Sunday, 3 February 2013

Another Book to Read While You're Trying to Write

Posted By Daisy

                                               (photo still adapted from Sminky Animation; watch the funny clip here)

MY FEATURE writing isn't going well. I sit here desperately, and think ‘This could’ve been written by a trained monkey. Where’s the beauty of the language? Where’s the pizazz? Where’s the jazz?’ 
I take a break. I smoke a cigarette outside and hope inspiration for a better first paragraph will swoop into my head. I re-read the half-written mess. I wonder if I’ll ever write well again.

I re-read some previous features, to remind myself that I used to be able to write. This helps a bit. If things are really bad, I might open a specific hotmail folder with a few praiseworthy emails from editors, and take heart from the encouragement contained within.

Lastly, I break out my secret weapon. ‘AA Gill is Away’ – a book I will never lend to anyone. I turn to page 232, the chapter about Iceland. And I re-type this sentence into a word document on my laptop.

‘Reykjavik clings by the frozen skin of its teeth to a bay of black pumice, a huddled, head-down, white-knuckle town made of corrugated iron painted in pastel ice-cream tones, the steeply pitched roofs hoarding light and warmth, the streets a slick grey slalom.’

I look at it and think: This is what perfect writing looks like. This is what I need to aspire to.

Gill doesn’t know it, but he helped me to write this introduction for a travel feature on London:

‘But Londoners can people-watch with the best of them; they just hide it better. It's a sort of closed-lidded, quick-glancing, well-hidden curiosity. They study each other from beneath their eyelashes. They read whole chapters of books over fellow-commuters' shoulders, and post hundreds of messages in the 'Lovestruck' column in their free daily London Lite.’

And this one for a feature about Argentina:
‘Renowned as being the first South American snob, BA parades its fur-coated, slightly down-at-the-heel, cigarette-smoking, vintage-lace-cocktail-dress glamour with aplomb. The city borders curl up with a sneer, unwilling to touch the countryside outside. The creamy-skinned ‘portenos’ serve ice-cream with a pout and the handsome bar man dumps my drinks on the bar counter without smiling.’

Pastiching may be frowned upon but it definitely helps when I’m in a writing funk, convinced that I’ve lost any dubious talent I may have had.

 ‘AA Gill is Away’ is a collection of Gills' travel stories, from Sudan, India and Cuba, to the M1 motorway in England.

Gill has said that he wanted to ‘interview places’ - to ' treat a place as if it were a person, to go and listen to it, ask it questions, observe it the way you would interview a politician or a pop star’. He got his big break at the Sunday Times when he was asked to go to Sudan to cover the famine.

AA Gills' travel-writing habits:
Don’t do any research beforehand – you’ll arrive with too many preconceptions and an ‘i-spy list of things to tick off’.

Remember that no-one’s opinion is worth any more than yours.

Don’t spend too long in a place, or you begin to be too familiar with it to write well about it.

Don’t carry a camera or note pad. Don’t write anything down. Instead, collect bits of paper, maps, menus, tickets, newspapers, food wrappers, tourist brochures and receipts.

Don’t start writing immediately. Leave it for 2-4 weeks. Let the over-vivid images settle in your mind for a while. But do talk about your experiences to as many people as possible.

Write in the first person.

Gill is unpopular at times. After the Mary Beard fiasco last year, one journalist called him a vivid,brilliant writer trapped in the body of a hopeless misanthrope.But I only care about his writing.

Here are some more gems from the book:
‘A gaggle of girls walk beside me, straight backs and high breasts. They move with an easy, undulating rhythm……Nobody prepares you for flirting in a famine. While there is life, there is still living. One strides close and does a rolling lumpen imitation of my gait, and her friends bridle and shimmy in peals of laughter.’ The End of the Road, Sudan, May 1998

‘Havana feels like the town where time stood still. There is an uncanny sense of stasis, as if 1960 had stopped mid-stride, the left foot planted, the right caught in mid air.’ Sex and the city, Cuba, March 1999

What weird and wonderful things do you do to remind yourself that you aren’t a terrible writer?

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