Friday, 27 July 2007

Back from the Bahamas

The Sistahs have been on holidays, where they bathed, from bathing-machines, in voluminous yet child-sized bathing costumes. It was all very good for their lungs. Getting away from their father didn't hurt, either.

Many questions have been asked in their absence, so let us begin to catch up.

MINDY ASKS:Is it still easier to get published if you write under a male moniker or is the playing field level now?

Charlotte says: There are two parts to this question, and they do not necessarily have anything to do with each other. Of course it is easier for a woman to get published than it was in my day, but then everything is easier than it was in my day, and particularly than it was for me.

Anne explains: We were careful to give ourselves names that did not actually indicate that we were of the stronger sex. 'Currer', 'Ellis' and 'Acton' are not gender-specific names; we were merely counting on people opting for maleness as the default position. If people were silly enough to fall for it then that was hardly our fault. We did not mind hoisting people with their own sexist petard, but we did not wish to lie.

Emily adds: Not like that coward soul George Eliot or that pathetic cheat Mrs Henry Wood or that complete sooky la la Henry Handel Richardson, whom I believe was one of yours. Pffft.

Monday, 11 June 2007

It's all been a terrible mistake

A ground-breaking, nay, earth-shattering new discovery has revealed that the Brontë Sisters were not shy, retiring, tiny, slender, mouse-coloured Irish/Cornish hybrids from Britain's remote and mysterious Deep and Wuthering North at all. No! With the slip of a keystroke, Melbourne's Sunday Age has re-identified them as the Bronti Sisters.

This bombshell has been brought to my attention by the distinguished scholar and blogger Professor Stephanie Trigg of Humanities Researcher, in the course of whose work the discovery was accidentally made.

And in a heartbeat the mind's eye transforms the Sistahs into proud and fiery Italian heroines, statuesque of stance and flashing of glance, raven of lock, pneumatic of bosom, and altogether quite unrecognisable in every way. Reader, I give you the Bronti Sisters: Carlotta, Emilia and Anna.

Literary history will have to be rewritten.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Your questions answered

THIRDCAT ASKS: How can it be that you have all the ingredients there: the idea; the motivation; the inspiration; the knowledge that life is short; the external encouragement...and yet, in the small amount of quiet, uninterrupted time you have available you find yourself vacuuming the cutlery drawer because there's just no other way to get that pesky dust out of the corners??

Charlotte says [in the at this point thinly disguised persona of Jane Eyre]:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings or knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.

This does not, I know, directly address your question, but as it is the most specific thing I am known ever to have said about housework, I thought I should put it in. Emily used to prop up her German grammar before her in the kitchen so that she could study while she made the bread, but in the case of cutlery drawer dust I should think you would need to attend to what you were doing.

Your dilemma as I perceive it is that in taking up the 'vacuum cleaner' (exactly what this may be I find it difficult to say, but the general principle is apparent from its name -- top idea) you are waging war against yourself, an activity with which I am all too familiar.

Once I was happily married, of course, it became, as became me, my first priority to ensure the domestic comfort and happiness of my dear Arthur, as was expected of me and as I expected of myself. But this is no help to you either, is it.

It is my understanding that women in the 21st century are less oppressed than I. But then, everyone is less oppressed than I.

I do not really know how I can help you. Perhaps it is the same kind of problem that people have with computers: labour-saving devices produce in their wake an expectation that you will get more done. Temptation by vacuum cleaner was never a problem at the Parsonage for reasons that one hopes are obvious.

Besides, in the era before electric light, dust in the corners of the cutlery drawers was something one had to go out of one's way to see.

PC adds: Does it surprise you to hear that this is a very common problem? Not down to the specificities of dust and cutlery and so on, but generally. I know a man, and a gay man at that, who says the only time his house is ever clean is when he has an urgent deadline. Displacement activity is an extremely powerful thing, especially where writing is concerned.

I do it a lot and my reasons are legion. They include:

(a) Fear that whatever I have in my head will look like pathetic nonsense once I have actually put it down on the page.

(b) Not being in the Zone (do not underestimate the importance of this and try to ignore how flaky it sounds -- it's a very real problem) and/or not being able to get into the outer Zone from which you can access the inner Zone. The thing about the Brontës, Emily and Charlotte in particular, was that they were in the inner Zone most of the time. I think this had something to do with being half Irish.

What I've learned painfully over many years is that (1) it's bloody hard to get into the Zone when you know you have to snap out of it at five past three, but (2) this is not a reasonable excuse to pick up the vacuum cleaner instead. My experience is that there are two writing modes, dream and slog, and slog is the one most writers spend at least 70% of their time in.

(c) I find writing (not blogging or emailing -- 'writing' as in either 'I might have to still be looking at this in print twenty years from now' or 'I have to figure out a way to develop this idea in exactly the right words and the logical order' or 'I am being paid for this so it has to be as good as I can make it') an intensely painful activity. I am slow, reluctant and fiddly and my words are written in the proverbial bodily fluids, mainly blood. It is much, much easier and less painful to get out the vacuum cleaner and attack the corners of the cutlery drawers with it.

Perhaps you could stick a Post-It on the vacuum cleaner: PUT ME AWAY AT ONCE.

Or you could recall the words of Australian writer Carmel Bird in her book Dear Writer: 'You have the choice of a clean house or a finished story. The choice is yours.'

Thursday, 31 May 2007

They're everywhere

Since I began this blog it has been repeatedly and forcibly brought to my attention that the Brontë sisters permeate modern life on an almost-daily basis. There I was the other day, reading a new crime novel by a new writer -- young Irish actress Tana French -- called In the Woods, which is incidentally an absolute cracker, the kind of book that makes you understand why the Irish are just better than the rest of us at this literature business (the Brontës were of course half-Irish) -- anyway, there I was, deep in this grim and very contemporary tale of murdered children, a story with the mist of the supernatural glimmering around its edges, when I came upon this:

'In a little bookshop off Grafton Street I found a beautiful old copy of Wuthering Heights -- thick pages browning at the edges, rich red binding stamped in gold, 'For Sara, Christmas 1922' in faded ink on the title page.

... Cassie was already at her desk. "What's this?" she demanded.

"An apology. I am so, so sorry ..."'

See what French is doing there? Not just the force of Brontë books as message and gift from one detective to another, but also the most casual and effortless spin off into a very Brontë-ish narrative moment: another time, another place, faded relics of lives lived (clearly) intensely: a bit of mystery from the past that heightens this book's own use of past mysteries as part of its plot.

And who, thinks the reader in half a heartbeat, was Sara? Who gave her the book, and what sort of message was it conveying, as a gift? What has happened to these people? French momentarily positions her readers as a lot of Lockwoods, trying to decipher the messages from the past: scratches on a windowsill, scribblings in a margin, dates carved over farmhouse doors and ghostly visitations in the middle of the night. What's going on here in one apparently trivial little scene is a transaction heavily freighted with meaning and history, a complex exchange that tells you a massive amount about these two characters and their relationship.

It'd be a great Creative Writing exercise in characterisation, especially if you were trying to establish the nature of the relationship between two of your characters. What books would they give each other? Under what circumstances? What messages would those gifts convey, and how would the transaction enrich and kick along your own story?

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Your questions answered

BABUSHKA ASKS: If I write something and read it soon after, I often think it's OK. After a very short while, reading over it makes me horribly embarrassed and sad. So how do you ever tell if something's finished?

Charlotte says: If you were not a creature of strong feelings, then you would not be any kind of artist at all. On the other hand, strong feelings by their nature are apt to overcome one.

Emily says: 'Embarrassed'? 'Sad'? Pffft. Never apologise, never explain.

PC adds: There are two possibilities here. One is that your later reaction is the right one, in which case the piece is either not finished or not working. If you think the latter is the case, grit your teeth, throw it away and start again or write about something else.

The other possibility is that your embarrassment and sadness aren't about the quality of what you wrote, but maybe to do with some other aspect of it -- like the experiences you're writing about, or maybe ambivalent feelings about writing at all.

I think there are three things you could try:

(1) Give it more time -- sure, look at it a day later, but then put it away and look at it again a week later.

(2) Ask yourself exactly what is making you embarrassed and sad. Particular words or sentences? The tone? Too big a gap between what you wanted to write and what you've actually written? Se if you can pin it down, and, if you can, whether something can be done about it.

(3) Give it to someone whom you trust to be a good reader and give you a straight answer, and ask him/her what s/he thinks.

Sometimes you'll write a sentence or a paragraph and you will know straight away that you have absolutely nailed whatever it is you wanted to say, and that you are never going to be able to say it better.

But the same piece of writing will mean different things to different people, or to the same person on a different day. You don't ever really know when something's 'finished', because writing's not an absolute thing, or a finite or a finishable one. Writing's like water. It's not going to keep still for you.

Friday, 25 May 2007

The great threes of literature at the end of the world

JINNI ASKS: Is there something PC knows that she is not telling us? I refer to her comment: 'in these pre-apocalyptic days of late capitalism'. Pre-apocalyptic? Should I start stocking up on baked beans and bottles of water, to say nothing of several hundred novels to read while starving, and/or fighting of the hungry hordes?

PC replies dolefully: Yes.

Between the fundies and the economic rationalists (not to mention the fundie economic rationalists -- it's a big overlap), I really do think we are in for it one way or another; if the crusades don't get us the climate change will, while those in charge simply go on using the profit motive as a justification for everything from climate change denial to sending more troops to Baghdad.

If Jinni is who I think she is, she is better equipped than I to foretell the future in any case. ;-)


EMILY: "Double, double, toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble" .. um ... eye of newt and toe of frog? Poison'd entrails? Baboon's blood? Bugger, I can't remember how this goes.

ANNE: This is Yorkshire, there are no baboons for miles. Will one of the dogs do?

EMILY: No! Don't you dare touch those dogs!

ANNE: Pity.

EMILY: "When shall we three meet again?"

CHARLOTTE: Oh God, don't say that. You know not what you say, Em. As usual.

EMILY: Look, shut up and play properly, will tha'? "In thunder, lightning or in rain."

ANNE: "Oh, if only we could get to Moscow!"

CHARLOTTE: "Who's been sleeping in my bed?"

ANNE: "All for one, and one for all!"


* Roll on the heather laughing their arses off]

EMILY: You never play properly! I hate you! [Runs off sobbing.]

ANNE [sitting up]: That's funny, I never thought of Emily as a wuss.

CHARLOTTE: Very out of character. Must be the red cordial.

ANNE: Or the water supply to the parsonage, you know, the underground channel that feeds the well, the one that runs through that very overcrowded graveyard right next to the house.

CHARLOTTE: Good point.

ANNE: Or the genetic modification.

CHARLOTTE: [Looking round her thoughtfully at the blasted heath]: Actually, you know, I think it might be a bit late for that. Look how blasted this heath is.

ANNE: You mean ...?

CHARLOTTE: Yes, I think it's all over. Let's go.

ANNE: Go where?

[They do not move.]

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Your questions answered: Punctuation Corner

ELSEWHERE ASKS: Question: comma or semi-colon? I've managed to reduce my use of the semi-colon greatly over the years (esp since leaving academia) but now rather wonder if this was a rather unnecessary manoeuvre. And what do you say to people who insist you are a pedant when you correct their colon/semi-colon foul ups? (Or, even worse, say: 'But I've seen it like that before'). Many would write the following (esp in a powerpoint display): ‘Question; colon or semi-colon?’

PC says: I’ll take this one. Punctuation is an issue for our own times as fashions in it have changed a lot and there is no knowing (short of going and looking at the manuscripts, which I don’t have the time, money or inclination to do) what the original Brontë punctuation was like.

To answer Elsewhere’s question one part at a time:

Question: comma or semi-colon?

Depends. (Also, did you actually mean to write ‘colon’ here rather than ‘comma’? The latter is a good question too, though.)

My understanding is that a semi-colon means something quite specific. The separate parts of the sentence on both sides of a semi-colon ought each to be able to stand alone as complete grammatical sentences with a subject and an active verb: ‘The cat sat in front of the fire; the dog lay on the sofa.’ (A comma would be wrong here – the curious could look up the term ‘comma splice’ to find out why.)

But the question I would have asked is ‘semi-colon or full stop?’, which is more often the choice to be made. A semi-colon (again, as I understand it) is used to signal that two separate points being made are sufficiently connected that they can be seen as two parts of a single train of thought, and to encourage the reader to think of them as such; the connection is demonstrated by making them two parts of a single sentence and joining them with a semi-colon, as I just did back there.

As for a colon: what it ‘says’ is ‘I am about to deliver, in the second part of this sentence, on the promise made or implied in the first part.’ As I just did back there.

The colon and the semi-colon are not acceptable substitutes for each other. Each has its place.

And what do you say to people who insist you are a pedant when you correct their colon/semi-colon foul ups?

Calling someone else a pedant is code for “I don’t care if I got this wrong, and everybody knows it doesn’t matter about grammar and punctuation and spelling and all that boring crap as long as you Be Creative. Also, I don’t know what ‘pedant’ means or I wouldn’t be using it in this situation.”

The correct response is “Do you want to write this properly or not? It’s no skin off my nose if you don’t, but if you don’t want to know the right answer, don’t waste my time asking me to help.”

Of course, in these pre-apocalyptic days of late capitalism, when education is a product for sale and the client is always right, such a riposte will get you sacked. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(Or, even worse, say: 'But I've seen it like that before')?

You say “Yes, and it was wrong then, too.” This is closely related the cry of the exasperated parent: ‘Oh I see, and if Backchatte McNaughtygirl rode her bike over the edge of a cliff I suppose you would too!’

SAJINSA ASKS: Could I ask you for your assistance with grammar? Should it be: She walked away. To never return, I wonder? Or, should it be: She walked away. To never return? I wonder.

This is actually more of a punctuation question than a grammar question, though the two are of course connected. I do however congratulate you on your correct use of the colon (though the comma after 'Or' is superfluous).

The first option is wrong, because you should only put question marks at the end of direct questions, and ‘I wonder’ is not a direct question.

In both options you have split an infinitive (‘to never return’), which, while repressively tolerated by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, doesn’t inspire confidence in the writer’s language skills, and is in any case a cliché.

Also in both options, the change of tense from past (‘walked’) to present (‘wonder’) looks odd to me, though the latter may be intended as the continuous present, ie ‘I wondered then and am still wondering now and will no doubt go on wondering’.

When you can’t decide between two versions of something, it’s usually because both of them are unsatisfactory if not downright incorrect, and a complete re-think of the passage in question is in order. So how about ‘She walked away, and I wondered if she would ever return.’

D. TILEY, ESQ. ASKS: We all get very purse-lipped about the misused apostrophe, and sometimes chew the edges of our laminex desks in a fury. But, actually, is there any need for the rotten beasts? Since some of us have learnt to do that funy riting wiv fonez, surely we can adapt to the loss of the apostrophe without the calamitous collapse of meaning?

I love apostrophes and the precise subtleties (not to mention the subtle precision) of meaning that they create, but I think the sum total of the world’s pain (the pain both of the apostrophically challenged and of their desk-chewing critics) might be lessened by a tiny fraction if we were to dispense with them, yes.

But I would really miss the ‘daily specials’ signs outside fruit and veg shops and butchers’ shops that look like this (NB -- all bona fide examples):