Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ category

approach/avoidance conflict

February 23, 2016

So I’m reading this book, The Village by David Mamet. I found it at a used book store a couple of weeks ago and was eager to immerse myself in Mamet’s writing world since he is known for his searing, snappy dialogue, and I thought I might learn a thing or two.

I’m not much liking it. There isn’t a whole lot of structure to it, and it’s often as difficult to understand who is speaking (or, more commonly, who is introspectively musing) as in a Faulkner novel. There really isn’t a lot of dialogue either. It’s mostly monologue. I’m about two-thirds of the way through it, and I think I have a few of the characters worked out in my mind, but then a new chapter starts and I’m adrift again.

So I’d like to just finish the thing, turn the last page and then put the book on my donation shelf. I want to get to the end. And I simultaneously don’t want to pick it up to read it. I want to get started on the next Iris Murdoch novel in my reading ambition, but I don’t want to give any time to this sluggish book that I really ought to finish first.

I’ll do it. I’ll read the book to the end. And then I’ll get rid of it and probably forget it and only console myself with the idea that at least I gave some money to one of the last surviving used book stores in Kansas City. And I’ll move on.

Update 25FEB2016: Despite emphatic advice that I just stop reading it, I actually hope to finish this novel tonight. Whether I pick up the Iris Murdoch novel or one of the many other books I brought home from Portland, I can’t say.

what are you doing next?

January 19, 2016

“What are you doing next?” asks independentclause. What, indeed!

I’m not sure. It is clear to me that I should stick with the Fathers and Sons stories, now that I’m in the sprint to the finish line. (Do you know how hard that is? When you see the finish arch and decide to give everything you have to end the race well, as well as you can anyway, and then after sprinting for what seems like forever you discover when you’re still hundreds — millions!!! — of feet away that you’ve well and truly run out of gas?) The unfinished F&S stories are obligingly giving me insights and details daily about how they can be written, and I really should work on them in this state of febrile fecundity.

Yet they need to incubate. And I realize this is a legit part of my creative function. So I wonder what else my nimble fingers and plodding mind might do as I wait for those stories to “reveal” themselves to me. I have a number of old ideas, with pages and pages of notes for them, that I could work on. And at least one new story idea — “Stargazing” — is asserting itself as well.

Do I want a break from the F&S stories and the chance to work on something fresh and even fun? The Fathers and Sons stories are “literary” and “serious” while “Stargazing” would be a frolic. And another story idea I’ve had for years and years (literally) would be a comparatively easy thing to write because it wouldn’t be laden with so much “meaning.” I don’t have a decent title for it however, which sometimes really is important.

Or I could take up another story idea that came to me (years ago) when I was reading Faulkner heavily. I call it “The Hoega Sewing Circle” and it would be fraught with great seriousness and deep meaning. It would take hard work and effort and rewriting and even research (about quilting, of all things). They say the good ideas are the ones that won’t go away.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do next, but since it is no longer 2015, I’m actually able to “do” something, which is a pleasant change.

fraught with uncertainty

November 30, 2015

Those of us who write, I think, find it a practice fraught with uncertainty. We are almost never sure that we’ve chosen the right words and put them in the right order to say the right thing or even that what we have to say is worth the trouble of saying. We tend to approach rewriting with trepidation, not in small part because we are reminded again that our words still don’t measure up, at least in the ways we think they should or could. We submit our stories to magazines with both crossed fingers and a barely hushed certainty that we have no chance of acceptance. And if our stories are published, we ruefully admit that hardly anyone will see them. We work in doubt all of the time.

(Tell me I’m not alone in this.)

And so I can see the appeal of writing “rules” to liberate us from some of this uncertainty. Even writing books and classes* can offer a haven from this doubt, extending the bogus balm of a clear path through the forest of our anxieties. (Mixing metaphors is, of course, against the rules.)

But I think that for creative writing, such rules are dangerous and damaging, at least to the writing if not to the unsteady mind of the writer. I’m not talking about writing high school term papers or legal documents or technical manuals (all of which I have written in my storied past) but about the kind of creative writing that tries to express something new or something old in a new way. The kind of writing that evolves our language and our humanity. The kind of writing we do.

I can remember one writer who pontificated in her blog that dialog tags should only use the word “said” (or the proper variation thereof). She pointed to a successful fiction writer who had originally made this assertion, and that seemed justification enuf for her to accept it as gospel. N’er mind the thousands of successful fiction writers who didn’t follow this rule. She’d found her little rule that spared her some hard work and gave her a haughty assurance that she was right. (I don’t read her blog anymore.)

We’re supposed to avoid the passive voice; we’re supposed to write directly. Yet sometimes the correct point to make is that the race was run, not that the runners ran the race.

We’re supposed to avoid adverbs — or as one blogger called them, “-ly” words. We supposed to avoid split infinitives too. Yet one of the most memorable snippets in our culture violates both of those succintly: “to boldly go where no man has gone before!” (I think the exclamation point is now considered unacceptable too; same with the semicolon. And sentence fragments.)

My point — and yes, I do have one — is that creative writers are privileged, even required, to break the rules. It is our job to invent expression. Surrendering to rules is squandering our talent and dodging our responsibility. I’d much rather write in the wide frontier of uncertainty than in the stultifying small room of rules.

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I’ve written about this subject before.

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*In the unwinnable war between those who have opinions on this subject, I am a partisan to the belief that while creative writing can’t really be taught, it can be learned.

esteemed friends

November 9, 2015

All around me, writing friends are celebrating their success at getting their novels published. I’m happy for each of them:

Me? A paltry few published short stories, a paltry few unpublished novels, motivation that seems to have contracted a wasting disease, with the days getting shorter and the nights getting longer. Hence the paltry few posts here. But there’s always a glimmer of hope somewhere.

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Currently reading: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. A gigantic book. Legend has it that Wolfe’s editor had chopped it down from 1,000 pages into something more manageable. The edition I’m reading is 500 pages — I’m about a third of the way through it — and it is apparently a “restored” edition in which much of the chopped stuff was put back in. Every word is delicious. I’m running to the dictionary constantly (or should be). The metaphors are breathtaking. The comedy is wry and satisfying. But Wolfe’s treatment of blacks, Jews, and poor whites makes me cringe with its outdatedness.

Wolfe was once esteemed in the same cohort as Fitzgerald and Hemingway (two authors I just don’t get the praise for), but in recent decades his star has descended. This novel, and You Can’t Go Home Again, have been on my list for years, nay, decades, but I think once I finish Angel (if I live that long), I’ll be finished with Wolfe as well.


fraternal grandmother

October 14, 2015

I read a memoir recently in which the writer referenced his “fraternal” grandmother.

Where was the editor?

writing is rewriting

August 17, 2015

“I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.”

Gustave Flaubert

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie on the sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

E.I. Lonoff in Roth’s The Ghost Writer

So, writing is rewriting. That was a hard lesson for me to learn when I was just a pup starting on this adventure. The stories I wrote then demanded so much of me, so thoroughly exhausted my life experience and the shallows of my musings, that when I finished one, there was nothing more I could do with it. It was finished. Complete. Perfect just the way it was. And behind me.

And undoubtedly dreadful. I’ve not whipped up the courage to go back and read any of those from the early days. I know now that they were my apprentice work, my crawling before stumbling before walking before running. And I know even more, know with well-deserved humility, that no first draft is complete or perfect just the way it is. Certainly not one of mine anyway.

This has not been a good writing year for me. I know many people are dismissive of the idea of “writer’s block.” And perhaps that is not what is afflicting me. Ideas for new stories, ideas for developing partially written stories, even ideas for stories that are finished and published, flood into my chaotic brain just as much as they ever did. But sitting before the laptop in the wee small hours of the morning and making myself enter that creative place where the writing flows (or trickles or sometimes dams up) has just not been happening. Yes, I did manage to put together two short stories in the last few months, but they were completions of work I had started long before, and I’m not sure they’re actually complete. Two stories in eight months ain’t much in the realm of productivity.

But if you can’t write, you can always rewrite, and that’s what I’ve been doing more of lately.

One of my “completed” Fathers and Sons stories (one? more like a half dozen!) had always felt forced and more than a little schmaltzy. Despite those misgivings, I had submitted it to several magazines and duly received rejections. Fine. That’s the nature of this biz. Knowing that it wasn’t right, I’d revisit it and tinker with this or that, and maybe I’d improve it in increments, but I wasn’t getting it where it needed to be. It was flawed in some deep way that I couldn’t identify.

But then the epiphany came. One of the fathers in the stories succumbs to dementia in his old age. Much of the sons’ legacy is lost (or trapped) inside his mind. And what is gleaned from there is suspect. What I realized, as I reflected on the many stories in their many states of completion, is that memory is a recurring theme throughout them. I hadn’t set out to make this a touchstone. (I hadn’t even set out to write a cycle of stories; I just wrote one, liked it, set it aside, then found I had more to say about the characters.) Memory recalled, memory mistrusted, and, in the case of this story, memory manufactured and whether true or not, cherished.

The story is titled “Comfortable in his skin” and it deals with a pivotal day in the life of one of the sons. Yet as he remembers the day, he can’t be sure it happened they way his imagines. But he decides he’s going to accept the memory as true.

The problem with the story was that I’d had the wrong narrator. I had the father telling the story, lovingly, about his son and this important day in his young life. And while that would make it true in the universe of the cycle, it was just too saccharine and “final” for my liking. To have the son “remember” the day decades later, to have him fill in the missing parts as he wanted them to be, allowed the schmaltziness to become sweetness. It’s still a sentimental story, but it is the story as well told as my skills can do.

Discovering the theme of the story is what allowed me to salvage it. That same thing happened in a big way in my story “When we were young and life was full in us,” which I still think is the story I’ve written with the best control; every word in it was considered and weighed. Every sentence was turned around. I think I did get that one exactly right. (And there is a motif in “Comfortable” that recurs in the later-in-the-cycle “When we were young” that I’m pleased with.)

Is “Comfortable in his skin” finished? Probably not. I’ve sent it to a writing friend for his opinion. (Note: he told me I was always welcome to send him stuff.) I’m not good at taking advice, but he is good at seeing through the fog, so I’ll give his words consideration.

I’m not sure I’m past whatever has bottled up my creativity this year, but it is gratifying to get another story in better shape. I’ll take that much until something better comes along.

parallel universe

May 20, 2015

When I lace up for a run, I always doubt my ability to complete the miles.

When I sit down to write, I always doubt my ability to complete the words.