My daughter turned one recently. Her birthday was held in a local park. There were balloons, toys, games, and lots of food. My wife made most of the food, spending many hours rolling sausage rolls, baking cakes and cutting sandwiches. Our friends came and shared the day with us. It was hot. I got mildly sunburnt.
I’m not a fast writer. For readers waiting the third Winter novel this won’t be an earth-shattering revelation (we’re going on six years now since Winter’s Light) but I accepted it reluctantly. You see in my advertising day job I I pride myself on my speed and efficiency. Give me a task to do and chances are I’ll complete it much faster than expected. Not because I’m amazing but because I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. You pick up tricks, learn shortcuts, understand how to deliver results without chewing up too much time.
When I received the editorial notes on my latest Lüne draft I estimated they would take two – maybe three weeks tops to action. Five months later I sent back the revised manuscript. This proves two things – one, I can’t estimate for shit. Two, writing a novel is not completing an advertising brief.
For example, one of the notes I had was to make the lead character, Bailey Flick, more dynamic. The editor felt Bailey was too often a passenger in his own story, not the driver. It was a perceptive note and I completely agreed.
The problem was how do I address something like that? It’s not as simple as changing a few words around. I had to dig into every chapter, examine all Bailey’s interactions and see what I could do to make him more engaging. Entire new chapters were written and the book swelled by twenty-thousand words. There were other notes too that required consideration and care to implement. Very few were of the checklist variety.
After I finished, the manuscript I sent back was significantly better than the previous one. This is both heartening and depressing. Heartening, because the book is closer to its best possible incarnation, and depressing because I thought the previous draft was pretty great. What this suggests is that I could conceivably re-write this book forever – refining, polishing, tweaking ad infinitum. Torn as I am between wanting to do justice to my story, I also want to move on and write other things, start other projects. That third Winter novel isn’t going to write itself.
WHAT I’VE BEEN WATCHING
Despite spending most of the past five months wrestling with Lüne, I did manage to sneak in some couch time. I’m not a robot and the tv isn’t going to watch itself. I enjoyed Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, Top of the Lake, Taboo – and maybe I’ll write about them at some point but right now there’s really only one show I want to discuss. One show that matters.
In the early nineties, I was too young to be caught up in the first wave of Twin Peaks mania and only finished the original series earlier this year. I dug it. But then I’m a David Lynch fan so I’m preconditioned to like his stuff. Lynch movies are like jazz, you either hear the music in the chaos or it sounds like just a bunch of notes played randomly. It either works for you or it doesn’t. It’s art with a capital A.
Lynch works for me. But as much as I enjoyed the batshit-crazy-murder-mystery-soap-opera-occult-thriller-fever-dream stylings of Twin Peaks it wasn’t until I watched Fire Walk With Me, Lynch’s theatrical companion piece to the series that I started to understand what Lynch was really interested in. It wasn’t the murder of Laura Palmer and the subsequent investigation by wacky yet lethally proficient Agent Cooper. It was something bigger than that – the battle between good and evil. This sounds almost laughably simplistic – the stuff of comic book adaptations or children’s cartoons – yet when filtered through Lynch’s beautifully fractured lens this struggle becomes something elemental or even cosmic. Certainly spiritual. And, ultimately tragic. Because good doesn’t win. Not in Lynch’s world. Freed of the limitations of tv censors and traditional narrative preoccupations, Lynch was able to revisit the material he began in Twin Peaks and really push it to its darkest extremes. I was left shaken by the film.
The 2017 revival of Twin Peaks goes further than Fire Walk With Me. It plumbs the dark recesses of the human experience dredging up demons of all varieties – literal, psychological, symbolic, and biblical. It also, and this is important to note, contains some of the most purely joyful narrative sequences in recent memory. There is darkness in Lynch’s world, but there is also light.
Empathy and kindness are two of the least trafficked, difficult to portray qualities in television drama and Lynch time and time again manages to evoke both. I suspect it his sincere, almost childish view of goodness that turned off many viewers weaned on a decade-plus of premium tv typified by antiheroes, grimness and despair (I’m thinking your Breaking Bads, Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones). We’re not used to seeing such sincere non-cloying sweetness on screen. It’s unnerving. Almost as much as graphic violence. More so, perhaps because we’re routinely exposed to acts of destruction and depravity.
I was at the pub the other night and the topic of conversation turned to Twin Peaks (or perhaps I steered it that way). I was met with some wary interest from the uninitiated and plenty of rolling-of-the-eyes from those who had seen it. Some of these eye-rollers were fans of the original series, yet hadn’t been able to make it past the first few episodes of the revival.
And you know what? I don’t blame them.
There are scenes in Twin Peaks that are among the most clumsily written, staged, shot, acted and edited that I’ve ever seen. Some special effects look to have been rendered on a Commodore 64. The pacing is consistently inconsistent. Banal story points and secondary characters are lingered on while seemingly essential information is glossed over. Tossed aside. This anti-narrative, anti-polish approach is a slap in the face to audiences grown used to exquisitely produced, tightly written premium television dramas that look and sound better than most movies.
Of course, this is entirely on purpose.
Anyone who has seen Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, knows that Lynch is an expert craftsman. His cinematography and command of mise-en-scene in those flicks is routinely breathtaking. And, anyone who’s seen The Elephant Man or The Straight Story understands that Lynch can tell, well a story as straight as the next filmmaker.
In Twin Peaks, he simply chooses not to. And I think I know why.
It’s a form of disruption. Viewers have grown accustomed to a certain level of technical proficiency and, more importantly, storytelling finesse and by challenging these, now conventional, expectations, Lynch forcefully unbalances us. Some viewers respond to this unbalancing with somewhat justifiable anger and annoyance – why is Agent Cooper acting like he’s suffered a brain injury?
For those of us who are game, who tune into the deeply strange rhythms of Lynch’s work there are rare pleasures to be had. Twin Peaks is the only tv shows I’ve ever seen that operates almost entirely on a subconscious level. Of course, there’s a story (a surprisingly coherent one if you’re astute enough), there’s a mystery, there are chase scenes, and violence, and sex and nudity but all this stuff – superficially at least – is in service of whatever alchemy Lynch and his collaborators are practising in the background. The writer Warren Ellis described the story of Twin Peaks as fishhooks for the imagination but I’d go one step further and amend that to fishhooks for the soul.
I was left close to tears at the end of most episodes, suffused with a deep melancholy I could not explain. A melancholy, I still cannot explain because it has very little to do with the physical action depicted on screen.
All that stuff is window dressing for the elemental theme Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost seek to explore – namely the corruption of innocence. You could write a straight version of Twin Peaks – a good man who loses himself battling the evil forces responsible for the murder of a young girl – but that story has been told before. By choosing to approach that story from an overtly symbolic and anti-narrative – from an anti-genre – stance Lynch is able to create something far more resonant. This is a story we feel, not a story we simply watch or listen to.
While watching the justifiably lauded episode eight of the revival, I experienced a glimmer of genuine transcendence. I felt like I was witnessing something truly meaningful, something new. The next morning, still vibrating with excitement from the experience, I forced my disinterested wife into sitting down and watching the episode. She lasted ten minutes before she begged me to shut it off. Not because she didn’t like it but because it was upsetting her too much. What had left me shaking with awe, had left her sick with dread.
Let’s talk about process. As a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by other writers work habits. This fascination is born of a private hope that maybe there is a trick or tip that will make my own writing flow more easily.
Write in the morning, write in the evening, use a typewriter, use a pen, drink lots of coffee, stay away from caffeine, set a word limit, set a time limit, write in bed, write at a desk, write, damn you, write! The truth is there is no one correct way to go about writing. The only adage worth remembering is whatever works.
I missed The Wire when it first came out. I don’t know what I was doing? Probably watching Buffy. In any case, I missed it – a fact that my friends who watched The Wire never let me forget. After all, there are few things you absolutely must experience in this life like The Wire. A transformative experience from all accounts. And I missed it.
Except, I didn’t. Not really.
The Wire is sitting in my Amazon Prime queue waiting patiently for me. It’s also sitting in my HBO Now queue. If The Wire ever came out on Netflix I’d probably add it there as well. I know I should watch it. I just haven’t got round to it yet.
One of the coolest features of media streaming services is the ability to personalise your experience. To browse the available titles and curate a library based on your personal taste. Every television show, movie, album, book, podcast you’ve ever wanted to consume can be reduced to a title on a list. A list of unplayed media.
The only problem is we’re living in a period of peak content. By that I mean there is more media out there waiting to be consumed than at any other point in history. Every week new TV shows, movies, books, albums, podcasts are foisted upon us. A lot of it, like The Wire, is considered unmissable.
When I open Netflix I’m confronted with a stark reminder of how limited my personal time is. Unless I was suddenly rendered jobless and cut ties with my friends and family there is no way humanly possible I could watch every title on my list. There aren’t enough hours in the day. The fact that I’m constantly adding to this list as new movies and shows are made available makes the task seem even more Sisyphean.
It’s not just Netflix – podcasts are automatically added to my iTunes unplayed list based on subscriptions. The other day I started scrolling through the list only to discover to my horror I had entire years of content waiting for me. Years and years of podcasts carefully selected to appeal to my particular interests.
I’m a completionist. There’s a stack of books waiting on my bedside table that I’m slowly making my way through. I won’t buy another book until I finish them all. If I like a musician, I’ll feel compelled to listen to every album in their back catalogue, no matter how inconsequential. I’ll spend months playing a video game until I have unlocked all the achievements. Seeing a percentage of uncompleted content drives me crazy.
And so I am haunted by lists.
In an effort to regain some control over my compulsive behaviour I started deleting podcasts from my iTunes queue. I got to a point where I had only a half dozen or so hours worth of content which seemed manageable. I was able to breathe more easily.
To my horror, the next day the queue had doubled in length as iTunes helpfully went and added a bunch of other titles from podcasts I’d previously subscribed to. I deleted these as well. Now, when I open iTunes I feel a slight flicker of anxiety about what I might find waiting for me.
I tried something similar with Netflix only to be confronted with a pop-up informing me there was a minimum number of titles required. Infuriated, I went through and added a bunch of TV shows and movies I have no intention of ever watching, rendering the list redundant. I was free. There were no titles waiting for me anymore. No must-see water-cooler cultural milestones, box office behemoths, cult classics, or comfort flicks massed together in one long daunting list.
Except for The Wire of course. I fully plan on watching that some day.
I was signed by the very first literary agency I contacted. I’d never written a book before, had only completed the first three-quarters of the initial draft of Winter’s Shadow, but I was signed nonetheless. Shortly after, I secured a 2-book publishing deal. Basically, I won the lottery. This is not a story I tell aspiring writers for fear of being murdered and I relay it now only to serve as a point of comparison.
I spent the Easter break with my family in Port Macquarie followed by a few days spent on a permaculture farm. The farm is owned and operated by a 60-year-old Parisian woman and her Malaysian-Australian husband. Neither were farmers a year ago. She was a teacher and he worked in finance. After moving from Paris to Sydney, both found themselves frustrated with city living, specifically how expensive everything was.
My wife was driving us home the other day when a young fella wandered in front of the car. He looked like a student – late teens, slouch-shouldered, head drooping to stare at the phone cradled in his hand. Lucky for us, luckier for him, we weren’t driving fast so stopping in time wasn’t an issue. The student didn’t look-up. Simply shuffled along unhurriedly lost in whatever gripping content his phone was transmitting. Enraged, my wife beeped him. She was born in Saudi Arabia and some of that blistering desert heat never left her. The student looked up, his eyes wide with surprise. He didn’t seem embarrassed that he was standing in the middle of the road. Merely confused in a bovine kind of way that someone might beep him for this behaviour.
I have a friend who recently bought a PlayStation. He’s in a similar situation to me – young kids, limited social outings, long nights on the couch. He’s not a gamer. Neither am I. My PlayStation is a telephone with benefits. It scratches an itch left unscratched since I became more or less housebound on a Friday or Saturday night. That vital social connection I used to get from going to the pub and shooting the shit with mates. Only now I can shoot my friends in a digital hellscape while also talking to them.
It hasn’t been a productive week. My little girl, India, has a chest infection and I’ve been lying awake most nights listening to her breathe. Her coughing fits break my heart. She’s four months old. Kids that young should never get sick.