The Joy (and the Business of) Writing

On May 15, I participated in a Writers’ Forum (and two workshops) organized by a relatively new organization in Jamaica, Katalyxt.  To say that I was enriched, mind and soul, is an understatement.  It was an extraordinarily fulfilling experience for me.  I am a humble writer with aspirations to get published – sooner rather than later.  It has certainly helped me along that road.

We started off bright and early with a poetry workshop, conducted by Professor Mervyn Morris.  Now, I am no poet.  I have never even attempted to write a poem.  But I do love reading poetry, and always have at least one poetry book by my bedside.  Currently, it is a Robert Frost collection; and a slim volume of poetry by young Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson (who now seems to be a New Yorker – I wrote about him in an earlier blog).  I grew up adoring romantic poets like Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; French poets like Baudelaire and Verlaine; German poets like Heinrich Heine (yes, I did languages).  And later, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, WH Auden – and Bob Dylan.  “A poet is a maker,” said Professor Morris.  But does the poet always have control over his/her theme?  “You don’t always know where you are going” when you start to write, Professor Morris reminded the enthusiastic group.  Of course, this is true of prose, too.  But there is an important distinction, Professor Morris pointed out: The difference between prose and verse is that the creator is in control of the line.

Mervyn Morris

Professor Morris is marvelously witty.

And one of the joys of writing is indeed this: A poem (or a short story, or a novel) does not have to stay in one place, in the place where you, the writer, anchored it.  It will get restless, and move away.  It will take a sharp turn, or a slow one, and you will find you are heading in a different direction.  And often, to use a rather flippant modern expression, the poet/writer should just “go with the flow.”

The group of Jamaican poets around the table discussed their work, presented in a file for us.  The poems were incredibly varied in style, language and form.  Their creators were courteous, chatty and at times argumentative.  We had fun.

By the way, Professor Morris recommended two books for aspiring poets: “In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop” by Steve Kowit; and The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry.”  I also loved a poem he directed us to by Guyana’s Ian McDonald, called “Any Poem.”  

Speaking of poets:  At the Forum I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Margaret Lim, a petite and perceptive Jamaican poet whose first book, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” will be launched next week at Bookophilia, on Old Hope Road, next Tuesday, May 22 at 6:00 p.m.  The book is published by Peepal Tree Press, which specializes in Caribbean literature.

The Festival of Wild Orchid by Ann Margaret Lim

The Festival of Wild Orchid by Ann Margaret Lim

Then it was on to the prose workshop (specifically, short story writing) with Dr. Velma Pollard, author of poetry and prose and a wonderful mentor and teacher of young writers.  We delved deeply into the work of Jamaican Olive Senior.  Ms. Senior’s advice, obtained for us workshoppers by Dr. Pollard, is that there must be “conflict, crisis and resolution” in a short story for it to work.  Dr. Pollard read passages from Senior’s collections: “Arrival of the Snake Woman” and “Discerner of Hearts.”  From the latter, there was an especially interesting, detailed description of an obeah man’s yard – like a camera slowly panning around the space.  I must revisit Ms. Senior’s wonderful work.

We tussled with questions: “Is it the teller or the tale that is important?”  Whose voice – first person, third person?  How much dialogue, how much narrative?  How important is dialogue in the short story?   We pondered, and we laughed.

One oddly jarring – but interesting – point emerged when we were discussing reading.  We had generally agreed that it is important for a writer to read widely – as widely as possible, and not to limit him/herself.  One participant demurred.  As a Christian, he said, he limits himself to reading works that are morally correct.  This was difficult.  He would not be convinced otherwise.  How sad, I reflected, that one can narrow one’s horizons so tightly.  I told him about my steeling myself somewhat before reading Nick Cave’s profane, helter-skelter novel “The Death of Bunny Munro,” which I expected to hate – and how, by the end, despite its leering, misogynistic anti-hero, the sexual exploits, corruption and greed – I was deeply moved and glad that I had read it.

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave – a book I was rather nervous about (even the cover was daunting)

After lunch a remarkable event took place.  Mr. Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate was there, to talk to us about “making writing sustainable.”  He was in the company of an excellent panel: our two workshop teachers, Professor Morris and Dr. Pollard; esteemed poet Edward Baugh; and Professor Carolyn Cooper, of the University of the West Indies’ Department of Literatures in English.  Remember that the aim of the afternoon’s proceedings was to turn to the business of writing, now that the pleasures of the workshops were out of the way.

However, Mr. Walcott began with a discourse, interrupted by readings, on his particular craft.  He spoke a little on the aspects of a “Caribbean style” of writing, noting that it was more about “the meters of the Caribbean,” not the sounds.  There had been attempts to reproduce the sound of drums, etc., in poetry – but this was more akin to music than to writing, he suggested.

He then began to discuss the poet’s sense of “belonging,” or not belonging, when traveling; when in the present his feet rest on foreign soil, but his sensibilities may be elsewhere, back home.  He gave the example of how he (to coin a cliche) “fell in love” with Italy, and was not sure how, as a poet of the Caribbean, he should respond to its landscape and culture.  “How much passion is there in writing about a place that is not yours?” he asked.  “How sincere is it?”  I later asked him if he viewed that landscape of terra-cotta, monuments and Tuscan villas and  vineyards and cypress trees through the prism of his own West Indian experience; or whether he created something from it, and made it his own.  He had really, already, answered the question.  During his visit to Italy, his admiration turned to possession; it was “created for me to claim.”  He was able to make “every fragment of every landscape” his.

Derek Walcott reads at the Katalyxt Writer's Forum

Derek Walcott reads from “White Egrets” at the Katalyxt Writer’s Forum

His readings resonated, despite the rather-too-large room at the hotel and the occasional distraction of voices in a nearby kitchen.  I wanted to get closer, to focus better as his voice slowed and became more gravelly, as if with tiredness.  I was held with my breath also slowing and my mind sharpening as I listened.

Mr. Walcott read from his fourteenth collection of poetry, “White Egrets,” published last year, when the poet turned eighty years old.  I will not comment on what the critics have said; you can read them for yourself.  But for me, as the lines were applied, almost like the strokes of a painter’s brush, I experienced the poet’s nostalgia, a kind of longing, and a kind of resignation.  The poet gives himself to the landscape, but it is a mutual giving; and it is simultaneously the landscape of the Caribbean, of his native St. Lucia.

A couple of odd little things rang a chord with me.  With a touch of irony, Mr. Walcott commented that in Italy he became one of those “idle old people” who sit in hotel lobbies watching people.  This reminded me of the film “Death in Venice” which I saw again recently (see my recent blog post).  In the film, the aging Gustav von Aschenbach (played by Dirk Bogarde) sits in the lobby, sometimes pretending to read a newspaper, leaning back in his armchair, watching the guests moving around.

And the white egrets reminded me of one of the first very short pieces that I wrote, on a cold winter’s day in southern England, in the leftovers of the year.  I wrote it in sorrow, after several walks down a windswept lane during visits to my father; he was living the last few days of his life in an over-heated nursing home down the road.   Once, I saw a white egret fly up from the brown winter field, and it reminded me of Jamaica.  I wrote about it.

Mr. Walcott was gently steered back to the topic of the “sustainable” (in other words, the “money”) aspects of writing.  He was not able to enlighten us a great deal, apart from references to literary prizes – and his own burning desire, from an early age, to see his work in print.  When this happened, he said, it was amazing to have “the letters you have written looking back at you.”  (In an aside, he and the panel discussed the sensuality, the physicality of letters, referring to a passage from Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes” based almost entirely on the letter “e”).  He also spoke about the importance of building a reputation as a writer – others in the know will start talking about you, and the publishers will show interest.

The 1856 publication of "The Eve of St. Agnes" by John Keats

The 1856 publication of “The Eve of St. Agnes” by John Keats – a romantic poem of exquisite beauty and sensuality.

How does creative writing move between other endeavors?  Or, in Professor Morris’ words, “Could a decent poet ever abandon his day job?”  His colleague, Dr. Pollard, thought not.  But Mr. Walcott told us that his desire to see his work printed sparked his decision to self-publish initially, after borrowing money from his mother for the purpose – “a lot of money.”  He also spoke of his indebtedness to Alan Ross, who supported and advised him as his agent.  “Every young writer is told not to send any book out unless they have an agent,” Mr. Walcott observed.

We were also happy to have an extremely gifted Jamaican poet, Ralph Thompson, in our midst.  Mr. Thompson said he started off as a “fairly prosperous businessman,” and is still one.  He spoke of the need to share his work – something which had come up earlier in the day – “You have to have that feeling of wanting to share.  It’s altruistic.  It’s beautiful,” declared Mr. Thompson.

Cattle Egret

The ubiquitous Cattle Egret, sometimes called the ghost bird.

Ann Margaret Lim asked a question that we writers often ask ourselves: “Who do we write for?”  Mr. Walcott responded simply, “I am not sure if there is an audience in our mind when we write.”  

This took us to the nuts and bolts section of the afternoon, which I found extremely useful.  Once I had descended from the small cloud on which I had been floating with Mr. Walcott’s voice, I refocused on a presentation by Carlong Publishers’ Dorothy Noel, a no-nonsense lady who emphasized, “Publishing is a business.”  For a writer, she said, the first step is to hone your craft; then to sell your skills.  Publishers, she said, are more adventurous than we may think; and they will invest in a quality product.

Ms. Noel gave us some helpful advice on how to approach the publisher (with confidence, of course).  Do your research, she said: market research, trends, gaps in the publisher’s list that they might like to fill, or another direction they may be considering.  She pointed us to a helpful paper by one of Carlong’s authors, Ms. Kelly Magnus, on the Book Industry Association of Jamaica’s website.  She explained how to “market oneself and market one’s expertise” in one’s proposal to the publisher.

We then had a bracing – and indeed, somewhat sobering – talk from an International Property Rights attorney.  There are rights, and rights, and rights.  Your idea is not protected; but once you have written it down and shaped it into something, it should be.  At a certain point, the topic got a little fuzzy around the edges.  For example, there is no real objective measurement for the term “fair use”  and our knowledgeable adviser said we should avoid what seemed to be a very grey area.  Nevertheless, this was also good, practical advice to have under one’s belt.

Ms. Corine La Font, a virtual events specialist then talked to us about online publishing – a topic that has increasingly fascinated me.  There are various types of e-publishing: there is the Kindle (I now own one myself); and there are iBooks (Apple); eBooks (Smashwords); and Nook (Barnes & Noble) that are all e-readers.  Of course, all these books are cheaper than going out and buying a hardcover book off the shelf, but we learnt that you can actually earn more from Kindle publishing.  Also, you can grow your reach and market your book electronically.

We learnt that you should also think strategically when marketing yourself.  Try a virtual book tour or a blog tour.  Try Amazon bestsellers.  Think of your book as a business card.  Watch the video “The Business of Writing” on “Serving the Needs of Authors and Coaches – Write, Publish, Market” and follow Ms. La Font on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook too.  She also recommended to register for more useful seminars and training (free).

The young adult author Amanda Hocking is a classic example of a highly successful author who built her reputation entirely online.  Ms. Hocking began with her blog and a MySpace page.  From there, she moved into e-publishing, and is now publishing traditionally as well.  Her marvelous blog includes tips on self-publishing and is a fine showcase for her books.

Finally, Bookophilia owner Andrea Dempster told us about what a traditional bookseller looks for – and as with everyone else involved in the business of books, it is quality that counts.  It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from – those in the business of books – as in any other business – are looking for a quality product.  For Bookophilia, the look and “feel” of a book in your hand is very important – the design, the color, the “tactile experience.”  Bookophilia is also involved in the marketing of books – mainly through special events, readings and book launches at the store, advertised through the social media.  Ms. Dempster advised writers to pay for a professional editor; to have a PR plan; and to have a social media plan.  Self-publishing sounds great, she says; but don’t forget, you, the writer, will have to do all the legwork – marketing, advertising, collecting money, writing receipts, even delivering your books.

Ms. Dempster noted that for her store, Caribbean titles are the biggest sellers.  This is largely as a result of her successful marketing techniques.  In fact, she says there is a huge untapped demand for Caribbean children’s books.  Any more children’s book authors out there?

Andrea Dempster of Bookophilia

Ms. Dempster loves books. Period.

The final word was from Stefanie of Katalxyt, who had guided us through the day with great professionalism.  With her accountant’s training, she advised us to always start out with a budget; and why not include a business plan in your book proposal to a publisher?  Try new things – perhaps some merchandizing – to make extra money from your book.  If you are in the happy position of having a surplus, you can reinvest.  Wise words.

I must heap praises on Katalyxt (even if I have problems typing the name!)  The forum was well organized by friendly people, who were clearly enthused and knowledgeable on the topic of writing, and writing as a business.  They were efficient but unfussy, did not order us around, and everything started bang on time – how unusual is that!  Kudos to Katalyxt, and I am sure their subsequent Business Conference was a huge success also.

Derek Walcott reads from "White Egrets" at the Katalyxt Writers Forum

Derek Walcott reads from “White Egrets” at the Katalyxt Writers Forum (I thought this looked good in black and white)




Here are some last words from Mr. Walcott:

I am astonished at the sunflowers spinning
in huge green meadows above the indigo sea,
amazed at their aureate silence, though they sing with the inaudible hum of the clocks over Recanati.’
Do they turn to face the dusk, just as an army

might obey the last orders of a sinking empire,
their wheels stuck in one rut before the small studs
of stars and the fireflies meandering fire,
then droop like exhausted meteors in soft thuds
to the earth? In our life elsewhere, sunflowers
come singly, but in this coastal province
there can be entire fields of their temporal powers spread like the cloak of some Renaissance prince, their banners will wilt, their gold helms fill the void,
they are poems we recite to ourselves, metaphors
of our brief glory, a light we cannot avoid
that was called heaven in Blake’s time, but not since.

From “White Egrets”

RELATED LINKS AND WEBSITES   Katalxyt   The Poetry Archive: Mervyn Morris

Jamaican Poet Ishion Hutchinson Interviewed by Leanne Hayes (  Abeng: A Poem for National Heroes Day   Velma Pollard biography   Olive Senior website  White Egrets: Poems by Derek Walcott Derek Walcott  The Nobel Prize in Literature 1992: Derek Walcott  Book Industry Association of Jamaica   Amanda Hocking’s blog  Bookophilia on Facebook

Jamaican poet Ann Margaret Lim

Jamaican poet Ann Margaret Lim at the Katalyxt Writers Forum

Beautiful Boy

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann

Quite by chance, I came across the 1971 filmDeath in Venice” (while waiting for the Champion’s League game between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich to begin) on cable.  As it had just started, I was drawn in to Thomas Mann‘s meditation on death and beauty, and as mesmerized as the first time I saw it.  Forgot about the football.

Scene from Death in Venice

Beauty and the beholder...

One may see the film as self-indulgent and slow.  In fact, there is very little action. We watch a thousand emotions flit across lead actor Dirk Bogarde‘s face.  The cameras linger as they pan across the Lido beach and the dining room of the Grand Hotel des Bains, where much of the “action” takes place (last year this splendid hotel from a bygone era was converted into luxury apartments).  The film became quite a cult movie when it came out, and the overwhelming, soaring strains of Gustav Mahler‘s Fifth Symphony (and bits of the Third) sparked a sudden passion for the Austrian composer’s sumptuous symphonies.  Although the film was nominated for an Oscar it did not receive one, but won a bunch of BAFTA awards, and best film at Cannes.  It wasn’t really Hollywood stuff, at all.  Too arty and a touch too risqué for the early seventies.

Death in Venice opening scene on the Lagoon

Gustav arrives in a steamer, crossing the beautiful Lagooon

The film (based on the 1912 novella by German author Thomas Mann and directed by Luchino Visconti) revolves around two characters: Bogarde’s Gustav von Aschenbach (a composer in the film, an author in the book); and an adolescent Polish boy (played by a Swede, Bjorn Andresen) called Tadzio, who is visiting Venice with his family.  The lonely, aging composer arrives in Venice on a steamer, as the sun is setting across the translucent Lagoon.  The magic spell of the city begins as the towers and minarets and palaces appear on the horizon, balanced on the still water.  As he traverses the canals, the balconies and arches and stained glass windows of the floating city slide by Gustav’s face.  And Gustav becomes infatuated with Tadzio.

Gustav Mahler himself died in Venice in 1911, the year before the book was published.  So there are many links here with the composer’s life.  These are worked into the film in short flashbacks of fleeting domestic happiness (Mahler suffered personal losses); and the angry public response to the first performance of the main character’s work.  Mahler himself was booed when he conducted his work, and as an Austrian Jew suffered much prejudice and social ostracism; to me, this loneliness is always expressed in his music, as it is in this book and film.

And Tadzio is beautiful.  Although the two characters never speak to each other (in fact, dialogue is quite minimal), he is aware of his own beauty – his fine features, blond hair, delicate mouth and dark brooding eyes – and of poor Gustav’s hopeless attraction to him.  He walks self-consciously, and when he is not moving he creates a kind of languid cameo image, a watercolor painting perhaps.  Leaning on the darkened parapet of one of Venice’s many bridges; in a striped orange bathing suit on the pale expanse of beach, one hand on his hip, half-turning towards his admirer; and at the end, standing in the shining water, one arm raised and pointing into the distance, a lonely figure.

Scene from Death in Venice

One of Tadzio's silent encounters with the lonely Gustav.

“You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone,” Gustav murmurs, awe-struck by the boy’s latest Mona Lisa effort, directed at him, as the boy walks by.

The book, although short, is dense and far more complex than the film – but that is always the case.  Nevertheless, there are some marvelous lines in the film.  During a philosophical discussion on the conflict between “the man” and “the artist,” Gustav’s friend Alfred observes, “At the bottom of the mainstream…is mediocrity.”

Yet it is not just a pretty place, and not just a beautiful boy.  There are disturbing elements.  There is self-loathing and denial, and there is Gustav’s own revulsion at a painted homosexual who greets him on the boat.  Bogarde’s character himself becomes a version of this man himself towards the end – a dandy, with dyed hair, coquettish mustache and reddened lips, and a pink rose in the button-hole of his white suit.  And there is the uncomfortably clown-like quartet that plays at the hotel, moving from table to table, entertaining the upper classes while at the same time subtly deriding them.

Now, dear reader, if you have never been to Venice… Please try to go, one day.  Yes, it is a tourist trap and too hot and crowded in the summer.  I went there in early spring with my parents, and it was unforgettable, a world unto itself, uniquely beautiful and mysterious.  Yet it also has a real and earthy quality, and there are some touches of this in the film – largely, the discovery that there has been an outbreak of cholera in the city, with a man sluicing the wet cobble stones and fountains with disinfectant.  There is the fear of death – and Bogarde’s character reflects that fear of old age, of death.  As his friend Alfred says, “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.”

In the end, though, it is the languorous, luminous tableaux of privileged Europeans with nothing to do, in the early years of the troubled twentieth century, that captivate and endure.  The lines of pale green bathing huts; the endless parade of Edwardian hats, piled high with roses, festooned with feathers and swathes of satin, veiled and ruffled (hat-lovers will adore this film); the children, sitting up straight and silent with pursed lips in the dining room; the Russian family, spread out on the beach with their flowing robes and cushions.  One of the Russians sings an exquisite lament at the end, on the almost-deserted beach, after most of the travelers have left in fear of disease.  Deserted except for two small girls playing together, dressed in black.  And Gustav and Tadzio, separated by their troubled emotions and essential loneliness.


Tadzio in a typical pose at the Hotel des Bains

In case you are wondering, dear reader, the British actor Dirk Bogarde was indeed reported to be homosexual.  He has a fine body of work in films – many of them controversial, including “The Servant” and “The Night Porter,” and wrote several novels and a series of quite fascinating memoirs, which I have on my bookshelf.  He was much more than a movie star; I was deeply saddened to hear of his death in 1999.  As for the actor who played Tadzio, he was reportedly furious when Vischonti took him to gay bars at the time of the making of his film.

And don’t forget the much-revered author of the story, Thomas Mann – the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.  The Nazis hated his anti-Fascist stance, and stripped him of his German citizenship in 1936.  He denounced German academics who supported Nazism, and lived in exile in Switzerland and the United States, teaching at Princeton University for a while.  His writing is rich and deep even when translated into English, and worth exploring.

Meanwhile, is beauty meaningless, or is it worth exploring for its own sake?  How do we find that balance in life between “reality” and art?


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