Why are hares so cool and rabbits so naff?
Today, the first sunny day so far this month, I took a joyous bike ride around the languid loops of my favourite North Shropshire lanes. The map of this part of the world looks like the map of the London Underground, only designed by someone with a lusty passion for curves rather than a prudish need for straight lines. One of my goals was an area of scruffy fields where hares both abound and bound.
Hares are lithe, sinewy, intelligently alert, fibrous with subtle fur-flecks, assertive within the landscape, characterful. Rabbits seem dull and stupid by comparison, soft marshmallowy victims devoted only to manic reproduction and endless nibbling. No wonder hares have been central to various mythologies over several millennia. They are capable of strangeness. They appear to know stories that include fucking and eating but which go far beyond those rabbit preoccupations as well. And they allowed me to watch them for a happy hour today.
What else did I encounter, tall in the saddle and given extra motivation by a new pair of inexpensive cycling shorts (designed to protect the correspondingly cheap areas of my body)? Well, there were: swathes of 80% cocoa dark chocolate bullrushes weighting down their sword stems; lots of serious men with metal detectors hoovering their way across one particular field; lots of regal ravens stalking the stalks and walking the walks; fat caterpillars in gold and black hooped sleeping-bags sack-racing across the tarmac; rows of rich men’s cars parked outside the private airfield at Sleap; wall-to-wall lily pads with waxy yellow flowers across the village pond at Loppington, allowing the moorhens to Jesus-walk the water; heavy sprays of fattening berries along the hedge gauntlets, including the wonderfully named Baubleberries; reeking, teeming dollops of horse manure for me to slalom around; supple breezes interleaved with pockets of warm, still air.
* * * *
During the writing of Pick Up the Pieces, and in the various Word docs I am now working on, I haven’t really encountered the proverbial writers’ block (or Blighters’ Rock according to some). I am adept at finding excuses for not writing on any given day, and eager to look for opportunities for ritualised breaks once sat at the keyboard, but have yet to hit the dry stone wall of extended non-writing angst.
However, after a bit of frustrated self-examination, I have recently identified a new strain of the disease. Since returning from Canada, I seem to be blocked about sending my manuscript out into the world again. The current state of play is 14 rejection letters from literary agents in the UK, plus rejections from 1 large and 1 small independent publisher. With the greater knowledge gleaned over the last 18 months, I realise that 6 of those agents were non-starters anyway. Of the remaining 8, I have had encouraging hand-written notes from 2 (meant to be a very good sign). I have had 1 rejection from a small publisher in Vancouver, and an offer of publication some years in the future from another in BC (small publishers tend to have a backlog of books.
There are at least another 30 relevant agents I should be sending out to in the UK, plus a number of independent publishers. I have a fantasy list of famous people I want to write to in an attempt to interest them in the project, people who have some connection to the text or who inspired aspects of the narrative (Paula Rego for example). A kind friend who has read the book and enjoyed it has even written to Alice Munro (referred to by Jack Maintenant in Pick Up the Pieces as ‘Big Al’)…talk about going straight to the top! And she’s quite a small person too, so her nickname might not go down too well…
But now I do not seem to have the will to package up the usual bundle, which is always: the first 3 chapters or 100 double-spaced and wide-margined pages; a 2-page synopsis; a biog sheet; a stamped addressed envelope; and a covering letter. From all the advice in websites and books, the covering letter emerges as somehow more important than the text itself. Not too long, not too short; must sell yourself and your work but not overdo it; must identify who your readership might be, where it can be placed in the market; must show awareness of who the agent or publisher already represents; must bear in mind that everyone concerned is incredibly busy and first-time authors are last in the queue etc etc.
So why am I finding it hard to re-double my efforts?
Possible answers to that question might include –
- Fear of rejections. Hmmm…not really. Rejections are par for this particular course and many writers have racked up a huge number before finding that vital sympathetic reading. It’s not a wonderful experience to receive a standard, impersonal rejection letter, but it’s certainly not devastating and is easily integrated into the universe. And the couple that have included personal notes of encouragement (“…this is very well written and definitely publishable but just not for us at this present time…”) have felt like major achievements in a culture where the system makes you feel very powerless.
- Doubts about the book itself. I have amended the text in response to the external edit done by a kind retired book editor, and I have tweaked and revised along the way. I have maximum faith in the work as it now stands. I feel very drawn to the advice of various artists in different cultural fields who say how important it is to back your own vision, to have faith in the unique way you express your own individual take on the world. I have doubts as to whether Pick Up the Pieces is an obviously commercial proposition in the current market, but I have no doubts about its quality or meaning. It will find an audience one day, even if that is after my ashes are blowing around Castlerigg Stone Circle (hopefully up the nostrils of some holidaying literary agent…).
- PTSD : Post-Travels Stress Disorder. Could be…partly because one of the forms this has taken is that, in the insufficient times I am sitting at the keyboard, I am working on four separate pieces. Each of these enthuses me, but I need to focus on one and finish it. This diffusion of concentration seems to extend to getting Pick Up the Pieces out there. It is now 15th August and I was originally not due to fly home until the 25th. None of the numbers in life seem to add up right now. I need an abacus, not a computer…one of those gorgeously tactile wooden ones that used to be part of every child’s first years…
* * * *
As well as Shropshire’s hares, I have had memorable leporine experiences in the mountains of Scotland and in Alaska and The Yukon. I once camped beside the Bear’s Paw glacier in northern BC, opposite Mount Patullo in the Cambria Icefields. It began to get dark at around midnight and the icy crevasses in the glacier kept up a rhythmic creaking and cracking as the temperature dropped. In the dusky gloaming a gang of hares came out to play among the earthy, stony moraines alongside the glacier. I had stretched out on my back, kidding myself that I might sleep, working my shape into the soil just as a hare makes its ‘form’. They played around me and at one point one of them bounded onto my still booted feet.
A Hare in the Mountains
One alert touch of a singular energy
tingles the collar of my boot
as tough pad flat back feet
startle my wakeful doze,
golden fatigue gift from
the red-eyed midnight sun.
Beside my prone form
a tight single sinew
squats all ready-steady,
one taut muscle with dark eyes,
a cocked crossbow of a hare.
The mere focus of my glance
triggers a starter pistol
in the crackling air between us;
the throbbing tendon untenses,
snaps like a sheet in the wind
and lithes away, springing
a crazy-pave hopscotch;
a unique half-sane path
sprinters the alarmed rocks.
* * * *
Raven invented a hair-dryer sized instrument that he called a Mental Detector. He flew around his nearest city running it over the heads of everyone in his path. What do you think he discovered?
No…the vast majority of people turned out to be perfectly sane (in a good way, which is not necessarily the same as a clinical definition of sanity). But they didn’t seem to know it, they seemed to think that they needed something more than they already had.