Two Men Sit Inside a Novel

Two men sit inside a novel. One is reading ‘Scientific American’, the other ‘The New Yorker’. They glance at each other. They glance at their surroundings. They are in a waiting room of some kind. They do not know why. They do not know what to say to each other, if indeed they should speak at all. They do not know what to do. They wait and wait, hoping any time soon the novelist will get on with his job so they can get on with theirs.

Lost Horizons

Ever since I began work
I said
I’d travel to Tibet,
Take off one summer, rucksack on my back,
Freedom in my stride
But other things intervened:
Another child,
Extensions to the house,
A hard mortgage

But now
The kids have grown up
The house is paid for
And I’m still no closer
To Tibet.

Now I listen
To tapes of the Dalai Lama
Watch programmes on Tibet
Study Buddhism
Walk pass mansions
Called ‘Shangri-La
Watch reruns of ‘Lost Horizon’.

When are you going
To Tibet,
One day, I say, One day.

On Asymmetry

IT has often been said that nothing is more boring than perfection. It is the little flaws, or deviations, that capture our interest. This applies to the architecture of bridges and buildings and composition of a painting as much as a poem. A poem that has, for instance, a regular rhythm can be seen as boring. Thomas Hardy, as poet, excelled at metrical irregularities as did Keats most notably in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ in that truncated last line, ‘And no birds sing’.

      In a movie star you look for the same thing. Humphrey Bogart, Bradley Cooper and Tom Cruise, to name only three, each have asymmetrical faces, “one standard deviation away from regularity”. Among women I can think of Toni Collette and Susan Sarandon.
They have ‘anatomically notable faces’.

       As writers then we must strive for work that looks a little odd or off centre. As has been said of Ian Fleming’s twelve Bond novels, they all had “an irreducible strangeness about them.”


It is the fag end of the afternoon.
I sit on a couch looking up at a painting.
Three workers in a cane field are taking a break.
A small red train chuffs along in the background.
The sun slants in the sky. One worker pours a cup of tea
from a billy. The other two puff on a cigarette.
Rings of smoke dawdle above them.
The painting is as relaxed as Manet’s
‘Le Dejeurner sur l’herbe’.
Called ‘Smoko’ it sits on the wall
of a doctor’s waiting room.

Writing Advice to a Man with a Gun Barrel in his Mouth

Atris is in a difficult position. He has a gun barrel in his mouth. He owes money to a drug syndicate and they have come to collect. It is during this incident in a damp windowless room – the cellar where torture is conducted — that he is ‘offered’ some valuable advice that all authors could take note of:

“Where is the money?” she said.
Atris opened his mouth and said, “The money’s at the station. Buddy swallowed the key, he shat all over everything. I had to …”
“Quiet,” said the woman. Her voice was sharp. “Put the barrel back into your mouth immediately.”
Atris stopped talking and did as he was told.
“Your story’s too long. I don’t want to listen to a whole novel. All I want to know is where the money is….”

I read this extract from ‘The Key’, a short story by Ferdinand von Schirach*, and I thought about the craft of writing. Although circumstances are somewhat different, in a short story the reader doesn’t want a long, dribbling account but the gist laid bare in a succinct and compelling manner. Think of all the short story writers you love. Elmore Leonard. Charles Baxter. Stephen King. Isn’t that how they write? Isn’t that how we should write? Thinking we have the barrel of a gun in our mouths might expedite the process 

* Ferdinand von Schirac: Guilt [ 2010 ]

Before I Met Her

Before I met her
I always laughed at cartoons
was astonished before paintings & poems
but now I pass the magazine to her,
the one with the crazy cartoons.
Look at this, I say, & she does and smiles
span our faces & rumble our bellies
like laughing Buddhas;
Trouble shared is trouble halved,
my mother used to say — but Joy
works inversely:
It is doubled when spent with another.