The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

dawn dordogne

Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d done a right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad – I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Sometime in the Spring I downloaded a selection of out of copyright books onto my e-reader. A few of these books I have started but got no further than a few pages. They have a foreboding stodginess. They’re weighted down with words that my e-reader’s inbuilt dictionary can’t handle. Others have shocked me. Who knew Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis would be readable but boring? I was expecting difficult but profound. And who expected that Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, would actually turn out to be My Fair Lady and have an extensive but entertaining afterword that was mostly about the relationship between Professor Higgins and his mother, Mrs Higgins. I think I may well have been more delighted by the afterword than by the play itself.

Which just goes to show how many ideas I have about books before I’ve read them. I know names of authors and titles of books and think I know whether or not I’m going to like them before I begin reading. Quite often, I am wrong.

I liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn more than I’d imagined. I assume The Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes first, and I’m sure when I’m next doing a binge download of the classics I shall take it, but what I had downloaded was dear Huckleberry Finn.

At first, the language caught me as a little coarse. Wading through the dialogue slowed down my reading. Finn’s speech soon showed its rhythm, but throughout the book I found his friend, Jim, to have a more challenging dialect. This didn’t stop me enjoying the story. If anything it added the flavour that made Finn’s character. His philosophising had a clarity to it that I couldn’t help but adore, even if I found myself shaking my head at some of his conclusions. And Finn’s arguments with Jim reminded me of Simba, Timon and Pumbaa discussing the composition of the stars.

In the story, each mini adventure unfolds and then concludes with Finn narrowly avoiding both great fortune and misfortune. Whilst I found the curious characters and mannerisms of Finn’s America entertaining, it is the the moment after the mayhem that I love the most. This is when Finn arrives back on his raft, breathes a sigh of relief and reflects on how good it feels to be free. A gift he knows to appreciate. I love how Mark Twain managed to give this emotion, in Finn’s voice, a beautiful honest elegance .

Each morning I open my bedroom door and look across the vegetable garden. Beyond are fields and woodland. The sun lays low in the sky, pale and wrapped in mist. Here, before I join the chaos of the family breakfast, Finn’s quiet moments on the riverside seem close by.

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

I don’t know why I avoided reading The Casual Vacancy for so long. I get funny about books. So many of them sit on the shelf watching me, waiting for the right moment to pique my attention.

Part of it was probably that the impact of The Casual Vacancy was always going to be compared to Harry Potter. The summer the fourth book was released I remember watching a news piece about the release on Newsround, not knowing who or what Harry Potter was, but knowing that I wanted to read it. I devoured them during the family holiday. For me however, Harry Potter wasn’t the momentous realisation that imagination, magic and reading could bring joy to my life that it was for many other children. It was good, but I already loved reading anyway.

So why did I hesitate at The Casual Vacancy? Maybe, it’s off putting because my copy is a large hardback. I say mine, but whilst it’s spent four years sitting on my shelf, I don’t actually know who owns it. I knew that I would need to have enough time to read it quickly over a short period of time without too many distractions, for whilst Rowling might not be writing about wizards, it’s still her voice that speaks and there’s something about the smoothness of her writing that destroys my awareness of time and compels me to keep going.

Then there’s the dismaying fact that right at the beginning, Barry dies. I’m uncomfortable with death and was quite afraid that things would turn dark and sinister. Voldemort was horrendous, and that’s Rowling being restrained in a children’s book. And yet, whilst the book can hardly be called light and fluffy, it avoided scaremongering. Pity outweighed fear. Each time someone did something atrocious, and the whole book was filled with atrocious acts, I didn’t feel overwhelmed with horror. I felt grateful for my own life and the comforts and protection I’ve been afforded.

The time felt right to read it, and I’m really glad I did. It’s not a fast paced book. It’s more of a journey though cause and effect within society than a streamlined plot with a firm ending. There’s no illusion of ‘happy ever after’ but a recognition that lives don’t just end. When the breath stops in one person the clatter of consequences goes on being absorbed by others.

The Casual Vacancy is a book about society. It’s many perspectives show the blindness we all exhibit towards each other. It highlights the blinkers we wear, like class, education and familiar beliefs, that keep up a wall so that we don’t need to empathise with those different to ourselves. Rowling shows that the spectrum of Padford citizens, including those struggling with fear, hatred, drugs and abuse, are all interconnected human beings. Yes, they’re difficult, tempestuous characters who aren’t always easy to read and at times made me feel nauseous, but they were trying to do the best they could with the limiting beliefs and understanding they had.

Fiction is a route to empathy. And in a divided society like Britain today, we could all do with a little more empathy.

 

Prove yourself wrong with a diary

Posted on - 4min
writing, diaries and books
There is magic in the written word.
Outdoor library, Lljubliana, Slovenia, 2014

I keep a diary. Like everything else in my life right now, my habit of writing in it does not obey a regular pattern. It’s not an eloquent journal of events and intelligent observations. It’s a raw first draft bashed into being as I process my emotions. It consists of traditional diary entries, less traditional letters, quotes I’ve enjoyed, violent rants, considered plans, lists and maybe slightly intrusive observations of strangers made on trains, planes and from the corners of coffee shops. This makes it the closest I’ve got to an honest reflection of how I actually think.

Primarily, I keep this notebook because it allows me to experiment with words and and ideas on a page which magically enhances my clarity of thought. An unexpected benefit however has recently emerged: my diary entries are more accurate than my memory.

The memory that lies

Recently, a friend told me (and it was implied by another) that I had approached a particular situation with a less than ideal attitude. Because such an attitude matches with my known past behaviours I didn’t question it. I absorbed the criticism and let it sink in. I chastised myself for repeating the same mistakes as I have time and time before. I felt guilty and that I was making a bad situation worse by my childish and selfish ways. Was this weakness becoming more prominent with time or was I just becoming more aware of it. In either case, how did I overcome it. I constructed a reading list and an action plan.

When, later, I flicked back through my diary, I read my description of my emotions preceding and proceeding the event in question. It surprised me. No, stunned me. My fears, apprehensions, desires and other emotions contrasted with what had been assumed. Assumptions I’d unquestioningly believed. My attitude had been both much more complex and appropriate.

My memory was wrong. My friends assumptions were wrong. Decisions were being made on faulty data.

Now a wise friend questioned whether or not I perhaps lie to my diary. This is a good question asked by a good scientist. As far as I’m aware though, whilst I might omit details because I’m not yet ready to write about them, I don’t outright lie. If I write ‘I had a great day today’ I believed what I wrote at the time I wrote it.

The uncomfortable necessity of assumptions

No understanding can be made without assumptions but there’s a point when we stop recognising assumptions as assumptions and start thinking of them as facts. I’m probably guiltier of this than most people. Finding patterns is an obsession. I want to understand the story. However, making assumptions based on out-dated presumptions about someone else’s motivations is damaging. It stops us asking the question of what’s really going on here.

Assumptions are necessary if we’re going to imagine the stories that allow us to empathise with one another. I’m all for empathy, but the most important piece of the empathy puzzle, as I see it, is acknowledging that our feet don’t fit someone elses shoes. My sister’s feet are similar enough that we typically wear the same size shoes. Sometimes I use those squidgy insoles that stop your feet aching if you’re strutting around in heels for a long time, but other times my sister complains that I stretch them. My experience walking in her shoes is very much different to her experience walking in the same shoes.

On discussing how to approach a study of a subjective experience such as happiness, psychologist Daniel Todd Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness states, “In short, if we adhere to the standard of perfection in all our endeavours, we are left with nothing but mathematics and the White Album.” Therefore, we can expect to make some mistakes from time to time about others.

The future of the diary

Yet what I believed I’d felt like and the words I chosen to describe the experience as it was happening to me were so astoundingly different. This experience has shaken me. It threw me into a Socrates feeling of I know I know nothing. If I know so little about how I felt a mere two months ago, how can I make decisions based on what I thought I felt years ago?

Why does it happen? My hypothesis is that I’m most susceptible to remembering my emotions wrong when I am insecure about how I feel. In other words, when there’s a contrast between what I think I should feel and what I actually feel. This is particularly acute when the behaviours/motivation relate to my recognised weaknesses.

In hindsight, I’m likely to label my memories as selfish, manipulative, bossy, controlling or clinging because I’m overly fearful of such descriptions. In the moment, I’m going to feel independent, clever, determined, organised or attentive.

Unwinding these practices is an impossible task, but maybe using my diary is a start.

I must stop this silliness and start being curious about what’s actually going on in my mind. What do I actually believe? Repeating mistakes of the past isn’t inevitable. Maybe actually I’ve learnt more than I give myself credit for, I just can’t see it.

The difficult part is believing in the change.

Have you tried anything similar?

“Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.”

I’m reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a book about creativity and it’s unscientific to say the least.

It’s the self-help book like Eat, Pray, Love isn’t.

As a quick detour, it’s probably worth mentioning Gilbert’s crazy success. I’m always uncertain how to speak about Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a book that’s easy to label, and easy to complain about. It’s also brilliant marketing. It’s divisive. Some people resonate with it as a story of a woman coming to terms with herself after a divorce. With others it’s the courage to chase a dream. Others it’s a portrayal of privilege and self-absorption.

For me it’s a story about decision making.

Whether you see it as a curse or a delight, Eat, Pray, Love’s spell changes how you see Elizabeth Gilbert’s other works. I gave a sceptic my copy of The Signature of All Things to read as a dare and to make a point. My friend admitted surprise. Big Magic however, where some of the ideas are about as believable as fairy dust, is unapologetically not serious literature.

It’s a self-help book with a pink cover and no references in the back.

It talks about belief.

So I wrote it off. I’m a serious person, and thoroughly educated in the art of scientific thinking.

Then I was recommended and then lent it, by a physicist.

So I started reading, and reached the section called ‘enchantment’ which is a little too fanciful for my tastes, but the writing was pretty, at times funny and immensely easy to absorb, so I persisted. The book felt like a guilty pleasure. Something I was aware that people more intelligent than me might roll their eyes at, which would feel like they were mocking me for my reading choices and make me question my taste.

Insecurities abound. I neither need permission nor validation. Which is exactly what the book is actually about. It’s the story of owning the freedom to make what you want to make and loving it regardless. It’s a simple message and maybe it’s easy to mock the simplicity or naivety of it.

What’s more, I can’t help but link it in my mind to Murakami’s What I Think About When I Think About Running. Both are books about belief and perseverance and a pure and healthy love of writing.

Turns out I was surprised after all.

What books have you judged by the cover and been pleasantly surprised by?

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Running is hard work. It’s often lonely, it’s cursed by twisted ankles, strained muscles and in weather like today, soggy feet. And yet, when your body becomes bewitched in that elusive rhythm, it feels worth it.

Haruki Murakami, Japanese author and obsessive runner, believes his writing is dependent on his running, and explains the relationship in this wonderful little book. I read it whilst banned from running due to a concussion, which made it a frustrating read – I wanted to put on my trainers by the end of the first chapter.

He talks about how writers don’t need to live Hemingway-style tragic lives to write, and how training for a marathon builds the necessary stamina for writing a long work of fiction.

It’s the fourth book I’ve read by Murakami. His books always leave me with the haunting feeling that I need to reread them, and then probably reread them again after that. This book, being straight non-fiction with a title that clearly mentioned running, was easier going than the others. There was no odd magic (Kafka on the Shore), I wasn’t completely depressed by it (Norwegian Wood) and I haven’t spent the hours since reading it in a maddened frustration, wondering if the ending was happy or sad (South of the Border, West of the Sun).

It’s clearly a memoir about running. Except I’m not actually sure it’s about running at all.

Running it seems, is rarely about running. It’s sometimes a test of strength and determination, it’s sometimes a vain attempt to lose weight or belong, and other times it’s done because of the fear of what will result without exercise. It’s a lonely, selfish sport.

What I took from Murakami’s book though, wasn’t at all about running. Running, according to Murakami, is about knowing the person that you are.

This quote was chosen with the Father in mind:

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any lengths to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest, within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life–and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”

And I felt it like a wink. Permission that sometimes it’s ok to be a bit anti-social, sometimes it’s alright to take a bit of time and be a bit selfish.

Writing Resources: The Books That Taught Me To Write

[Last updated: 09/11/2015]

Copywriter, storyteller, blogger. Many of the same principles apply, regardless of which angle you’re writing from.

Learning to write is tricky. Good writing is subjective. What one person loves, another detests. I set off on this journey hoping to develop good writing, but I’ve found this original goal is not specific enough.

In copywriting – writing to inspire action – there’s a clear goal to each piece of writing. When it comes to stories, the goal might be to evoke empathy, or demonstrate the value of a certain perspective, or persuade the reader to reconsider their own worldview.

Measuring how effective a piece of writing is, especially away from hardcore marketing, is difficult. Asking for feedback when you’re an insecure dreamer is daunting. When we pluck up the courage to do so, it’s often to be disappointed by the vagueness of the guidance we receive.

‘It’s very you’ means what exactly?

Nothing has improved my writing more than genuine feedback, and nothing has been as distracting for its development. I keep on aggressively pushing for quality. Seeking out and engaging feedback is crucial, but between conversations with those brave and through enough to be trusted to edit your words, reading a few books on regular writing hiccups helps too.

The two that I shan’t let you borrow

1 – Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Love it; hate it.

Novel writing is overwhelming. When you’re hunting answers as to how to write, you come across a lot of details on the art of firing up your imagination, crafting in-depth characters and developing an over arching plot which changes the protagonist. What is often missed out is how you actually pull it all together.

Larry Brooks suggests ‘six competencies’, the fundamental building blocks of writing a story: theme, conflict, character, scenes, voice. What I learnt from reading his book is applicable to writing this blog and content marketing too. It’s about writing with purpose.

What Larry tells us is that thrashing around hoping something is going to work out won’t work. What I know from actually writing is that without a bit of thrashing around my imagination remains sedate. Reality requires a balance between the plotter and the ‘pantser’.

Reading Story Engineering, I discovered that whilst there’s nothing wrong with thrashing, it’s slow. Think of trying to swim the length of a pool. Technique trumps power.

So why the hate? The way Larry writes. That condescending…

Have you ever watched the Ted Talk by another Larry, Larry Smith, on why you will fail to have a great career? Larry King makes me feel the same way as Larry Smith does. He makes me need to take a deep breath. I’ve put the book down in frustration many a time, and yet I can’t help thinking that if only I submitted to the patronising wisdom then maybe I’d actually write something worth reading.

Maybe, the frustration is merely my fear. Maybe I despise Larry King because he calls out my failings.

Story Engineering stays close to my keyboard. It’s the book I go back to when I’m struggling with a scene or what I’m writing feels like clay. It’s not a book you may borrow, but if you want to write a novel, and your willing to work hard, rather than simply spiel out words all dream-like, then it’s the first book I’d recommend.

2 – Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation by John Seeley

This book is my grammar guru. Its tiny, but its explanations are the clearest I’ve come across. Every time I feel a bit stupid, or someone points out a mistake that I’m not so sure is a mistake, I go to this book. It doesn’t confuse, like so much grammar advice, it provides clarity.

The other books on writing I’ve read

(These books are in no particular order.)

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King

Second hand, of unknown origin.

Works best read front cover to back cover. The tone of the helpful advice was neither condescending, nor lecturing, which I found refreshing.

Not a particularly memorable read.

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

I’ve no idea where this book came from either – it’s also second-hand.

You could quite happily read a chapter a day and learn one lesson at a time. I read it in the bath. Full of good ideas and thoughts, but it’s not got enough of its own character to be a book I feel overly compelled to keep.

You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils

The Mother bought me this book. I guess this means she thinks I should try writing children’s fiction.

It’s a fluid read. You’d expect a level of simplicity perhaps from a children’s writer. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in writing children’s books. My criticism is that it could have gone into more depth in the sections devoted to middle grade and young adult fiction. Separate chapters with more in-depth information for these separate age ranges would be useful.

I keep it for every now and again when I go back to playing writing fairy-tales.

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

I read this book twice. Both times I borrowed it from the library (Warwick).

Why is it so good? Because it’s like the friend sat on your bed sharing chocolate and drinking tea whilst telling you their honest opinion. Reading the book this is how I hear Betsy Lerner’s voice. You believe what she says. You trust her, you want her to like you – you feel she’s selective though about who she does like – and that’s somehow inspiring.

Betsy Lerner’s blog is a giggle.

You are a Writer by Jeff Goins

Read as an eBook.

My favourite piece of Jeff Goins’ writing is actually his Wrecked Manifesto, from which I keep this lovely quote (not actually of Jeff Goins) which is the answers the question ‘What should I do with my life?’.

Step one. Stop pretending we’re all on the same staircase. – Po Bronson

That said, I enjoyed You are a Writer. Jeff Goins’ writing I like, because of his honesty and humility, but occasionally it feels a little too preachy to be really lovable. Occasionally I read something he’s written and I’m wowed, other times I feel he’s holding back out of politeness. Or he’s trying too hard.

He’s the author on this list I’d be most interested in meeting in person. You can get a feel for his writing on his site, goinswriter.com. If you want to be a writer, he genuinely wants to encourage you to write.

Brilliant Business Writing: How to Inspire, Engage and Persuade Through Words by Neil Taylor

This was the book I borrowed from Newbury library when I first got a job in marketing. Confidence lacking, I was determined to do something about my English.

It’s an encouraging read. It gave me a foundation to stand on when I was discussing persuasive and formal writing in the office and it made me feel like I was getting my inadequacies under control.

I was surprised how good it was.

The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology by F. W. Westaway

Found in Oxfam.

Not a book I’d necessarily recommend for someone who wants to improve their writing, it’s a little old-fashioned, but it does make an entertaining read.

I’ve rambled a little about F. W. Westaway’s writing guidance already on the blog so I shan’t repeat myself here.

Books about reading

Because writing without reading is like driving a car without a road.

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

A present from the Grump, whose support is always appreciated. You don’t need to want to write to find this book useful, but if you do want to write widely, it’s a pleasant read that’s suggests different ways of looking at fiction.

For me, a physics graduate who hadn’t read critically since school GCSEs, it was the bridge towards my current interrogative style. It’s an accessible book. A confidence booster. It’s filled with examples and extracts that make you stop to think.

It comes with a suggested reading list in the back for the non-literature student to use to broaden their own reading, and I have it to thank for making me fall in love with Chekhov.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

This book was one of the Mother’s holiday reads. She enjoyed it, and so I followed her lead.

It wasn’t a great book, there was no great learning i took from it, no great insight, but it was amusing. It was perfectly suited to laying out on the veranda of an Italian villa and made me feel rather smug about how much I read. It made me wonder about reading War and Peace. There was something in the tone of voice though that left me suspecting that Andy Miller and I wouldn’t make the best of friends.


So these are the books I’ve read on writing. Which book has had the biggest impact on how you write?