen and felt the miraculous interestingness of the universe …Arnold Bennett
A couple of years ago I worked my way through Julia Cameron’s excellent The Artist’s Way. Anyone who has read this work will know she is a great proponent of Morning Pages (if you haven’t read it, I can thoroughly recommend it). I have to hold my hands up right now and say morning pages defeat me, completely and utterly. Let it be known, I am no longer a morning person—I used to be but these days it takes a supreme effort of will to get me out of bed and into dog walking mode at 5:30am, it is uncertain whether at that time I have anything going on other than rudimentary brain function. It takes considerable caffeine input just to get to work on time and that’s as far as it goes. I’m a night owl and that’s when I do my pages.
To be honest it always makes me feel like somehow I’m a bit of a failure because I can’t, as all great writers allegedly do, get up at stupid o’clock to dash off my masterpiece, but I guess I’m going to have to live with that. While I’m on this particular honestly jag, I can also say I’m also a failure as a coffee shop writer. There’s no way, not even for the Booker Prize in my hot, sticky mitts, could I actually craft anything remotely readable in the midst of the zoo that is my local coffee shop—I’ll concede the odd observational note but that’s about it.
One of the things I have taken to heart from The Artist’s Way was the concept of the Artist Date – essentially a play date to go an explore the kind of input that feeds and fires the creative process. The way I have always approached this is to try to find things that sometimes explore other forms of creativity, either my own or others.
As some of my readers know, I do a lot of sewing – be it embroidery in its many forms or the more mechanised kind. I live in a permanent state of tension between my passions for writing and sewing. When I am sewing I do always feel that I should be writing and vice versa; there’s a part of me that says I should sacrifice one for the benefit of the other but I’m not ready to do that and so I try to use one to fuel the other.
Some time last year in a fit of sheer madness and extravagance, I bought a new multi-functional (and overloaded with bells and whizzers) sewing machine at not a little cost. It took me a few weeks before I dare so much as switch the thing on and when I did it was nothing short of a very scary experience—very—there were just so many buttons and settings, weird looking graphics on the little computer screen. The handbook was not so much instructional as a testament to globalization, low on instruction, high on pictograms, perfect for crossing the language barrier but totally hopeless for numbties like me. It would be an understatement to say ancient Babylonian cuneiform would make more sense to me. Anyway the machine and I had a very uncertain relationship that involved a lot of broken needles and a fair bit of strong language.
To be fair, at one point I considered that I may well have over-horsed myself, but that couldn’t be possible, could it—I am somewhat of a geek in daily life and I work in IT, so surely something as simple as a computerized sewing machine couldn’t be that hard? I thought I would take it along with me to see what the experts thought at this week’s play date—aka the first quilting workshop of the season, or so the plan went—except it didn’t, not really. Within a very short space of time, the prognosis was that it was definitely malfunctioning. Some comfort then that it’s not me, but it kind of blew my play date out of the water and the beast of a thing will be on its way back to meet its maker very soon.
It got me thinking though about past play dates which haven’t always gone to plan and one in particular which didn’t fire the imagination in quite the way I had expected.
A couple of years ago I took a trip to my local museum where I had gone to see some of the pottery the area is world famous for.
I live on the edge of the Potteries, think Wedgwood, Minton, Doulton, Spode, Wade, Tams (yes Tams) and my own personal favourite Moorcroft and you’re in the right area.
It is an area rich in history and heritage but while I was browsing through the cabinets of figurines and decorative china, I came across an exhibit to a famous son of the Potteries, one who immortalized the area in print, one Mr Arnold Bennett (27 May 1867 – 27 March 1931). His output, like many great novelists of his day, was prodigious, and some of his best-known works are still widely read: the Clayhanger trilogy, The Man from the North, Riceyman Steps, The Grim Smile of the Five Towns, to mention just a few. Bennett was a best seller although his critics might suggest his prolific output was aimed more at maximization of income than literary greatness.
Bennett it seems was something of a political animal, well regarded in certain Westminster circles (in fact in 1819 the then Minister of Information nominated him to join the British War Memorial Committee, an organization which recruited writers for the war effort). It is also said that he was a fierce critic of Virginia Woolf, engaging in a debate with her via some of the leading literary journals of the time, that lasted for more than a decade.
Such was his celebrity, for want of a better term, that when he was staying at the Savoy Hotel in London, it seems he took a great liking to an omelette which he had there and that he insisted on it being prepared wherever he travelled. I understand the ‘Omelette Arnold Bennett‘ has remained on the menu at the Savoy ever since. I’ve found recipes for it all over the internet including one by the doyen of all things culinary, Delia Smith.
I’m not sure what one should expect from an exhibition dedicated to a great novelist but I was certainly unprepared for what I found. The exhibit has preserved of all things, a pair of Bennett’s slippers and a tiny little notebook not much bigger than a book of stamps. With only dreams of such literary greatness myself, I look at my fluffy Joules slippers in vibrant shades of pink and struggle to think anyone would every want to stick them in a museum exhibit but then my aspirations to literary greatness are just that.
Anyway the point of all this rambling is to get to what for anybody other than a Bennett aficionados, may well be considered a lesser known work: The Author’s Craft (1914). The book opens with a lengthy description of an event involving and omnibus and a dead puppy, not (for a really softy like me) the most endearing of topics, but that is not the point. The description and observations are so rich and so vibrant that it puts the reader right there on the side of that dusty road in the heat of the sun. Bennett renders the scene authentically alive in the reader’s mind.
He uses this example to talk about our ability to look without really seeing, he talks about going about in the state of the observing faculties which somewhat resembles coma. We are all content to look and not see. He sums it up by a sentence of assumed conversation among those he suggests to be comatose:
“Saw a dog run over by a motor-bus in the Fulham Road this morning! Killed dead!”
The language of the book is naturally of its time and some of it is hard going but there are some real gems contained within its pages, just as relevant for the writer today as they were when Bennett wrote this fictional account of the dog on Fulham Road. It is the perfect accompaniment for me right now as I try to focus more on being in the moment and observing that which really makes the scene come alive for the reader, that miraculous interestingness Bennett talks about. The good news is that this book along with most of Bennett’s works, is available for Kindle on both sides of the Atlantic absolutely free.
Well that’s me done for the day, the #small stones remain in progress and this week I will be looking at really trying hard to sharpen up what I’m seeing and experiencing.
Wishing everyone a great week and as always good words for both reader and writer