In The Studio

Since deciding that we’d do By Prescription Only, the Drugstore shorts and essay showcase, I’ve been wondering how I’ll manage to break from editing this novel, which I’ve been working on since globular clusters formed the Milky Way, to take time out to produce a short story, bearing in mind all the other stuff that’s going on in my life, such as paid work, for instance. Hunting through my digital scrapbook, I came across this interview with James Kelman published in The Guardian last summer. This paragraph caught my eye in particular.

“…Well I never sit down to write a book about something. No, no, I never do that. No. I have literally a couple of hundred pieces that I’m working on, so I never sit down with an idea. If you went into an artist’s studio, an ordinary painter – a visual artist – if you go into a studio, and I’m talking about a mature artist, then you will find that the work around will be work they began when they were 21, and here they are at 70. Any kind of mature artist who’s been working through it, and working late, then you will find that that is the case. And my work is like that…” – James Kelman interviewed in The Guardian, 2012.

The part that piqued my interest was the analogy with the ripened painter in their studio, waking up (hungover, no doubt), scratching mucus from their eyes while the percolator brewed bitter coffee, and then determining which 50-year-old WIP (watercolour in progress) they’d illustrate with aquarelle. On the surface, the comparison appears to leak; after all, a contemporary novel started in 1962 would be a historical novel upon completion in 2012. But details like that seem churlish and go against the spirit of his juxtaposition.

At its core, the idea implies continuity, the pursuit of an aesthetic over a lifetime, and the development and perfection of a single style. In reality, however, many writers mature in such a way that ideas that interested them as fledgling scribes would seem facile to their mature mind. In addition is the current trend of once-literary-fiction-writers ‘going genre’ as a response to market forces. Faced with that reality, ideas that may still interest a writer might remain undeveloped as they’re perceived commercially unviable.

Novels take a long time to get right, a laborious process honed through many drafts, so the notion of working on many projects at one time has an appeal as a means of keeping a fresh perspective. Working on simultaneous short stories and, perhaps, a novel, I can imagine, but juggling two full-length works with a few short stories tossed in would give me a headache. But then perhaps I’m just a poor multitasker.

I keep (what’s now grown into) a large database of ideas to develop, some no more than a sentence or an idea for a title, others a few pages of notes on plot, theme and characters. Occasionally I’ll revisit these folders while wondering what my next project will be, and in most cases the ideas just elicit a snort (although I never seem to delete them, however bad). Still, our forthcoming showcase will force another plate of fiction onto a pole for me to spin, and then (even if my novel is still unfinished) maybe it’ll be time to liberate an idea or two from their hard drive holding patterns. Who knows, it might be a lot more rewarding than the way that I’ve been working.

Be sure to log on next week when Hamish Spiers will be here with a guest post.

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3 Comments

  1. Andrew Oberg
    Posted September 15, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    The painter analogy is an intriguing one to be sure. Personally, I find it hard to break focus when I’m in the middle of a long project, and often wind up being obsessed to the point that I lose interest in everything else except my current WIP, however you want to define that acronym. ;) However, when I’m still in the pre-writing stages, I find that the future project will always be in the back of my mind, with ideas popping up and percolating away steadily until I sit down to begin. I suppose that with multiple projects going at once one would always find themselves in that state or a similar one. Maybe that’s what Kelman was describing?

  2. Paul j Rogers
    Posted September 15, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the begining of a project is an exciting time. Being constantly in that state of mind with at least one project has advantages. Actually finishing stuff strikes me as a struggle with this approach though…

  3. Posted November 5, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m the same way. It can be very frustrating finishing a long WIP as characters and plot ideas take shape in the back of your mind. I’ve been carrying a novel idea around in my head for the last two years. It’s good to know it is there and that I will (eventually) get to it. The downside, for me at least, is that I’m fairly confident that as soon as it becomes a WIP the same thing will happen again. In some ways it can be exciting but there is always half a focus on future projects.

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