Book Response: Tomorrow by Chris Beckett

“Tomorrow I’m going to begin my novel.”

Thus begins Chris Beckett’s latest novel, Tomorrow. A single sentence that said so much to me. At once a knowing nod, a jibe, an amusing paradox of sorts. Because I am putting off my novel – if not starting it, at least from tackling it in earnest – and for the same reasons as the protagonist of Tomorrow: I want it to be a novel about everything. It’s unwieldy, it grows in all directions whenever I spend time with it, try to pin it down.

It is the promise of a novel to beat all other novels – ‘chasing a mirage’ – that keeps the protagonist (and me) producing, exploring; and yet it is also what keeps us dissatisfied. The feeling is one.

Sometimes I wonder whether it will always be the case that I will have ‘the novel’ looming over me, the MacGuffin that keeps me moving, but that the real body of work is what happens incidentally in the peripheries. The preparation, the experimentation, the spin-offs and the alternate takes. Often the most interesting things happen by accident or on whims, so doing something wonderful on purpose can seem like a futile pursuit.

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Shreds of Thought: Aphrodites Flown

The part of me interested in social media, marketing and metrics is very different to the part through which the prose flows. If I hold off looking at these things for the first hour after waking, and instead allow my still dreaming mind to externalise, I make a very different experience of the day. And – bonus – I have something like 777 useable words down before it even really starts.

See, the muse doesn’t care for social acceptance, book sales or writing advice. She doesn’t even care for thoughts, because she is a beast of intuition that merely plays with our language centre as though is were a harp.

If the prose isn’t flowing, the sure ways to attract it (for me, at least) are:

  1. Run a bubble bath hot enough to forget the world outside the door. And don’t take a notepad.
  2. Take a drive that will last at least an hour, and listen to music. Anything will do.
  3. Meditate.

Ray Bradbury described the muse as being like a cat that will resist attention and then follow on quietly as you walk away. I like that, because cats also like to scratch at an occupied bathroom door, climb into cars, and climb upon the stillest, most relaxed person in the room.*

The muse has no sense of completion. There is no beginning and there is no end. She will offer up ideas that have no obvious connection to one another, or tell a story in a nonsensical order. But I find if I don’t follow her natural trajectory, and instead force a story into a mould, I’ll end up with something substandard. I’ll produce works that feel mechanical and without heart.

If I have ideas as to how I might later sculpt her secrets, I must keep them on the peripheries until she’s curled up sleeping. That way, by the time it’s done, she’ll no longer care about those particular whispers. Her passion for them was spent by the very act of me listening without judgement, and she’ll have moved onto a new whim. Strangely, the pieces produced when I’m all ears are the ones that need very little in the way of editing.

I have many blog posts, flash fiction pieces, short stories – hell, even novel outlines – that never got past the concept phase. Scraps of prose, fragments of awareness, semi-conscious notions. They are evidence of the times I dared to turn my head away from the muse before she was done with me: betraying her with thought. The time for those pieces has now passed. I won’t hear those secrets again. Just like poems, they have expired.

Sometimes I wonder, could I revive them? But they’d be nothing more than shells, their Aphrodites long flown.

*If you’re not a cat person, consider that your muse might be a dog. You put a leash around her, set off along the path you chose. But, to the ground she wants to sniff, you will always go.

Additional ways to attract the prose that occurred to me post-script, as a direct result of the script:

4. Write a stream of consciousness.
5. Read poetry aloud.

Like Osiris

How do I write you?

Your essence is somewhere

between the scribbled words

on the mountains

of screwed up paper sheets

in which I nest.

Are you a jigsaw?

I try a word from one attempt

with a sentence from another

to draft a new layout,

an alternative frame;

but still I can’t complete you.

Like Osiris, you are in fragments.

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