"Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little piece of me dies." Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal is dead. That great American titan of letters departed into the great hereafter at the noble age of 86. I'm reminded of one particular anecdote where the controversialist and political manque was ignominously brained by Norman Mailer at a cocktail party on account of comments Vidal had made about the Pugilistic literary juggernaut. Vidal had reportedly given him a less than favourable review of one of his books- and allegedly made reference to an occasion where Mailer had stabbed his wife with a pen knife. “Once again words fail Norman Mailer,” was Vidal’s cavalier comeback as he lay splayed on the floor with bloodied nose.
Like his opponent in the battle of words, Vidal's stock in trade was genius writing. He was patrician fierce and those with whom he didn't know, or were related to, were barely worth knowing. He easily slipped between the formal political corridors and back rooms of Washington to the sun kissed patios of the Hollywood elite and the bohemian salons of European writers and intellectuals. Among his illustrious band of acquaintances were the Kennedys, Annais Nin, Roosevelt, Kerouac, Capote, Saul Bellow, Richard Nixon, Tennessee Williams, Auden, Isherwood and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to name but a few. He documented a golden era in whinying detail, the like of which will never be seen again.
Despite criticism toward his blistering public pronouncements in later life, he remained sui generis – an American original, notable as a contrarium brimming with aphorisms, and his legacy is a feted collection of some of the most remarkable writings ever put to print. His output as a novelist, playwright and screenwriter was consistent, yet many felt his caustic essays to be his best work. My truncated attempt to finish his memoir Pampilest is lamentable but I meandered, nay drowned in the heavy political detail, the jumps back and forth in time, and the whole swamp of names emanating from a century of American history and culture. I'm tempted to revisit it though.
Many considered him to be Oscar Wilde's worthy successor on account of his acerbic one liners, sneering wit, magnificent prose and grand hauteur. Whether he managed to reach the Wildean heights he invariably aspired to was a matter of opinion but his was the kind of writing which makes one consider and question ones own meagre attempts. I’m a competent writer, but more a composer, chronicling by collecting along the way, trying to make order out of fragmentary jottings as if by doing so a decipherable and profound piece of literature would emerge.
I’m in thrall to writers who are better than me; who I know I can't touch. Whether it's a startling turn of phrase or the immaculacy of a metaphor, I bow in awe. They’re the ones blessed with genius. Their gift has been bestowed upon them, unlike the rest of us who earnestly work to develop it, and in doing so struggle, endlessly rewrite and yet still remain doubtful. Their prose can be both lyrical and elegiac, as though they’ve thrown a bunch of words in the air which have fallen perfectly on the page; simple, yet poetic and profound. Take Susie Boyt for instance. A writer I've only recently discovered. She's an astonishing writer. And manages to say succinctly and eloquently in one line what others struggle to say in a whole paragraph. This is no surprise. Her father was Lucien Freud and her great grandfather invented psycho-analysis. Of course talent and genius is in her gene pool. One look inside any of her novels and one will note that each sentence will have a particular shape which is unlike anything you’ve read, or likely to read in the swamp of bland airport novels and trashy biographies which monopolise the best-sellers lists these days, compounding my theory that the masses are ignorant. The standards of the publishing industry have gotten lower. The sediment has risen to the top, and the crap is being elevated, notable only for being formulaic and insincere. Fifty Shades of Grey for instance reads like a mediocre sixth formers attempt at soft porn. It's all very typical of a culture in decline.
But could I do any better? My writing always felt forced. I was pernickety, and frustrated by my inclination toward cliché, depressing myself with my limitations and merely imitating the prosey tricks and tropes of the greats. Having devoured a diet of Kerouac, Salinger, Dickens during my emergence into adulthood, I thought that if they could inspire and shape my style, I too would be similarly lauded and praised. From my early efforts, which I'd consider at best flimsy, and at worst suspect, to now, my literary results are like presentable dishes served cold. Author Dido Davies would chastise one with the immortal editorial mark – LTRDSW (Let the reader do some work). It would be all over it. In other words, ‘don’t coerce’, ‘don’t spoon-feed’, ‘stop telling readers what to think everytime you describe something.’ Alone in a room it is easy to view your ideas and scribbles as a possible work to match the greats but that's because when you're writing you don't have to face the test of reality. You're at home, in solitude, and it's in your mind. When you finish and think about how others could perceive it, you begin to wonder if it's any good at all. With the possibility of flogging an embarrassment, the excitement soon jumps out the window. With the fusillades of self-criticism growing ever more overwhelming, one begins to contemplate that the creative process will always be a long slide into disillusionment.
It is still difficult not to see one's own writing career in no other terms except failure when privy to the startling and hubristic content of journalist bios in the opening pages of magazines which will go something like; such and such started his/her career working on NME before editing Smash Hits and then GQ, among stints writing for Esquire, the Observer and The Times – with three novels all making the New York Time's Bestsellers list, one of which is soon to be turned into a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt. And all by the time they were 21.
What it fails to mention is that this was possibly due to their father being the publisher, or that they slept with the managing director during work experience.
As a recurrent freelance journalist and writer for fun, my main problem lies in procrastination. I’m full of ideas, and have my best light-bulb moments while on a bus, or walking down a street. I’ll try and jot down notes, but this leaves me with the laborious process of writing piecemeal and hope something cohesive and fluid materialises. The internet these days is also the writer’s curse. Why sit down to write in a silent room when one can be perusing Facebook or Youtube for countless hours? Discipline is a virtue sadly lacking with the prospect of a million entertaining videos at one's fingertips!
I could of course look to the Greats and emulate their writing process. Truman Capote described himself as a ‘horizontal author’ taking a languid approach to his craft: “I cant think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping” he told the Paris Review in 1957. “As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.” Failing that I could take the Victor Hugo route – and do it naked. He would often write freed of clothing so he couldn’t leave the house – going as far as instructing his valet to hide his clothes. Or else I could just do as Hemingway did, given his reputation for inebriation. He'd stand at the typewriter and empty the contents of his head by noon, then empty the contents of the Floridita bar by 3.
So why do some people have that overwhelming desire to write, while others don't? That great old heroic queen Quentin Crisp once said: “There are three reasons for becoming a writer: the first is that you need the money; the second that you have something to say that you think the world should know; the third is that you can't think what to do with the long winter evenings.” With Winter fast approaching, perhaps I'll have more inclination to put my creative ideas to the page, and not just in diary form. There again, at least one can still claim to be perfecting the art of writing by diarising. Oscar Wilde never travelled without his diary, as “one should always have something sensational to read on the train.” I've also managed to dip into my diaries to fill the gaps in freelance articles, features and even for plays and short stories I've written over the years. So a diary does come in useful. And while Elizabeth Pakenham, Countess of Longford, considered diary writers to be 'suspect', one of my favourite books ever is Kenneth Williams' Diaries, spanning from his teen years in the 1930s right up to the night of his death in 1988 in his small pokey flat off the Euston Road. He said about his punctilious maintaining of his diaries: "I feel Diaries are written so that one has a record of events, and because there are certain events one wants to remember. There is perhaps also the element of the confessional in them, and that isn’t a bad thing in my eyes. The diarist is the classicist because he does want to make some order out of the jumble and accident and coincidence of the happenings of the day."
There is a contentment to writing, a sort of catharsis occurs when one is recording their thoughts. How wonderful it would be to write an explicit memoir in all its phlegmatic detail that would make Vidal proud, and not give two hoots to people's perception of you as a human. Perhaps it'll happen one day, and then my career as described in the bio that precedes the contents of a magazine will be similarly vaunted.