Story

by Robert McKee
(Methuen, 1999)

story1.

It’s taking me so long to read this book that I’ve decided to start writing about it before I get to the end. Even now, it has taken me a full 45 mins of messing about, tidying up, making tea, checking my phone, doing everything to put off the moment where I actually sit down and type words into a machine.

There may be many reasons why I’m dragging my heels (feet, eyes, you name it) over this book and the post I’m planning to write about it, but the main one cuts to the quick of what I think I need to write about. It’s the question that stares back at me every time I pick up this book, or make notes about it, or write in my journal, or open my laptop, or read to my daughter, or go to work, or frankly every conceivable situation. The question is this:

Why am I not a fucking writer?

Why am I not a writer? A real writer, I mean. An author. A hack. A scribbler. A scribe. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really imagined doing as a job. It’s still the only thing I can imagine doing as a job. Whenever I am asked, what’s your dream job? Or whenever I look at whatever bullshit I’m being paid to do at a given moment and try to dream my way out of it, it always comes back to “be a writer”.

It’s the dream that will not die. I’ve skirted round it, flirted with it. I’ve done various writing “stints”, you might call them, rather than jobs. Copywriting, editing, even actual composing of words for publication. I’ve been a creative writing practitioner. I taught professional writing skills in college. And since all of this paid me real cashmoney it means that, in actual fact, I have been a writer, even if I never fully committed to it.

The dream that will not die? It’s looking more like the dream that never was and never will be.

Never was. Has been. These are not massively inspirational phrases, let’s be honest, but I need to type them. I need a reality check. I need to get to the bottom of this because, well, it’s hanging round my neck and dragging me down and I need to know what it feels like to breathe clean air.

I want to understand. I need to know where the failure lies. Why it persists. Why the goddamn dream won’t die.

2.

I love it when you find a train ticket in a book.

This one is from January 19th 2004, at 17:14, a single from Argyle Street to Exhibition Centre. So much life data contained in so few numbers. Did I stop reading there? Or am I bookmarking it for “research”? Could have been either. The ticket marks the “Crisis, Climax, Resolution” chapter – in the book, I mean; that chapter of my life happened about 18 months later.

Story is really a screenwriting book, not necessarily a story writing book. The subtitle is a bit of a giveaway – Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. No doubt the same (Aristotlean) principles apply across all storytelling genres, but the examples he gives throughout his book are overwhelmingly from the history of cinema.

This is a blog about what’s on my bookshelves. I realise I have lots of books about writing on my shelves.

  • The Definitive Guide to SCREENWRITING by Syd Field
  • How NOT to write a screenplay by Denny Martin Flynn
  • Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein
  • So You Want to Be a Playwright by Tim Fountain
  • The Dramatist’s Toolkit by Jeffrey Sweet
  • How Plays Work by David Edgar
  • The Playwright’s Cookbook by Stuart Spencer
  • Word Power, a Guide to Creative Writing by Julian Birkett
  • Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

These books are a lifestyle accessory, tokens of my desire, a lazy substitute for actual graft. I mean, they’re fine. I’ve read all of them, some more than once, and there are nuggets of wisdom here and there. But you could get shot of the lot and spend the time more profitably with close, repeated reading of Aristotle’s Poetics for all the good they’ve done me.

Story is on another level, though, with Sol Stein’s book its novelist-oriented equal. It’s dense and tightly written, full of diagrams and flow charts and packed with detailed analysis of story craft. It’s the storytelling equivalent of a Haynes manual.

As McKee says,

“Today’s would-be writers rush to the typewriter without first learning their craft…

The novice plunges ahead, counting solely on experience, thinking that the life he’s lived and the films he’s seen give him something to say and the way to say it. Experience, however, is overrated.

Self-knowledge is the key – life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life.

What the novice mistakes for craft is simply his unconscious absorption of story elements from every novel, film or play he’s ever encountered. 

A storyteller is a life poet, an artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem where rhyme scheme is events rather than words – a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this!”

I’m simultaneously reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life one of the reasons I’m taking so long with Story. Peterson’s book is enlightening on number of levels and sometimes it seems as if the one text is acting as a commentary on the other. Regarding the question of why-the-fuck-I-am-not-a-writer, Peterson’s book offers the following insight via the Tao Te Ching:

He who contrives, defeats his purpose;
and he who is grasping, loses.
The sage does not contrive to win,
and therefore is not defeated,
he is not grasping, so does not lose.

Which is as good a summary of the stalemate I’ve found myself in since I bought that train ticket as I’ll ever read.

3.

Reasons I am not a fucking writer: statement of beliefs and assumptions

  • Wanting to “be a writer” has always co-existed in my mind with “not wanting to be a writer”.
  • Deep down, I do not regard “writing” as meaningful work.
  • Deep down, I believe most “writing” (specifically fiction) to be self-indulgent to the point of narcissism.
  • I love words, language, turns of phrase – not stories.
  • I’m not sure I like the sound of my own voice that much – at least, not enough to be sat listening to it for hours on end trying to “write”.
  • In a world of literary surfeit, where supermarket shelves are stacked high with teetering piles of books, where agents’ desks are stacked high with slush, warehouses stuffed with pulp, I’m not sure I’ve got anything worth adding to any of that.
  • Sometimes I think I might have found something worth saying, worth sharing with the world, but it’s immediately replaced with the thought that someone already said it before, a million times better.
  • I never found a story I wanted to tell badly enough to sustain me through the inevitable self-induced apocalypse of loathing and endless creative winters that come whenever I indulge my desire to “write”.
  • I never found an idea big enough to believe in that would make any of the above irrelevant.
  • Despite all of the above, I still keep trying to find ways to write, positively and meaningfully, keep trying to find ways to fix the bad wiring that keeps short circuiting my brain every time I try to fucking write anything. (Hence this blog.)

4.

Here’s a story about the first story I ever wrote.

I was into all kinds of fiction when I was young. Boy stuff, usually. Biggles. Just William. The Three Investigators mysteries. Books like Alvin’s Secret Code. I was into sci-fi, graphic fiction, some fantasy (mostly Tolkien) and I liked war-related stuff. I got a comic every week called Warlord and a friend of my mum’s passed on an actual sackful of Commandos, those small compact editions, like little jingoistic graphic novellas. By the time I was in my last year of primary school, I generally preferred adult pop fiction to stuff that was geared at readers my own age – possibly a result of bingeing on Famous Five novels during summer holidays in Devon.

And I read a lot. There was a kind of competition, a bit like a league table, that our teacher had set up where you got a star for every book you read. I was way down in the rankings because you got a star whether your book had six hundred pages (thanks Lord of the Rings!) or sixty. I liked reading books based on films I’d seen. I read spin-offs and tie-ins, Star Wars novels, novelisations of episodes of The Professionals. I read all the James Bond books (the ones with the racy 70s covers!) and I developed a fondness for Alistair Maclean’s spooky post-war spy thrillers.

The library played a big part in all of this. On one occasion, I borrowed a book based on the exploits of Action Man, which was a favourite toy at the time. It was a white-covered hardback with a drawing of yer man in action and a big red Action Man logo in the top right corner. I started to write a story about Action Man (that was his name) and his buddy, Tom Stone. They got into some trouble, they helped each other out. I remember folding the page in half and turning it round so that it was like a tiny book, and I remember spending a fair bit of time drawing the big red Action Man logo in the top corner of the first page.

Then the story disappeared. I don’t even think I got to finish it before it vanished from my bag or my school desk, thought maybe it had gone in the bin by mistake, or was buried in a pile of jotters somewhere. I forgot all about it until one of the guys in my class suddenly produced it. He was a guy I thought I was friendly with (our mums knew each other and we sometimes met out of school hours) but here he was parading about the classroom while the teacher was out of the room, reading aloud from the story, ridiculing me in front of the rest of the class. “Action Man and Tom Stone…” He kept repeating the opening line loudly in a pathetic mocking voice, recruiting others from my class to join in with his bullshit game. He kept it up in the playground at interval and at lunchtime, reading it out to whoever fancied joining in. He kept it up for a good long while.

And there was nothing really I could do about it except try to get him to stop. But he didn’t and I wasn’t the fighting type. So I walked away, feeling stupid and childish.

5.

I am not a fucking writer because being a fucking writer is not itself a meaningful fucking aim.

A writer of what, exactly?

Poetry? Technical manuals? TV listings? Investigative journalism? Marketing copy for arms manufacturers? After dinner speeches? Tweets? Anyone who writes anything is a fucking writer.

So.

I failed to define my terms.

I love language. I love words. I love syntax. I love the music and rhythm and style and the endless possibilities for invention and playfulness that writing can bring about . . . but none of this is necessarily of any use in becoming or being a writer. For that, I should have become a sub-editor.

No matter how much you love language or how talented you think you might be, “Being A Writer” is not an end in itself. Having something to write about, the burning desire to tell people things forcefully and engagingly enough that they will listen is at least a start. In fact, it should be a fucking prerequisite of the job.

I failed to define my subject.

I worked in a theatre company for a time. As I became more and more bored with the desk job I became more and more interested in what was going on in the rooms where the actual shows were being made. I started reading as many plays as I could get my hands on. Then, after a decade-long hiatus since completing a creative writing Masters when I had barely written a word, I started sketching out ideas, writing dialogue etc. A cycling accident gave me six weeks off work, and I used the time to put in some serious hours at the laptop drafting up the scribbles I had been making. I decided to learn the craft of playwriting and put myself out there as someone with aspirations in that direction. Spoke to whoever would listen. Put my novice sketches in front of whoever would read them. Joined a theatre writers’ group.

Then, in short order, I was accepted on to a playwright mentoring programme, and chosen to take part in a year-long writing attachment with the Traverse in Edinburgh. After months and months of relentless grafting and redrafting, I felt that I was on my way, finally, to becoming a writer of plays.

I told my mentor on our first meeting that I wanted to write a play “about football”. I knew very little about football beyond whatever wisdom I had gleaned from Jimmy Sanderson and Hugh Keavins on the Radio Clyde Openline as well as years of accidental exposure to Only an Excuse and Off the Ball. I had grown up in a bigoted part of the world where football team colours and associated imagery are fierce totems of tribal allegiance and some of that had rubbed off. Football sort of just happened around me, but it was something other people did. I had no skin in the game, didn’t play, didn’t follow a team or belong to a tribe. I was doing a ton of reading to try and compensate for my ignorance but some things you just can’t fake.

I actually hate football. One of the handful of stories I ever published was called The Last Man Left in Scotland Who Doesn’t Like Football. I don’t know what I was thinking, writing a play about football. Neither did my mentor, whose sole piece of advice to me during the whole process was to go and learn how to dance the tango…

Why did I want to write about football? Or Jocky Wilson? Or my old auntie? Or a bunch of delinquent school kids? Or a couple on a political protest march? Or any of the other things I turned my gaze towards in the hope of finding things to say?

I failed to find my motivation.

I was living a lie at the time. I was in a relationship where it was increasingly clear that there no love between us. In the things we did and said, it seemed we couldn’t stand each other. After all the hopes and dreams and plans we’d made, the truth was too terrible to admit, so we allowed ourselves to perpetuate the lie.

Writing for theatre was a lie too. Theatre is built on lies. It’s a Babel of bullshit. Actors lie for a living. To do this they must find something “true” inside of them, some emotion or experience that allows the deception they are creating for an audience to seem real somehow. If you can’t find that truth, you can’t lie. And if you can’t lie, you can’t act. Directors lie to their actors about how great they are because they want them to do good performances. Everyone lies to directors about how brilliant they are because good favour is hard currency in theatre. Everyone else lies about how much they loved the show because working in the arts is all about collective self-deception. It’s a madhouse. Some people thrive on it but I found it impossible to keep up any kind of a front. And theatre is all about front.

That’s probably all a bit harsh. The point is that if you’re living in denial of what is true for you, that shit’s going to come out, or, worse, it’s going to get in the way of you ever getting started.

In Story, McKee reminds us of the roots and branches of the word author.

“The test of authorship is knowledge. A true author is an artist with a godlike knowledge of his subject, and the proof of his authorship is that his pages smack of authority. . . And the effect of writing with authority is authenticity.”

In this he recalls the advice of Ernest Hemingway, who claimed he never got writers’ block because, as he said:
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Here’s mine:

I am not a fucking writer because I failed to try to find and to write my Truth.

6.

Let me tell you about the harpy.

A couple of years after my mother died, I started seeing a counsellor, whom we’ll call Strange Anne. She was into a therapeutic process called psychosynthesis, a Jungian branch of psychoanalysis which holds that the disordered self is made up of many disparate elements, or sub-personalities, all fighting with each other.

This leads to a loss of integrity of the self. You are in a state of disorder because there is no “I” in control of these unruly personalities. It’s a bit like a pirate ship mutiny. The first step in psychosynthesis is to identify the mutineers in the first place, to name them and define them. Then you need to take responsibility, as captain, for the dereliction of your post, whatever the reason for that may be. Counselling helps you find the “I” again, to take charge, whip the reprobates into shape and get them to toe the line or walk the fucking plank before they crash the ship.

I loved psychosynthesis. It was a really interesting process, powered by metaphor and imagery. Strange Anne allowed me to explore the deepest recesses of my imagination and express myself creatively in a way that was empowering and liberating. I imagined the self as a tall teetering stack of books with each of the sub-personalities a separate volume. The stack was on the point of collapse and the purpose of therapy was to realign the books, straighten them up, stack them in a way that was solid and secure. Pointedly, the stack of books resembled a letter “I”.

I had quite a few warring sub-personalities. The Hulk was the physical manifestation of primal rage that hurled things at walls, that crashed his fist through bits of furniture or aimed it at his own face. The Wee Boy had lost his mammy and looked to just about any female authority for guidance, direction, anything, and did as he was told, even when it wasn’t in his best interests. The Boffin retreated into theoretical abstraction and verbose explication when too much emotion threatened to overload his limbic system. The Sergeant Major was responsible for bossing me into the gym and out onto the road running marathons. He was inspirational in some ways, but he could be an overbearing bastard.

And there was the Harpy.

The harpy was an ugly big black diseased-looking crow, ancient and terrible, that sat on my right shoulder with her beak in my ear and she would scream the worst obscenities imaginable whenever I took a creative urge. She would hurl horrific insults directly into my brain. It was relentless and debilitating, a degrading, hateful, punishing volley of abuse. I could feel her claws digging deep into the skin around my scapula. I could feel her cold bony beak poking hard and sharp into my ear canal. Trying to write anything with this was like trying to walk in the face of a hurricane.

Strange Anne taught me to nip the thing before it got into full voice. Just reach round with my left hand and grab her beak in my thumb, fore- and middle fingers. I’m doing it now. She’s been howling her derision at me the whole way through writing this, through writing everything. Even when I’m not writing, but just thinking about writing or something I’ve written, like this blog for instance, I hear the voice. Except she’s learned to be subtler about it. She’s toned down the verbal abuse. Cunningly, her voice just sounds like mine now.

I have no idea where the harpy came from. Could have been any number of factors, a combination of a million untraceable events (from the Action Man and Tom Stone humiliation onwards). There seems to be absolutely no strategic psychological reason for her existence. She’s not protecting me, she’s not a psychic defence mechanism or anything, she does me no favours. I have absolutely no use for her. The continuing existence of this insufferable thing only has the effect of making me feel as if the very act of writing is wasteful, stupid, risible, contemptuous.

And it is only writing. Play the accordion for hours? Fine. Paint and doodle and scribble and fuck about with crayons all day? Cool. Make a bunch of clay heads? Nothing. Spend hours in the kitchen decorating biscuits? Whatever. The harpy’s only interested in my writing.

Harpies exist in the Greek myths, depicted slightly differently from mine, but their functions as agents of disruption and conflict, punishment and cruelty are pretty consistent. Looking at it from a folkloric/ morphological sense, it may well be that the harpy is the Evil Beast that I, the Hero, need to slay in order to prove my heroic qualities. Kill the harpy, complete my quest, save the kingdom, ascend the throne and marry the princess. Simple.

But how do I do that? How do I kill this fucking beast? Because here’s the thing: the harpy is me, it’s literally me. The harpy, as if it needs spelling out, is the psychological manifestation of every negative thought I have internalised about writing as a pursuit, as a meaningful activity, as a thing that I do. It’s me, telling myself not to do something I know I can be good at; more than that, it’s me, shouting a bunch of hateful crap at myself in order to make myself feel wretched.

Why? So that I don’t have to do it? The specific benefits of inventing a fictional self-sabotaging device are not immediately clear to me. I need to penetrate the fog of unknowing in order to know what to do, if not to kill it, then possibly to tame it, or gaffer tape its foul beak shut, or just shoo it away once and for all. To do that gets into all kinds of beliefs I have about myself and I’m not sure this is the place to air them all.

Where does the harpy get its voice from? Where does it derive its power? Who teaches the harpy what to say? What’s in it for the harpy? Why does it do this stuff? Why is it specifically female?

The harpies were often sent by the Gods as punishment for people who disobeyed them. They caused chaos, made lives miserable, drove people mad. The “gods” of my upbringing were a pantheon of austere and religious elders – not quite the “fools in old style hats and coats” of Larkin’s verse, but close enough. I was raised Catholic, but West of Scotland Catholicism is a dour beast that has more in common with the hair-shirted followers of Knox and Calvin than it does with the flamboyant Mediterranean superhero saints we learned about in RE. Not for nothing is it often called Roman Calvinism.

The harpy, my harpy, gets its voice from that culture. It’s the voice of the rule-givers and law-makers. The permanently ill-at-ease. The dull and the dutiful. The cowardly and conforming. It’s a fearful voice. It’s afraid of what it doesn’t know. It’s afraid I’ll let the side down. It’s not disappointed, it’s not even angry – it’s fucking raging that I have the temerity to think above my station.

The voice says, Know your place and it wants to put me back in it.

Fuck the harpy. Fuck all that shit.

7.

I remain open to the idea that all of this is a function of my lack of self-discipline. I just need to get on with it. Quit with the overthinking. This blog’s been months in the making. And I still haven’t finished the McKee book.

I accept that this deathless dream is killing me anyway, so I might as well live it.

I figured the best way out of a writing impasse is to write my way out of it. I mentioned Jordan Peterson earlier. I signed up for his Self Authoring programme a few weeks ago, so I’ve been working my way through that. This blog is a form of self-authoring, I guess, but in a slightly haphazard way. The programme is much more thorough, much more focussed, and having the specific aim of seeking out all the various reasons Why I Am Not A Fucking Writer has given shape to my thoughts in a very useful way.

I started keeping a journal at the beginning of a year –  just a few lines a day, with the intention of keeping it up every day for five years. Already, the regular showing up at a blank page with a pen in my hand is having the knock on effect of improving my self-discipline. I’ve been keeping note of daily accomplishments and setting myself targets for the next day. It’s good. I’m noticing small changes, pushing myself, getting shit done. I’ve been deleting attention-sapping apps from my phone. I set myself the goal of running again. I cut out the booze. There’s a long fucking way to go, though, and the only way through it is to make myself personally accountable for everything . . .

Which is inspired by listening to David Goggins memoir, Can’t Hurt Me. It’s an incredible book, inspirational and empowering, with a forceful message – that we are all capable of so much more that we are currently doing, that we are massively under-utilising our potential. All of us. And not only are we selling ourselves short by opting for more comfortable paths of least resistance through life, we’re selling the rest of the world short by denying each other the benefit of our full potential. Goggins’s story puts things into perspective for me in ways I hadn’t imagined, especially since his story couldn’t be more different from mine. There’s a lot in what he says that gives a new spin to the Jack Black Mindstore stuff too. Just, Goggins goes a whole lot fucking further.

I’ve decided to set myself the challenge of writing a story a week for the next 52 weeks, longer if I can keep it up, to read to my daughter if she wants me to. The project’s called Stories About Everything.

8.

Here’s one of McKee’s storytelling tools.

Controlling idea = value + cause

“The Controlling Idea of a completed story must be expressible in a single sentence . . . A story becomes a kind of living philosophy that the audience members grasp as a whole, in a flash, without conscious thought – a perception married to their life experiences.”

Here’s a story idea for a book aimed at children and families called My Daddy is a Dinosaur

Controlling idea: “Adults can lose sight of what’s important in life but they can be redeemed if they open their eyes to the love that’s there in front of them.”

Reads like every Hollywood family ever. Maybe refine it a bit.

Controlling idea: “We hasten our own extinction (emotional/ spiritual) when we focus on our own selfish material interests and harden our hearts to the needs and desires of those around us.”

Story summary
Boy wants to play with his dad after work but Dad’s always too tired, always got something else to do, somewhere else to go. He persists. As the Dad continues to evade his son’ s attentions, losing patience all the way, we see him grow scales, claws and a tail, finally a massive head full of teeth – which roars at the boy to go away…

The boy realises with horror that his emotionally unavailable dad has turned into a massive, scary tyrannosaurus rex. He goes to his mum, tries to talk about it, explain that his daddy is a dinosaur, but he gets the brush off there too. She’s got stuff to do for work tomorrow. She sprouts a hadrosaur-like horn and snaps at him with her beak-like mouth.

He tries his brother. He’s engrossed in a computer game, and flicks the door shut with his long diplodocus tail.

Sister won’t even entertain him, she’s all wrapped up in her own pterodactyl wings, staring into her phone.

Finally it’s all too much. Out with the family one day, at a shopping centre full of dinosaurs all roaring at each other from their cars in the car park. Hellish. It’s a sunny day and boy just wants to go and play. Mum and dad snap at him, boy has a meltdown – and sprouts a tiny scaly dinosaur tail all of his own.

Shocked, his dinosaur mum and dad can’t believe what just happened. Boy, freaked, says he’s becoming just like them, and points to their scales and tails and teeth and claws – and they see themselves reflected in a shop window. Horrified, they decide to change the way they behave from now on. Daddy makes time for him when he gets in from work. Mummy puts her phone down. Sister’s nicer, brother shares the ipad. Scales and tails and wings and claws all disappear as if they never existed at all.

And they all live happily ever after…

Fight Club

Fight Club - movie tie-in coverDo I really need to read this book again?

Isn’t once enough? And haven’t I seen the movie like a dozen times? And aren’t they the same anyway?

It’s not like it’s real literature, this stuff. Right? It’s pulp. It’s pop. With its movie poster cover of Brad Pitt and Ed Norton “in character” and that joke soap title device.

Did I ever learn to properly pronounce Palahniuk? “PAL-a-nuck”, I heard someone say on a podcast the other day. I always said “Pal-AN-yuk”.

Palahniuk said Fight Club “might be the most-quoted novel of the 20th century”. I wonder if he gets paid every time some op-ed writer or features hack or sub or anyone anywhere connected with putting words in print said “The first rule about ____ is you don’t talk about _____”

I wonder if he gets a royalty every time someone gets called a “snowflake”.

Obviously he doesn’t. Nobody makes any money out of writing any more, unless you’ve had a hit movie. But this shit has been in currency since the 90s – since the fucking 90s – which actually makes it a prime target for this blog since everything here seems to be about the 90s.

So, tell me why do I need to read this book again? And why now? What’s the point of reading anything?

I am Joe’s complete indifference.

I am 29 again. I’m living in Garnethill, a block and a half from the Art School and two from Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow’s answer to the Sunset Strip but slicked with piss and supper wrappers instead of palm trees and sunshine. All the glamour, glitz and debauchery you can shake a battered sausage at. The M8 motorway’s within easy earshot, but Garnethill is remote as an eagle’s eerie and feels like the Glasgow student rental market’s biggest best kept secret.

I watch the movie and I love it, as everybody does. I shoplift the book from my McJob (or more accurately, my Bargain Job) in a bookshop where I toil at the trough twice a week to provide beer stamps and food tokens to supplement the student loan that paid for the teacher training course which I am still – unbelievably – paying off at £2 a fucking week or whatever nearly 20 years later. I tear through the book in one or two sittings and somehow my shoplifted copy stays with me all that time until now, despite many flittings, lendings and charity shop culls.

Garnethill & Jordanhill. Mark & Jo. Val & Ali. Dom & Gordon. Claire & Johnny. Eastbank Academy & Duncanrig High.

In this world of dualities, we can’t forget our old pals, depression and anxiety, who announced their presence in my life that year, auguring the first indications of my having taken a massive misstep in life. My year of teacher training year ended with my first conversations about mental health with full-bore medical professionals. I’d sort of self-hypnotised myself about going into teaching and it wasn’t going well. Standing at the platform edge at Shettleston station fantasising darkly about potential ways out was a particular low point. I was in massive denial about everything. Why was I putting myself through this? Maybe I was doing it to please my mother. Maybe I was doing it to please my father. Maybe I’d convinced myself I needed to have a profession, a vocation, a title, something – metaphorical or literal – that I could hang around my neck to define me in some way, to create substance and structure out of the slime that I surely was.

And maybe that’s what depression is. Your own personal Tyler Durden rearing up inside and kicking the absolute shit out of you. Or trying to knock sense into you.

I am the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Reading the book again, depression is, on some level, one of the things that Fight Club seems to be about. I have to say “on some level”, of course, because Fight Club has more levels than a New York City skyscraper. It’s “about” a lot of things, but depression is surely in there. All that stuff about hitting bottom? And I mean, what’s this if not a perfect literary evocation of the blackness of depression:

I wanted to breathe smoke. Birds and deer are a silly luxury, and all the fish should be floating. I wanted to burn the Louvre. I’d do the Elgin Marbles with a sledgehammer and wipe my ass with the Mona Lisa. This is my world now.

But don’t go looking for answers, because on another of those levels Fight Club is like some kind of anti-self help book:

Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer. Maybe self-destruction is the answer . . .
Maybe we have to break everything to make something better of ourselves . . .
It’s only after you’ve lost everything, that you’re free to do anything . . .
I should run from self-improvement and should be running towards disaster . . .

On some other level – quite a few of them, actually – it’s a how-to manual, like the Anarchists’ Cookbook wrapped up inside a day-glo narrative. Fight Club cheerfully primes its readers on the basics of a number of anarchist staples, such as how to make napalm, or nitroglycerine, or plastic explosive, or how to make a silencer for a gun. If you’re paying attention you can even learn how to topple a building, or at the very least how to blow up your own apartment.

Some of the more socially acceptable “tips” include how to be a cinema projectionist, how to run an allotment, and how to make soap. (First we render fat.) On the whole, you could say that Fight Club instructively demonstrates effective multitasking – up to a point, anyway.

On another level again, perhaps in a building all its own, Fight Club can be read as a philosophical treatise on the crisis of masculinity. That’s well-enough elaborated on elsewhere but it’s really interesting looking back at how tame and simplistic this notion seems with everything that’s going on right now regarding the debate around gender fluidity and the increasingly strident noises made on the radical left where even discussion of biological gender is considered hate speech. In this context, masculinity has it easy.

But how does Fight Club work as a novel?

My first reaction on re-reading it is that the language in this book is one of the reasons why novels – and novelists – continue to exist at all. You can’t write a how-to book or a self-help book or a philosophical treatise with this kind of language. No-one talks like this. No-one else really even writes like this. The only home for this kind of language is in a novel. It’s intrinsically literary.

It’s playful, but not self-consciously so. It’s exuberant, but not tiresomely so. It takes joy in its unusualness, but not at the expense of story and character, but in service equally of both.

And it’s not just the words. There’s the constant timeline fuckery.  The jump-cut syntax and channel-hopping narrative are instinctive and familiar and hugely entertaining. That “twist”, hidden in plain sight from the very first line. The character definition and narrative voice are so beautifully honed, no wonder this book struck a chord that still reverberates.

But it’s the language, the searing, soaring language that keeps me gripped, image after lacerating image. It’s punchy enough to snap a tooth off at the root, you could say.

The text is jam packed with verbs, the muscle and sinew of literature. This book is all go, all do. In Fight Club verbs do the work of adjectives. What he sees, we see. But you see what’s happening, first and foremost, not just pages and pages of costume and scenery. There’s a total lack of adverbial phrases, or static paragraphs bloated with description. Like you read a book like this to know what colour the wallpaper is. The fetching red leather jacket that Tyler Durden wears in the film is nowhere in this book. The bits of description that do exist are there to underscore the violence and darkness at the heart of the narrator’s world.

It’s all very Elmore Leonard in this respect, but the novel it reminds me of most here is American Psycho, a book every bit as brutal as Fight Club, but which uses language in a very different way. Brett Easton Ellis distances you with endless descriptions and lists of brand names. These descriptions point to the vacuity of his narrator Patrick Bateman and highlight his obsession with surface and status, as represented by Bill Blass shirts and silk-screened Armani ties. You don’t see the person he’s describing so much as you see a walking till receipt.

In Fight Club you see everything you need to, but you also feel. A lot. Mostly pain.

Last week, I tapped a guy and he and I got on the list for a fight. The guy must have had a bad week, got both of my arms behind my head in a full nelson and rammed my face into the concrete floor until my teeth bit open the inside of my cheek and my eye was swollen shut and was bleeding, and after I said, stop, I could look down and there was a print of half my face in blood on the floor.

And what do we get at the end of it all? After all this fighting, all this violence and mayhem? Well, his narrator gets the girl, for one, which puts it right up there with all the fairy tale endings that have ever been, and strikes an oddly conservative note for a novel with such radical content. Is Fight Club then a sort of fairy tale? A parable for our times about the redemptive powers of love?

This isn’t love as in caring. This is about property as in ownership.

Possibly not.

Apart from that, though, and different from the movie, there are no explosions, no end of the credit system, no collapsing buildings, no collapse of the world order. No nothing. Which is a closure of sorts, and in a funny kind of 90s kind of way, the end of the book reminds me a bit of the Seinfeld credo.

I’ve met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, “Why?”
Didn’t I realise that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness?
Can’t I see how we’re all manifestations of love?
I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God’s got this all wrong.
We are not special.
We are not crap or trash, either.
We just are.
We just are, and what happens just happens.
And God says, “No, that’s not right.”
Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can’t teach God anything.

The Alchemist

It’s pushing twenty years since I read The Alchemist.

I don’t really remember reading it first time around, to be honest, but I definitely did. A few little bits of memory are shaken loose here and there, but they’re flakes of peeling paint rather than chunks of crumbling masonry. After reading it this time, I kind of want to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Not because I enjoyed it so much, or because I want to deepen my understanding of it, but because I feel there’s something I’m not getting.

Why was it such a monster best-seller?  How does such wooden-legged prose travel so widely? What’s it really about? And what did I find in it that obviously touched me?

The Alchemist definitely made an impression on my life. It’s there in the black and white photograph that hangs on the wall behind the bust of Ivor Cutler – the photograph I’m taking down now, uncertain of what to do with it. I pause for a moment before I take it off its hook . . .

The photograph is of two stones, one positioned slightly behind the other. The image is composed in such a way that it looks as if they are sitting in a shaft of light or under a breath of air, like a blessing or a wish. It gives them a mystical aura, makes them come alive in the frame.

I feel bad taking the photo down because it was made for me with love by my artist pal A. She created it to be a companion piece to another larger photograph that hangs above it on, an image of a shepherd’s goat horn cup. They’re weird and brilliant and beautiful and I love them. The act of taking one of them away feels wrong, somehow, but I need to make room for a new thing I’ve made, so off it comes and I’m suddenly reminded that these images, the pairing of them specifically, was inspired by our shared enthusiasm for this book. In fact, I realise as I’m writing this, it might even have been A who recommended the book to me in the first place.

Both images have been on my wall since I moved into this flat over twelve years ago and have become kind of invisible to me. I understand there and then that I need to go on a bit of a journey with The Alchemist. Maybe by examining my relationship with this book, by tracing the influences it has had on my life across the years, will I be able to properly “see” these images again.

The stones in A’s photograph represent Urim and Thummim, stones imbued with magical properties which feature in the book as a kind of Macguffin. The story of The Alchemist concerns itself with a young boy called Santiago, a Spanish shepherd, and his personal quest which is instigated by an encounter with an old mystic.

“Take these,” said the old man, holding out a white stone and a black stone that had been embedded at the centre of [his golden] breastplate. “They are called Urim and Thummim. The black signifies ‘yes’ and the white ‘no’. When you are unable to read the omens, they will help you to do so. Always ask an objective question.”

The mystic unleashes the boy’s latent thirst for knowledge, allows him to articulate his desire to see the Pyramids in Egypt, ultimately to find his treasure. Part of his quest is about learning to speak the Language of the World…

“There was a language in the world that everyone understood. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”

From here, Santiago learns to identify omens and portents that will save his life and shape his destiny, to listen to his heart, and eventually to understand “the principle that governs all things”.

“In alchemy, it’s called the Soul of the World. When you want something with all your heart, you are closest to the Soul of the World.”

A’s photograph, therefore, was nothing less than a magical aid to assist me in my life’s quest to find what it is I believe in and desire, the gift of being able to converse in the Language of the World.

Quite a gift.

I’m kind of overwhelmed by the buried associations this book unearths. Teacher training. Mum dying. Living with C. Doing the MPhil. I keep a tally in my notebook the whole way through, alongside notable phrases that might serve as a guide later to help me figure out what this book is actually about.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

“People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”

There are more quotes here. It all seems so seductive and easy. The story of The Alchemist places the reader at the centre of the universe. Forget Galileo, forget Kopernicus, the sun is you and everything is aligned in your orbit. It’s a guilt-free pass on a high speed train to a shiny happy future where everything is dreamy and you are at liberty to do whatever you so desire, unencumbered by the desires of others.

It’s problematic on a number of levels and speaks of a kind of decadent western entitlement and rampant individualism. Maybe you could get away with this kind of stuff in the 1980s and 90s, but it’s a tough sell in 2018.

mindstoreIn the cascade of associations that The Alchemist triggers, I’m reminded of a course I went on around that time, at the turn of the millenium. The book still sits on my self-help shelf. Billed as “a Personal Development and Performance Improvement Programme”, MindStore communicates many of the same certainties about how the “universe” works, presented with the trappings of a corporate away day – with conference packs, flipcharts, nametags and all – swapping portentous allegorical mumbo-jumbo for portentous allegorical business jargon.

Both The Alchemist and MindStore have in common the idea of a personal, individual quest, of life-as-narrative. It requires no small degree of solipsistic jiggery-pokery on the part of both authors to thoroughly place oneself at the centre of the universe, rather than as a tiny part of it. There are no supporting roles in this quest, only heroes. No bit parts, no cameos, no crowd artists, no spear-carriers.

In both cases, the acquisition of personal wealth is the galvanising, life-shaping, quest-defining goal that “all the universe” supposedly bends itself towards helping you achieve, as long as you imagine, as long as you believe, as long as you want it hard enough.

As far as I can make out, the people who have done best out of this way of organising one’s inner imaginative life are the authors of these fictions.

Coelho’s genius is to create a protagonist blank enough, generic enough, for readers to project themselves into. The Alchemist is written in a sparse, flavourless prose that reads like white bread tastes. Perhaps even less so. The whole thing is heavy with import, stodgy with borrowed resonance, and stripped of any the usual literary nourishment –  linguistic invention, colour, texture, nuance, all lacking. The short, stumpy, declarative sentences that define the book’s style call to mind the worst examples of much myth-lit, full of grandiloquent prognostications and oracular pronouncements.

But where Rumi sings and Gibran seduces, Coelho merely connives. Frankincense to snake oil.

MindStore sells a different perfume of snake oil, aimed at the stilted olfactory regions of the trudgers on the corporate treadmill sleepwalking to Neverland. It’s psychobabble posing as business sense. Right-brain/ left-brain guffscience. Motivational anecdote upon motivational anecdote bounces all rational thought right out of the room.

MindStore is presented on stage at the Concert Hall over two days by its creator, the garrulous Jack Black (ex-social worker from Cumbernauld, not the other one). He may not be an actor, but his performance is a winning one. He’s brilliant orator and a charismatic conjurer. His tricks with a fag and magic marker will have you believing almost anything. He’ll even convince you of the profound potential of renaming your alarm clock an Opportunity Clock.

A fucking opportunity clock.

I set my opportunity clock for three of these weekend seminars over a two year period. I bought right into it. “It only works”, he says. And for a time I was inclined to agree.

The particular genius of MindStore is the little bits of content in there that you can’t argue with. For example, when he says that action grows from strong desire, he’s reciting a truth that has echoed down the years since Aristotle.

When he says that the easiest and quickest way to kill the dreams of a child (or anyone, for that matter) is to ask them how they are going to achieve it, it resonates hard with me, deep and loud all the way back through every dream I ever had right to my childhood.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Aye? How you gony do that, then?

And the killer: What do you want to do that for?

Desires you once whispered to yourself then found the courage to articulate, wither on your tongue. You learn not to trust your instincts. You learn to fear your wildest imaginings. You stop dreaming. A life of boundless possibilities becomes curtailed by the limited life experience of those around you. You choose the well-trodden path. Your world shrinks. Your capacity for wonder dies. You take your place on the treadmill.

Then twenty, thirty years later, you read The Alchemist. Maybe you go on a motivational weekend seminar in a room of people dressed by Next.

Later still, maybe, you have a daughter, a brilliant funny loving daughter, whose capacity for imagination and invention astonishes you every time she’s with you and more and more each day. She’s a princess, she’s a superhero, she’s your mother, your best friend, your sidekick, your twin. She builds a castle, a burrow, a planet, a nest. Out of paper and ribbon and the magic of words. It’s your birthday every single day and she celebrates with a cake she made in an oven of air.

You wonder what she will make, do or be with this magical transformative power she possesses and you will do anything within your own limited life experience to help her grow it, use it, live it, be it.

You want her to find her treasure, whether it’s a trove of actual coins or the power to harness the boundless wealth that lives within her.

And I set aside my quarrels with The Alchemist. And I forgive Mr Black for daring us tired trudgers to get off the treadmill and to dream again.

And I think of my daughter’s dreams, my own dreams.

And I look at my photographs again and I think of the friendship that’s been lost but the best of which is recalled here in these images. I recall the love with which they were made and the gratitude with which they were received.

And I think of it all and I think maybe this time I get it.