Such a weight of words

March 20, 2018

Emanuel Kaja

I have mixed feelings about words myself. Moving among them, sorting them out, watching them appear on the page, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea. Such a weight of words confronts us day in, day out, words spoken in a context such as this, words written by me and by others, the bulk of it a stale, dead terminology. Given this nausea, it’s very easy to be overcome by it and step back into paralysis. I imagine most writers know something of this kind of paralysis. But if it is possible to confront this nausea, to follow it to its hilt, to move through it and out of it, then it is possible to say that something has occurred, that something has even been achieved.

Harold Pinter
Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998

book portal

When I was nine, possibly ten, an author came to our school to talk about writing. His name was Hugh Scott, and I doubt he’s known outside of Scotland. And even then I haven’t seen him on many shelves in recent years in Scotland either. But he wrote wonderfully creepy children’s stories, where the supernatural was scary, but it was the mundane that was truly terrifying. At least to little ten year old me. It was Scooby Doo meets Paranormal Activity with a bonny braw Scottish-ness to it that I’d never experienced before.

I remember him as a gangling man with a wiry beard that made him look older than he probably was, and he carried a leather bag filled with paper. He had a pen too that was shaped like a carrot, and he used it to scribble down notes between answering our (frankly disinterested) questions. We had no idea who he was you see, no one had made an effort to introduce us to his books. We were simply told one morning, ‘class 1b, there is an author here to talk to you about writing’, and this you see was our introduction to creative writing. We’d surpassed finger painting and macaroni collages. It was time to attempt Words That Were Untrue.

You could tell from the look on Mrs M’s face she thought it was a waste of time. I remember her sitting off to one side marking papers while this tall man sat down on our ridiculously short chairs, and tried to talk to us about what it meant to tell a story. She wasn’t big on telling stories, Mrs M. She was also one of the teachers who used to take my books away from me because they were “too complicated” for me, despite the fact that I was reading them with both interest and ease.

When dad found out he hit the roof. It’s the one and only time he ever showed up to the school when it wasn’t parents night or the school play. After that she just left me alone, but she made it clear to my parents that she resented the fact that a ten year old used words like ‘ubiquitous’ in their essays. Presumably because she had to look it up.

Anyway, Mr Scott, was doing his best to talk to us while Mrs M made scoffing noises from her corner every so often, and you could just tell he was deflating faster than a bouncy castle at a knife sharpening party, so when he asked if any of us had any further questions and no one put their hand up I felt awful. I knew this was not only insulting but also humiliating, even if we were only little children. So I did the only thing I could think of, put my hand up and said “Why do you write?”

I’d always read about characters blinking owlishly, but I’d never actually seen it before. But that’s what he did, peering down at me from behind his wire rim spectacles and dragging tired fingers through his curly beard. I don’t think he expected anyone to ask why he wrote stories. What he wrote about, and where he got his ideas from maybe, and certainly why he wrote about ghosts and other creepy things, but probably not why do you write. And I think he thought perhaps he could have got away with “because it’s fun, and learning is fun, right kids?!”, but part of me will always remember the way the world shifted ever so slightly as it does when something important is about to happen, and this tall streak of a man looked down at me, narrowed his eyes in an assessing manner and said, “Because people told me not to, and words are important.”

I nodded, very seriously in the way children do, and knew this to be a truth.

In my limited experience at that point, I knew certain people (with a sidelong glance to Mrs M who was in turn looking at me as though she’d just known it’d be me that type of question) didn’t like fiction. At least certain types of fiction. I knew for instance that Mrs M liked to read Pride and Prejudice on her lunch break but only because it was sensible fiction, about people that could conceivably be real. The idea that one could not relate to a character simply because they had pointy ears or a jet pack had never occurred to me, and the fact that it’s now twenty years later and people are still arguing about the validity of genre fiction is beyond me, but right there in that little moment, I knew something important had just transpired, with my teacher glaring at me, and this man who told stories to live beginning to smile.

After that the audience turned into a two person conversation, with gradually more and more of my classmates joining in because suddenly it was fun.

Mrs M was pissed and this bedraggled looking man who might have been Santa after some serious dieting, was starting to enjoy himself. As it turned out we had all of his books in our tiny corner library, and in the words of my friend Andrew “hey there’s a giant spider fighting a ghost on this cover! neat!” and the presentation devolved into chaos as we all began reading different books at once and asking questions about each one. “Does she live?”— “What about the talking trees” —“is the ghost evil?” —“can I go to the bathroom, Miss?” —“Wow neat, more spiders!”

After that we were supposed to sit down, quietly (glare glare) and write a short story to show what we had learned from listening to Mr Scott. I won’t pretend I wrote anything remotely good, I was ten and all I could come up with was a story about a magic carrot that made you see words in the dark, but Mr Scott seemed to like it. In fact he seemed to like all of them, probably because they were done with such vibrant enthusiasm in defiance of the people who didn’t want us to.

The following year, when I’d moved into Mrs H’s class — the kind of woman that didn’t take away books from children who loved to read and let them write nonsense in the back of their journals provided they got all their work done — a letter arrived to the school, carefully wedged between several copies of a book which was unheard of at the time, by a new author known as J.K. Rowling.

Mrs H remarked that it was strange that an author would send copies of books that weren’t even his to a school, but I knew why he’d done it. I knew before Mrs H even read the letter.

Because words are important. Words are magical. They’re powerful. And that power ought to be shared. There’s no petty rivalry between story tellers, although there’s plenty who try to insinuate it. There’s plenty who try to say some words are more valuable than others, that somehow their meaning is more important because of when it was written and by whom. Those are the same people who laud Shakespeare from the heavens but refuse to acknowledge that the quote “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them“ is a dick joke.

And although Mr Scott seems to have faded from public literary consumption, I still think about him. I think about his stories, I think about how he recommended another author and sent copies of her books because he knew our school was a puritan shithole that fought against the Wrong Type of Words and would never buy them into the library otherwise. But mostly I think about how he looked at a ten year old like an equal and told her words and important, and people will try to keep you from writing them — so write them anyway.

Joy Demorra
Meeting an Author

Remember –

February 11, 2018

Advice for new writers

January 21, 2018

I don’t think you should ever try to make things up. We all lead such strange lives that there is no need to. Use your own experiences and then twist it a bit. You should read what you have written out loud. I write a paragraph at a time and I walk up and down reading it out loud. It has to go te tum te dum te tum te dum. If it doesn’t, then there’s a word wrong. It hasn’t got rhythm, so I re-write it.

Beryl Bainbridge
Why I write

23rd August


A world of words arriving in my head like fragments of burning shrapnel. It is too much, at times – more than this poor soul can stand.

My sister on the telephone, Monday afternoon. She has quit her job. She is depressed because of her outstanding credit card bill, which she had hoped to clear before parting company with her present employer. This call was soon followed by another from my ancient aunt who wants only to discuss my moral transgressions, or so it seems. She, apparently, has seen Peedeel’s blog.

‘Filth,’ she declares. She promulgates such tedious opinions with ease. ‘The ungoverned libido,’ says she, ‘is bound to have a wrecking influence – ’

But that’s exactly the point of the blog: to challenge moral complacency. ‘And, anyway, auntie, things sexual by nature only appear at weekends, as a general rule. A time when most people are either partying or fornicating – not reading blogs! The remainder of the week, I’m hoping to introduce readers to new poets or new ideas. Culture – ’

The old lady gleefully paraphrases my life story from my disastrous first marriage through to my current ménage. She takes such delight in sleazy detail. Could there exist an element of jealousy in her recriminations? I can only quote Larkin in response:

“the wonderful feel of girls” is to blame –

‘It strikes me that you are easily propelled into stupidity by the passing of time, Peedeel – ’

And, yes, she is probably correct.


To the ancient Roman’s the hare was a symbol of fertility, abundance, sexuality, lust and excess.

In their myths and folktales the Celts believed the hare had links to the ‘Otherworld’, that mysterious place of spirit and the supernatural. They believed that the Goddess Eostre’s favourite animal and attendant spirit was the hare.

The girls have sown an image of a hare on my fancy-dress party outfit. Do they dedicate me to Eostre or to lust and excess?


I really do feel in need of a break. I’ve suggested a weekend away. The Gloucestershire village of Wotton-under-Edge springs to mind. The girls have never heard of the place. But the Ram Inn is considered Britain’s most haunted hotel! It’s closed as an Inn, but on occasion the owners give guided tours –

Oh, to walk those wonky floors, those steep narrow staircases, the bewildering, shadow-filled passageways, to look out of the cobwebby windows, watched over by the unseen residents! It is a possibility devoutly to be wished for.

We will see.

Words can light fires

July 28, 2017

Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is the fire itself.

Patrick Rothfuss
The Name of the Wind

Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations – naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages.

The splendid word “incarnadine,” for example – who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”? In the old days, of course, when English was a new language, writers could invent new words and use them. Nowadays it is easy enough to invent new words – they spring to the lips whenever we see a new sight or feel a new sensation – but we cannot use them because the language is old. You cannot use a brand new word in an old language because of the very obvious yet mysterious fact that a word is not a single and separate entity, but part of other words. It is not a word indeed until it is part of a sentence.

Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great writer knows that the word “incarnadine” belongs to “multitudinous seas”. To combine new words with old words is fatal to the constitution of the sentence. In order to use new words properly you would have to invent a new language; and that, though no doubt we shall come to it, is not at the moment our business. Our business is to see what we can do with the English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.

And the person who could answer that question would deserve whatever crown of glory the world has to offer. Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper would tell the truth, would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words. For though at this moment at least 100 professors are lecturing upon the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing the literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in English literature with the utmost credit, still – do we write better, do we read better than we read and wrote 400 years ago when we were unlectured, uncriticised, untaught? Is our Georgian literature a patch on the Elizabethan?

Where then are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors; not on our reviewers; not on our writers; but on words. It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order.

But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. Look again at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Antony and Cleopatra; poems more lovely than the Ode to a Nightingale; novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.

And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together. It is true that they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy. Indeed, the less we enquire into the past of our dear Mother English the better it will be for that lady’s reputation. For she has gone a-roving, a-roving fair maid.

Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling are all the constraint we can put on them. All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live – the mind – all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different.

They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious. They do not like to have their purity or their impurity discussed. If you start a Society for Pure English, they will show their resentment by starting another for impure English – hence the unnatural violence of much modern speech; it is a protest against the puritans. They are highly democratic, too; they believe that one word is as good as another; uneducated words are as good as educated words, uncultivated words as cultivated words, there are no ranks or titles in their society.

Nor do they like being lifted out on the point of a pen and examined separately. They hang together, in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.

Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity – their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person; they are unintelligible to one generation, plain as a pikestaff to the next. And it is because of this complexity that they survive.

Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing today is that we refuse words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die.

Finally, and most emphatically, words, like ourselves, in order to live at their ease, need privacy. Undoubtedly they like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them; but they also like us to pause; to become unconscious. Our unconsciousness is their privacy; our darkness is their light…That pause was made, that veil of darkness was dropped, to tempt words to come together in one of those swift marriages which are perfect images and create everlasting beauty. But no – nothing of that sort is going to happen tonight. The little wretches are out of temper; disobliging; disobedient; dumb. What is it that they are muttering? “Time’s up! Silence!”

Virginia Woolf
The death of the moth and other essays

Upside down, inside out

June 10, 2017

9th June

I love her grinding against me. I love her doing that until she moans in my mouth.

I’m a creature of many addictions: women, words, whiskey…and chocolate! Chocolate brings out the primordial in me: it’s like original sin, or the sudden shock of first sexual contact; it’s a secret, eternal flame in my head, flooding my body with endorphins! And God, I always need it – not in the way you need something in order to survive, but in a way that makes life worthwhile. It is so real, so raw – like a teenage hard-on! Eating chocolate you feel yourself inside out, and you realise ‘there are no walls here anymore!’

On the other hand it’s a bit of a bugger if it melts in your hand –

And whiskey…well…it allows you to see through the flaws in your own ego. It deadens and distorts. Mists your window on the world – so that your vanity, your fears and desires become totally out of proportion to any other observable reality – which is not necessarily a good thing! However, it does also help you forget that you’ve eaten all that lovely chocolate, and there is no more!

And women – even at their worse, they are feckin’ incredible! They have always been the sunshine in my life…And, at times, the darkness, too!

So, what of words? Words have always been my life, for as long as I can remember. But not through choice, of course. Who would voluntarily chose words as their life?

Words dominate because of something darker , deeper inside of me. My demons, perhaps? Who can say – ?

I’ve been trying to think of a more realistic ending to fairy tales. Instead of ‘And they lived happily ever after’, go for ‘And she never saw him again, ever…’

How to do the writing

June 5, 2017

Fiction takes forever. One slow word against another.

Tales are told of writers who spend a day to add a single word, as the subsequent day might just be spent removing it. Yes, this happens. Others write in concentrated bursts, and very little after; at least, until the next burst.

The most important writing lesson: patience. The second: learning to recognize what works best for what it is you think you want to do. How to do the writing you do, and do it best. I think my own work a combination of the day spent adding and removing, and the productive, compressed burst. The slow, repeated carve.

Rob Mclennan
Life is too short for long fiction