Proverbs (and a surprising amount of seafood)

“Don’t die like an octopus, die like a hammerhead shark.”

Sphyrna lewini aquarium
One of my favourites from a recently encountered online stash of Maori proverbs, many of which I’d never heard before. Apparently octopusses (octopi? octopods?) give up if squirting ink at you didn’t scare you off, whereas hammerheads have fight in them practically all the way to the plate. (“I’ll bite your legs off!”)

Try another: “The kumara does not say how sweet he is.” This one brings up a difficulty with proverbs: you often want to… shall we say, apply them where they will do the most good, but the recipient does not always catch your drift. And sometimes it’s more embarrassing when they do. Ideally, they should catch your drift when they get home, as with the French esprit d’escalier, when you think of the perfect thing to say as soon as it’s too late to say it.

Trust the French to have a word for that. Just as the concepts other languages feel the need to have words for tell you something about them (see The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinod), so the proverbs of other cultures give you a glimpse of their experiences and thought-processes. And sometimes you find out they were the same as yours. You would be surprised, for example, at how many cultures have proverbs linking the use-by-date of fish and guests.

Query: does fermented fish have a use-by date?

Of course, just as surströmming and hákarl are not universally admired, so it is with proverbs. Take this, for example, from W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil: “A bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, he told her, to which she retorted that a proverb was the last refuge of the mentally destitute.”

Perhaps this explains the enduring popularity of what I now discover are called anti-proverbs. I had thought they were a sign of our sarcastic times, until I found this, from Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): “People who count their chickens before they are hatched act very wisely because chickens run about so absurdly that it’s impossible to count them accurately.” Hard to imagine the languid Oscar counting chickens himself – or having anything to do with chickens that didn’t involve a knife and fork – but he may well have a point there.

The anti-proverb most often quoted in my family is a much newer one, coined by Terry Pratchett in 1997 (in his novel Jingo). “Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life.” And this illustrates the other problem with proverbs: even when they tell you something true, they aren’t necessarily helpful.

Enteroctopus dolfeiniBut today, at least, I can say I’ve learned something: do not go eight-legged into that good night…

Quote: Love and Duty

Ringing the Bell (7085979399)

Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil

Drafts and Duty

Not, I hasten to add, the military sort. (“Conscription is slavery, and I don’t think that any people or nation has a right to save itself at the price of slavery for anyone, no matter what name it is called.” Robert Heinlein).

Since my present WIP is the first draft of what for want of a better title I am calling Tsifira, the difficulties of the first draft loom large in my mind.
So I thought I’d share with you the wisdom of a few other writers on the gnarliness that is the first draft.

I love this analogy from Shannon Hale: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

Sandcastle Competition

Sir Terry Pratchett has gems on both the first draft:
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
and on where the first draft stands in relation to the redrafting (at least for him):
“First draft: let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair. I usually find that most of the book will have handed itself to me on that first draft.”

The writing/sculpture analogy is one that has been around for a while, but here is one of my favourite versions of it, from Anne Pillsworth: “The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you’ve laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you’ll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.”

Marcus Aurelius Louvre MR561 n02Ducks - 1

Jennifer Egan puts her finger on a leading cause of first-draft writer’s block, one that I struggle greatly with:

“I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn’t have a good voice or any voice. But then there will be good moments. It seems writer’s block is often a dislike of writing badly and waiting for writing better to happen.”

So what’s the solution? Just sit down and write it. (Just!) Dare to be awful – just get it down. Write it.
Easier to say than do, I know, but the only way to come out the other end is to keep plugging away at it.

And this is where the Duty element comes in. We do it because we must, not because we find this moment, just now, to be enjoyable.
As the good book says, they who go out weeping to sow the seed will return with shouts of joy, bringing the harvest with them. (Psalm 126.6).
Or as Steven Pressfield, somewhat less poetically puts it, “love being miserable”.

But this is not to say that the process will always and necessarily be an unpleasant one. As the Mother Superior in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil puts it: “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” Or as writers call it, flow. (More on that in a later post.)

Side note: who is better at loving the misery: Marines or nuns?

Nun getting arrested at five years of Iraq war protest

Not to suggest that either are masochistic, but when it comes to the All-Time Hacking-The-Nasty Tougher-Than-Thou contest, who’s got the edge? Those who face death (although quite possibly someone else’s), or those who die daily? Who would like to see that contest? Show of hands?

But the final word on Duty, Discipline and Devotion is brought to you by the letter D the late great Pavarotti: “People think I’m disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference.”