Thursday Three #5

In today’s Thursday Three, our weekly assortment of oddities in triplicate, we give you a brief introduction to three of the best writing guides.

1. Perfectionism your problem? Scared to ruin that astounding paragraph in your head by daring to write it down? Silly fool! Anne Lamott has this to say to you:

LamottPerfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is the perfect kick in the pants for those of us who have trouble with the actual writing-stuff-down part of writing. Lamott is down to earth and inspiring, and her humor, compassion, and good-natured crankiness somehow make the pen-to-paper business feel less like torture and more like fun—urgent, essential fun.

2. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield suggests that writerly procrastination can be blamed on a force he calls Resistance:

War of ArtResistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work … Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work … Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.

This all sounds rather dramatic, but Pressfield’s notion of Resistance will feel familiar to many aspiring writers—and viewing one’s mundane daily struggle to write as a minor skirmish in an epic, ongoing battle against Resistance is… kind of fun. The final third of the book gets a bit mystical and dippy (“I plan on using terms like muses and angels. Does that make you uncomfortable?” Why yes, yes it does!), but the first two-thirds of The War of Art may just make a writing warrior out of you.

3. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is for those of you who have conquered perfectionism and procrastination and are now going about the messy business of making sentences. Gardner sees fiction as the creation of a dream in the reader’s mind:

Art of FictionWe may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must … be vivid and continuous—vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they’re doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgements must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion.

Drawing on examples from Homer to Updike, Gardner demonstrates the various ways in which writers have created these dreams in the minds of readers. He addresses practical issues of craft, including point of view, sentence structure, voice, and rhythm, and his chapter on common errors—mistakes that “snap” the reader out of the fictional dream—should be essential reading for all would-be novelists. He’s particularly harsh on writers who use fancy-pants Latinate terms where Anglo-Saxon ones would do; if your story features an “inhospitable abode” instead of, say, a desert of rocks and sand, well, there’s probably no hope for you.

Thursday Three #4

A twenty-two-second video of a cat vomiting on a turtle is clearly the internet’s raison d’être, but sometimes you long for something a little more…substantial. In today’s Thursday Three, our weekly assortment of randomness in triplicate, we take a quick look at three artful and arts-full aggregators.

Longform1. Longform is really two sites: the original Longform, which offers a collection of non-fiction, old and new, and their sister site for fans of make-believe, Longform Ficton. They have an impressive list of writers, from A. M. Homes to ZZ Packer (they index authors by first name, oddly), and they source their essays and short stories from a wide range of publications. I recently read—and heartily recommend—Zadie Smith’s essay on her uneasy relationship with Facebook and Mac McClelland’s account of her “brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying, dildo-packing time inside the online-shipping machine” (i.e. why you should buy your books from a bricks-and-mortar bookstore and not that other place).

By the way, if you hate reading lengthy articles on your cumbersome computer screen, you can always sign up for a free service like Instapaper, which lets you save web content to read later—so when you’re on the bus and you’re sick of playing Hearts against computer avatars with 1950’s barbershop hair, you can pull up a saved essay about pro-level Ultimate Frisbee and feel just that little bit smarter.

2. Videosift is my go-to for kitten vids, but for documentaries, there’s always Watch Documentary. You have to sift through some less-than-exquisite films (the BBC’s My Big Breasts and Me unsurprisingly ranks high in the Most Watched category), but there’s plenty of good stuff to see, and it’s free. In the Arts & Artists section, for example, there’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens and an Al Jazeera doco about death row art in Texas. Best of all, they have the entire A History of Britain series, narrated by Simon Schama, the dapper and delightful narrative historian. You don’t have to be an Anglophile to enjoy the series; Schama is a wonderful writer and an engaging (and occasionally sarcastic) host, and his approach is to focus on characters and cultures, and not on the usual boring lists of royal Richards.

3. If you’d rather stare at a few frozen pixels, check out 9-Eyes, artist Jon Rafman’s compilation of images sourced from Google Street View’s cameras. Rafman combs through the millions of pictures to find the most beautiful and bizarre snapshots of our world. And it’s a truly weird place, full of naughty children and errant tigers; car crashes and prostitutes; mysterious forests and men in white masks. It’s silly, sinister, and beautiful—and best of all, you’re living in it.

9eyes4 9 Eyes 9eyes3 9-Eyes

Thursday Three #3: Age Will Not Weary Them

Today’s Thursday Three, our weekly assortment of oddities in triplicate, falls on April 25th, which is Anzac Day down under—a national day of remembrance. The acronym ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, whose members fought for the Allies in the First World War. And the date marks the start of the (disastrous) Battle of Gallipoli, the first major campaign in which the Anzac forces took part. (In total, 100,444 New Zealanders would serve in the war—roughly 10% of our population at the time—and we suffered one of the highest death rates per capita of any country involved.)

ANZAC DayFollowing the Second World War, Anzac Day’s commemorative scope was broadened, and it became a day of general remembrance for all those lost in battle. Every year on April 25th, people all over New Zealand and Australia don red poppies, attend dawn services, and trade stories about great-uncles who never made it home. So, if you’ll forgive this soppy antipodean disruption to our regular services, let’s do our bit with an Anzac Day Three.

1. When I was a kid, the BBC sitcom Blackadder was my favorite TV program, and my father and I watched every episode together (my mother found it too silly). For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it follows the exploits of Edmund Blackadder, a cynical and cowardly chap who attempts to improve his lot in life through a variety of “cunning schemes.” Each series was set in a different historical period: Blackadder first does his wheeling and dealing in the English royal court at the end of the Middle Ages; in the next series he reappears (as the great-grandson of the original Blackadder) as a Lord during the reign of Queen Elizabeth; and then he pops up again as the Prince of Wales’ butler during the Regency period. Finally, for the show’s fourth season, poor Blackadder must serve as a Captain during the First World War.

This last series starts off much like the rest: finding himself in a bit of a pickle (i.e. in a trench in Flanders), the wily Blackadder employs various farcical schemes in order to achieve his objective, which in this case is to land himself a cushy military desk job as far from the front line as possible. The series parodied the conditions of life on the Western Front, but it never strayed too far from the show’s typical ribald silliness—it was business as usual, comedy-wise, with the familiar daft jokes about weasels and willies and potatoes. (As you’ll see in the clip below, Blackadder takes constant delight in mocking the last name of his nemesis, the upper-class twit Captain Kevin Darling.)

So imagine me and my dad sitting down to watch the very final episode, excited to see how Blackadder will once and for all escape the battlefield. A cunning plan involving a pigeon and a cigarette, perhaps? Or will Captain Darling return to England’s posh green fields and let Blackadder take over his job as the General’s chief pajama folder? Nope, not going to happen. Blackadder’s luck runs out, and in the show’s closing scene the cackles on the laugh track become hesitant, then trail off. The jaunty theme tune slows to a funereal dirge. And my dad and I had to keep swallowing the lumps in our throats as we watched the final moments of Captain Blackadder:

2. Conscientious objectors didn’t fare much better. New Zealand pacifist Archibald Baxter (1881-1970) refused to serve during the First World War—he claimed “all war is wrong, futile, and destructive alike to victor and vanquished”—but they sent him to the Western Front anyway, where he was beaten and tortured by army officers in an effort to get him to cooperate. He steadfastly refused to obey military orders, and was eventually subjected to Field Punishment Number One, also known as “the crucifixion,” an ordeal he recalls in his autobiography, We Will Not Cease:

field[The sergeant] took me over to the poles, which were willow stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height of a man, and placed me against one of them. It was inclined forward out of perpendicular. Almost always afterwards he picked the same one for me. I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation. When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood. My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position. Most knots will slacken a little after a time. His never did. The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position, causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground, as it was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch…

A few minutes after the sergeant had left me, I began to think of the length of my sentence and it rose up before me like a mountain. The pain grew steadily worse until by the end of half-an-hour it seemed absolutely unendurable. Between my set teeth I said: “Oh God, this is too much. I can’t bear it.” But I could not allow myself the relief of groaning as I did not want to give the guards the satisfaction of hearing me. The mental effect was almost as frightful as the physical. I felt I was going mad. That I should be stuck up on a pole suffering this frightful torture, a human scarecrow for men to stare at and wonder at, seemed part of some impossible nightmare that could not continue.

Baxter’s autobiography was required reading when I was at high school, and for that it got filed in the BORING BOOKS section of my brain. But picking it up again as an adult, I’m amazed by Baxter’s courage and resilience. He recounts his experiences with incredible humility, and he makes a point of recording the many acts of kindness shown to him by the ordinary soldiers. His plain, straightforward prose reveals no bitterness, only sadness and bewilderment. It’s a moving account of the consequences of dissent.

I remember before I reached the front meeting men who had been there and thinking they looked hard and strange. Their faces had a drawn look and they seemed to have eyes like eagles. Now that I was amongst them I did not notice this. They seemed ordinary, but new arrivals looked as gentle as sheep.

3. And what do we do on Anzac Day? On Anzac Day we search the house for war memorabilia. There’s a box of medals in the drinks cabinet; no one can remember who the Star of Burma belongs to. There are also letters from my great-uncle Eric, who served with the Auckland Mounted Rifles during the First World War. He spent most of 1915 in Turkey, his horse tethered to a tree. He writes to his mother:

I forgot to tell you in my last letter that we had seen quite a number of swallows; the first we saw was on New Year’s Day, and we have seen them on several occasions since.

We are all hoping and living for the day we shall be in the thick of it, and it shouldn’t be long now—there are hundreds of our infantry boys to be avenged, some battalions were almost wiped out. But you needn’t worry too much about us, Mater, as there is a ten to one chance in our favour, and things are not quite what the papers say. Don’t believe all you read in them.

He was killed at Gallipoli a few weeks later.

My grandfather’s records from the Second World War are kept in the writing desk, beneath the Christmas wrapping paper. He would never talk about the war, and there isn’t much to go on; just an army logbook and a bundle of pay slips. He served in the Pacific for 796 days, and for this he received £39.16. He took with him to war a pocket-size New Testament and a photo of his wife.

His brother Harold also fought in the Second World War, in Tunisia, and tucked inside the logbook is a letter to their mother from Harold’s Company Commander:

Dear Mrs Hill,

I saw your son killed. It happened during an attack on a strong enemy position in front of the village of El Hamma, in the Mareth Line. He was with 2nd Lt. Friend (since wounded), his Platoon Commander, and his section, mopping up German pockets of resistance. He was endeavouring to get some Germans out of the bottom of a trench, but was shot through the head at very close range. He died instantaneously.

On Anzac Day we wear crepe-paper poppies and thank our lucky stars.

Thursday Three #2

Today’s happy threesome is themed for your convenience, and that theme is the weekend’s nationwide bookish events.

First up, if you’re in Houston on Saturday you really should stop by the sixth annual Houston Indie Book Festival. According to the press release, “the event serves as a spotlight on the writers, artists, journals, presses, independent bookstores, and organizations that are committed to preserving and promoting the arts and humanities within Houston, Austin, Louisiana, and the entire Gulf Coast region.” There’ll be a ton of literary journals and indie press books for sale, plus live music and OMG FOOD TRUCKS. And best of all, we’ll be there, wearing our Host Publications hat (similar to this), to take part in a panel discussion with Grey Gecko Press, JoSara MeDia, and Write Bloody Publishing. We’ll be chatting about what makes small presses so special (and so challenging), and there’ll be a Q & A afterwards, so please do stop by the tent on the eastern lawn of the Menil building at 1.30pm to heckle us fondly.

The Last BookstoreNext, let’s check out The Last Bookstore in downtown LA, for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books After Party, starting at 7pm on Saturday. The event is open to the public, and alcohol will be served, which means you can get a little tipsy and make awkward small talk with the good people from Granta and Bookforum. You should also explore the bookstore itself, which is an amazing, cathedral-like space; it was recently listed as one of the twenty most beautiful bookstores in the world.

Finally, after a good night’s sleep, let’s pomade our outlandish mustaches and head east for the Brooklyn Zine Fest, which will be held on Sunday from 11am to 6pm at Public Assembly in Williamsburg. More than eighty zine creators (zineators? ziners?) will be displaying their wares, including artist Chris Piascik, whose Typostruction zine features a combination of cool typography, whimiscal illustrations, and… cats.

Chris Piascik

Thursday Three #1

Welcome to our first Thursday Three, a round up of a trio of odds and sods*, old and new, that have fancied our tickle here at Malvern this week.

First up, a movie recommendation: you really should see Beyond the Hills, the new film from Cristian Mungiu, director of the brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days:

Set in grimmest Romania in the depths of winter, Beyond the Hills is the story of two friends, Voichita and Alina, who grew up together in a bleak and seedy orphanage (is there any other cinematic kind?), and who are reunited at the beginning of the film after some years apart. The troubled Alina has been working as a barmaid in Germany (this is possibly a euphemism for something kind of gross), and she returns to Romania to persuade Voichita to come and join her. Voichita, however, has found God: she’s now a novice at a remote and austere Orthodox convent, and she refuses to leave. It’s clear the two girls were once extremely close—it’s hinted that they were lovers, though it’s possible the intensity of their relationship has taken on an exaggerated significance in the mind of poor Alina—and Alina is heartbroken to find that her role in Voichita’s life has been usurped by God, and by his representative on earth, the convent’s formidable priest, whom the novices call “Papa.” Stuck in the middle of nowhere, with a distant friend who offers biblical homilies in place of real comfort, Alina becomes increasingly unstable—there’s a seizure, an attempted suicide, and a little light arson thrown in for good measure. Not to give too much away, but if I tell you the movie was inspired by the real-life case of an exorcism gone awry, you’ll see where this is heading.

It’s a long and meandering film, full of lingering, meticulously composed shots, and it’s as austere as the place it portrays: there’s no music, and many seemingly crucial plot details are left vague. What makes the film so riveting is Mungiu’s refusal to take sides: this is not an anti-religious screed, but rather a complex portrait of a murky moral world, where confused and frightened people do whatever they can to hold on to what is dear to them. You’ll want to see it with a friend, so you can have someone to argue about it with afterwards.

Next up, the Michel Houellebecq interview in The Paris Review is maddening and hilarious and well worth a read. Here’s an excerpt:

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that you possibly had an American side to you. What is your evidence for this?

HOUELLEBECQ

I have very little proof. There’s the fact that if I lived in an American context, I think I would have chosen a Lexus, which is the best quality for the price. And more obscurely, I have a dog that I know is very popular in the United States, a Welsh Corgi. One thing I don’t share is this American obsession with large breasts. That, I must admit, leaves me cold. But a two-car garage? I want one. A fridge with one of those ice-maker things? I want one too. What appeals to them appeals to me.

And finally, here’s a short and charming clip about a Norwegian man who has been dubbed “the most easily scared guy in the world,” and who should also be declared “the best-natured guy in the world”:

* Do Americans say “odds and sods”? I’ve lived here for seven years now, and I still find myself asking “do you say this?” on a near daily basis.