Calvino’s Kaleidoscope

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’ve always wanted to read this, as many a literary critic has sung its praises and now I can see why. Plays with all the themes of postmodernist writing — self-referentiality, intertextuality, genre, parody, and literary theory — but does so with such a self-assured mastery of craft and story that I couldn’t put it down. Like The Name of the Rose, or Borge’s library, it draws ‘you’, through a deft use of second-person narrative, into a dizzying hall of mirrors, false starts, and kaleidoscopic carnivalesque. As Joyce said about Ulysses, it will keep the professors talking for years. A game, a trap, a ruse, a brilliant multithreaded interrogation of the intimate, mysterious, magical dance between writer and reader, text and world, beginning, middle and end.



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Djuna Barnes

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I was drawn to this book because Djuna Barnes was a member of the modernist expat Paris-based circle that included Gertude Stein, who I am writing a book about. Although I acknowledge this slim novel was ahead of its time in the way it presented lesbianism and transgenderism, and it creates a unique atmosphere of an other-worldly underworld Paris, I found it a bit hard to get into. It made me think of Woolf, Joyce, Beckett and other modernists, but didn’t quite ensnare me and pull me in like those writers do. Still, I’m glad I read it and the eerie, dark, sub-logical, liminal, demi-monde it portrays is deliciously idiosyncratic and haunting.



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Knausgaard on writing

Inadvertent by Karl Ove Knausgård

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This essay cuts to the heart of what writing is with the clarity of a diamond. Knausgaard talks about his failures and successes in trying to write authentically without artifice or pretension. His method involves stripping away all hindrances to capturing the truth of a moment or an experience. He also writes eloquently about the ways that culture and common beliefs shape the way we see the world, literally constructing the world we inhabit. He touches on how science, for example, colours the way we see the world, but stumbles in helping us to answer the big philosophical questions that children naturally ask, but adults learn to stop wondering about. What is the world? How did it come into existence? What is the meaning of our time here on earth? I plan to keep reading as much Knausgaard as I can get my hands on. A modern-day Proust who writes with the unashamed honesty of a Sartre or Beauvoir.



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Writing Tips

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, McCann’s book contains lots of really helpful little gems for the young (and not so young) writer. The prose is fresh, honest and pleasantly surprising, and refreshingly free of tired old cliches like ‘show don’t tell’. Covers all the aspects of being a writer, from seeking inspiration to dealing with frustration and failure, finding an agent, not finding an agent, etc, etc.



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Knausgaard’s Struggle

A Death in the Family (My Struggle Book 1)

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgård

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’ve been looking forward to reading this for some time and it did not disappoint. Knausgaard is rigorously honest, but most if this honesty is targeted at himself and his own (often ‘unacceptable’) thoughts and feelings. He comes across as an outsider looking in on life, in the tradition of Sartre’s Roquentin in Nausea. The writing also poignantly and painfully describes the distance between us all even when we are close. A fine piece of literature that belongs amongst the best in the existentialist canon.



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A Writer’s Paris

A Writer's Paris: A Guided Journey For The Creative Soul

A Writer’s Paris: A Guided Journey For The Creative Soul by Eric Maisel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A writing friend recommended this to me for my recent self-arranged writing residency in Paris and it was perfect. Bite-sized pieces that I could read each day for inspiration about places/things/attitudes to get me in right frame of mind for creating. And it had a very important message which I heeded – to write in Paris you have to sit on your bum for many hours and write! The writing won’t just appear from endlessly swanning around Paris’s glorious streets, although I made sure i did a bit of that too…



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Read. Plot. Write.

That’s my 3-step approach to planning, structuring and writing a chapter. Or a book. Or an essay for that matter. I write narrative nonfiction: biography and cultural history. I’m often trying to capture a time in history, or a particular person’s contribution to history, so I need to research and absorb lots of disparate facts before trying to string it all together into a coherent, engaging narrative.

I’ll take you through the 3 steps I’ve developed, and describe how they work for me.

Read

I also call this phase ‘Dream.’ It’s where I read for hours, days, sometimes a whole week, absorbing everything I can about the subject in question. I prefer to read actual books, especially second-hand ones I’ve found in bookstores or libraries. There’s something more inspiring about the smell of old texts, the yellowing of pre-loved pages. While reading I prefer not to take any notes, but occasionally I’ll jot things down in pencil on 5×3 index cards, each allocated to a different sub-topic. I especially like to record things I might not remember, like quotes, dates, names and facts. After reading for a few days, I go for a long walk or have a sleep, and when I return I . . .

Plot

I also call this phase ‘Draw.’ It’s where I activate the right hemisphere of my brain, the visuospatial part, to map out scenes for my chapter, chapters for my book, or if I’m writing an essay the subcomponent ‘pulses’ or ‘beats.’ Each of these scenes is represented by a post-it note, ideally just one word, that might have underneath it several 5×3 cards with details, facts, dates, quotes, etc. Even though I write nonfiction, I like, as much as possible, for the scenes to have the qualities a scene has in fiction: subject/protagonist, action, object, place, time, etc. I like to be able to visualise the scene as if it were in a film. And the post-it notes together must have a dramatic arc that gives narrative shape to the chapter.

Scenes for current chapter I’m working on

Sometimes I find it helpful to do a bit of mind mapping too. There are apps for this, such as Scapple and Simplemind, but I find a big block of white art paper and pencil (and eraser) easier to work with. Here is my mind map of the same chapter, including all the characters that will be involved. (If you’re wondering, this is a chapter on Marie Geoffrin, the greatest salon host of the French Enlightenment, and one of the seven women I explore in my next book, Salonnières.)

Mindmap of characters. Words on left are scene titles.

Write

Now that I’ve read/dreamed and plotted/drawn, it’s time to put it all away. I have my structure ready. As Hemingway once said:

‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.’

When I’m ready to write, I will select whichever post-it note I’m up to, read the 5×3 cards under it, put it all away, go for another walk, and when I come back, start writing non-stop (without notes) until that chapter (usually 1-3,000 words) is complete. I won’t stop to check dates, quotes, etc because that will stop the narrative flow that is so crucial to first drafts. I can always come back later to fill in the missing bits.

Anyhow, that’s my process: Read. Plot. Write. What’s yours? I’d love to hear your thoughts about what I’ve described above, or any other processes you’ve found helpful to get those words flowing in the way you want them to!

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