On crafting

Musing on craft and influences.

I’ve been watching, reading and listening to a lot of craftsmen and women recently, in a – so far successful – attempt to remind myself what it is I want to achieve with my writing, why it matters to me, and why it might potentially matter to others.

I’ve finished reading both DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Both, as far as I know are first novels, and both have a lot of personal history in them – although it’s far more hidden away in the latter. Pierre creates a wonderfully evocative place inside the hero’s head, and you can ‘hear’ the care and love that he’s put into every paragraph. Some of the lyrical and stylistic tics are simply brilliant, and there’s a real sense of an author having fun with what they’re doing – the important lesson for me is that it rarely spills over into self-indulgence, and while the plot is more than a little far-fetched, I think you’d have to be a pretty soulless reader not to want to find out what happens.

Mitchell’s work is very different, effectively a series of short stories with common threads and echoes running through them. I loved the differences in the voices (something I’m not very good at – I tend to write ‘me’ or sociopaths), although I felt a little let down by the ending. It felt like a ‘clever’ book, rather than an enjoyable book. But again, it gives me something to aspire to.

PS Is it just me or are those Google Books links just plain scary for anyone who wants to earn a living from copyright material?

Musically, I’ve taken advantage of Dada’s (the shop that took over Fopp in Chiswick) absurd pricing policies (double albums by jazz greats for £3) and I now have over a day’s worth of Brubeck, Basie, Coltrane, Ellington, Art Blakey, Compay Segundo and all manner of other compilations. It makes a pleasant change from the white noise or madrigals that I usually listen to while writing or working. And the craft in there, the joy in performance, the bloody-mindedness of the time signatures, riffs, fills and breaks – all of it is deeply inspiring. The only problem with the music is divorcing the experience from the only context I’ve ever really experienced this form of jazz in before – black and white film noir or screwball comedies. Although the idea of screwball noir is quite appealling.

BBC4 recently screened ‘Kings of Pastry (website is a bit poor, but never mind)’, which is a superb exploration of obsession, desire and craft – in this case, French patisserie chefs aiming to be recognised by their peers as the best in France in a competition that only runs every four years. The level of dedication, preparation and skill displayed is extraordinary… I like to think of myself as a good cook, but the things that these chefs create out of flour, eggs, sugar and chocolate is just astonishing. And the moment that one of the chefs breaks his six-foot sugar sculpture after three days of competition is just heartbreaking. The only downsides of the film is that most of this lovely calorie-fest gets thrown away at the end, and that smell-o-vision still hasn’t been invented.

I’ve also enjoyed watching the ‘Mastercrafts‘ series on BBC2 (well, actually, on iPlayer), where various enthusiasts are trained for six weeks in traditional crafts such as green-wood turning, stonecarving, thatching, smithing etc,. While not all of the skills are as telegenic, or appealling, as each other, the format, and voyage of discovery that the participants went through was similar for all the programmes. I guess part of this is down to presentation, and editing, but it was a joy to see the masters at work, and a genuine pleasure to see people – particularly those who struggled at the beginning of the training – producing a beautiful object – and most importantly, a functional object too.

Again, this has resonance for my writing. And it’s probably no coincidence that after a few weeks of feeling thoroughly miserable about my prospects, and contemplating going back to full-time employment, the creative juices have started flowing again. Which unfortunately manifested themselves in the usual way (awake at 2am as reams of dialogue are enacted in my head) so I am now far too tired to think.

I’ve also watched a shedload of good films recently – Alice in Wonderland, 21 Grams, in the Loop, The Changeling, Hurt Locker, Wendy and Lucy (ok, ok, not Wendy and Lucy) and also seen Ghost Stories at the Lyric – which is thoroughly recommended, although it is a horror show more than a play about ghosts, I’d argue.

So. A veritable smorgasbord of influences. Let’s see if I can turn all this ‘art’ and ‘craft’ into something productive. And yes, I’m late on a short story submission. Because I haven’t crafted it enough, why did you ask…

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