At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writing Before Reading (multiple entries)

1.  Gearing Up To Write
Right now, in preparation for writing, I'm reading novels.  Actually "reading" is misleading.  Tasting. Dipping.  Sipping.  Skimming. Looking for a voice.  Looking for a tone, for a vision, for something. . . .  What interests me more than plots and character development are (1) sentences and (2) authorial voice.

There are lots of good sentence writers out there, including Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Faulkner and Hemingway in opposite polarities).  And it's also interesting that the best prose stylists seem to have the most compelling visions of human nature.  Maybe really good prose is a kind of  window, even a doorway, into the meaning of life .  Hmmm. . . . Sounds like a dry critical book  by someone like Northrup Frye ( let us briefly praise the graybeard critics for getting us thinking about the novel form) but I'm talking about approaches to writing one.  Which are many, messy, and with few rules.

 Oh, there are fiction techniques to apply once you get going (the idea of, say, a chapter), but the early stages of planning a novel are as uncertain as summer weather in the Midwest.  But a really good novel--a lasting, literary achievement kind of novel--is about several things beyond its events.  It's about place, milieu and country; and it's about the author's vision of the world as it leaks through the prose. 
Anna Karenina, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved--all are place-based and deeply rooted in the country and the times they are set in (with Anna Karenina, what it means to a woman in 19th century Russia).  But all three novels are suffused with authorial voice that becomes nearly as compelling as the narratives themselves.

 That's always what I'm looking for –my own voice.

2. Short Stories:  The Long and the Short of It
 A great way to keep up on the short story as a literary form is to read the yearly “Best Of” collections.  These include the long-running Prize Stories: The O’Henry Awards, the Best American Short Stories, as well as other, more focused anthologies.  The latter include New Stories of the South, similarly regional collections, collections focused to gender and ethnicity, collections all the way down to Best Stories by One-Armed PaperHangers (not really, but there’s no end to the fine point editors can bring to bear).

The main anthologies usually have a preface by a bleary-eyed series editor who has read a couple thousand short stories (or at least should have), then pitched a 100 or so finalists to a well-known guest editor, who then makes the final selection, plus adds an introduction to the book.

The Best American Stories 2007 is guest-edited by Stephen King.  If you’re laughing here, the joke’s on you.  Christine and yards of horror fiction notwithstanding, Stephen King is a serious literary figure, a direct descendant, fictionally speaking, of Edgar Allan Poe, who, of course, was our first true critic and theorist of the modern short story form.  Poe’s theory of the “single, unified effect” remains the bedrock idea of any short story, no matter who does what with it.  Stephen King still writes horror, but he also writes straight-up literary stories that appear in The New Yorker, and other “serious” magazines; like John Grisham who has broken out of lawyer/court room fiction with The Painted House and other titles, King has wide interests and reach.  His book On Writing ought to be required reading in college creative writing classes.

Unlike most guest editors, King read along with his series editor the 2,000 or so stories.  He also (part of the job) picked 100 “notable stories” which didn’t quite make the final cut.  Reading the guest editor introductory essays in the “Best Of” anthologies is sometimes worth the price of the book; King’s is very fine if a bit worrisome.  In speaking to the health and general condition of the story form he writes, toward the end, “The American short story alive? Check.  [Is it] Well?  Sorry, no, can’t say so.”  His well-argued point is that more and more short story writers are writing for M.F.A. programs, “. . . for editors and teachers rather than for readers.” In short, stories written for each other.

After such a well-turned introduction from this literary maverick, I was all set for a great, fresh selection of stories. However, a scan of the table of contents ran up a red flag.  Some editors, by design, chose an array of exotic-sounding authors most readers have never heard of, sort of a“new-voices, diversity-on-parade” approach.  This can be annoying , though so can the converse, in King’s choices: Louis Auchinloss, Mary Gordon, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Richard Russo.  “Oh no, these are going to be really long short stories,” was my first thought– which they were.  And the long short story is a personal bugaboo, a fishbone in my literary craw.

When is a short story not a short story, but something else?  Say, a novella.  Or something unnamed, but clearly not a short story.  Can Alice Munro’s sixty page short stories be called such?  I’m a big fan of Munro, and if you stay with her stories there is an eventual pay-off, if subtle and almost sly at times, but fighting to stay with a short story should be not part of the deal.   Poe was no fool; he wrote that the true short story could/should be read “in one sitting,” and, ever the rationalist, Poe posited this to be a half-hour–which makes for interesting discussion about what/how much we can read in thirty minutes.  (For me, to suitably honor a good writer’s prose by reading the sentences in a manner to fully hear their rhythms and appreciate their valences, a half-hour rules out much of Munro.)  Poe also wrote that “. . . the long poem does not exist.  The phrase ‘long poem’ is a flat contradiction in terms” ­–which I happen to believe is also true of the “long short story.”   Poe believed that the mind  “. . . cannot sustain high emotion after the lapse of half an hour,” a point most of us—particularly parents of teenagers or high school teachers–can agree with, especially if we substitute “attention span” for “emotion.” Poe meant “emotion” as a kind of ‘elevation’ of the soul that only high art brings, but attention is where we have to start, and keeping it is the key.   

 So I guess I’m an impatient reader.  I worry about that, and try to guard against it.  However, when I started story number one in King’s collection, “Pa’s Darling” by Louis Auchinloss (and originally published in The Yale Review­–another red flag, but that’s my rural Midwest talking) I ran up against this kind of prose: “I have decided to write up this assessment of my past, to make a probably vain attempt to get it off my chest.  Whether I shall ever show it, or to whom, I do not know as of yet. . . .”  

Shades of Charles Dickens!  “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station must be held by anybody else, these pages must show”  (David Copperfield, from chapter one, “I Am Born”).  Speaking of being born, why not back up  the beginning still further, to the evening of the main character’s conception, as Laurence Sterne does in the opening of Tristram Shandy (trust me, you don’t have to read this novel.  I’ve done it, I’ve got you covered—me or Spark Notes).   My point is, I still believe the true short story opens in medias res, not with extended (auto)biography of the characters.  The true short story is a train rolling out of the station,picking up speed as it passes, its whistle and thunder and acceleration giving you brief moments in which to decide:  get on board or wait for the next train.

In the case of good very short(er) stories, you, as reader,  essentially have to make a dive for it–and try to hang on. I like that kind of reading rush, which I got from William Gay’s “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You” (one of King's better choices). Talk about a train moving:  this story flows from/through a meth head “. . . armed and dangerous and running on adrenaline and fury and grief and honed to such a fine edge that alcohol and drugs no longer affectedhim.”  I love that kind of story–T.C. Boyle, who hardly ever disappoints, is in also the collection– though sometimes a smooth-flowing twenty page story is fine too.  I read (and write) both kinds.  Still, if an overly leisurely narrative pace makes me edgy, I don’t think I’m alone. As Papa wrote toward the end of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (remember the older waiter who is anxious and can’t sleep?), “Many must have it."

My larger point:  try out one of the collections, and see where you fall on the matter of short story length.  In some ways the whole question of short versus long story is solipsistic, narrative navel-gazing–but hey, this is what literary people do.  It’s better than killing trolls online for hours at time, plus it keeps us out of the bars.

The “Best Of” collections also gives you would-be fiction writers some serious extra value.  At rear of each is a list (make that The List) of literary magazines read and consulted, including their addresses, their editors’ names, how many stories they publish per year, etc.  And not least, each author in the book is pressed into a comment on how his or her story came to be.  These author “insights” can be disappointing—like getting a peek behind the puppeteer’s curtain, and seeing the wires, pulleys, bootblack and cheap paint.  Some authors divulge that their story came about randomly, through an intersection of unrelated events that the author thought “might make a good story.”  Others (more to the point of good writing) are the result of deep personal epiphanies, heartbreak, joy, or  stunning and uniquely-observed life events.

These collections are about fifteen bucks, for which you could get one good martini at the Algonquin Hotel, and or a suitcase of Blatz beer in Minnesota.   Be your best self and go buy one of these books. 

3.  The Next Generation of Readers (?) 
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently published a study that confirms what most teachers and librarians already know:  kids read less and less.  The stats show a particularly alarming drop among teenagers and young adults, who (duh) are spending more time on the internet and less time with the printed word.  Dana Gioia, the NEA chairman, called this "alarming data" from a "general culture which does not encourage or reinforce reading."  More duh there, but it's useful to see the actual statistics.

The number of 17 year olds who read at least something for pleasure dropped from 31 percent back in 1984 to 22 percent today.  Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 spend an average of 7 minutes a day reading for pleasure.  Older people, especially those over 55, spend on average nearly 1 hour per day reading.  Older people also read newspapers; young people don't, a fact which has put great stress on the old-school newspaper and journalism side of publishing.

Time for novelists to jump off high buildings?  Not at all, but time for writers in general to wake up and look around.  I've gone on a couple of rants in earlier blog entries about adult "literary" writers fiddling while the woods are burning (to mix a metaphor or two); I've said for years that the next generation of readers is not guaranteed, that we must do more, and do better, if we want to keep kids reading.

Here are a couple of general ideas. If you are a teacher or librarian or a parent, and concerned about “your kids" and their reading habits, a good part of that concern probably  comes from the omnipresence of video games.  How can a novel compete with Halo or GTA-IV?  Simple answer:  it can't.  At least it can't very well.  Sometimes the best you can do is pair a novel to a video game.  For example, if a kid continually  plays professional sports video games like MLB or NFL, find him related baseball and football novels.  For baseball, my "Billy Baggs" triology of Striking Out, Farm Team and Hard Ball will work, along with titles like Chin Music by Carl Deuker.  And there are several good YA football novels out there. If the kids obsesses on fantasy games, find him the right fantasy novels.  In short, don't despair over video games, but use them as a bridge back to the print novel or short story

Second, some publishers (and authors) see promise in "value-added" books.  A classic example is the American Girl Series, which books come with corresponding dolls.  Other books have their die-cast collectibles, though most of these are at the children's level.  In a way, I'm doing this at the young adult level with my Motornovel Series and actual stock car.  Teachers and librarians are excited about the idea of my stock car team showing up at their school complete with novel, author, car, and driver.   I have invitations from all over Minnesota, Iowa City, and as far away as Huntsville, Alabama.  The latter is a long way to trailer my race car, but I'm not ruling it out.    If we can't distract boys from video games by showing up with a bright, very loud race car--and a novel to go with it--then all is lost.   Which I don't believe for a minute.

 4. Eric Clapton’s Autobiography
 As  a genre, autobiographies have a self-selecting readership.  We generally don’t read self-disclosing books by people whom we don’t admire unless, perhaps, we really dislike them.  It’s easy to imagine serious haters buying Hillary’s “own story” (whenever that might happen), or Ted Kennedy’s to-be-written memoir (an eight million dollar advance) in order to indulge in a warm bath of vituperation.   But that’s crackpot territory.

Most of us want to read about our heroes, though even that gets problematic.  A key convention of the autobiography is deconstruction, myth-busting, and general reduction—bringing, in his or her own words, a great figure “down to size” (as we say in the Midwest).  We approach the autobiography our hero with a shadow already cast:  do we really want to know everything?  The shameful secrets?  The boring and/or ugly side of our Great Person?  Watching the writer deconstruct himself can be destabilizing if not downright depressing:  we realize that, but one click of the Wheel of Fortune, our hero is much like us:  that Eric Clapton was not God.

But I’m still a Believer, even after his 328 page confessional of blues, drugs, sex, addictions of various kinds, rehab and redemption.  The original “Layla”, and certain songs on the Blind Faith and Cream albums, come as close to music of the spheres as a mortal can reach.

John  Champlin Gardner, the fiction writer and critic, wrote somewhere about artists as being “wounded”–that most great artists have some kind of “injury” that drives to them create and express.  This is the general concept of the “tortured artist,” which lots of people have written about,  but Gardner’s “wound” metaphor puts a finer point on the cause-and-effect of life experience to artistic expression.  Clapton opens his book with a jarring revelation about his parents–-an earthquake moment for any kid.  No wonder classic American blues, rife with alienation and loss, spoke to Clapton.

The fun part of the book is following him through the heady days of buying his first guitar, learning to play, meeting “lads” such as Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, the Beatles—and of course all the “birds” that came with the territory of rock musicians.  It’s clear, by the book’s writing style, that this is really Clapton speaking, unfiltered by a professional ghost writer; the sentences are just rough enough, and spattered with working class British diction, to be reassuring if not pleasing.

 Here and there he speaks to how certain songs came to be written.  Everyone (mostly) knows about “Layla” (Patty, George Harrison’s wife, until Eric took her away), and, sadly,“Tears of Heaven”, about the death Clapton’s four year old son. For my money,the book could have used far more anecdotes about song-writing, and how songs came together within the context of his various bands.  Classic rock and blues were more than music; they were a cultural engine that drove an entire gen-gen-generation, and we who came of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s remain hungry for inside bits that only the key players can provide.  Clapton sometimes takes for granted his place at the center of the one of the most extraordinary confluences, ever, of art, era and culture.

The last third of the book is devoted to “recovery”, including multiple trips to Hazelden in Minnesota.  These are more interesting to Clapton, perhaps, than to us; give me more stories about Cream, and Derek and the Dominos, and less about the spiritual side of beating drug addiction.  And speaking of addictions, one blind spot for Clapton is (I hate the term) sexual addiction; he writes with self-awareness of his dependence upon alcohol and hard drugs,but clearly he couldn’t get along for many years without an endless supply of foxy young women.   On a positive note, today Clapton is married (to a much younger woman), and by all accounts is a happy man, so perhaps he has licked (sorry) that addiction,too.  Chekhov wrote that, “. ..  sooner or later, to every happyman, life will show its claws.” With a few good friends, and some luck, Clapton survived the brutal side of rock n’ roll.  This autobiography is a great read for all of us who were on the outside looking and listening in.

 5. “Mending Wall”:  Forever Young
 Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”  has one of America’s most recognized lines:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”   As I write this, in Jerusalem a concrete wall 25 feet high is being erected by Israel to separate the outskirts of the city from the West Bank and the Palestinians.  This new wall, which will eventually stretch for nearly  500 miles, is necessary, Israel maintains, to keep out suicide bombers.  In the last few years nearly 1,000 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian attacks.  Palestinians charge that the new wall cuts deeply into their West Bank land, separates farmers from their fields (thousands of olive trees have been uprooted by the wall), and only creates more isolation and despair.  In the last few years nearly 3000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli counter-attacks.  A wall, therefore, to reduce the violence.  A wall to stop the killing.  At first glance it seems logical.  After all, as Robert Frost said (well, you know the line).

But Frost’s famous poem is almost universally misread.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the poem begins (my italics).  Nature (frost, wind, rain) and man (hunters and their dogs) conspire against the wall, want it down.  Frost begrudgingly “on a day [meets his neighbor] to walk the line/And set the wall between us….” but he doesn’t like this duty or even see much necessity for the wall. “He [the neighbor] is all pine and I am apple orchard/My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines …”

Most importantly, in their brief conversation it is not Frost but the neighbor who utters the famous line about good fences.  Frost describes the neighbor this way:  “Bringing a stone grasped firmly in each hand…he moves in darkness….”   Frost clearly means “darkness” here as a kind of blindness, as ignorance, as slavish tradition.  The neighbor is unable to move beyond this same slogan that his father used.

Frost also writes, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling or walling out."  I can't pretend to understand the issues, or how know how to achieve peace in the Middle East, but both Israelis and Palestinians could do worse than to read this American poem.      

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