Writing Strategies – Displacing Procrastination

I’ve had my other hat on recently, not the writing, but the reading one.  Over the Christmas break I read a lot of novels, for pleasure.  I have a significant backlog of books on my ‘to-read’ shelf, which always seems to load up faster than I can keep up with.

Another HatThat’s an excuse, of course, because I’d really intended to use the time for writing.  I have several short stories that need more work to finish them, and lots of notes on new ideas to follow up.  I’d been looking forward to this desk-time for weeks.

So what went wrong?  I could give you a list… it would begin with Christmas, because I always forget how much time is involved with preparing, celebrating and clearing up.  It might move on to that spell of icy weather we had, and the temptations of an armchair by the fire.  It would certainly include Anna Karenina, because studying it closely with my reading group last autumn re-awoke my old love of novels, and set me thinking about whether that short story that I’ve got lost with is really part of something less compact.

Perhaps, I thought, this time I’ll ‘knock off’ a novel.  I have a lot of ideas about this character.  It seems a shame not to use them.  Then I could use several of the story strands I’ve developed, and build-up the other characters.  Yes, there’s plenty to be said for extending this piece of writing.

So I gathered together all the notes and fragments of story I’ve played about with over the last six months – yes, it has been on the boil that long, and no, I don’t see that as a problem.  Sometimes a story evolves in a rush, others it takes time to see the ‘true’ line to take.

Re-reading it all, I surprised myself.  I’d forgotten several of those early ideas, and I was glad to find that although they were fragments, the writing was pretty good.  Of course, there was room for editing.  Isn’t there always? However, the overall picture was of a consistent ‘story world’.  Great, I thought.  I shan’t need to waste anything.  I’ll just figure out how to put it together.

Which is what I’ve been doing for the last two months, really.  I’ve been justifying my reading as research, and my fiddling about with those sketches and scenes as plotting, but, I’ve not added any new writing to the original story or the potential novel.  There’s nothing to show for the hours at my desk.

So I realise that what I’ve written today could be described as a confession.  I’ve been a little more subtle than washing the floor or cleaning the windows, but have I just found another variation on my old enemy, The Displacement Activity?

Well, I’m not so sure.  It seems to me that The Displacement Activity is as much about state of mind, as it is the physical action involved. Perhaps this is just me, trying to make myself feel better.  But it could be because this week I went back to reading short stories with a group again, and in the process of discussing with them the nature of short stories, I reminded myself of the Iceburg Theory.

You’ve probably come across it, but just in case, here’s the relevant quote from Hemingway’s, Death in The Afternoon.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

No, I haven’t figured out how to pull my short story together, but that doesn’t matter, because I’ve remembered now how I was able to discard those old ideas, and I’m ready to move forwards with it, when the time comes.  Meanwhile, I’ve improved my understanding of how story works – both long and short and I’ve got a fresh story idea to start on today.  That’s got to be worthwhile, hasn’t it?

Missing what?

She said she wouldn’t read Hemingway, because of his treatment of women.

‘Okay,’ I said, and recommended some other writers. I’m no Hemmingway expert, I just like the way he wrote, and we were in a general writing class, so it was not a good time to begin a discussion about the attitude of an author that many of us were not familiar with.  I had plenty of other suggestions to provide so we moved on.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot since though.  I did once put a novel on the fire rather than pass it on, because it ended with the heroine falling in love with the man who had abducted and raped her.  That was a couple of decades ago, but I can remember the feeling of satisfaction as I stirred up the charring pages with the poker.  Books, I thought, were a kind of model that showed people how to think and act.  I think I even went so far as to begin a letter to the publisher.

But yesterday, when I recommended Hemingway’s short stories to a group, I found myself qualifying the suggestion.  ‘He was a writer of his time,’ I said.  ‘You may not always like the way he portrays women.’

I didn’t feel it necessary to caution a reading group about text content when we read ‘Tom Jones’, or ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’.  I don’t issue a warning alongside Katherine Mansfield, though some of her characters and situations are just as questionable as Hemingway’s when measured against today’s ideas on roles and expectations.

There are books I have chosen not to read, and others I wish I hadn’t, but I’ve not been tempted to burn any of them. My favourite copy of Wuthering Heights is held together with a large elastic band.  I have a new copy, but cannot bring myself to lose that old one.  You might see that as sentimental attachment, and I would agree that’s a small part.

What I would ask though, is, ‘Should I have burned that book?’