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Friday, 10 June 2011

Ian McEwan? You Might Say He Comes Across as a Lightweight

Bees on a thistle, being busy.  There is link, of sorts.

I had another quiet day yesterday, and because the weather was still grey and cool – I correct myself, it was flat out cold in the morning - I stayed around the house. 53 degrees at eleven o’clock? I even put the kitchen heater on for a few hours, and when I went to sit in the lounge to think about a few things I had on my trusty down jacket.

First of all I thought about my writing. It had been on my mind all night, keeping me awake. Had me up at 0520h. I pulled out my travel journals, looking for an account of my first visit to the Sandhills in 1993. I soon had notebooks, files and loose leaves scattered around me, but had found nothing to add to my memories of that trip. Then I dug into two fat envelopes full of research notes on Mari Sandoz, most of them gathered around that time. Perhaps I’d find something in there. I started reading… and when I awoke it was lunchtime.

My day seemed then to go from bad to worse. I frittered away the afternoon doing a cryptic crossword and reading an old Omaha World-Herald that the last lot of hunters had left here. I read it from cover to  cover. I even scanned the want ads, the way I used to twenty and thirty years ago when I was searching for clues as to what made America tick, trying to decode their strange language.

It was early evening before I managed to put a few more words down. They didn’t come easily, and I was soon tired again, and hungry. While I ate my re-heated, leftover shepherd’s pie (and wondered whether the average American had the faintest idea what that was) I went to my collection of downloaded podcasts and listened to another old edition of Desert Island Discs, the BBC radio programme I mentioned a week or two ago. This one dated from about 1999. The guest was Ian McEwan, a seriously successful author back home and one in whom I have always had an interest. He was the first graduate of the M.A. course in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 1971. That’s where I did my Master’s in 1989. We had the same mentor, the late Malcolm Bradbury, who had taught at Iowa in the 1960s and become infected with the idea of teaching writing – something at that point unheard of in the U.K., and viewed with deep suspicion.

McEwan, as he stated on air, was lucky. He was the only applicant to, and only student on, a course that was not so much up and running as rumoured. I remember Bradbury telling me when I interviewed him for the Guardian in 1990 that he and Angus Wilson had received this application, told the young graduate to come along, and played it by ear from that point on. British amateurism at its best. I should add, for the record, that Bradbury also stated, in that same interview, that in his view the course was not so much about teaching people to write as giving them time and space in which to write. McEwan certainly had all of that – and the undivided attention of two teachers.

As it happens, I’ve never got on with McEwan’s work. I remember reading his first collection of short stories, and the first novel, The Cement Garden, and finding the subject matter too dark – no, too nasty – for my taste. Incestual rape? Nah, not for me. Patricide? Not really. Other people didn’t have that problem, and the guy rose to literary stardom. He later won the Booker Prize.

But… what I was going to say is this, and there is a connection with those bees working away on that voluptuous thistle-head. On Desert Island Discs Ian McEwan, at the time of the recording busy writing Atonement, which has since been made into a hugely successful movie (and, you guessed it, I didn’t like that either) revealed that “for me at the moment a good day is 200 to 300 words.”

Can you imagine the sigh of relief with which I polished off my shepherd’s pie and sank back into my chair with a small glass of Glenlivet? I’d spent all this time chastising myself for not being productive enough. I’d convinced myself that my dismal total of 561 words marked me as a total failure, and an idler… and here was a Booker Prize-winner telling the world that it added up to not one, but two good days’ work. I should add that when I was writing corporate histories, working from researched material, interview notes and the like, I frequently put out 2500-3000 words  a day. When I’m writing for Mike Pannett my daily target is 1,000, minimum. And while we’re on the subject I must mention Mark Twain. When his publisher told him that the manuscript he’d sent in was 12,000 words short, he supplied the missing verbiage within twenty-four hours. But, as he admitted in his autobiography, he only wrote 3,000; the other 9,000 he stole.

Well, it’s still cool out there, but the sky is clearing – just a few grey clouds being ripped to shreds by a stiff wind, and tender young leaves being strewn across my vegetable plot. We could almost be in the north of England in June. I must get out today, and then crack on with my 2-300 words (an idea that still makes me laugh).

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