Last night, we went to see John Birmingham do a gig at the Maleny Community Centre. Part of a series of ‘in conversations’ with writers, organised by the local author Steven Lang, supported by Arts Queensland, and run under the title ‘Outspoken’.
Birmo is an engaging, funny and relaxed speaker: easy to like, easy to listen to. For my money, he’s most interesting when talking about his feature writing and about the insights he’s gained through that work – the interviews, reading and research. On message, he’s an informed, intelligent, thoughtful commentator about – last night, just as an example – the role and responsibilities of the Fourth Estate, Wikilieaks, the Greens, policy platforms, and so on. The undergraduate, boys’ own stuff about going to brothels and booze and bongs … not so much my cup of tea, but the audience lapped it up.
In the middle of the chat with Steven, Birmo said some really interesting stuff about his writing process. Specifically, towards the end of the interview, he was asked how he produces so much material. He said there were three things he now does that have increased his productivity. I’m not much of a journalist – not like John – but here’s my understanding of what he said:
First, he used to write in two hour blocks. But during a two-hour block, he would google, then wiki, then check his email, etc, etc. All in the name of research, of course, but if you’ve ever written on a computer that’s got a live link to the internet, you know how easy it is to disappear off the (unwritten) page into pseudo-research and wake up three hours later without having written a word. So, John cut his writing blocks down to 25 minutes, and ruled out doing any ‘research’ during that block. No research. No email. No distractions: stay with the page.
For those of you who don’t have the personal willpower to do this without help, you could try installing Freedom: a software package that’s designed to lock you out of the internet for a set time period whenever you need to knuckle down to work (you can set how long, and when, yourself). When you open up the software it asks you: How many minutes of freedom would you like? The minimum is 15 minutes, which is just about enough time in John-Birmingham-minutes to write this blog post
Two. About eighteen months ago, John broke his arm, which made writing by hand, or computer, difficult. So, he started dictating his writing instead. Not to a compliant, semi-naked, tequila-layback-pouring amanuensis, as you might expect the Birmingham of He Died With A Felafel In His Hand to still dream of, but to voice recognition software. This got him writing faster. Hardly surprising in some respects. Birmingham is a great raconteur, and it’s easy to believe that he can spin stories out verbally at speed. During last night’s talk, he spoke about the composition of Felafel, which was largely the result of recorded interviews with his past flat mates, and a recording – I think this is right – of him being interviewed by a sports journo mate. Transcribe, edit, publish. Some of the wonderful comic energy of Felafel – the fired-up, chatty, immediate voice – is a result of that process. So, the guy can talk, and it turns out that talking out his stories is faster than writing them, so his word count expanded.
Then, he stood up.
On the advice of a friend –
Garth Nix Jenny Jansen [thanks John for the correction!]- Birmingham pushed his very expensive, comfortable, luxe chair away from the desk and started writing – talking – his stories out while standing. Pacing. He spoke about the fact that, while standing, he’s less likely to drop off and have a little papa snooze, but also less likely to surf the net, or otherwise get distracted by all the ‘other’ things on his virtual desktop. But he also spoke about how, for him, there’s also just an increase in wordage when he’s standing: a blossoming of narrative energy. John talked about going from 2000 words a session to 5000 words a session, just by stepping away from the desk and standing on his own two feet.
Birmingham is not the first writer to discover that standing up is the perfect way for them to write. Victor Hugo wrote standing up at his very tall desk. You can visit Victor’s home in the Place des Voges in Paris, and marvel at the height of his impressive writing space. Perhaps fortunately, there are no historically-accurate photographs or paintings of Victor at the desk, since according to The Book of Lists, when he got stuck, he stripped off and had his valet take his clothes away. Left naked in his office, with only his pen and paper, Victor had nothing else to do but stand and write.
In the 19th century it was common to write standing up at a writing desk, at times while leaning on a high stool but more often simply standing, presumably on a well-sprung floor spread with a warm rug in winter. As a result Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Fernando Pessoa, George Sand and Virginia Woolf all wrote standing up, as, presumably, did many others who didn’t bother to record such an ordinary detail.
Vladimir Nabokov did it standing up, too. There’s a great picture of him doing so, which was featured in Life magazine, below.
Thomas Wolfe – a tall American – reputedly worked standing up in the kitchen, using the top of the fridge as a work surface. I did say he was tall, but maybe he had a small fridge.
Hemingway, apparently, could only ever compose while standing up. He had a special stool and table fixed onto the back of one of his boats so he could work from there, despite the fact that his advice to aspiring writers – his first rule of writing – was “Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair.”
And there’s Philip Roth, who, as one of the grand dames of American letters, should surely get the last word on writing while standing. According to an article by Al Alvarez, published in The Guardian in September 2004:
Until recently, when surgery on his back and arthritis in the shoulder laid him low, he worked out and swam regularly, though always, it seemed, for a purpose – not for the animal pleasure of physical exercise, but to stay fit for the long hours he puts in at his writing. He works standing up, paces around while he’s thinking and has said he walks half a mile for every page he writes.
The next Outspoken guest is James Bradley – I can’t wait. I last saw Bradley in person when I was a uni student. He came to the campus where I was studying as a writer in residence. I remember his sharp blonde hair and quieter, though sharper, intelligence.
And I remember the leather pants.
It was the Gold Coast, high summer, and he wore black leather pants. At one stage he was talking about literature and I noticed the soft sheen of sweat on his top lip and knew he was swelteringly hot in those tight black pants. I wondered whether James Bradley – serious intellectual, author, writer-in-residence, all around nice guy – sometimes liked to imagine he was still a ruder, rougher, wilder version of himself: a black mamba snake god. Whether he, like me, had OD’d on The Doors as a young person. I remember looking at James, listening to him speak eloquently about ideas and words, and thinking about those stories I had heard about Jim Morrison and his leather pants: how they reeked, how he lived in them for days, how the stink of them was all tied up with his raw, rank, raunchy appeal. How Ray Manzarek describes the picaresque adventure of getting Jim Morrison’s leather pants made by a German tailor with a shop down on Santa Monica Boulevarde. How Ray went in, with Jim, and asked the man to make Jim a pair of leather pants from kid glove leather, cut like Levi’s. When Ray asked him to do this, the tailor reputedly said: That is for gloves! You do not make pants, why do you think it’s called glove leather? It’s kid glove leather. That’s for gloves. You cannot make pants out of it … You want this finest leather cut like Levi’s? Like cowboy pants? What is the matter with you?
But the tailor did make the pants, and as Ray said:
They were super. They just fit. They were like snake skin. He looked like a snake, man. He looked like a black mamba. He put on those leather pants and from the waist down he had turned into a black mamba. That was the beginning of the reign of Jim Morrison the sex symbol, Jim Morrison the sex idol, on stage, when he became the black mamba. That was it, man, it was all over.
You can book tickets for the Outspoken events through their website at www.outspokenmaleny.com. See you there!