Monthly Archives: December 2018

Why else write?

A wonderful if incomplete interview of Saul Bellow, by Philip Roth, in The New Yorker contains among other gems an insight into his breakthrough as a writer. Bellow talks about writing two “correct” and rather depressing first novels, then seizing on the idea for The Adventures of Augie March from recollections of a childhood friend:

 … in becoming a writer I hoped to bring out somehow my singular reactions to existence. Why else write? I had prepared and overprepared myself by reading, study, and fact-storage or idea-storage and I was now trying to discharge all this freight.

Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow, 1915–2005.

Gods know that all of us carry such a freight and think it’s significant. Even significant magic. It can be, at any rate, if we lighten the load by expressing it. Stuff summoned up from childhood or adolescence or last year or yesterday. Magical freight that gets lighter and lighter the more we heave it out of the dark.

Of course, we have to do some work, most of us, rummaging around in the dark. Much of the past is forgotten, often to our benefit. But much of it lives in the present and must be exercised or exorcised so that it doesn’t haunt, once conscious, but frees us.

Think of something funny in your past or someone in your family who was a real character, as we say. What specifically did he or she do to show a difference from the others, from the rules, from the crowd? I think of my older brother Gerry, who died two years ago, and was always a character. He was married three times if you want to count the first marriage, which lasted a day. He eloped with a girl from high school, who was “good in the back seat,” he said, and drove from Minnesota to Iowa to get hitched by a justice of the peace. When he came back with his bride, my dad, a lawyer, had the marriage annulled.

So much for that rebellion.

But the annulment didn’t quench Gerry’s spirit. He quit high school shortly and joined the Marines … from which he was expelled a couple of years later but not before having his share of adventures.

If Augie March can have adventures, why not our friends and relatives? Why not us writers? If we find the right subject and the right language, which, Bellow suggests, should reveal itself, our writing will be an adventure. Our story will practically write itself. Our story will be our own “singular reactions to existence.”

 

And where do we go from there?

Okay, so we have an idea. Or the seed, or germ, of an idea. Maybe it’s an image that comes to mind, in sleep or reverie or the gods know how. Maybe it’s an idea that we’ve been mulling, in one for or another, for some time. Maybe it’s just a catchy rhythm overheard in a song, or a clatter on a street corner, or a busker’s beat.

Something in that idea, or image, or rhythm catches hold … and begins, as if automatically, the process of pushing us forward. The key at this very early point is not to criticize ourselves or censor or shut off. We must let it flow. Just write down whatever comes,  or gushes, however foolish or unpromising it may seem at first to the conscious mind or the superego or what Twain calls that “yellow dog conscience.” (And didn’t Shakespeare say the conscience “doth make fools of us all”?)

In the case of “Material Girl,” referenced in the last post, the main idea and images too came pretty quickly. I have a friend, Deborah, who is both athletic and gifted in artistic ways, creating and successfully marketing a line of bold and yet delicate jewelry. She has a gift for speculation, too, and lets her mind and imagination rove, often saying things that catch me sideways or unawares, speculations on gender or mortality that might knock me off a bike if we are biking together, totally unexpected and wild and often hilarious venturings.

For example, she and her husband Ken had been watching Transparent, the TV series about a father who undergoes a sex change and becomes a woman. Deborah offered, on the spur of the moment, as we were biking down the trail, that it wouldn’t bother her if that’s what her husband decided. I was appalled, or at least thought I was, and her husband denounced the idea when she told him. He was outraged. Still, this is the kind of thing that flies out of Deborah’s mouth as she’s blazing down the trail.

Image result for john berryman
John Berryman, poet of The Dream Songs, who wrote with the aid of smokes and whiskey … and at night.

I’m amused and bemused by these speculations. Dee seems to be to be one of those poetic spirits who soar rather than fall plump down, as Emerson might say, and stick in the mud and mire of the everyday. Naturally, then, or supernaturally, she would tend to speculate about rising above it all, including the conventional secular sentiments about the end of life.

When I look back at my Catholic boyhood, which took place long ago at a time when Latin was still used in the Mass and when school children learned Latin and English side by side, literally, in the missals and prayer  books, then I can invoke images pretty quickly of yearning for something gone, something spiritual, however improbable, and so I come to the conclusion that I am no longer a believing boy, clutching missal and catechism, and cannot believe in the misty and mystical spirits of the Church … but can believe in such bodies and such spirits as Deborah’s which are before me.

So forgive the long digressions. I haven’t really told you or anyone how to blast past the mere beginnings of a poem. Just stressed that we shouldn’t censor ourselves prematurely. Put down some images or ideas, some jangly or janky thoughts. Then brainstorm, adding images and ideas. Search your past. Speculate on the future. Something surely will come, line by line, and given enough time and enough genius, your own and your contemporaries’, will add up into something.

Where do we begin?

I belong to two or three writers’ groups, and one of the mysteries of creative writing is how the writing arises in the first place. What is the impetus for what you write, whatever it is you write?

Some people like to pose writing “challenges” to respond to, bait to get the juices going, but I myself for whatever reasons find that annoying. These challenges force us to respond to something we may have no interest in, whether a certain topic or a form. (Sonnet? Villanelle? Are you kidding? This is not the sixteenth century! Doing good to others? How annoying! I’d just as soon run the opposite way, as Thoreau says, if I see you coming at me with your charity, or therapy, or do-goodism.)

How about you? Where do you begin if not from a sense of what is necessary? There is something within you that must come out. A response to something you’ve seen or witnessed in the world at large. In your family, it could be. Or your circle of friends.

Here’s a quick list of the origins of some recent efforts of mine, both poetry and prose:

  • “Show Me That Thing: A Love Poem.” Well, this unusual rhymed piece must’ve started out as a naughty response to the excessive politically correctness it’s easy to see in the arts. Not great artists, for sure, but the middling bulk of artists lean on the correct, the tried and true, so they can steer their wagging tongue the right way and make sure it’s not banded or branded by the morality police.
  • “Material Girl.” A poem written as a debate with a friend who tends to believe in the not-here and not-now, though she’s firmly anchored in the here and now of exercise and artistic craft. A response to something specific she said, in an email exchange, I believe, about what might come after this life is done.
  • “What We’re Looking For: Or the Editors Seek.” A found poem, in editors’ own words, about what they seek. The desiderata found in little literary magazines tend to be cant, that is, pious platitudes. Or we can’t be sure what the hell they mean they’re so silly or obscure. No need to comment on this stuff, really, aspiring writer. Just read it and weep.
  • “Rivers of Blood.” This began as a novel, a form I’ve tried several times with no success, but morphed before long into a screenplay. It began, and continued, as a response to the godawful spate of gun violence in this country. Its setting is academe, where I once worked, and its protagonist the one-time girlfriend of a guy who goes berserk and guns down his professor and classmates.
  • “Unko.” A long short story, in a metafictional vein, prompted by the death of my older brother a couple of years ago. As older siblings tend to be, Gerry was what I call here “a guiding and misguiding light.” Unko is the Japanese word for poop, as the story is ostensibly about installing a toilet, something Gerry would have been very comfortable with, besides his life as a wonderful artist and illustrator. (I couldn’t call the story “Toto” for pretty obvious reasons, but I do use some of Gerry’s erotic and humorous illustrations.) Since the brother is not available, the author implores the reader to help out with the task, which is not only installing a toilet, you see, but accomplishing the business of mourning.

Of  course, once we have an idea, a “germ” of a poem or story, as Henry James would call it, we still have to run with it, don’t we, and develop the idea? That part is not easy, but if we believe enough in our idea, and are excited enough about it, we will persist in the development. This persistence might be fortified by encouragement and corrections we get from other writers, as in writers’ groups, but wherever it comes from it’s a completely necessary component of the writer’s life. (This topic to be continued, of course.)

 

I write for me

Taking up where I left off yesterday, with so much more to say and say it more clearly and powerfully: writing for ourselves does not mean that we write solely for ourselves.

It means that we express ourselves so truly and deeply and honestly, bringing forth what only we know, in the way we know it, in our unique view of the multiverse of experience, that an audience will be created, or summoned, that knows and appreciates the unique art.

It may not be a big audience. Or a remunerative audience. But there will always be an audience when word magic is effected, and our abracadabra calls up a vision that has never been seen before.

If we write about love, for example, we will talk about it in a way that hasn’t been realized before. Our writing will resemble no romance novel ever written, no love poem, no story of lust or betrayal or torture. It will be ourselves, an imprint of our unique own transit through the world, if only we have the skill, of course, and the courage that the task requires.

To cite the example of Karl Owe Knausgaard, the Norwegian phenomenon, his  long autobiographical novel My Struggle, so rude and shocking to his countrymen on first release, contains according to one critic “forensic observations of the everyday [that] are an astonishing effort to capture the vast mystery of consciousness through the techniques of a novelist.”

Image result for red wine blood

The vast mystery of consciousness, indeed. A transfusion of such consciousness from one individual to another, an attempt to explain what it feels like to live here and now, before the here and now, inexplicably, are no more.

So here’s to courage, my hearties. Drink up now. The strong red wine of your own blood if you must.

Who do you write for?

Or, to be perfectly, stuffily grammatical about it, For whom do you write?

In either form, it’s a question that is put to the writer often, either by his overactive superego or by those who don’t or won’t read him.

It’s a question posed a week or so ago by a writers’ group to which I’ve belonged for two or three years, a group I call Twelve Old Ladies and One Old Man, though to tell the truth, or something like the truth, our ranks have been swelled lately by one more old man.

I was reading  the first part of a long story I wrote several years ago, a very unconventional story in both form and, evidently, content called “Bird in Hand.” The first-person narrator, a married man, eyes other women and admires their asses.

Oops! That’s the word that got the ladies excited, I fear. They dismissed the piece as something gross and nasty about “horny men,” a genre that was popular back in the 1960s. So, you see, “Bird in Hand” was only 50+ years late on the scene.

Yes, the story is about a horny old man — but much more than that. As the title implies, it’s about marriage itself, about fidelity, about solidity, about what my old mother, may she rest in peace, used to call “sticktuitiveness,” for isn’t that what we need in marriage or other relations in a contemporary world of nothing but distracting pleasures?

When I wrote the story, or when I revise it, do I imagine an audience? An ideal audience? What the hungering hordes in the fictive hinterlands might desire?

I’m afraid I don’t, not even in itty-bitty ways.

I write what I feel and what I need to express  … to get it off my chest, as they say, the stuff that is bothering me.

And it evidently bothers others, at least the ladies, which is their right certainly.

If you look through directories of little magazines in Submittable or Duotrope, for example, you can find the widest, wildest variety of tastes and topics imaginable, everything from church broadsides to pornography, with the churchly in one form or another, for better or worse, taking precedence over the porn. (By churchly, I mean journals that are seeking to validate their preferred audiences and topics, whether “LGBTQ+” — be sure not to omit the + — or “the marginalized” or “diverse” others. I mean journals with a moral, or moralistic, mission, with values that you’d damn better not forget, you poltroon, even as you’re writing.)

If I wanted to be perfectly moral, or moralistic … if I wanted to be commercially viable, I would certainly write for a well considered audience. I confess, however, I’m unable to do so. I simply hope to express myself with enough skill and patience that the result will always find an audience. I write for myself, as others have said, and trust that there’s enough of me, and enough humanity in me, to shine through to those who are looking for a glimmer.

Writing, again, is working in the dark and working in a deafening silence. The clamors of the critics are the first thing that must be shut out. And the roar of the crowd the next.

 

Facebook and delayed gratification

Back at the blog again, today, after a hiatus of just over a year, my my my.

It’s not that I’ve been writing nothing in the interval. I’ve been pretty busy in fact, writing poems, stories, and a screenplay.

But how much energy has gone into Facebook? Your honor, I must plead guilty.

It’s an addictive pleasure — the immediate gratification one gets from almost instant responses via likes and laughs and comments.

But steadier, deeper, truer writing may not elicit comment, or laughs, or likes any time soon. It may exist, ironically enough, for the ages rather than the moment. I don’t mean that what I write will be or should be read 100 years from now or even 10 days. But that it’s more important than the passing fancy of Facebook and the museum that one keeps there, according to analyses I’ve heard, to one’s ideal self. (One chooses what to record and how to record it, what to include and what to leave out in the interest of burnishing an image.)

Likeable Facebook post
A likeable Facebook post, evidently.

Sure, I can (and well might) go back to Facebook and extract what I’ve written there the last year. It might be a record of witticisms and enthusiasms. (A friend has encouraged me to collect and publish my posts.) It might be of some interest and value. But pursuing larger themes, in more ambitious forms, is something else altogether.

Learning to forego the instant appreciation is necessary for the serious writer. Who do you write for? I sometimes hear. And I can’t readily say. I don’t write, first and finally, for yucks and back or head pats. I write simply to get off my chest something that needs to be said. Or, more accurately, find a way to be said. Not everything one writes will find an instant or appreciative audience. So what. If the writing is of value, it will acquire an audience at some time or other.

The writer trusts this is so. And meanwhile works on in the silence and the dark.