I love this quote by Willa Cather on "creative freedom."
Monday, October 1, 2018
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Writers are Readers
The flip side to writing is reading. We don't write in a vacuum. Well, sometimes it feels that way. Reading the works of other writers whom we admire helps us get a feel for their genre and consider how they use the tools of language. It also helps refill our own creative reservoirs.
Some of you are probably not aware that I am an illustrator. This month to celebrate Edgar Allan Poe's birthday (it was on the 19th) I've put some new designs up on The Leaky Pen's Zazzle store. If you love Poe check 'em out.
Sunday, December 7, 2014
Willa Cather was born in 1873 and lived in Nebraska from the time she was nine years old until she left at twenty-three—fourteen very formative years. Three of her novels are set in Nebraska. The following quotes are from the 1949 book Willa Cather on Writing, except as noted.
Cather became discouraged later in life by critics saying her work was out of touch with current events and wished she used different writing techniques, like stream of consciousness. It's sad to wish a writer was more like other writers instead of celebrating her individual strengths.
William Curtin wrote:
She had formed and matured her ideas on art before she wrote a novel. She had no more reason to follow Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, whose work she respected, than they did to follow her. Her style solves the problems in which she was interested.*
She Wrote What She Knew
Her writing is grounded in her own life experiences.
In writing what she knew she worked within the constraints life gave her. If you think your life is boring and there is nothing to write about, consider what she was able to do with the people and setting of the Nebraska prairies.
Every artist knows that there is no such thing as “freedom” in art. The first thing an artist does when he begins a new work is to lay down the barriers and limitations; he decides upon a certain composition, a certain key, a certain relation of creatures or objects to each other. He is never free...
A contemporary writer, Sarah Orne Jewett, said in a letter to Cather:
I find this observation: “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper — whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.
Elsewhere Cather wrote:
The artist spends a lifetime in loving the things that haunt him, in having his mind “teased” by them...
Don't Say It
It's a rare gift to create a mood and tell a story by what you leave out.
...to present their scene by suggestion rather than by enumeration. The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification. The novelist must learn to write, and then he must unlearn it; just as the modern painter learns to draw, and then learns when utterly to disregard his accomplishment, when to subordinate it to a higher and truer effect.
Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole — so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page.
No poet can write of love, hate, jealousy. He can only touch these things as they affect the people in his drama and his story.
Write Using Scenes
Cather gives great advice on developing scenes in the story process:
The “scene” in fiction is not a mere matter of construction, any more than it is in life. When we have a vivid experience in social intercourse, pleasant or unpleasant, it records itself in our memory in the form of a scene; and when it flashes back to us, all sorts of apparently unimportant details are flashed back with it. When a writer has a strong or revelatory experience with his characters, he unconsciously creates a scene; gets a depth of picture, and writes, as it were, in three dimensions instead of two. The absence of these warm and satisfying moments in any work of fiction is final proof of the author’s poverty of emotion and lack of imagination.
Writing that Lingers in the Reader's Mind
I wasn't sure I would like My Ántonia. I wondered if there was enough in the bare Nebraska landscape to hold my attention for the length of a novel. But when I was a few pages from finishing I put it down for a few days. I didn't want it to end.
[Walter] Pater said that every truly great drama must, in the end, linger in the reader’s mind as a sort of ballad. Probably the same thing might be said of every great story. It must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure; a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer’s own, individual, unique. A quality that one can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden. The magnitude of the subject-matter is not of primary importance, seemingly.
*Curtin, William M. "Willa Cather: Individualism and Style". Colby Library Quarterly. June 1968, No. 2, p. 52.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
I've been in love with Margaret Atwood's writing for years. The first book of hers I read was The Robber Bride and I still remember how real the characters felt. I'm currently reading The Blind Assassin and wish I could spend more time in that world.
Margaret Atwood's book Negotiating With the Dead is not about her own writing process. It's a higher view of writing—why we write, the relationship between the writer and reader, and where does it all come from anyway?
Contemplating what a writer with forty-plus years experience might say on such broad topics, she wrote:
Perhaps I wish to say: Look behind you. You are not alone. Don't permit yourself to be ambushed. Watch out for the snakes. Watch out for the Zeitgeist—it is not always your friend. Keats was not killed by a bad review. Get back on the horse that threw you. Advice for the innocent pilgrim, worthy enough, no doubt, but no doubt useless: dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the vast empty spaces of the blank page appall, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded.
Negotiating With the Dead is a compilation of the six Empson lectures she gave at the University of Cambridge in the year 2000. She says that any notions of literary theory and being a scholar that may have crept into the book got there in the usual writer's way: like the jackdaw, "we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests."
Writing—A Blind Endeavor
Because I often can't figure out where I'm going with a story, I connected with her idea of writing as a journey into a labyrinth.
I just need to plunge in. I don't always see the plot and direction clearly. Some writers do and they make me feel inadequate. I feel them looking at me out of the corner of their eye and thinking, "Who gave you permission to be a writer? If you're a writer, then you're the creator of your story and characters, you decide what happens, you're in control." Then why don't I feel that way? Why do I feel like I spend most of my time groping around in the dark?
I was relieved when Margaret suggested that the writing process is often
an inability to see one's way forward, but a feeling that there is a way forward, and that the act of going forward would eventually bring about the conditions for vision...Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.
The website Brainpickings has a list of Margaret Atwood's 10 rules of writing. I'd like to close with one of them:
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Monday, October 27, 2014
...writing makes me a small god: I re-create the flux and smash of the world through the small ordered word-patterns I make.
Sylvia Plath understood that secret inner pleasure all writers must feel as creators. I've always been amazed at those "small ordered word-patterns" she threw together.
She wrote a lot about writing—and not writing. Observation. Description. It's been a wonderful opportunity reading her journals. More than any other author I've focused on yet, it feels like lifting the lid and seeing how it all works. The following quotes are from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, and they provide a unique glimpse into the mind of a writer and poet.
Observation and Description
Some of her journals were devoted only to descriptions of her travels. Rooms where her and Ted Hughes stayed. Views of the towns and cities, word-paintings of people, fragments of conversations. Pieces of ideas and plot outlines of potential stories and poems. And such vulnerability and insecurity. She cracks my mind open.
One of the best things I've learned from her journals is to always keep a notebook with you. How else can you capture your observations?
It’s hopeless to “get life” if you don’t keep notebooks.
Of course, capturing details is only a part of the work. Recording descriptions is pointless unless you can use them as foundational material. Create plots, understand your characters' motives, and accurately capture dialog—these all have to work together in telling your story.
...if one has not the imagination to create characters, to knit plots, it does no good to jot down fragments of life and conversation, for alone they are disjointed and meaningless. It is only when these bits are woven into an artistic whole, with a frame of reference, that they become meaning-ful...
Writing From Experience
Again, as always, writers should draw from their own experience.
Perhaps some day I'll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.
Yeah, that's easy to say, write from your experience. It's likely to be a painful process, but you have to get it out of you and onto the paper. Don't worry about presentation or who might read it. You can clean it up and organize it later.
And now, aching, but surer and surer, I feel the wells of experience and thought spurting up, welling quietly, with little clear sounds of juiciness. How the phrases come to me... I am sitting in the heart of it, pouring it out, untidily, all right, but it comes, and the ordering and shaping of it will come.
Sylvia grew up in Massachusettes and attended Smith College and Cambridge on scholarships and traveled around Europe. Her journals are full of luscious descriptions of the picturesque places she visited. But just because your life isn't as exciting, don't let that discourage you from writing.
If I can’t dream up plots in my own room and backyard, I won’t be able to dream them up anywhere...
You know how people with no talent seem to have all the confidence? And those with startling ability seem humble and unsure of themselves? That was never more true than with Sylvia Plath. Her journals are filled with crippling fear and self doubt. She could see it for what it was—“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”—but knowing it didn't make it go away. She battled her self doubt all her life.
And when I read, God, when I read the taut, spare, lucid prose of...poet after poet, I feel stifled, weak, pallid; mealy mouthed and utterly absurd. Some pale, hueless flicker of sensitivity is in me.
Can I write? Will I write if I practice enough? How much should I sacrifice to writing anyway, before I find out if I’m any good? Above all, CAN A SELFISH EGOCENTRIC JEALOUS AND UNIMAGITIVE FEMALE WRITE A DAMN THING WORTH WHILE?
So much of her early journals were consumed with getting and losing boys, the yearning and impossibility of finding her other half. And once she found and married the poet, Ted Hughes, she seemed more grounded and focused. Of course she had also just graduated from Cambridge and her writing was devoted to her own creative ideas instead of papers. Well, then I kept reading her journals and saw it was always a struggle for her to find and make the time to write. There is no gift. You have to fucking work for it.
Every day, writing. No matter how bad. Something will come. I have been spoiled to think it will come too soon: without work & sweat.
Reading her journals has given me hope and a little perspective. I don't know where my writing will take me, but I share her awe of the writer's possibilities:
To be god: to be every life before we die: a dream to drive men mad. But to be one person, one woman—to live, suffer, bear children & learn others lives & make them into print worlds spinning like planets in the minds of other men.
Here is a poster of Sylvia Plath with an inspirational quote on writing.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Where Do I Begin?
When you're approaching an author or genre you're not familiar with, it's important to seek the help of a guide.
When I was a teenager I would go into the bookstore and stand in awe in front of the science-fiction and fantasy section and look at all the amazing covers. I hadn't read any science fiction and had a suspicious feeling that in spite of the covers, the books themselves were not all equal. No one in my family nor any of my friends read the genre so I didn't know which ones were good or not.
I would tentatively pick up a book and wonder at the story inside, then put it back and pick up another. I was a sci-fi virgin and if I picked a book at random I realized it could shape my opinion of the whole genre. What if it sucked? Would I be willing to try more and have them suck as well? I could read ten of them at random and still not have come across the best.
Eventually I would leave empty handed, aware of how little I knew of the world.
I wish that attitude guided me more often. I remember wanting to read books by famous authors and assumed that if I selected a book by a given author, I would have a fair idea of the author's style. How naive. I've since come to recognize that authors can experiment and change over time.
Back in the 1980s I wanted to read a book by William Faulkner and there were only a few on the shelf at the bookstore, so I bought Sanctuary and read it. It was all right. I enjoyed it and felt I knew something about Faulkner now and moved on to other authors.
That was before the internet. Now when I approach an author I haven't read before, I do a little research and try to select a book that accurately captures their voice. I'm not as concerned it is their most famous book as I am that it is representative of their style. If you based your opinion of Stephen King on the movies The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, and The Green Mile, good as those stories are, you would miss what he's really all about.
After a little research online I found if I wanted to read Steinbeck, I should start with Grapes of Wrath. If I wanted to experience Hemingway's terse writing style The Sun Also Rises is a good choice. Did the author ever say what their favorite book was? Nabokov said Lolita was his favorite, so that's the one I read.
The Sound and the Fury
As it turns out, after reading Sanctuary I didn't know that much about William Faulkner. The first book should have been The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner said, "It’s the book I feel tenderest toward," and caused him the most grief and anguish to write.
It was not an easy read. I read the first five pages and had no idea who was even talking, let alone what was going on. So I started over and after twenty pages a few pieces began to fall into place, so I started over again. This time I took a piece of paper and wrote down all the characters and their relationships as near as I could tell.
Finally, I made it to the end of the first chapter, and with trepidation started the second chapter. Part way through that one I felt lost again, so I started that chapter over, then halfway through I started to get glimmers of understanding about the first chapter and started the whole book over from the beginning.
Eventually I had to open a spreadsheet and coordinate the different timelines. By the time I finished the whole thing I thought I finally had a fair idea of what happened. Then I talked to my daughter who was reading it also, and it turns out that we had very different opinions of what happened, so we're both going to start over and see if we can sort it out. (Here's her version.)
Why go to so much trouble? I'm sure I could go online and find a review of the book that explains it all, but after spending this much time I would hate to find I missed some obvious passage that made it all clear. As much effort as Faulkner spent writing it I have to trust that he made every word count. It feels like reading a mystery. All the clues are there and if I pay attention I'll sort it out. So much better than the DaVinci Code.
Jean Stein asked him in the 1956 Paris Review interview, "Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?"
He answered, "Read it four times."
Now I don't feel so stupid. In spite of the challenge these characters are some of the strongest I've ever read. Honest and believable. Lost and haunted.
In the Paris Review interview Faulkner had some things to say about writing.
A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.
[To be a good novelist requires] Ninety-nine percent talent ... ninety-nine percent discipline ... ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.
...there is always a point in the book where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job...
When asked if he was obsessed with violence he responded,
That’s like saying the carpenter is obsessed with his hammer. Violence is simply one of the carpenter’s tools. The writer can no more build with one tool than the carpenter can.
Jean asked him if he ever felt the need to discuss his work with anyone. He replied,
No, I am too busy writing it. It has got to please me and if it does I don’t need to talk about it. If it doesn’t please me, talking about it won’t improve it, since the only thing to improve it is to work on it some more. I am not a literary man but only a writer. I don’t get any pleasure from talking shop.
Faulkner created the setting of Yoknapatawpha County based on the area where he spent most of his life in Mississippi. He said,
I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top. It opened up a gold mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
Remember reading something and sitting back in amazement at how the author chose those perfect words to describe the scene? For example, this is how Charles Frazier described a character playing a fiddle in Cold Mountain:
It was a careening tune, loopy and syncopated, with little work for the left hand but the bow arm working as frantic as a man fighting off a deer fly from around his head.
That mental image is a delight. And I can't imagine those words coming to me if I was trying to describe something similar.
The World Through Your Eyes
The way you look at things is your strength. Not what you're looking at. Only you see the world the way you do. Pay attention to the little details that make the scene interesting. If you can't describe what you see in a captivating way, then it doesn't matter if you're looking at last winter's dusty grey wind-blown leaves on the patio outside your office window, or the red shoes clicking down the Champs-Élysées.
I was at the Corner Bakery in Draper one morning and wrote the following. It's an example of observing my surroundings and trying to put them down in my words, just an exercise that had nothing to do with the story I was currently writing.
There's a lady in one of the stuffed chairs in front of me. Laid back, reading and looking at pictures on her Kindle in the landscape position. Her fingers in a thoughtful position to her lips, holding a stylus that she never uses. Black windbreaker, matching stylish black cap, bright fuchsia shirt. Her blond hair in a faux wind-blown style sticking out from under the cap, narrow reading glasses, olive capri shorts. All the pieces in place, but the sum is less than the parts. In spite of all the effort it still feels like she's in a house dress with curlers—if anyone still wears curlers in their hair.
Changing your surroundings helps to break your routine. Go to a restaurant or coffee shop by yourself with your notebook. Pick somewhere they won't be rushing you out. Sit where you can observe people coming and going, other tables around you. Listen for unique words or phrases. Now capture some aspect of what you see. Your voice comes out by the things that capture your attention and the words you choose to describe them.
Even if you're at home right now, look around you. What are the details you observe that show your own character? Try to write a paragraph that captures the feel of where you are.