Dark flurries over roofs and swaying trees,
against the rosy evening, rise, swoop, dip and glide, slide
on barely beating wings along the fluent wind,
the earth below held cold in sudden shadow,
of damp grass and dank air, and the sky
floats north above the fallow valley
on the ceaseless stream receding
over wooded hills to cliffs and crags of other sunlit clouds
along the earth’s rim
Sometimes in memory I see
those boundless skylines, hilltop woods and distant knots of trees
whose echoes linger on the sky; a rutted road
receding over folding hills
beneath a burning sun.
And as the memory expands and grows I see
an afternoon progressing through the hours of heat,
golden haze upon the stippled corn, a silence
counterpointed only by the song of skylarks and the drone of bees
and all the creatures which abound
among the stalks.
Yes, reaching back, the memory grows weak
as I attempt to see to evening and the setting sun
bestow a ray of gold on every bush, on every leaf,
the haze dispersing – colour, texture, shape of sun and shadow growing sharper
more distinct; the dots of trees along a distant ridge, the flawless downs,
the hilltop camps arranged in cosmic silence seem to gain
a power greater even than before and all of time
is held within a point of timelessness.
Yet memory alone cannot retain
what moved so long ago through head and heart and feet, I just recall
as clouds process across the western sky,
a sense of hope.
The entire human race, it seems to me, is falling over itself to give advice. On marriage, on weight loss, on healthy eating, on everything that it’s possible to give advice on. And almost always, you notice, it’s people who are least qualified to give advice that are the first and most eager to give it. Advice on relationships nearly always comes from people who have left a trail of emotional debris in their wake, and financial advice from those whose extravagance and mismanagement has left them stony broke. A recently deceased second cousin of mine was forever dispensing financial advice on the strength of being a “stock market operator” and when she died it turned out she was penniless, having “stock market operated” her way through the fortune left to her by her father. So great was her talent for losing money that I often thought she should’ve set up as a consultant to corporations wishing to establish losses for tax purposes.
This tsunami of advice is nowhere more evident than in the field of writing – that pitiable object, the hopeful, unpublished author being its most targeted victim. It positively oozes from every quarter – friends, family, other writers, articles, websites, entire books by people who feel themselves qualified to pontificate on the subject and, not least, the publishers and agents to whom you might dare to offer your manuscript. They always make a huge deal of their helpful and welcoming submission process even though they know they ‘re going to reject your work before they’ve even glanced at it. This typically includes something to the effect of: ‘Before submitting your manuscript, show it to as many people as possible to obtain a wide range of opinions and reactions, every one of which is valuable!’
Okay, that’s fine in theory but reading a manuscript takes time and – if it’s read properly – concentration, two things which are in very short supply in the modern world. Normally your rather humiliating solicitations are met with a reaction like ‘Oh yes, I’d love to read it! I can’t wait!’ followed, six months later, by, ‘I’m so sorry! I’ve just been so busy! But I will read it next month when I’m on holiday. I promise!’ Yeah right, you think, and you don’t even have the pleasure of blaming them because it’s not really their fault. After all, you’re only a writer – something which is extraneous to everything. They’re involved in Real Life.
Nonethless, your manuscript does occasionally get read, and when the verdict is in you’ll probably wish it hadn’t. An old American friend of mine, now a published and established author, recently phoned me up to inform me he had an unexpected window in his busy schedule and would I send him the novel I’d been trying to persuade him to read for years. A week later he phoned me in a state of euphoria, pronouncing it “magnificent!” but then presented me with a catalogue of all its faults and changes which had to be made (including the title) to the point that I found myself wondering which bit of it was actually so “magnificent”. He then showed it to his wife – who comes from the Deep South – and she then phoned me up specially to present her own shopping list of changes, criticisms and suggestions.
I tried being Big about all this – after all, the last thing you want is to be branded as someone who can’t take criticism. I considered all their suggestions as objectively as possible, trying to decide which ones were valid, and incorporated quite a few of them. But, as I did so, I found myself losing track of the novel I had actually written and it occurred to me that there is a fine line between constructive criticism and wanting to take control and have the book rewritten the way you would like it to be. My American friend’s wife took great exception to the fact that an adult male character of mine cried (not manly) and even greater exception to his leaving a pair of soiled underpants lying around his flat in view of his girlfriend (Peter, that’s repulsive.) On the other hand, she suggested that two of my characters (a middle-aged married man and a much younger woman) should ‘have a little affair’ (delivered in her Blanche Dubois accent) – something which would have completely destroyed the dramatic tension, rendered a large part of the book meaningless and been decidedly tacky. The truth is she wants all her male characters to be the sort of men she fancies (variations on Clark Gable as Rhett Butler) and it doesn’t matter how many hearts they break or how many times they cheat on their wives just as long as they don’t cry, fart or generate too much snot when they blow their nose.
Then you have that dreary old refrain – usually from an ageing aunt who’s had one too many sherries – ‘You just have to keep on trying, dear. Did you know that Anne Bridge submitted “Illyrian Spring” four million, four hundred and forty-seven times before it was accepted.’ No, I didn’t, but the fact is that it was eventually accepted because getting your work published was easier in those balmy days. You also frequently find situations where two critics, whose opinions you respect equally, directly contradict each other. At the end of the process you feel not helped or enlightened but exhausted, disorientated, confused and ready to abandon writing forever to try your hand as a traffic warden.
Having been subjected to this for years, it seems to me that the best response to criticism is take it with a very large pinch of salt and to try to be coldly objective about it, not personal. Even if it’s negative, they may have a point. Then again, they may not. But at the end of the day, never forget it’s YOUR book – nobody else’s – and you wrote it the way you did because that’s how you wanted it written.
I hope that doesn’t sound like advice. If it does, ignore it.