Showing posts with label Agatha Christie's writing desk. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agatha Christie's writing desk. Show all posts

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Myth: Ideal Writing Conditions (j)

Cassandra Mortmain writing in the 2003 film version of I Capture the Castle.

Last week, the weekly quote was from E. B. White who wisely said, "a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper." The bare essentials to writing are a means of conveying words (paper, pen, keyboard) and a committment to fleshing out those words.  It doesn't matter where it happens and under what conditions.  Just that it happens.  "Ideal conditions" are a myth.

Stephen King wrote his stories as a full-time high school English teacher, staying up through the odd hours of the morning.  J. K. Rowling created Harry Potter and Hogwarts in cafes, taking care of her infant daughter. Stories are written on trains, on planes, on the road; in libraries, and in the back of lecture halls.  Art springs up anywhere, and thrives on adverse situations. 
Anne Frank hard at work in 1941, before the Annex.
I was an avid grade-school reader when I discovered Anne Frank's diary at the local used book store and read her for the first time.  She is one of the reasons I was first motivated to put pen to paper and seeing what I could with the words in my head.  She had a strong narrative voice, a bit sassy, but vigorous in ways i myself wasn't.  I related to her because we were the same age, because she was entering into confusing teenage years, and because she was honest about what she recorded in her diary.  She was (and is) more articulate than my friends and I were at that age, which intrigued me.

Anne is the champion of writing in adverse conditions.  Not merely because she and her family were hiding from the Gestapo, but logistics as well.  She had to share a room with the cranky, middle-aged Dr. Pfeffer (called Dussel in the published version of the diary) who monopolized the writing desk and didn't take her school work, her love of languages, history and stories seriously.  He wasn't the only one, and Anne (as a cornered teenager will naturally do) referred to herself as the misunderstood "Benjamin of the Annex." This did not stop her from writing. In fact, the diary is just one product of Anne's creativity during her time in the Annex; she wrote fairy tales and novel all while being shooed from one end of the apartment to the other, hiding in the attic, fighting horrible depression and the fear of death.  It makes my excuses of not wanting to get up early and write look awfully petty.  Anne had little space to work in, cheap (black market) exercise books to use and a plethora of daily interruptions, and she continued to write using what she had, using the time that was given her.

On 13 July 1943 Anne relates an incident with Mr. Pfeffer/Mr. Dussel over a matter of "the best little table."

Yesterday afternoon Father gave me permission to ask Mr. Dussel whether he would please be so good as to allow me (see how polite I am?) to use the table in our room two afternoons a week, from four to five-thirty. I already sit there every day from two-thirty to four while Dussel takes a nap, but the rest of the time the room and the table are off-limits to me. It's impossible to study next door in the afternoon, because there's too much going on.  Besides, Father sometimes likes to sit at the desk during the afternoon.  

So it seemed like a reasonable request, and I asked Dussel very politely.  What do you think the learned gentleman's reply was? "No." Just plain "No!"

I was incensed and wasn't about to let myself be put off like that.  I asked him the reason for his "No", but this didn't get me anywhere.  The gist of his reply was: "I have to study, too, you know, and if I can't do that in the afternoons, I won't be able to fit it in at all... Mythology - what kind of work is that?  Reading and knitting don't count, either.  I use that table and I'm not going to give it up... You're not the only one who can't find a quiet place to work.  You're always looking for a fight.  If your sister Margot, who has more right to work space than you do, had to come to me with this request, I'd never even have thought of refusing..."

5 April 1944: epiphany and determination

I finally realized that I must [emphasis Jillian's] do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that's what I want!  I know I can write.  I few of my stories are good, my descriptions of the Secret Annex are humorous, much of diary is vivid and alive, but... it remains to be seen whether I really have talent.

11 April 1944: A break-in

"We should hide radio!' moaned Mrs. Van D.

"Sure, in the stove," answered Mr. Van D. "If they find us, they might as well find the radio!"

"Then they'll find Anne's diary," added Father.

"So burn it," suggested the most terrified of the group.

This and the police rattling on the bookcase were the moments when I was most afraid.  Oh, not my diary; if my diary goes, I go too!

Anne Frank: knew from an early age to be serious about her craft, especially in adversity.

Another recent quote I shared was from I Capture the Castle.  Dodie Smith's novel opens with Cassandra Mortmain beginning her first notebook:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.  That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and a tea cozy... I found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.  I wrote my very best poem sitting on the henhouse.

Cassandra lives with her family in a dilapidated castle in humiliating and hilarious poverty in the late 30s.  She has the right idea: try new scenes, new places.  Living in the castle she writes in the attic, in the towers, on the hillsides... romantic setting, inspiring vistas, and while she is uncomfortable, hungry and never quite satisfied, she finds ways to find beauty and humor in everyday life.  And yet, she comes up with clever solutions - not necessarily to fix the problems she has with her writing environment but to use the resources that are available to her.  She knows she will be interrupted, cold or miserable but she writes anyway and doesn't complain about it.  I have learned a lot from her charisma.
Cassandra writes in bed, while sister Rose talks.

Places Cassandra writes:
  • kitchen sink
  • kitchen table
  • attic
  • in bed
  • tower
  • father's desk in the gatehouse
  • the mound
p. 24: writing by candlelight

I wonder if I can get a few more minutes' light by making wicks of match sticks stuck into the liquid wax.  Sometimes that will work.

It was no good - like trying to write by the light of a glow-worm.  But the moon has fought its way through the clouds at last and I can see by that.  It is rather exciting to write by moonlight.

p. 26

I don't intend to let myself become the kind of writer who can only write in seclusion - after all, Jane Austen wrote in the sitting-room and merely covered up her work when a visitor called (though I bet she thought a thing or two) - but I am not quite Jane Austen yet and there are limits to what I can stand....  it is extremely cold up here, but I am wearing my coat and my wool gloves, which have gradually become mittens all but one thumb; and Ab, our beautiful pale ginger cat is keeping my stomach warm - I am leaning over him to write on the top of the cistern.

p. 187

This is the first time I have used the beautiful manuscript book Simon gave me - and the fountain pen which came from him yesterday. A scarlet pen and a blue and gold leather-bound book - what could be more inspiring?  But I seemed to get on better with a stump of pencil and Stephen's fat, shilling exercise book.

Cassandra is also a queen of creative solutions and executes them determinedly.  She and younger brother Thomas attempt to break their writer father's creative block by imprisoning him in the old tower behind the castle.  The siblings know their father must write again to save his spirit.

p. 314

I felt dreadful, but Thomas seemed quite unconcerned.  He hauled up the basket father had filled, took out the plates and dishes, and put the dinner in.  I think he knew I was weakening, because he whispered: "we've got to go through with it now. You leave it to me." Then he lowered the basket and called down firmly:

"We'll let you out just as soon as you've written something - say fifty pages."

"I could never write fifty pages in less than three months even when I could write," said father, his voice cracking worse than ever.  Then he flopped into the arm-chair and gripped his head wth his hands.

"Just unpack your dinner, will you?" said Thomas. "You'd better take the coffee pot out first."

Father looked up and his whole face went suddenly scarlet.  Then he made a dive at the dinner basket, and the next second a plate flew past my head.  A fork whizzed through the door just before we got it closed.  Then we heard crockery breaking against it.

I sat down on the steps and burst into tears... "Please, please don't throw all your dinner dishes until you've eaten what's on them.  Oh, won't you just try to write, fatherWrite anything - write 'The cat sat on the mat' if you like.  Anything, as long as you write!"

How does Mr. Mortmain begin his long awaited novel?  THE CAT SAT ON THE MAT. 

Lastly: Stephen King, whose memoir on writing has been a tremendous help to me, writes about his dream desk:

For years, I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room - no more child's desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole in a rented house.  In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study... For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship's captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere... A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity... I got another desk - it's handmade, beautiful and half the size of the T. rex desk.  I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave.  That eave is very much like the one I slept under in Durham [his childhood home]...

Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room.  Life isn't a support system for art.  It's the other way around.
I was a teenager in the tiniest bedroom of the house and wrote a long, long sci-fi epic (alas unpublishable), four years of high school papers and massive journals.  I didn't hate my room, but it wasn't the best environment.  Until I was presented with a large wooden writing desk at age twelve, I perched on the edge of my bed and wrote my pages, front and back, on a piece of old foam board.  I did what I could to make the room better: plastering the walls with inspirations and rearranging my furniture every few months (not an easy feat when the bed takes up roughly a third of the room).  But I was happy.  I got things done.  I forced myself out of my room and into my characters' lives, and that was gold.  These days I try to put myself in this mentality in my current situation, even if I'm not completely satisfied.  I still use my old desk and don't necessarily love it, but it has loyally traveled with me to college, to my first post-college apartment, and is under my computer as I write this post in my current home. 
Writers thrive under less than ideal circumstance: in the rickety chair, at the tilting kitchen table, in the barn, in a room filled with noisy people, with a cat constantly jumping up in one's lap and walking across the desk.  These conditions flavor us and build up our carapace. The world is our office. Waiting for ideal conditions is simply an excuse not to write, even though - as proved by the sheer fact of our creative drive - we have the tools to make these conditions useful.  Granted, we're a stubborn bunch, but how awesome is it to say, "Yes, I shall write today even if this coffee shop is noisy and the coffee bitter, even if the cat jumps all over me and the dog whines on the other side of my door, even if that awesome television show is calling to me like a Siren."

I've been pondering the phraseology of "full-time writer." What is a full-time writer, anyway?  Well, you say (wondering if I've asked a trick question), it's someone who is fortunate to be able to write for a living by freelancing, writing stories, publishing novels.  Yes, a typical day in the life of a full-timer looks like heaven to us office-job-or-otherwise people.  But I don't "qualify" to have the "full-time" sticker next to my name simply because it isn't how I earn my bread?  Silly.

Writing is so much more than something to fill in those hours here at work.  Writing is a lifestyle, an attitude.  Courage and grace under fire!  It gets me out of bed and enables me to interact better with the world.  Nor does a writer ever really have the day off.  We're constantly processing, moving through our stories (if you open mail like I do, this is an ideal brain-time).  "Ideal" would be a place to myself, where I'm free from interruptions (no phones or walk-ins); but do I need ideal?  And is it really a solution or a distracting dream?

If you're fortunate enough to have a job where you can write in spurts as you work, take advantage of it... albeit discreetly. Get up early in the morning because your story means something to you.  Netflix and Redbox are not adverse conditions; they're choices.  Having trouble connecting to your story?  Try writing it by hand.  Don't like your handwriting?  There are ways you can improve it.  How much are you feeding your artist-child?  Read!  Take creative outings!  Go on quiet walks!  And give yourself more credit for weathering the storm!

Someday we might have that dream office or the quiet house, but until then, embrace the place in which you're writing now.  It's helping you more than you might think.

Happy writing!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Computer Diaspora (Jillian)

Alas, the time is coming soon where I might have to part from my beloved laptop on a temporary basis. Long story short, my laptop – friend and ultimate writing tool – decided it no longer recognized its AC adapter and refused from that point on to charge its battery. There is, of course, no logical explanation for this sudden bout of computer amnesia. I had two different partial diagnoses from two different “geeks”, and, believe me, a new adapter did no good despite their insistence. Hence, the fear that the geeks’ favorite way of solving things – that is, sending said machine off into the great unknown so someone else can attempt repairs and wipe the drive for good measure (grr…) – will have to be implemented.

Forgive the moaning in the above paragraph, but I am sure you can relate. When a writer’s preferred tool of crafting and performing her art is mercilessly taken away, a feeling of hopelessness settles in. Last year, I had the misfortune of falling down marble stairs at work with the same computer. Result? Cracked screen, just like a car windshield, but in retrospect, it could have easily been my skull. It was taken a repair shop where it languished idle for about two and a half weeks. Never mind how expensive that venture was, it was next to impossible to overcome the feeling that my hands had suddenly been cut off, and I could not write. Period. I dread returning to that state of writing paralysis again.

As I consider sending my dear friend away for another necessary respite, I cannot help but think how ludicrous the “writing paralysis” is. Yes, it is almost excruciating to be separated from the thing that has been such a vital instrument in my writing, but… I can write… because essentially writing is not about the computer. My brain works the same. My hands still work. The story is in my head, and not necessarily in its most consummate form on the hard drive, anyway. And, I must remind myself, writing via word processing machine is only a recent trend. After all the likes of the magnificent Mr. Chaucer and Mr. Shakespeare, many before and many, many after, produced manuscripts without use of a laptop, spell-check, online references and dozens of fancy fonts. Quills, hand-made ink, grossly expensive parchment and/or vellum, blotting paper, and candlelight… those were the tools. And what wonderful tools they are!

In fact, only last year (if you recall), Agatha Christie’s writing desk went on sale, no doubt for a pretty sum. I read Lucy Davies’ blog on the Telegraph website, and was intrigued some time ago by an entry devoted to those who collect the palettes of van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Mattise, etc. Anne Frank’s diary is preserved under glass. So is the Magna Carta in its various surviving versions. I wonder sometimes if I ever become noteworthy (ha! If at all, long after my demise!) would they preserve my laptop behind glass? Would it convey the same meaning as Jane Austen’s simple writing table, or would it be just another old computer with a black, dead screen? Hm…

Jane Austen's writing desk, from the Telegraph

I must remind myself that I do have these simple tools, too. Wouldn’t it be such a challenge, such an adventure to continue work on my novel as if nothing ever happened… except the change in medium? If all those others can make use of simple paper and pen, why can’t I? I already do.

So, I am beginning to toy with the idea of writing actual chapters via legal pad. While I have not yet lost the ability to write with a pen and paper, I don’t know if I’d have the patience for it. Another idea… old typewriter? That would definitely be an easier transition. But where might I find one that is both functional and semi-affordable?

A lot of things to think about. My only hope is that any crazy experiment can cause me to grow into a more versatile writer… the kind of person who can write a novel on a train or in a coffee shop, even if all I have is a napkin. After all, that’s what J.K. Rowling did – legal pads, coffee and a cafĂ© after hours.

By Jove! It’s so simple, it just might work!

Friday, January 7, 2011

About the Bread Quote (Jillian)

If you look to your right, you may have noticed the excerpt from Jeff Smith's soda bread recipe. You may be asking yourself why this is relevant to a blog about writing, so I'll explain.

Lately, I've been thinking on the idea of kneading dough until it is ready, pouring a primordial lump of flour and buttermilk onto the counter and kneading it "until everything comes together." It is not a complicated formula. In fact, it isn't even a formula at all. Having made this recipe many times, I can tell you that the dough is sticky and cold, and it does take more than a tidy minute for it to transform into a loaf.

Writing is like this - in that the initial writing phase of a story or a novel-chapter (90%, I'd say) is difficult, messy, inconvenient and sometimes uncertain. But in order to create a beautiful loaf ready for the oven, or a story or part of a story to be ready to share, you have to work at it. You have to get your hands caked in the thick and sticky substance of the craft. Despite the mess, it will definitely be worth it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Thoughts on Agatha (Jillian)

I have been hiding from the internet lately, in case somebody noticed. I've been languishing in creative silence for a while - to give my craft some room amidst a very noisy, self-important world. But something has caught my eye this fine day in August, and it again involves Agatha Christie... and the Daily Telegraph.

Today, in the DT, Laura Thompson makes the point that the publication of Agatha's private notebooks "will do nothing to reveal what made her tick." She does make an interesting point. Her novels were so clever it is no wonder that readers (or is it really the publishers?) are still dying to know how she was able to pull it off... believing that there must be some sort of magic embedded in her stories to make them work. The notebooks, apparently, reveal the scribblings and the notes she made that eventually gave way to her books... perhaps offering a glimpse into her own special writing process. But thinking as a writer, myself, I wonder: would I want my random, often-disorganized mess of proto-novel writings to be put on public display? After all, writing is such an intimate, highly personal art...

Thompson says:

She [Agatha] would have rued the publication of the notebooks, that is for sure. She gave away nothing; and that was how she liked it. Only in the six straight novels that she wrote between 1930 and 1956 did she reveal anything of herself, within the protection of a pseudonym. She was devastated when her secret identity, "Mary Westmacott", was exposed in 1949, even though the novels received reviews that most authors would have been glad to claim. The pseudonym, like the facade of "Agatha Christie" that she wrapped around herself, was a means to keep the world at bay.

She is herself a mystery - such that became the centre of the Doctor Who episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp". But when one attempts to open up her life and spread it out so that others can have a part of the mystery... it ceases to become sacred, respectful of how she preferred her legend (if it can be called such) to be carried on into history. Of course, very rarely does one have the choice to write one's legacy.

My thoughts about this article are mainly in regards to preserving Agatha as she is: a writer who chose to keep her writing protected under a mask, her secrets remaining secrets... and finding contentment in that.

I must return to work now. Trying to blog and answering the annoying phone is a daring feat all its own.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Believing (Michelle)

In Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night, the detective Lord Peter Wimsey urges Harriet Vane, a writer of mysteries, to stop writing clockwork whodunits and explore real characters and real emotions in her mysteries. She responds that she could do it, but it would "hurt like hell." He answers: "What difference would that make, if it made a better book?"

You can, of course, as a writer, hide from personal and universal realities as easily as you can as a non-writer. But it's a dangerous business, putting your pen to paper (to paraphrase Bilbo) --- if you're really trying to do it well, there's no knowing where it might lead to.

I'm discovering at the moment, for example, that writing does not allow you to get away with only saying you believe something. Without giving away the interminably dull details of my novel, it's supposed to have an unlikely happy ending driven by, let's say sloppily, love.

Trouble is, I can't envision it; and I have finally figured out that this is because I don't believe sufficiently in the incredible redeeming power of a single act of love. Oh, I want to believe it, which is probably why the novel exists at all, but I don't believe it enough yet to write about it.

But I kind of hope that by writing about it, I'll believe it.

So apparently, writing can demand rigorous integrity of you, force you to admit your failings. It can utterly change you. And yes, it can hurt like hell.

p.s. I really, really wanted to use the tag "Agatha Christie's writing desk" again. Soo...I figured since I was talking about mystery sort of counts...?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Remnants (Jillian)

I have come to learn that Agatha Christie's writing desk is currently up for auction. It's made me think of our connections to historical figures (in Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch or Henry VIII's suit of armor... and practically anyone you can name alive or dead under the sun) but most especially writers and artists - how we strive to collect their works and the tools they used to create those works. There is this overwhelming sense of reaching outwards for remnants of those that inspire us... not necessarily to be a part of that creation, but to feel it up close, under the finger tips.

It's also unmistakably creepy. This was the writing desk that launched many of Agatha's novels. The novels remain. The desk is here. But Agatha is gone. And yet, it goes to prove Time is not as impenetrable as we think it is. She is right there... in the dust and the pen markings. Not so far away.


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