Monkeys with Typewriters

:How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories

by Scarlett Thomas.

The title for this book (and therefore this post) is drawn from the author’s reflection that it actually does make a difference to us whether books are written by our fellow humans or by monkeys playing with typewriters and striking lucky with Hamlet.
Because stories tell us what it’s like to be human, and monkeys, regardless of whatever genetic overlap they may have, simply have no idea.


Scarlett Thomas’ advice on writing has been refined by years of teaching writing (as well as writing herself), which gives her work a rather practical (if elementary) edge.

There are some areas, however, where I found myself unable to relate – for example, the matrices she has her students draw up to consciously mine their pasts and interests for writing material, in the section on How To Have Ideas. I don’t know about you, but I have no trouble coming up with ideas. It’s getting the time to work them out and finish them off that I struggle with.

There is also the matter of differing styles of writing. Thomas is experienced enough to have realised that not all writers are minimalists, and therefore paring every sentence to the bone will not be a fruitful exercise for some. While all can benefit from considering whether their words are pulling their weight, effect-wise, there’s no use trying to edit yourself to this:


if your natural style is something more like this:

Carnevale di Venezia - 2010

No prizes will be offered for guessing at which end of the continuum I frolic.

The part of the book which I enjoyed the most, which has stayed with me the longest, and which I think for me at least is the most challenging, is a relatively short section near the end of this book (not counting appendices, notes etc etc).

It deals with the concept of the thematic question – the big universal question with which your story deals (although, please note, rarely answers). What is the nature of power? What is love? What is truth? What does it mean to be human? and so forth.

Then, as with her students, she sets the challenge of boiling it all down to one word – a seed word, as she calls it – which encapsulates the thematic elements of the story and resonates through it in all manner of ways.

my name on a grain of rice!

It is, she admits, not an easy exercise – she suggests practising on other people’s novels – but once you find the word for the work it is enormously exciting and enlivening and helps you keep your story on track – because now you know, right deep down at the heart of it, what it is about.

Plus, as she points out, it’s much handier for fielding the question at parties: “what’s your book about?”

Disclaimer: no-one gave me a copy to review, nor did I part with my hard-earned for it. I borrowed a copy from the library. You may consider that this makes me a Scrooge who won’t support her fellow artists; I consider that this makes me an unbiased reviewer.

Chocolate Zombies

Indeedy. The Chocolate Zombies arose (pardon) from a comment I received on my previous post about the problems posed by early mornings.

“So why have a morning time? This seems to be making it more difficult than it needs to be, almost perverse. Let’s say going to bed at 9:30 is a conscientious early night. So ‘stay up late’ then by making yourself a drink, digging out a small but scrummy little treat e.g. Lindt chocolate, and sitting down to write 9:30 to 10:30 seems more likely to be productive.
So you are that much more of a zombie in the morning, at least the writing happened!
If other activities would be curtailed by this then have other activities in the morning when higher functions are not feasible. Zombies can make a drink, toast the bread and satisfy other appetites. Higher functions happen when brain more likely to be engaged to body.
The chocy is to give you that little zap of energy and to get you over the hump of actually sitting down and doing it. Or is that against the rules?”

I foresaw problems with the method (see my reply for details) but in the interests of mad experimentation scientific thoroughness, I decided to attempt a Chocolate Zombie Experiment.

mad scientist

I chose an evening when I knew I had little to do the following morning (i.e. no lunch to make) in case extra sleep was required (extra to the early getting up I wouldn’t have to do because I’d stayed up late instead – following?)

Part One of the Experiment: Chocolate, began at 9:30 pm, as per spec.
I bade the Caped Gooseberry a fond good-night, consumed a morsel of tasty chocolate which a kind Providence had fated to my fridge, and started to write. (Full disclosure: I skipped the drink because I had just finished one, and the essence of a good late night is that the following sleep be undisturbed, i.e. Don’t Drink Too Much Before Going To Bed. Too much disclosure? I think so. Moving on.)

I decided to have a stab – perhaps more of a prolonged hack – at Tsifira, my current project-I-should-be-working-on. I wrote by hand – slower, but I find the ideas flow better that way – with a Faber Castell fountain pen and an exercise book stuffed with loose bits of paper on which I had written things I wanted to remember. (A sensible person might perhaps have consolidated all this into a practical array of notes at the back of the book, but what gives you the idea that I’m a sensible person?)

Overall, it went quite well.
I managed to write 5 1/2 A4 pages of double-spaced scrawl in one hour, which led to an unsurprising hand cramp and a surprising lack of eponymous inkiness of hand. Writing neatly is more compact but slower: ideas jostling like penguins on the ice-floe of the conscious mind tend to slip off and be eaten by the Sea Lions of Forgetfulness and the Polar Bears of Went-Down-A-Different-Leg-Of-The-Trousers-of-Time.

So far so good.
I toddled off to bed at half past ten, (interrupting, I fear, the repose of the Caped Gooseberry) and attempted to sleep.
It took a while. Too many penguins on the loose.

“…about a tenth of the cabin trunks were full of vivid, and often painful or uncomfortable memories of her past life; the other nine-tenths were full of penguins, which surprised her. Insofar as she recognised at all that she was dreaming, she realised that she must be exploring her own subconscious mind. She had heard it said that humans are supposed only to use about a tenth of their brains, and that no one was very clear what the other nine-tenths were for, but she had certainly never heard it suggested that they were used for storing penguins.” Douglas Adams – The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

Once I had got all my penguins safely stowed (including a few zombie penguins risen from the maw of the Sea Lions of Forgetfulness), all was well.

Until that dratted alarm went off, thus beginning Part Two of the Experiment: Zombie.

World Alarm Clock - Grove Passage, London

Really, is it beyond the bounds of human ingenuity to come up with a sound that is able to wake a sound sleeper but doesn’t induce that kind of psyche-stripping galvanic jump that leaves you quivering under the blankets as your bedmate nurses their bruises?

The usual madness to my method, I should point out, is to have two alarms – the first wakes me up, and the second tells me it’s time to get up.
This provides a useful quarter-hour interlude in which to reassemble my conscious brain, figure out which way is up, what day it is and why I should bother eventually getting out of bed, today of all days – or more often, fall asleep again (hence the importance of the second alarm).

This particular morning I was well asleep when the second alarm burst in, and consequently went through the whole galvanic thing again.
I staggered into my clothes and went the usual round of morning duties (minus the lunch), feeling fuggy-brained and not daring to attempt the toaster. I felt behind-hand all the way through, but to my surprise, managed to leave for work on time.

After a rough day at the office

Here is where I discovered the achilles heel of zombies. They are not built for speed. They lurch. My time allowance for getting to work is based on being able to sustain a reasonable clip (approx. 6km/h), and my body just wasn’t feeling it. I pushed it harder, and it responded with faint nausea and a cloying sense of deoxygenation. I slowed.

I made it to work a few minutes late, but fortunately not so late as to draw raised eyebrows from the Powers That Be. (To be that late, you need to take the bus.)

I felt dim and brainless for the better part of the morning (thus making it the worser part) and made a few stupid, though fortunately inconsequential, mistakes.

To be fair, some of the dimness may have been due to the fact that I didn’t have time in this shorter morning to make a cup of tea (all right, pedants, I had time to make, but not consume, which is after all the point). However, I had one as soon as I got to work and the brainlessness failed to recede, so perhaps not. (Braaaiiins…)

In summation: the Chocolate part of the Experiment was productive and enjoyable (apart from the hand cramp and the minor sleep issues) but the Zombie part was neither and I think this tends to outweigh the Chocolate part, at least when seen in the light of an ongoing routine.
Now and then, particularly if I don’t have work the following day, I may resurrect it again. (Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha! Pardon.)

The War of Art

by Steven Pressfield.
Have you read it?

I read it straight through last night.
(That might seem like some kind of feat, but it’s an easy read – so much white space! Interestingly, he doesn’t feel the need to fill his page. Once he’s said what he wants to say on a topic, he stops saying it.)

It’s divided into three sections:
Resistance: defining the enemy
Combating Resistance: turning pro
Beyond Resistance: the higher realm

The first section is concerned with defining the force he calls Resistance, which is the antagonistic force within each of us which tries to stop us doing what we’re supposed to be doing – for writers, writing.

What I know #writing Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

This frequently takes the form of procrastination, but can also disguise itself, he says, as golf, sex, fear, depression and – perhaps most problematic of all – the voice of reason.

To combat this, he says in part two, we turn pro. I wasn’t entirely sure whether he meant literally giving up our jobs for it, but certainly a change of attitude is involved.
If something is your job, you show up, come hell or high water (particularly if you’re not eligible for paid sick leave) and you get it done. You don’t hover nervously wondering if your work (when you eventually produce some) is really good enough compared to others in your field (what if the other plumbers are better than me???)
You don’t go waffling on about how yours “is a high and lonely destiny” either.
You just get on with it.

What stood out to me most was his emphasis on being able to be miserable.
“The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable.
“This is invaluable for an artist…
“The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.” (Pressfield, 2002, p.68)

BEST OF THE MARINE CORPS - May 2006 - Defense Visual Information Center

If you wait til writing is the easy option, you will never write.
No excuses.
I got up half an hour early this morning in order to write this. In my own small way (warm dressing gown, hot tea, blue sky outside the window) I am being miserable.
I am sure the Marines could make themselves more miserable with the materials to hand, but hey, I’m not a Marine.
Plus it’ll be miserable enough in here come winter. (For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, New Zealand houses don’t have central heating. Or that much insulation. We just put on more clothes.)

The third section is all about the unseen reality supporting us, which Pressfield peoples with a bewilderingly syncretistic array of beings: angels from the Talmud, the Nine Muses from the Greek pantheon, Krishna from the Bhagavad-Gita, “God” (unspecified), Nature, a good slosh of Jungian psychology and the ancient common ground of dreams and visions.

La danza d'Apollo con le Muse - Guilo Romano - Stengel

A bit of a mixed bag, which makes for something of an unfocussed read, but he has some good points to make about doing what we do because it’s what we do, not because we’re comparing ourselves to someone else – what he calls territorial vs hierarchical thinking.

This is a good book to read, albeit not a precisely argued one – you’ll pick up nuggets of useful wisdom in amongst his diatribes on fundamentalists being less evolved humans than artists and how doing what you’re supposed to do in this world can cure cancer (and apparently everything else).

So there you have it, people: just get on with it.

If you’re prepared to make the sacrifices, make them without complaining. If you aren’t, stop wasting your time and give up now.

Disclaimer: no-one gave me a copy to review, nor did I part with my hard-earned for it. I borrowed a copy from the library. You may consider that this makes me a cheapskate who won’t support their fellow artists; I consider that this makes me an unbiased reviewer.