Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘writing class

Aiming at Amis

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Once a fortnight I resist throwing things at Martin Amis. Usually books, but it depends what else is to hand. I haven’t had the guts to knit during sessions with him, but if I did, I’d launch my needles like javelins. Amis isn’t evil—he hasn’t killed people or spoken at the theatre—he just has a habit of making smug pronouncements that force me to sit on my hands for fear of doing something violent.

Today he announced the end of class and gender discrimination. The only oppressive system left, apparently, focuses on age, so we should concern ourselves with the old. Martin Amis is white, male, and not getting any younger. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why his concern lies where it does.

We made some points about education, I pointed out that class affects identity, and pulled some faces. What I didn’t do was rant and gesticulate, talk about the disproportionate number of women living in poverty, weep over the woman jailed because her abuser pressured her into retracting her rape claim, or demand to know why he hadn’t set a single novel by a female author. It wouldn’t have felt appropriate. He’s eminent, after all. Most of the eminent people are old, white men.

I’ve never taken the toffee-hammer approach to feminism. Generally, I think we’re like to get further if we don’t give everyone a reason to write us off as hysterical madwomen. So I wait my turn and voice my disagreements, if invited, politely. Even if I haven’t bothered to shave my legs, I’ve put on a skirt, hold-ups and some new Chanel foundation that I really couldn’t afford. I’m a nice, middle-class girl, after all.

Sometimes I imagine a life in which I wasn’t polite. I replay the moment when Martin Amis said that women should stop sleeping with gloomy novelists, because it only encourages them, and visualise myself saying what every woman in the room must have been thinking: that he didn’t have a chance with us, and sex with women isn’t some sort of rewards system for writers, in fact, some of them are women. I’d go back and tell all the guys who talk about their aggressive driving that they are dicks, and strip off in front of men who harass me on the street. Every time a man made a sexist comment while pretending to seek understanding of women or feminism I would slap his face and walk away.

I know that this isn’t how you build understanding or change minds. I realise that people are more likely to forget what you told them than how you made them feel. I have ideals and mediation training and Martin Amis’s autobiography. None of that changes this: I want to throw things at Martin Amis. If I’m arrested for assault, will the feminists bail me out?

Written by Not an Odalisque

November 24, 2010 at 12:01 am

If You Read This, You’ll Discover I’m A Monster

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I think that if you met me you would believe that I’m a nice girl. Middle class. Rather shy. Prone to thinking that everyone has read Byron and agrees on the importance of soup spoons. On the first day of my course nice women mothered me and bought me bakewell tart. That’s the girl they bought it for.

Now and again other parts slip out. I forget that in a discussion about pole dancing you shouldn’t admit that you’ve actually seen any, and especially shouldn’t admit that you were in a lesbian bar in Soho at the time. I forget that reading ‘120 Days of Sodom’ on the train will get me funny looks. Mostly, I forget that there are a number of topics you’re meant to come at sideways, and shock people with frankness where they expected allusion.

In everyday life, it isn’t too difficult to keep parts of myself separate. I remember to be nice to my granny when she asks why I haven’t got a nice boy, and don’t need to additionally remind myself not to tell her I don’t want a nice boy, but a big, nasty man who’ll do unspeakable things to me. I don’t need to talk about Kristeva’s theory of abjection when I call Estates to report a blocked toilet. I remember who I’m speaking to, and everything flows from there.

That isn’t the case with writing. When you write something down, anyone can read it, but you’ll never write that sex scene with your granny sitting on your shoulder. In fact, you’ll never write anything if you’re trying to please everyone, and everyone, you see, is your potential audience. Will Milly from the chip shop appreciate that parody of the Commedia dell’arte? I doubt it. Your old tutor, though, author of numerous books on the subject, will probably laugh at your childish attempts. It’s best to put them all out of your mind.

So I conjure an ideal reader. You, dearest, are a reader of Byron, an owner of soup spoons (possibly also a supplier, have you any spare?) and a lover of bakewell tart. You aren’t scandalised by pole dancing or kink, and you’ve read at least the first half of ‘The Powers of Horror’, you’ve met Columbine and Harlequin. You’re perfect, and you’ll reinvent yourself tomorrow when I begin another piece.

If you’re reading this and you don’t fit that description, I consider that to be your problem. There are people whose opinions matter to me very deeply, but all of them have got better things to do than read my ramblings. The rest of you will just have to take me as I am.

If only it were always that way. I’m taking a Creative Writing course. Now and again I have to sit in a room with your readers. Talk to them, lunch with them, see them drink soup from polystyrene cups. How are they going to react if my stories aren’t nice?

I’m not nice. I’m rather monstrous. If I’m to render an honest account of my experience (and it’s the only experience I have to offer) then that monstrosity is going to come out one way or another. I can’t see a way around that. I’ve found myself to be really very bad at writing poems about flowers.

You might say (although you won’t, if you’re my ideal reader) that I should try harder on the flower poems. My thinking is this: Women spend an awful lot of their time pretending not to be the monsters they are (no doubt men do, too); we pluck and shave, bite our tongues and paint our faces, and keep quiet about desire or periods or hating having to do the washing up. It hasn’t done us very much good. It’s one of the reasons we’re still stuck not only with the image of women as beautiful, good and pure, but also with having to do the dishes. To fall in with society’s expectations is to deny what we are, and, in some sense, to tell a lie. The right to write about our whole selves has been fought for in the courts and won. That means that I get the chance to read ‘Baise-Moi’ and think “fuck, yeah!”

The best story I’ve written recently includes a rape. It includes the word “purpling”. It is filled with sticky sexual anecdotes which may not be true to the letter, but are true to the spirit, of things that happened to me. I want to hand it in, but I’m gripped by this anxiety: what will people think of me?

Did Nabokov worry that people would think he was a paedophile? Shakespeare a poisoner? Dostoevsky a thief? Tolstoy an adulterer? I don’t know. It seems quite likely that, soon, all the people on my course will think I’m a weirdo. Perhaps then, in search of acceptance, I’ll begin to value you, my darling, perfect, reader.

Written by Not an Odalisque

September 28, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Judge Me

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Whenever I share my ambition to become a writer, I get the same reaction. Raised eyebrows and sneering lips communicate a belief that I am deluded and that I have little chance of success. Writing is, indeed, a difficult career. Law and medicine are, too, but I’ve never seen a law student get that reaction. So what is the difference between a wannabe lawyer and a wannabe writer?

To become a barrister, you must be selected for the Bar Professional Course, pass some pretty tough exams, find a law firm willing to take you on for a pupillage and one willing to offer you a job. Writers become writers when they get published. They then remain writers, a mostly undifferentiated mass including those who struggle on with a full time job and a pile of rejected second novels, and those who could retire on their earnings from speaking engagements their fame has brought. Only those at the very pinnacle of the profession, the J.K Rowlings and Margaret Atwoods of this world, are visibly different.

I’m sure that wannabe writers have asked their friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances to comment on their work. My friends are terribly nice about my scribblings, I’m sure theirs are, too. Writers don’t have to jump the hurdles and hoops of professions like law, so the first nay-sayer is likely to be an agent or editor.

I had an excruciating dinner with an editor once. She wanted to hear about my career plans. I couldn’t tell her that I wanted to be a writer. Listening to her stories, she seemed to be besieged by amateur writers proffering manuscripts, taxi drivers reciting their synopsis as they drove her through London and dinner party guests saying “let me tell you what happened to me, I’m sure it would make a great novel.” Her area was children’s books. I didn’t want anything from her, except possibly for her to cough up for the expensive bottle of wine she had ordered. But would she know that? I told her I didn’t know what to do next, and maintained the position throughout some fairly intensive interrogation. She gave me the number of a life coach who may be able to help.

The reason my editor friend feels besieged is that she is the first (or possibly the second, counting agents) hurdle for the aspiring writer. We haven’t been weeded out, like the law students, and sent off to do other things because we got bad GCSEs or A Levels. There’s a girl in my writing class who doesn’t know that she should capitalise “I” (as in myself). How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of her manuscript? How many more are there like that one? In many ways this system promotes equality. I was shocked, on going to a law graduation at Lincoln’s Inn, to find that while most of the graduates were female and Asian, the people handing out certificates were male and white. Writing isn’t free of discrimination, but judgement based on a manuscript provides fewer opportunities for it. On the other hand, sitting alone at your desk, you don’t get much encouragement, either.

So there are hordes of wannabe writers at the publisher’s gates. Some don’t have the basic rules of grammar pinned down; some have postgraduate degrees in Creative Writing. All of them think they have something unique to contribute, otherwise they wouldn’t persevere. The problem is that some of them can’t write. Or they haven’t yet. The only thing that will vindicate any of us is a book deal. With a book deal, we will ascend to the ranks of Real Writers, and we will be able to write snooty articles like this one from our elevated position. No longer will we be lumped together with the people who don’t capitalise “I” or think that the hallmark of good prose is a preponderance of adjectives. It will make the hours of work and the RSI worthwhile. Thus is becomes a kind of Holy Grail for writers. They obsess over the perfect covering letter, the layout of a manuscript, the colour of envelopes and the right number of Hail Marys. Jane Wenham-Jones pretended that she’d been invited to send her manuscript to an agent she met at a non-existent party. She writes of another who sent her first three chapters inside a cardboard cactus.

The problem, of course, is that publishers aren’t litmus testers for artistic merit (of literature or cacti), they are businesses trying to make money. They will buy your book if they think they can sell it. Some of them are better than others. Some of them are good at some of it, and aren’t interested in books about unicorns, even if they could win the Booker. Some of them just make silly mistakes. So not only is the colour of your envelopes unlikely to make a difference, the impact of brilliant writing is mitigated, too.

In my experience, wannabe authors respond to this truth about the publishing industry in one of two ways: denial or anger (do some of them move on to bargaining or depression? Absolutely). Those in denial continue sending out their multi-genre epic parody of a little known Slovakian writer, sure that, given its obvious merit, it will surely sell and its brilliance be confirmed. The angry ones curse the agents, the editors, and the whole evil system which has not regard for Art, only celebrity names and big tits. Quite seriously, I told someone recently that I wanted to be a writer, and she said “well, it will be easy for you.” I asked why. “You’re young and pretty,” she said, “they don’t want someone like me on the dustcover.”

Why won’t we accept it? I think it has something to do with the amount of ourselves that we pour onto the paper. Most professions create a distance between the professional self and the personal. We have power suits and uniforms to tell us that we are in a role, offices to remind us that we are in a public space. When companies try to manipulate our behaviour by introducing ‘fun time’ or dress-down Fridays, for example, or replacing every wall with a sheet of glass, as they did in my father’s office, they draw even more attention to the fact that you are expected to play your role. It isn’t like that for writers. Most writers are trying to say something that is important to them. Most writers are drawing on their own experiences. They don’t get to hide the experiences that make them look bad and they have to poke the places that hurt. Otherwise, we may as well go home and let Orwell’s Versificators do the work. Writing is in many ways an exercise in self-revelation. It is a confession. When we send it out, on some level it is not our work, but ourselves, that are being judged. No wonder we find it hard to cope with; who gets to put a price on me?

Augustine invited God’s judgement of his writing. Rousseau preferred to give that power to the general public. Who gets to judge mine? This week, the admissions tutors at the University of East Anglia. Wish me luck!

Written by Not an Odalisque

February 21, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Panicking over the Paucity of Poems

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Everyone who read the poems in my last post and responded was absolutely right. They lack a certain something. Poetry, perhaps? This is the one I’m going to hand in, not because of its quality, but because it proves I can write a tritina. You’ve got to love a girl who can write a tritina, right?


I believe there are entire call centres searching for you.
Tirelessly redialling, not knowing that I should say
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Williams has been dead for seven years.”

If I were a salesman or market researcher with years
Of experience, would I be phased to hear that you,
Whom I wanted for just a minute, had nothing to say?

I tell them you’re not available, and they always say
They’ll call back. If they try enough numbers over the years,
And if, daily, they patiently redial, will they find you?

You aren’t here, I say. I’ve been saying it for seven years.

Written by Not an Odalisque

December 17, 2009 at 10:16 pm

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