I’m not a good blogger. For ages, I’ve been trying to work out why. I’m quite chatty – well, very chatty, too chatty many would say. I’m a writer, so the keyboard is a natural form of communication. I’m not a recluse. Some failed or failing bloggers seem to find solace in believing they’re ‘above’ blogging, that their words are reserved for ‘real’ writing. Blogging is real writing. It’s just a different form of real writing. That’s one reason, at least, that I’m no good at it. I can’t quite catch the blog form. I wish I could, since a good blog is a daily treat. Ah – there’s another reason. I have no urge to blog daily, but the secret of a good blog is the daily post. The blogger becomes familiar. Small details matter. You want to know how things are going. The same adage applies to a blog as to a friend: the less you speak, the less you have to say. If you only blog occasionally, nobody’s really interested. If you blog daily, you offer a real glimpse of your life, and other people’s lives are endlessly fascinating, their relative ordinariness reassuring.
Tania Kindersley is a superb blogger, and the other day, she touched on something else that separates the good from the poor blogger. Good bloggers are compelled to turn experiences into words. Even as you’re experiencing whatever it is, you’re turning it into a blog. You can’t help it. Before you’ve blogged, the experience isn’t quite fixed. Only when it’s up and posted can you relax. Recognising this, Tania was lamenting that she never quite ‘lives in the moment’. But the blogger’s curse of never quite living in the moment is the reader’s blessing. We benefit from the blogger’s compulsion to turn everything into a blog. The definition of a good blogger is, indeed, the compulsive blogger who can’t help but blog, and who, through sheer force of character, compels the reader to read.
From my periodic attempts to blog I’ve learned that I’m not built for it any more than I’m built for eating prunes, tending a garden or office politics. I shall just accept that occasional bloggers like me are not good bloggers. When I read Tania’s blog, I shall stop feebly worrying ‘why can’t I do that?’, I’m simply going to say ‘horses for courses’ and enjoy it.
The hours I put in at the piano should mean that so long as I haven’t been unable to practise, I sit, warm up, refresh previous work and continue to some further improvement. But take yesterday. Complete collapse of a much-rehearsed exercise, loss of control over 4th and 5th fingers of right hand, and a hideous lapse of memory. I slid away, apologising and mortified.
It may seem silly to apologise to a piano, but I think that like horses, pianos have temperaments, and not only physical – temperature, humidity – but personas that can give or withold their gifts. Just as a rider’s scratchiness can provoke a horse into jibbing and jogging, so a player’s mood can provoke a piano into sticking and stumbling. My piano is very generous. It puts up with me, for goodness sake. But if I open it up in a bit of a mood, we sometimes have words. It says ‘Now look here. You get out only what you put in’. I say, ‘But I put quite a lot in’. Mine is a ridiculous response, and the piano lets me know.
Yesterday, I must have been in more of a mood than I thought. Today, as I retreat to basics, I’m determined to be Mrs. Unmoody. The last time I managed this I was either unconscious or not yet born. A bit of a challenge, then.
So, I sit in my study. Behind me is the piano. Beside me is Michael Schmidt’s The Novel, a biography . In front of me is my notebook and my lovely little MacBook Air, with work in progress, winking. I should be attacking WinP. I feel the need to read Michael Schmidt. I want to practise Goldberg Variation 5. I’ve decided to be orderly. I’ll do one thing, then the next, then the next, but I know that if I hit Variation 5, all will go wrong and I’ll be there for hours; that once I’ve got stuck into MS’s book, I’ll be hooked; and the heart slightly quails at the WiP.
I know, I know. With the sun out and the leaves fresh enough to eat, these are what you might call ‘nice problems to have’. I do love a day with nice problems.
It was just short of three days, the visit of the older Daughter and Husband. Based 50 miles west of Chicago, the paraphernalia of busy lives makes visits to Glasgow infrequent. The garden knew. The cherry blossom hung on; the apple blossom tiptoed out; the camellia went bezerk and exploded into flower. Clemmie and Ben brought the spring with them.
Skype means there’s everything and nothing to catch up on. We know each other’s superficial news. We’ve seen each other’s faces. But we haven’t sat over pea and spinach soup, or said ‘want a cup of tea?’ or ‘the table’s booked for 8 o’clock’ or had a picnic day meandering through the tall mazy ruins of Linlithgow Palace and gazing over the Firth of Forth from a windy Blackness. Clemmie and I haven’t set off, with shopping purpose, into the city, only to stand amid the Hobbs finery for an hour talking about stuff that really matters before splurging in John Lewis and eating clams at Jamie’s.
Nor, over the skype, could Clemmie, with Ben at her side, bury the ashes of her little dog, Crumble, who was hers, though Crummie lived here always, and died here, aged 16, in February. We buried Crumble under the blooming camellia, and as we stepped back, I noticed for the first time that the camellia has grown into an almost perfect ‘C’. C for Crumble, C for Clemmie.
Clemmie and Ben left yesterday evening, and this morning I have a small vase of camellia blooms on my desk. They are perfect and poignant, a true reflection of the visit. They are also very pink, which isn’t a reflection of the visit but is nicely alliterative, and, for some reason, stops me sniffing into a handkerchief.
The Son arrived home for a few days. He is currently based in Boston, USA, so his homecoming is an event. It’s an irritating fact about ‘events’ that they tend not to go quite as perfectly as you hoped. As you get older, you factor this in. Just take it as it comes, you say to yourself. Be relaxed. Minor organisational hiccups don’t matter a jot. It’s how YOU are that makes the visit happy or less happy. I always want to pass this advice on to women in bridal shops. Why on earth fuss your wedding up with things to go wrong? Who cares what colour the napkins are? Who really cares what you wear? The happiest days of your life come unexpectedly. You can’t order them like cinema tickets.
Anyhow, we didn’t fuss the visit weekend up, and as a result it was lovely from arrival to all-too-soon departure. Nothing spectacular was done. We sat about over dinner. We nodded off in front of the Burrell Collection documentary video. We found our way to Chatelherault park (we find finding things difficult, so this was high risk). We had a picnic in the car – egg sandwiches, coffee from a flask, shortbread, chocolate – entertained by a girl trying to load a reluctant horse into a lorry. Our sense of direction being a bit squiff, we went for a rather longer walk than anticipated. The miracle of absolute enjoyment in the ordinary moment.
Now the Son is gone. Some mothers like the continued sense of a child’s presence in a tumbled room. I’m not one of those. When any of the children visit, once the awful goodbye is done I rush to strip and remake the bed so that as soon as humanely possible, the room is prepared for the next visit. Looking forward sees me through. In the Son’s room, I also find the things he’s left behind. Even before he’s touched back down in Boston, I’m humming, with apologies to the Proclaimers
‘When you go will I send your phone charger to America?
You can search through your luggage but you will not find it there.’
For the last busy fortnight, I’ve been full of writing vim and vigour. Other deadlines, bureaucracies, commitments, some delightful and others dementing, have had to take precedence. Today, there’s nothing between me and the novel I’m trying to write. I know its theme. I know its form (I think). But today, my study filled with spring light, the little dog sweetly curled up and other distractions and deadlines perfectly happy to ‘pend’, I find myself appalled at the prospect of actually writing. So here I am, dithering. All I’ve got to do is pull the novel up from the bottom bar of my Mac, and I know – or at least I think I know – its world will lure me in. I’ve got notes. I’ve got thoughts. But not for nothing is a novel called a ‘novel’. A novel should be new, not so much in story – there are, as we all know, a limited number of plot arcs – but each succeeding novel should propel the writer into slightly (for the writer) unchartered waters. To forge through new water requires courage and today I have none. Today I’m a coward, and cowards don’t make good writers.
Yet I don’t want to waste the day, so my lack of courage and my horror of waste are currently battling it out. Bang, wallop, bang. And crash! It’s battle over. I am going to write. This isn’t because courage has suddenly returned. I’m going to write because staring right up at me is that lovely thing known as the delete button. I can write and not write. A perfectly cowardly solution for the perfectly cowardly coward.
It turns out that I love talking about Sedition. Who knew! But I also like listening to what others make of my girls, and of course their fathers, mothers and Monsieur. At a Glasgow book salon on Wednesday, there was much quizzing about the genesis of the book and the ending. In truth, I don’t know where the darkness comes from, except that in the recesses of my mind there lurks all manner of stuff. All imagined. There’s nothing whatsoever autobiographical about Sedition. Imagination can often lead to much weirder places than experience, and following your imagination is what gives novel writing its particular pleasure (and pain, too – writing is a painful business). So, my imagination led and I followed. Readers, naturally, are curious. They want to see backwards, as it were, to before the book. I try not to be evasive, but sometimes evasiveness is nearer the truth than a straight answer.
Anna Burnside runs her salons in true Glasgow spirit: thought for her salonistas (hot soup of a brilliant purple hue – ’twas beetroot, a startling vegetable); thought for others (the Maryhill food bank); and thought for the book. She sets the tone of the conversation. No holds barred. Wonderful meaty stuff. At the end of the evening, you don’t simply leave, you emerge. My girls and I felt properly ‘saloned’. Thank you, Anna. Thank you, fellow salonistas. It was an honour.
Concentration is crucial to every successful venture, from skating to writing to cooking, even to walking the dog. I mean, when you walk a dog you should notice things the dog may be trying to tell you. At the moment, our old dog’s saying ‘it’s a bit muddy’ and the younger dog’s saying ‘why does the old dog get breakfast when I don’t?’. I acknowledge the observation and the question, even though there’s nothing to be done about the mud and, gee Blackberry, Crumble is OLD! That’s why she gets breakfast.
Once back in my study, I fossick about, then try to concentrate on a new work. I can’t call it a work in progress since some days there’s no progress at all. I find myself still submerged in Sedition, not just thinking about the book’s upcoming events, but in the story itself. This may be because every evening I practise my Goldberg, so every evening I’m back with my girls. Sometimes I play as doltishly as Everina, sometimes badly as Marianne, sometimes wistfully as Georgiana and sometimes smartish, like Harriet. Sadly, I never match Annie or Alathea, though I’ll never give up hoping that one evening, just once, my Goldberg aria will catch something of their intelligence.
The dogs are Bach fans. I suggest no musical sensibility, only that once I sit down at the piano they know they can curl up in their warm lidded beds for an hour or two, ears uncocked, eyes closed. I’ll be concentrating on fingering. They’ll be concentrating on sleep. We’re not lacking concentration in this house, it’s just not always properly directed.
A candid admission by Benjamin Franklin, with a tartan twist at the end. It’s a bit wordy, but perseverance is rewarded, particularly for Glaswegians.
“There was another bookish lad in the town, John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh.”
Sedition‘s reviews of the week are clipped by Virago and arrive on a Saturday, neatly packaged up. The envelope is pleasingly fat, and with due terror I sit down to read. Don’t be alarmed! This is no gush. The reviews are online. Not online are the reactions of friends and relations, and reaction has been violent.
My father (92) read Sedition, was outraged, and retired to bed with shingles. An elderly acquaintance, seeing the book features girls, sniffed, and, being that sort of chap, closed it with a snap. What creatures some men are. Not all men, of course. Some of Sedition‘s biggest fans are men. The book occasionally makes them wince, much as it makes the fathers of my Sedition girls wince, but, so my male friends tell me, wince in a good way, except for the bit when … (ah! you’ll have to read the book to discover more).
The surprise of friends, not that I could write a book but that I could write SUCH a book, is divided between alarm and delight. The delight of friends is matched only by my own delight in their delight. To the alarmed, I’ve taken to quoting the words of the Guardian, that Sedition was not written to ‘console or instruct, but to unsettle and to excite’.
Perhaps that’s where the real division lies. Those looking for consolation or instruction have found Sedition a strong tipple – for some, too strong. Those up for disturbance and excitement have been disturbed and excited enough to ring or email and tell me so. So far, nobody has had no reaction which actually, despite leaving me in a heap of one kind or another, is most pleasing of all.