Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Writer's Notebook

In 1949, Somerset Maugham published A Writer's Notebook, which was a collection of notes from the 15 notebooks he kept from his first days in medical school in 1892 through the early 1940s. He did not publish it because he felt that every one of his notes deserved publication. On the contrary, he admits in the introduction that some of his old observations had come to seem foolish to him. "I publish it because I am interested in the technique of literary production and in the process of creation, and if such a volume as this by some other author came into my hands I should turn to it with avidity."

I'm first struck by how much he worked on technique. On some pages he seems to be practicing how to describe things. For pages at a time, he sets down ideas about light and dark, how the dawn looks, how the city sounds. And he practices noting not just how things appear in the world, but how to tease out philosophical meaning or emotion from objects.

"The wind, sinister and ghostly, rustled like a sightless animal through the topmost, leafless branches."

"The lamp flickered like the last wandering glance of a man at the point of death."

"In the country the darkness of night is friendly and familiar, but in a city, with its blaze of lights, it is unnatural, hostile and menacing. It is like a monstrous vulture that hovers, biding its time."

In early journals, he sets out these small observances, some dozen at a time on a topic of the approaching dawn or of his philosophy about the world, about how people get along. While referring to the wind as a sightless animal might now seem, well, overblown, Maugham was working on something specific in his voice. In the introduction to this book of old notebooks, he writes, "A novel cannot be made of facts alone; in themselves they are dead things. Their use is to develop an idea or illustrate a theme, and the novelist not only has the right to change them to suit his purpose, to stress them or leave them in shadow, but is under the necessity of doing so."

THE EXERCISE: Practice describing things in one or two lines. Then practice teasing out emotional or philosophical meaning. That means describe the same thing several different times, giving the description different attitudes. My notebooks tend toward journal-like stories and dreams and complaints. Yesterday, I tried to describe, to catch, what was going on in the pool during Garret's swimming lesson. What do kids actually do in a swimming pool? I tried it out and was almost immediately discouraged and filled with terror. Two lines in I ran out of words. I sat in silence for 20 minutes and a few ideas came to me, but so slowly. Clearly, I need more practice.

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