by Nick Weldon
Having been writing novels on and off for over twenty years, I celebrate today the fact that I've finally managed to finish one. With this success comes insight into failure, which I now share with you. Perhaps it will save you time.
I've never found writing difficult. I seized at an early age the first principles of the art, and received strict training in the details of the craft from my mother, the writer Fay Weldon. As I progressed through school, sentences once long, clumsy and saturated with vague and emotive adjectives became lean, precise and finely balanced. My teachers, puzzled and envious, said I was cheating. At University my Tutor in Philosophy sighed as he awarded me my First.
"You don't know much more than them", he said. "But you can write".
But I chose jazz as a profession, over writing, and happily or otherwise improvised my way through my twenties, thirties and forties at the piano. The occasional song or poem popped up, and I once managed to get a Radio Play 'Laura-Mae and the Olivardies' past the committees of Radio Four and out onto air. By some miracle. But the novels I kept starting kept stopping. Twenty, thirty, sometimes forty thousand words, all going well, then suddenly a dead end, or rather, a sheer drop and then beyond, the afterimage of the ending I had so meticulously planned, fading away into the horizon.
"Mum", I whinged, "I'm stuck".
"No you're not", she replied. "You're finished. Wait for the next one".
So helpful. What was I waiting for? What needed to change for my writing energy to complete itself in a novel?
Fay was diffident on questions of technique."Start writing", she would say, "and carry on until you stop". But she once confided that she would never have been able to find her own novel form but for her intensive spells in Freudian analysis. "I could see my characters", she said. "But I couldn't get to them. I had to get past myself". Her words now resonated uncomfortably with me. Perhaps the change I sought was in the realm of emotion rather than of technique. It turned out to be in both.
There were several reasons why I hadn't gone into analysis, or any other form of therapy. Firstly, the emotional confusion I felt wasn't severe enough to interfere with my day to day interaction with the outside world, even if it spavined my artistic progress. Secondly, I no longer trusted psychoanalysis, since it was itself in turmoil, having being submerged in a tide of gooey amateurs. Thirdly, I was already working hard on my own to illuminate my conscious and unconscious motives, not least at the piano, where I found, over hours of improvising, sounds that seemed to reach down into the cavernous depths of my inner self, and melodies that were in one sense maps of my mind.
Then I hit fifty, and many things changed. I was hit by a wall of grief about my father, who had died ten years before; I had what people often call a breakdown. (How strange are our ideas about mental health. The opportunity, even out of necessity, to work through the confusion and conflict of childhood and emerge as a balanced and positive adult is surely not a breakdown, but a breakthrough!) Then, gradually, I began to find less touch at the piano and to fall in love with another instrument, the double bass. Also, perhaps because of the real emotional work I had recently had to do, I was finding the act of improvising less interesting, and also less necessary.
I joined an orchestra, becoming fascinated by the long, complex forms of the symphonic repertoire. It was music, but not as I knew it; my own sound was right down in the mix, and though itself essential in the music, could only succeed if other, higher voices were allowed full expression. Jazz musicians are obsessed with their own voice; this is surely why the jazz novel is so scarce. As I learned to understand the interplay of many voices in orchestral writing, and the subtle ways in which they combine into a single narrative, I was, unknowingly, getting past myself, and learning to write a novel.
It finally happened last year, quite by accident, while I was in the fever of a bad flu, and writing only because I was too ill to sleep. But there was something else in between that I must mention. The year before, I sat down to write a brief biog for a web page, and didn't stop for three months. In the resulting memoir ('Joanna', still in manuscript) I set down as much of my life as I chose to remember, and in so doing rid myself of all the useless scripts I had accumulated in my mind, of all the monomaniac clutter I had generated in my constant retelling to myself of the story of my life. What a beautiful moment this was! Now, as I raised my eyes up out of my own boots, there was space again in front of me, but it was not as before, a gulf of ego, but just clean, fresh, open air, filled with interesting new scents and breezes, new ideas, new places, new feelings, new people. Finally I was over me, and able to envisage someone else.
So, last year, I started to write, without even intending to, and, just as I had been advised, went on until I stopped, and this is how I came to finish my first novel.
Nick Weldon was born in Cambridge, England in 1954 and is the son of writer Fay Weldon and folk singer and actor Colyn Davies. He was introduced to jazz by his stepfather Ron Weldon. Nick studied at Keele University, where while honing his blues licks, he received a First Class Degree in French and Philosophy. After graduating from the Barry Summer School, Nick began working as a professional jazz pianist in 1979. His first novel, Idristan, was published in February 2009.
Photo credit: Ben Smith
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