The Writer’s Life

A not so fond farewell

Reports that the last typewriter factory has closed its doors are slightly premature, but it won’t be long before that happens; the wonder is that it managed to survive as long as it did.

The advent of this then revolutionary device in the middle of the 19th century was greeted with much the same suspicion and occasional outright enmity as the desktop computer in the early 1980s — a mixture of the defence of vested interests and blinkered conservatism. In a couple of decades, it put out of business an entire and now forgotten class of professionals — the scriveners, copyists and engrossers who were the princes of the clerkly classes.

Anyone, almost always male, who could write a fine, elegant hand could earn a moderately good living in legal or commercial firms and a practitioner would serve a fairly lengthy apprenticeship from copying to engrossing, the pinnacle of the scrivener’s art, which was the final fair copying of elaborate documents, including wills, contracts, indentures, treaties and other instruments of power.

The documents themselves were often things of beauty, frequently adorned with flourishes and graphic furbelows, and each copy had to be as far as possible identical.

At the other end of the market, freelance scrivening and copying provided a slender means of survival for lonely eccentrics, wasters and ne’er-do-wells such as Melville’s Bartleby and other unemployables, while their more respectable colleagues could often find a post as amanuensis to a prominent author, a gentleman scholar or a busy public figure.

But still, it was drudgery. George Bernard Shaw opined that ‘Of all the damnable waste of human life, clerking is the worst.’
Read more…

Mau-mauing the awkward squad

Knocklofty’s outreach counselling service deals with many harrowing cases of authors, editors and designers bedevilled by intractable clients.

This one, from the bizarre and exotic island of Tasmania, arose from a client — a caving organisation — insisting on being awkward just once too often by requiring the acceptance of material by an unacceptable means. We were able to intervene and create an outcome characterised by renewed amity rather than extreme prejudice. This is the edited correspondence between the client, identified here as AJ, and the victim, who chooses to hide behind the unoriginal pseudonym of Jim Crint:

AJ: I don’t do FTP for many reasons which can be explained if necessary, including Tasmania’s crippled ‘broadband’; none of the printers I deal with here and overseas do it any more — too much trouble and confusion, especially with replace versions of files. Physical media — CD or DVD — are preferred, as is transmission of files by email. It may seem to be a time-saver but it ain’t.
Sorry to seem awkward, but this is experience speaking. — Jim Crint

JC: I’m used to you being an old curmudgeon pain in the arse, so no worries. I can’t see it being any harder than email (with the bonus of not having emails rejected for being too big, or having to split stuff up and send it over 10 emails to keep size down). I was mainly hoping to use it for the initial glut of info (save me burning a cd and then driving to West Hobart – save the planet and all that).

I don’t just sit at home (when I’m not at the pub) like you so I thought being able to transfer stuff this seemingly quicker way would be much easier for me (who cares if it’s easier for you?) — AJ
Read more…

A pardonable act

The tranquillity of the writers’ wing at Knocklofty Towers was disturbed the other day by what we later discovered to be the emanation of an overwrought spirit.

A loud crash of breaking glass was followed by the sound of a rather large wireless set landing on the cobbled courtyard below. The apparatus was over fifty years old and was acquired before the transistor was little more than a wriggle in Shockley’s trousers, and the bursting of all those vacuum tubes made a noise that our resident composer described as worthy of Stockhausen at his most dissonant apogee.

Our security and medical staff responded quickly and discovered one of our older writers about to light a bonfire of old Hansards in his room, from which the wireless set had been hurled.

Putting him under mild sedation, they learned from him that he had been working on an analysis of parliamentary language when he decided to pause for a cup of Knocklofty’s Bodhisatva’s Own Extra Fragrant Lapsang Souchong tea (an exclusive blend the firm has imported from a very remote part of Asia for more than two centuries) and switched on the wireless hoping to hear some news of a game of cricket.

His timing was poor. Instead of the murmur of the crowd and the well-worn wit of the commentators, what he heard was a statement by one of the more bulbous and aggressively voluble members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the Parliament of Australia.

He asserted — and our use of modern technical means verifies it — that this was what he heard:

‘At the end of the day, when the rubber hits the road, the bottom line is that working families…’

It was the fourth in this concatenation of cliché that proved too much and that was why the wireless went through the window. The Board, at an extraordinary meeting to consider what action might be taken, agreed that they would all have done the same.

Knocklofty’s technical staff are now hard at work on systems designed to detect and eliminate that sort of political talk from the airwaves and the web, and they predict that when they succeed there will be more bandwidth for everyone.

Language, language!

mrs-grundy1“You take the trouble to construct a civilization…to build a society…you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same…you bring things to the saddest of all points…to the point where there is something to lose…then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.” — Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

At Knocklofty we are well aware of the immense diversity and excitement of the web. Ideas and information, both dazzling and brilliant, as well as stupid and meretricious, flow freely. It is a wonderful resource and will become a true mirror of humanity.

It is in the process of developing a new language and it is one of the largest contributors to our stock of words; some are the embodiment of wit, expressing complexity with brevity, and remain. Others arrive and fade away as slang fashions continue their inevitable change.

But there is one depressing feature of language on the web that seems to endure, and that is the use of a couple of dozen common offensive words. We all know what they are — sexual, anatomical or excretory, used as nouns, adjectives, intensifiers or just as plain expletives — so there is no need to list them here.

Their too-frequent use, especially in otherwise well-conducted weblogs, robs them of any impact they may have had in the bad old days of taboo and prudery. Those who do use them are demonstrating not only poverty of thought and imagination but also contempt for their readers; in effect, they are saying ‘I can’t be bothered to find a word to explain what I mean, so I’ll just drop in a dirty word to show how cool and smart I am.’

In doing that, however original their thoughts might be, they have the effect of signalling that here is yet another dreary, foul-mouthed, semi-articulate ranter and that it is probably not worth the effort to read further. These over-used, worn-out and essentially stupid words will drive readers away even more effectively than cliché, muddled grammar and slipshod punctuation.

If you are stuck for a word, there are plenty of resources at hand without leaving the keyboard; find a thesaurus, a dictionary or an apt quotation on the web. If you show a little respect for your readers, more of them will come back.

Literature and liquor

boozerAt Knocklofty we have long been aware of the intimate connection between books and booze. Few good books, and no amusing books at all, have been written by ascetics or teetotalers.

That is why our writers’ suites at Knocklofty Towers all have a small adjoining room with seldom-used equipment for making tea and coffee and a rather large refrigerator which is kept stocked by the management with the writer’s preferred beer.

In some cases the room may be a small bar with a favourite keg beer on tap and there are eccentrics who use the space to make their own often highly potent and occasionally explosive brews.

Others have wine cellars stocked gratis from the firm’s vineyards; Knocklofty Fourpenny Dark, renowned for its minimal delay between cause and effect, is popular with the more robust novelists and the staff philosophers, while effete poetic types favour the Knocklofty White Infuriator, a deceptively delicate wine credited with mild hallucinatory properties.

The relationship between literature and liquor is so ancient that our scholars believe that the two probably came into existence virtually simultaneously. The arts of writing — writing, that is, for the purposes of story-telling rather than for cuneiform accountancy — and brewing are both a little more than five thousand years old but we have been unable to determine which led to which.

Read more…

Draw on your inner resources when the words won’t come

ancient typewriterSince we stopped using quills, fountain pens and manual typewriters, the act of writing has become more abstract—symbols on a screen whose existence is mainly virtual.

It’s a blessing. Henry James handwrote himself into carpal tunnel syndrome and had to resort to an amanuensis. George Orwell complained of the exhausting physical work of writing: drafting, editing, re-typing, rearranging, the frustration of having to abandon large lumps of painfully constructed text when a work takes a wrong direction and, finally, the huge task of producing a clean final copy of a manuscript.

Some lucky individuals loved the process of writing: Arnold Bennett took pride in the beauty of his finished handwritten manuscripts: obviously he was robust enough to resist writer’s cramp and he achieved a prodigious output.

But separation from the physical act of writing can have its disadvantages. However much the computer has eased the writer’s task, it’s not much help when the flow of creativity comes to a stop, as it inevitably will for all but the most compulsively prolific. Often, too, wandering about the web in search of inspiration can be little more than a mildly guilty displacement activity.

One way out of this is to learn or to regain the pleasures of the act of writing. Ballpoint pens and cheap scratchpads won’t do: buy yourself a fountain pen (yes, they’re still being made) and make it the best you can afford. Then look for an old-fashioned notebook, one with smooth creamy paper and faint grey lines, preferably leather-bound with a ribbon to keep your place. They come in various sizes and you might want a small one for pocket or purse and a bigger one for your desk.

Read more…

Quotable 5

If I had to give young writers advice I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.
— Lillian Hellman

‘I do want you to meet Mrs Leighton-Buzzard,’ said Mrs Bovey-Tracey, asking me to dinner the other day. ‘She’s such an interesting woman, and most unusual. She doesn’t write, you know.’
— William Plomer, Electric Delights

All human activity to me is a way of avoiding writing. Thus, I sleep as much as possible or spend a hard day lying on the sofa.
— Fran Lebowitz

The trouble with writing

Writing cannot be done in a loud café or in a house chaotic with children and the plaints of a neglected spouse. Too frequently it is done in stolen moments under the pressure of avoided duty or furtively at an office desk while a supervisor is distracted.

The legends of Grub Street, a lane in Augustan London now vanished beneath the Barbican and the last resort for writers down on their luck or insufficiently talented or well-connected to do any better, are replete with tales of starving hacks, hung over from too much cheap port, scribbling frantically in a squalid garret for a grudging publisher’s guinea, surrounded by hungry brats, a wife at the end of her tether and creditors pounding on the door.

Writers need time, space and—ideally—some degree of freedom from the necessity of a disagreeable job to support themselves, as well as the willpower (or the obstinacy) to induce others to take writing seriously. The trouble with writing is that it doesn’t look like work and family and friends have no compunction in interrupting it.

Read more…

Quotable 4

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
—Dr Samuel Johnson

Authors are easy to get on with — if you’re fond of children
—British publisher Michael Joseph

There can hardly be a stranger commodity in the world than books. Printed by people who don’t understand them; sold by people who don’t understand them; criticised and read by people who don’t understand them; and now even written by people who don’t understand them.
—German physicist and writer Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742—1799)

Father, forgive them — they know not what we do


Publishing used to be an industry in the true operational sense of the word: colossal steam-powered machines fed and tended by armies of skilled artisans whose work allowed an educated sub-class of specialist artists, designers and editors to transform the raw material of literature into a desirable physical product; booksellers originated the art of logistics to distribute that product.

Sean Jennett’s The Making of Books (Faber & Faber 1964) gives the best picture of the book production industry just before small computers became a reality and changed it forever.

Today, it is possible for all that art and skill to be concentrated in very small enterprises — sometimes in a single individual.

At Knocklofty we have observed over recent times how the computer has made possible the emergence of a struggling class of small feral publishers; some of them are quite remarkable people.

Take the case of a one-person operator, known to us, and examine what he has to know and do to scrape a modest and often precarious living from a mixture of publishing and book production for vanity and commercial customers.

Read more…