Vincent Van Gogh
Sometimes I feel like I might be another Tommy Wiseau. Like Tommy, I desperately want to make something that people will enjoy, yet perhaps I don’t have the skill or talent to translate my vision onto the page.
The problem is that although I can differentiate between good and bad writing beyond mere subjective taste, when it comes to my own work I cannot see how or why it’s not good enough. It’s as if I don’t understand the rules that everyone else is playing by.
Recently I’ve been doing the Quick Cryptic crosswords in the Times. They’re not as mind-bendingly difficult as the full 15×15 cryptic ones, but they can be tricky. I think they provide a good mental workout in preparation for writing as they test your lateral thinking, synonym recall and sometimes general knowledge. They’re also not quite as unforgiving as a concise crossword because you can work out an answer even if you don’t know what the definition part of the clue means.
For instance on Tuesday we had this:
3A Jongleur, extremely stout, protected by Merlin, somehow (8)
Now, I didn’t know what a “jongleur” was so if that was the entire clue in a concise crossword I would be stumped. However using the commonly known rules of cryptics you can work out the probable answer to be MINSTREL. (Extremely stout [take the first and last letters of STOUT] protected by Merlin, somehow [surround them with an anagram of Merlin]) If this solution seems like witchcraft to you, rest assured you are not alone.
My point here though is that I’ve actually learned a new word and definition. And by wrestling with the clue for a few minutes I’ll probably remember it better than if I’d just read it in some text and deduced its meaning from context.
There are, however, rules which I just don’t know. Obscure, impenetrable rules which seem to have been written by an inner conclave of crossword conspirators designed to make some puzzles impossible to everyone apart from those with special knowledge.
On Wednesday we had this:
21A Amphibian, old actor originally rescued in thick mist (4,4)
Admittedly, I immediately guessed at TREE FROG, but that’s not the point (Just because their conspiracies don’t work, doesn’t mean they’re not conspiring) FROG is obviously in there somewhere as thick mist is probably FOG and originally rescued is probably R. But where did TREE come from? The only bit of the clue left is old actor. I wracked my brains for an actor called Tree, or some sort of wordplay that might make it work to absolutely no avail.
There is an excellent website for Times Crossword enthusiasts which goes through the answers. (The guys who write this blog must be top of the murder list and arch enemies of the more clandestine crossword conspirators who don’t appear to have a website. But they wouldn’t, would they?) This is another site I can procrastinate on for hours as the comments are sometimes just as entertaining and informative as the main entries for each solution. You don’t often get comments like “I have a friend staying and on the way back from a lovely walk and lunch in Craster thought I would introduce him to the Times QC.” on YouTube. I think it’s a charming peek at the real life of people who you’ll never get to see on Big Brother and the like.
Anyway, on the Times for the Times website even the blogger responsible for the solution was somewhat bewildered by the old actor = tree scandal. Until a wise old hand revealed that: “TREE is Beerbohm Tree, founder of RADA and half-brother of Max Beerbohm, and perhaps the most hated chestnut in Times cryptics.”
This, it seemed to me, was outrageous. Perhaps the founder of RADA is a household name in other households but I had certainly never heard of him. Then it dawned on me that it really was my lack of skill and experience in this particular field that had baffled me. Veteran solvers might see “old actor” and immediately parse it as “tree”. In a similar fashion perhaps a genuinely talented writer might be able to make his point more succinctly.
The problem for Tommy Wiseau was that he didn’t really learn the rules and so his work is not seen in the way he intended it to be seen. Or is that the problem? Is Tommy a misunderstood genius who deliberately eschews the rules in order to create something that is beyond the comprehension and appreciation of his narrow minded contemporaries? Something that will be looked at differently when our brains have had time to catch up with him.
It worked for Ludwig van Beethoven, William Blake, Miguel de Cervantes, Leonardo da Vinci, Miles Davis and Vincent van Gogh. Art, music and literature would be very different if they hadn’t stuck their heads over the parapet in the way they did.
Maybe one day someone won’t care about the rules I broke when I wrote Entering the Weave or The Clockwork Butterfly or Charlie’s Worries.
I just wish I knew which rules I’ve broken.