The scaffold

Christmas is over. I cast my mind back to childhood and for some reason I get the TV image of the Queen’s Christmas tree- maybe in her palace in Scotland- reaching to the high ceiling. The height of the Christmas tree (ours were always rather short) was very important to me, though my own kids don’t seem to care as much. Maybe because I self-consciously bought tall trees at first; now I, too, see the merits of a small cheap tree…the sight of wrapping paper discarded around the Queen’s tree suggested the magnificence of Royal gifts, but, tantalisingly all that was on view was red shiny wrapping paper and gold tinsel. All this from a few minutes of one year’s Queen’s speech in the 1970s. 

But then came the letter writing- thank you letters. We had until early Jan at the latest. Some cousins were ridiculed because they sent their thank you letters in mid February. Might as well have not bothered. Thank you letters were considered important and I hated writing them. They brought on a familiar anxiety, the desire to say something that would be both noticed and approved. I know now its easier to separate these two- write for approval but care not for its qualities, or to hell with being liked – write what you feel like writing.

Writing a thank you letter is still not easy for me. In fact writing any kind of letter is hard. Letter writing makes me anxious and if there is one condition that kills the ability to write well it is anxiety.

Some people are natural letter writers, I’m not. I can still recall the sense of blankness when it came to finding a few things to say other than thank you. I was tormented by the limited, or so it seemed, possibilities. I could praise another present- running the risk of belittling the giver’s gift. I could talk about how Christmas ‘went’- but often the letter was to someone we had seen that Christmas. This feeling of being tongue tied, unsure of what is ‘right’, has stayed with me whenever I write almost any kind of letter unless I free myself up in the first line- sometimes by being ridiculously formal “Good morning Sir!” or facetiously informal “Yo bro”. These forms of address can always be changed later, their function is to get me writing in the right way.

Writing always has these two parts: the scaffold, what you need to get you to produce what you produce, and the work itself. Some writers leave traces of the scaffold in- which confuses critics who bend themselves out of shape trying to explain the anomalous presence- when its true function was simply to catalyse the release of the main idea. Buddenbrooks has a lengthy family scene at the beginning that seems pointless- it was Thomas Mann's way of getting going, getting the right feeling before he really started. Some scaffolds are made to be removed. Agatha Christie would write a detective story with one character in mind as the murderer. She would then change the murderer at the end and go back and fix all the clues, making the final work much more subtle. In fiction I sometimes deliberately use the names of people I like or actively dislike- it gives me a kick- then I change them later. You need to know how your own mind tends to work. What turns you on. Gets you interested. What I would say is that if you feel some kind of emotion you like before writing then that will make for better writing. The worst writing is usually, not always, written when you feel flat, bored and don’t care. The best when you have a warm feeling of caring interest in the subject. Anger can drive a certain fluency but you lose the playfulness that really good writing seems to have. You probably want to avoid an overwhelming closeness. Nicholson Baker recommends writing down your best moment of the day as a good way of building this caring but playful feeling. You really care about your best moment and you care about yourself. Yet it isn’t too painful and pressing and close to make writing difficult. It’s your experience so you know you have a good supply of stuff to convey- so no anxiety there. And you are genuinely interested and it is fun too- that must be a big part of it. You need to have that caring feeling, a fondness for your subject. Interest can be clinical and functional, what I am after is a sort of nostalgic caring feeling mixed with real but playful interest.

An emotion then. But as psychologists will tell you when they are off the record, no one is quite sure what an emotion really is. I find it better to characterise the feeling with some physical counterparts. A cosy warm interest, a sense of endless time or time slowing down as when you are sitting with hours ahead of you in a book lined room that is warm and inviting, maybe with a beaten up dark red leather covered armchair. I think the experiences of actors can be useful here. Imagine a scene in the approaching piece of writing that strikes a deeper chord than simply fulfilling a function. Think about an image you like, or nice phrases you like to repeat. These can serve to anchor the writing, give it some kind of gravitational centre around which you can circulate.

You can keep making stabs at the same subject. Don’t worry about disrupting the flow of what you are writing- that can be easily fixed. Lots of goes at saying the same thing can jog an emotion to the surface and result in subtle but interesting differences.