The Value of Advice

Photo by Eileen Pan on Unsplash

If I could offer one single word of advice to any aspiring writer it would be not to come to me for advice.  Having got that out of the way, I would say, ‘Never write the same thing twice,’ because someone said that to me once and I always liked the ring of it.  Sound advice, I am sure you will agree, but advice, none-the-less, I find myself increasing unable to heed for the simple reason that I can never remember what I have written about before and, more to the point, I have decided that life is far too short to check.  I am sure that once-upon-a-gag, some wise man – Bernard Manning probably – postulated that there are only six jokes known to man and womankind: the trick is in finding a different way to tell them.  (Likewise, I think – I can’t be sure: the Magic Circle is a closed and locked cabinet to me – there are only six magic tricks: the one with the sleight of hand; the one with the distraction; the one with the stooge; the one with the smoke; the one with the mirrors, and the one where the magician discovers that the upstage trap-door doesn’t work properly.)  Anyway, who am I to argue?

I do not know what the six jokes are.  I know one of them, but I fear that political correctness being what it is, I dare not tell it for fear of being sued by every chicken between here and the other side of the road.  The problem with jokes, however you tell them, is that they tend to have a butt and being a butt is never comfortable.  To avoid causing offence, you make yourself the butt and that works even better when the joke doesn’t – work that is.  There’s no wonder that comedians are, by and large, such a morose bunch.  Except that they’re not you know.  I’ve met a number over the years – although not as often as I’ve been called one – and most of them have been quite jolly.  Not all of the time, of course – that would just be weird – but normally so.  I never met a comedian who didn’t want to laugh – which can’t be easy when you already know all six of the jokes that other people are telling you.  (I’ve never met a magician, although it stands to reason that they must know at least one gag per trick for when it all goes wrong.  I did watch a magician once whose tricks all went spectacularly wrong.  He had no ‘patter’ outside of his sweat as it fell to the stage, but the audience thought that the whole thing was hilarious.  He was decidedly unamused, and I was just relieved when he decided against sawing his assistant in half.)

It is the stock in trade of comedians to tell the same jokes night after night, for magicians to make the same stuff disappear and for singers to sing the same old songs – Greatest Hits tours are the most popular of all – but a writer is never really allowed to plunder his own back catalogue (much less somebody else’s) for reuse at a later date.  I cannot imagine that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, would have been allowed to reuse an old plot on the grounds that everybody liked it last time around.  Most people will read a treasured book repeatedly, but will put it down the moment it reminds them of something else (particularly if it is a Shake ‘n’ Vac advert).  I do wonder if there are only six novel plots: I once attempted to read a Jeffrey Archer novel in a hospital waiting room and I think that he must have had all six of them in there somewhere – God knows where – and I have attempted to read James Joyce so often that I am certain he manages perfectly well without any at all, thank you very much.)

Of course, repetition, in itself can be amusing, but it is never surprising.  Life is all about repetition, and most of it much closer to a failed illusion than a Billy Connolly rip-snorter, but every day we wake up ready for more of it.  There is something in the human spirit that says ‘OK, I’ve had ninety nine attempts without getting the rabbit out of the hat, but today’s the day.’  And we try again.  And if, by some fluke of fortune, we succeed, then we believe that we will always succeed. 

I am always intrigued by those who manage to keep – and even more puzzling – publish a diary.  Do they leave out everything that happens again and again, day after day or, do they just invent stuff?  Perhaps the successful diary is just a novel with the writer as the hero.  Or maybe interesting things do happen to other people.  Is it just me that goes around and around?  I have tried to keep diaries many times, but they are so tedious.  I very quickly start making things up.  Do you think that Samuel Pepys really buried his cheese whilst London burned?  Did Captain Oates really say ‘I might be gone for some time’ or is that just something that Scott put into his diary after giving him the wrong directions to the toilet in order to break the monotony of a whiteout?  Most of the time, life is only brightened by hindsight.

In written dialogue we always edit out the repeated phrases that litter real life conversations.  Any story that runs beyond twenty four hours in real life, will feature repetition.  We treasure routine: the same breakfast, the same parking spot, the same sandwich, the same journey home – so startlingly routine that it is normally impossible to recall getting there.  We are only happy that a day is complete when it is just the same as all the others – real life is not great for the telling.

Anyway, having given it due consideration, I believe I might have changed my mind.  If I could offer one word of advice to an aspiring author, it would be to never be tempted to dip into real life, in case you can’t find your way out again.

Mind you, it won’t be the same tomorrow…

The Writer’s Circle #5 – The Core

It was in the nature of the Writer’s Circle that outside the core of permanent members, others came and went: some believing they were too good, some believing they were not good enough, some believing that Writer’s Circle was really just a euphemism for something much closer to their own interests.  The latter were apt to be men and liable to attend only once.  Most sloped away at the mid-evening interval to find a phone booth with cards offering the French Lessons that were more in tune with the horizons they wished to broaden.  All new attendees fell under the suspicious glare of Deidre, unaware at this point, of the irony that, whilst she wrote of love and implied sex, she was herself, almost the very definition of an anti-aphrodisiac (whatever that might be): think of having to look at a plate of ready shucked oysters; think of the eventual fall-out from a passion-inflaming Vindaloo; think of Bernard Manning in his vest and pants*.

In truth Ms Desmond (Nee Desmond) had never been one for real-life romance.  Having lived her formative years exclusively through the pages of Bunty and Jackie and later, as her hormones began to wreak havoc with her laced-in soul, Pride and Prejudice, she had consolidated in her head and loins the image of Man as Darcy, which she knew in reality no man could ever match.  And so it was.  No man ever did.  Few even tried.

Even in her teenage prime, Deidre had been formidable.  She vowed that she would never succumb to a man until he proved worthy of her attentions.  She quickly learned that there was no such man.  She never succumbed.  Whatever the gifts she had to bestow, they were never bestowed to another – although her passions were, on occasions, fully sated in the company of Fitzwilliam – often with such gusto that eventually her mother had to sell the cat and buy earmuffs.  The maelstrom of desire that swirled within her became, a churning sea of rage fuelled both by the men who failed so abjectly to measure up to her aspirations and by the women who were willing to settle for these less-than-ideal souls.  That they all appeared to be so much more content than herself, it seemed, never occurred to her.

Some newcomers, obviously, did return to the fold and the circle expanded.  Deidre was far more welcoming to female newbies whilst the men were occasionally too thick-skinned to be put off.  The dark cold days of winter saw the numbers at their sparsest, along with the longer summer days, which saw potential members surrender to the siren call of beach and beer-garden.  Accordingly spring and autumn were peak times, when the room often contained more bums than seats and more unfinished manuscripts than a journalist’s bottom drawer.  Some never read to the Circle, some, almost certainly, never wrote, but despite the edginess that pervaded the room from time to time, there was friendship and laughter too.  In many respects it was like a return to school – only without head lice and threadworm.

It was in its very nature that the Circle attracted single people.  The only regular member to have a spouse was Frankie.  Wednesdays (Circle Day) was his evening, whilst his wife played badminton with the Wilsons from next-door and Mr Pettigrew from 42 on Fridays.  Dick Hart, it was rumoured, was married once, before he had a motorway flyover built on the bridge of the dearly departed’s nose.  Elizabeth had been happily married for thirty years until she was widowed by a bus (driven by a young man attempting to raise a house deposit by working three consecutive shifts without break) and Louise had recently divorced a passive/aggressive nutter, who had burned all of her clothes and fed the hamster to next-door’s cat.  At least, that is what she said.  All of them were looking for friendship and they all found it in this little room above the Steam Hammer public house which overlooked the luxury flats that now occupied the red brick fortress, formerly the home of Chaste and Sons Foundry.

Of course, not a single one of them would ever admit that companionship was the reason for their attendance.  They were all aspiring writers – even those who never brought a word to the group.  None of them would be happy with the suggestion that they came here for some kind of comradeship.  After all, few of them actually liked anybody else in their little literary company.  The Circle was a sounding-board, somewhere to come and try out what they had written and, if they hadn’t actually written anything that week, well the others would miss them if they didn’t come along.

In fact, Deidre aside, who in truth cared more about what the Circle had to say about her books than she would ever admit, the only two members who ever wrote systematically, Frankie and Phil, seldom read to the group.  What Frankie wrote made him money, but was simply not the sort of thing you read out loud to Deidre and Penny; what Phil wrote was only just coalescing into the form he wanted.  It was his first novel (although not his last) and despite the image he sought to create, he was deadly serious about its creation.  He would read when he was ready.  He knew that a bad reception would stop him in his tracks.  Of the most recent members, Richard Hart would, ultimately, become the most successful ‘author’ in the room without ever actually writing a single word himself.  Both The Sun and The Star had offered to ‘ghost’ his lurid and bloody memoir in return for ‘exclusive’ access to its contents.  Hart would eventually sign for the highest bidder, but not until he had checked with his lawyer.  He had spent many years in prison and he had to be sure that none of his confessions would buy him more time inside.  Especially since he had the nagging feeling that he recognised the newest member in the room – and he didn’t want to be interviewed by her again…

*Try Google Image if you dare.

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #4 – The Number 12 Night Bus to Ashington’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #6 – The Point’ is here.