If you too are in the business of writing and publishing, you’ll run across at every turn moral injunctions and prohibitions from the editors and publishers as well as the public, whom they represent.
These may not be first-rate editors and publishers; in fact, it’s highly unlikely. But how many run-of-the-mill ideologs are out there whose job it apparently is to confuse good writing with good morals?
Take one little literary magazine’s statement of what they’re looking for:
We seek mysteries and marginalized voices, a sense of shared wonder, inclusive art that asks questions, explores mystery, and works to make visible the marginalized, the overlooked, and those whose voices have been silenced … including LGBTQ+, neurodivergent writers, women and women writers.
Then take Oscar Wilde’s statement on the relation between art and morality (including what we’d call these days politically correct morality):
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. [Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.]
We can write about mankind and human morality, or lack of it, in other words. But the choice of subject matter says nothing about the success of the writing, whether we’re talking about homosexual rights or the Holocaust. Does the writer have something new or interesting to say? And a new or interesting way to say it?
Wilde, who for sure did have an interesting way to say what he had to say, goes on: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
Of course, Wilde was an aesthete as well as LGBTQ+ (wherever he might have fit within that spectrum). But his main point is simple: either you’re a good writer or you’re not. You don’t have to be writing about good or preaching good or babbling good. Chances are such babbling, which includes sticking to a prescribed set of socially approved values, and even vocabulary, makes you a bad writer, someone who’s saying the obvious, in an obvious way, who knows what he/she thinks before writing, and for whom nothing new is revealed or discovered in the act of writing.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.
Am reading John Armstrong’s book Life, Love, Goethe, whose short, swift chapters seem to be organized around themes in Goethe’s life, as well as chronology. Ch. 8, “Boredom,” explores how the great writer, in the company of convivial but conventional people, as at the home of a friend, Fritz Jacobi, was bored by the conversation. It was the usual stuff, full of fine and uplifting sentiments — in short, the usual views of the usual people.
Goethe explains what he did in response to such tedious twaddle:
… I was in the habit of making outrageously paradoxical statements in order to provoke the narrow-minded disagreements that people normally get themselves into, and to force them to extreme conclusions. This was, of course, usually offensive to the company and annoying on more than one count….
How often have I found myself in the same position! That is, to stir things up in company, or on Facebook, I’ve taken extreme positions, paradoxical positions, standing or claiming to stand for both A and Z, in order to shake people up, to shape their opinions away from the more tried and true extremes of reactionary self-interest, on the one hand, or PC rectitude, on the other.
Sigh. Provocation is a tough business. Why don’t I let well enough alone and let people ply their dreary platitudes? Maybe because I think that well enough isn’t good enough? Doesn’t provoke interest or thinking of any kind? Or modify our stable, staid, unchallenged opinions?
Because, finally, there’s a value higher than harmony and concord, going along and getting along, for going along and getting along’s sake?
According to the Atlantic, “In Germany, legislators are attempting to address the spread of hate speech and false information online with a new law that aims to protect ‘human dignity’ on social media.”
Human dignity? They must have forgotten about Herr Freud, in his latter days, cancerous, moribund, stroking his beard, meditating love and hate, Eros and Thanatos as WW II broke out in Europe.
The Atlantic article says, “Article One of Germany’s postwar constitution instructs, ‘Human dignity shall be inviolable.’ This notion means you are not allowed to claim false things about me, because it hurts my dignity,'” one legislator says. OK, so he’s talking about false claims, or lies. But dignity? What makes us dignified? The refusal to tell lies? How about indignant? The telling of lies?
Can we be forced not to tell lies? And if we have to be forced, are we in fact dignified?
Isn’t lying as German as Schweinekotelett, as American as apple pie? Not that lying is good, or right, but it’s inevitable. Not that we want lies told about us, or want to lie about others, but we have the right to tell the truth, and so do they.
I prefer the American approach, with its First Amendment right to freedom of speech, even noxious speech. It’s part and parcel of our idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which is not necessarily a happy, or easy, progress.
Oh, you bully, you offended me! Of course, you did! You’re an idiot! Your idiocy speaks for itself. And there are plenty of us, after all, even in the age of Trump and the far-right parties in Germany, who can speak more fluently and powerfully than you and who will meet your hate speech with truth that burns like acetylene. Eventually, even the no-nothings will know this.
So this morning, over breakfast, Alexa, the Amazon Echo personal assistant, mentions the actress Gabrielle Union’s new book We’re Going to Need More Wine. I’ll drink to that! I respond, without realizing what the book is about.
(After all, my wife and I resort to wine almost every evening. It’s not analgesic so much as joy. A day without wine is, well, like a day without wine. Our coffee bar testifies to our morning and evening rituals, or addictions, of coffee and wine.)
Union’s title is perlocutionary, isn’t it? It’s clever. It gets our attention, keeps it, directs us to the book. We want to see what she has to say, read a bit, see if we don’t want to purchase it.
On Amazon, I see that the subtitle is Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True. So it is, and it’s not, all fun and games. It’s complicated, you see. It’s true. And the puff for the piece explains,
In this moving collection of thought provoking essays infused with her unique wisdom and deep humor [oh, puhlease!], Union uses … fearlessness to tell astonishingly personal and true stories about power, color, gender, feminism, and fame. Union tackles a range of experiences, including bullying, beauty standards, and competition between women in Hollywood, growing up in white California suburbia and then spending summers with her black relatives in Nebraska….
Without reading the book, I would guess that wine enters, whether too much wine or just enough to anesthetize, in the “funny” part of the subtitle. Sure, let’s eat, drink, and be merry — whatever dreary or depressing or difficult truths press in on us. “Deep humor,” yes, might be in the wings if we buy and read Ms. Union’s book. “Unique wisdom”? I seriously doubt it.
With this blog entry, I do a turn — not 180º but perhaps 120º, devoting this blog, and this website in its entirety, to the writing life — the life of a writer, that is, and everything he or she might be interested in, including readers.
Young Zeck or, more fully, Young Zeck Image Communications, was the name of the little corporate communications consultancy I operated for about 25 years. It was, every now and then, successful in producing corporate jobs like company brochures, annual reports, and websites — and the income that goes along with such jobs.
The consultancy was not as successful as it might have been because I never fully devoted myself to the corporate life or corporate lie, if that’s not too extreme. Let’s put it this way, rather: the institution (corporate, governmental, academic) has a belief system that prefers money or a consistent code of values above all else. As someone trained in the humanities, and from the earliest age, how could I give myself to this kind of groupthink? The focus on money, and system, mean truth was an easy prey and beauty not far behind.
Yes, companies will hire you to produce plausible representations of their business and business methods, and you can write and design attractive products that both you and the client can be proud of. But when I did so, I would always think, what now? What new job must I be hunting for? What new values in life?
Since the mid-1980s at least, I’ve been writing stories and poems, and they’ve been accumulating in my drawers (computer drawers or folders). I’ve published a few, but not many. There’s very little money in publishing in little literary magazines, and, yes, money is a consideration if not the main consideration. There’s very little ego confirmation when the stuff you’ve sweated over so hard is rejected by these magazines.
Most literary writers, I think, publish for exposure. They want their names out, their creativity on display. They want to be read and, yes, admired. They don’t quit their day jobs, most of them, and they shouldn’t. But always in the back of the mind the idea lurks that they could make it someday as a writer.
Make it, as in making a living. Make it, as in getting a life. Make it, as in doing just what they’ve always dreamed of doing but were afraid to ask or try.
I retired from college teaching and corporate communications about six years ago when my wife Jennifer and I moved from Minnesota to Northwest Arkansas. Since then, I’ve tutored kids and done a little webmastering, but have continued to write stories and poems … and now and again the beginnings of a novel.
About four months ago I joined a weekly writers’ group, the Dickson Street Writers. We meet every Monday afternoon at Nightbird Books, an indie book shop in Fayetteville that accommodates us and other groups. Our facilitator, Linda, is writing a group biography about Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and that gang. Most of us are writing fiction, a few poetry.
We bring a printed copy of what we’re working on to the store and shop it around among ourselves. We read our own piece, that is, and the others mark and muse the typescript, then comment on it orally. More than the specific comments and directives, which are often helpful, it’s the mere example of others who are doing the same kind of thing and honoring the same direction, that is invaluable.
Yes, I’ve been in other writers’ group before, but somehow they didn’t last long. They were beset by divisions, competitions, lack of interest, ennui, lack of comprehension (I have no idea what you’re trying to say, or why you’re trying to say it). The Dickson Street Writers are older, for one thing, and more mature. (No spring chickens peck this barnyard.) They’re more tolerant of differences — one of which is that I am the only male member! (Sometimes in jest I call the group 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) Linda has remarked, on more than one occasion, that I’m brave to read what I do — a man’s fiction, perhaps, among so many women. Or fractious fiction, could be, among more conventional MOs. (I’ll take up this topic of courage in writing in more detail later.)
So here, at last, to the writer’s life. Raise your glasses high. To something of a meaning and purpose for your later years, if that’s what they’ve come down to.