Sunday, December 7, 2014

Willa Cather on Writing

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.

Writing Style

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. 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

Margaret Atwood on Writing

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

Sylvia Plath on Writing

...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...

Self Doubt

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

William Faulkner on Writing

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.

On Writing

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

Observe the Moment

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.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft on Writing

Something in the Atmosphere

H.P. Lovecraft is not as well-known as the other writers I've covered this year. Go ahead, ask a few people around you if they've heard of him. But within his genre he's a central figure, in company with Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King—he emulated the former and inspired the latter. Stephen King called Lovecraft "the twentieth-century horror story's dark and baroque prince."
Lovecraft...opened the way for me...the reader would do well to remember that it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.
Stephen King, Danse Macabre
Joyce Carol Oates wrote:
...both writers [Poe and Lovecraft] have had an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction.

Lovecraft tried to capture a particular mood, keeping plot and action secondary to the overall feeling.
Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal.
H. P. Lovecraft, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction

The degree of his success is conveyed by these words from Joyce Carol Oates: "One is drawn into Lovecraft by the very air of plausibility and characteristic understatement of the prose, the question being When will weirdness strike?"

His haunted stories of tentacled monsters and evil on a cosmic scale have inspired generations of writers in horror, fantasy, and science fiction.*

Now, I can hear some of you saying, "But I don't like horror, I don't read it and I don't write it." But don't run away yet. 

What Can We Learn from Studying Lovecraft?

Even if horror is not your genre, you can still learn from him.

In addition to his stories, he wrote... a lot. Poetry, 5 volumes of collected essays on amateur journalism, literary criticism (check out this 28,000+ word treatise titled Supernatural Horror in Literature, science, travel, philosophy, and autobiography, and at least 19 volumes of collected letters. He wrote between an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 letters. Lovecraft was old-fashioned that way and felt obligated to reply to everyone who wrote him. He may have written more stories if he hadn't written so many letters.

But let's say you do want to write something scary, how do you go about it? Remember, it's what you don't know that really scares you.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
Lovecraft...understood that to open the door, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, is to destroy the unified, dreamlike effect of the best horror.
Stephen King, Danse Macabre

The following is taken from his essay, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction. Although every story is different, these are generally the steps he took (I'm paraphrasing):

1. Make a chronological timeline

A synopsis of events as they occur. Whether you write it all down or mull it over in your head, you have to have a clear conception of the order in which events happen.

2. Make a narrative timeline

Once the chronological synopsis is clear decide the best narrative approach for your story. This is like playing with blocks and experimenting with different structures and approaches. Don't hesitate to change your original idea—even if it turns it into a different story.
...Usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of the basic condition or situation chosen.

3. Write the story quickly

Now, put it on paper. Once it's down, compare it with your narrative synopsis and make sure you didn't miss anything.

4. Revise the story

I can't paraphrase this one.
Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness or transitions (scene to scene, slow and detailed action to rapid and sketchy time-covering action and vice versa. . . . etc., etc., etc.), effectiveness of beginning, ending, climaxes, etc., dramatic suspense and interest, plausibility and atmosphere, and various other elements.

5. Type it up so it looks nice.

Revise more as needed. Never hesitate to change things if it will help convey the mood you're aiming for.

Write What You Know

Lovecraft wasn't very social and didn't write about normal characters.
I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relations to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.
(from a letter, 1921)
I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.
H. P. Lovecraft, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction

I know the horror genre isn't for everyone, but we all feel fear. The characters we write about feel fear. I hope I've shared some things from Lovecraft that will help you consider your character's fears and help your readers feel a stronger sense of atmosphere in your writing.

And finally, here is a poster of H. P. Lovecraft with an inspirational quote on writing.

*If you haven't read his stories, you'll probably still recognize the titles The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness, and The Call of Cthulhu. Here is a list of the most famous ones.

Over 1,000 visitors to were polled and asked what their favorite stories were, and which stories they would recommend to first-time readers of his work. Out of nearly 70 stories, seven are mentioned on both lists, so you can't go wrong if you're looking for a sampling.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

Hemingway did not specifically write a dedicated treatise on writing (he considered it bad luck to talk about writing), but throughout his written work and correspondence he ended up talking quite a bit about the writer's life. I have to thank Larry W. Phillips for his research and collecting together these loose fragments of advice and thoughts on the craft of writing into the book Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

Know Your Tools

As an artist it takes many years of practice getting proportions right, seeing and recording values of light and shadows, understanding the rules of composition and the idiosyncrasies of the various mediums.

There is a balance between knowing the rules and breaking them. If you dive right past the foundational basics and try to paint, your lack of understanding will be apparent to everyone and you will never work with confidence.

You've seen the famous paintings by Picasso, but may not have seen his early realistic drawings that show his complete ability to capture his subjects. Knowing the basics becomes the foundation to greater work.

Hemingway talked about one of the basic tools for writers, punctuation:

“My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”

His spare writing style was a conscious choice:

“I don’t like to write like God. It is only because you never do it, though, that the critics think you can’t do it.”

Word Count

Make each word count. What if you had to pay for each word? He explained how his economic writing style was shaped early in his career:

“Don’t worry about the words. I’ve been doing that since 1921. I always count them when I knock off and am drinking the first whiskey and soda. Guess I got in the habit writing dispatches. Used to send them from some places where they cost a dollar and a quarter a word and you had to make them awful interesting at that price or get fired.”

And don't get too hung up about how many words you write per day. How you feel after writing is the important thing.

“I loved to write very much and was never happier than doing it. Charlie’s [Scribner’s] ridiculing of my daily word count was because he did not understand me or writing especially well nor could know how happy one felt to have put down properly 422 words as you wanted them to be. And days of 1200 or 2700 were something that made you happier than you could believe. Since I found that 400 to 600 well done was a pace I could hold much better was always happy with that number. But if I only had 320 I felt good.”

On Writing Novels

It's easy to think of famous writers and imagine that the words came easy for them. It gives me hope when I learn it was otherwise:

“...I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

Yes, writing a novel is hard, so here is some of the best advice you will ever read:

“You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless—there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.”


Want to be a writer? Stick with it, through all interruptions.

“I happen to be in a very tough business where there are no alibis. It is good or it is bad and the thousand reasons that interfere with a book being as good as possible are no excuses if it is not. You have to make it good and a man is a fool if he adds or takes hindrance after hindrance after hindrance to being a writer when that is what he cares about. Taking refuge in domestic successes, being good to your broke friends etc. is merely a form of quitting.”

I have often felt guilty for not being much of a letter writer. I thought "How can you consider yourself a writer if you can't even write letters? Then when I read this it I felt more at ease:

“Take good care of yourself and please forgive such a rotten letter. All my juice goes in the damned book. Anytime I can write a good letter Tubby it’s a sign I’m not working.”

On Characters and Being Observant

We've all heard the advice to write what you know, and Hemingway showed why that was so important:

“People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him. If he ever has luck as well as seriousness and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension and they will last a long time.”
“The more he learns from experience the more truly he can imagine. If he gets so he can imagine truly enough people will think that the things he relates all really happened and that he is just reporting.”

That was how I felt reading The Sun Also Rises, that he was mostly reporting things that had happened, but in reality those things didn't happen. He used real people but "controlled what they did."

Selecting the Right Title

Hemingway spent a lot of effort in choosing the right title:

“Getting a title is a lot like drawing cards in a poker game. You keep on drawing and they’re all worthless but if you can last at it long enough you always get a good hand finally.”
“How about this for a title
For Whom the Bell Tolls
A Novel
By Ernest Hemingway
…I think it has the magic that a title has to have. Maybe it isn’t too easy to say. But maybe the book will make it easy. Anyway I have had thirty some titles and they were all possible but this is the first one that has made the bell toll for me.”

Motivation for Writing

I'm sure we all dream of being published and recognized for our work. But that is a lousy motivator for me. This is the motivation that brings out my best writing:

“I have to write to be happy whether I get paid for it or not.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

George Orwell on Writing

Find Your True Nature

George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, who chose it to protect his family from his social and political writing. He is most famous for the last two novels he wrote, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

As a child he knew he wanted to be a writer but he got sidetracked with several jobs early in life.
I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
Why I Write
That's a view all writers need to embrace—anyone creative for that matter. Once you know what your true nature is you won't be happy if you don't pursue it. Of course pursuing it is no guarantee of happiness, but not pursuing it is a sure road to misery.

Why Do You Write?

Most of his advice for writers comes from two essays, Why I Write and Politics and the English Language. Don't let that last one fool you. Regardless of what type of writing you do you will be a much better writer by following its advice.

Orwell spent many years writing expository journalism and reviews of books and plays, but we know him best because of his strong political writing. His socialist views were partly formed from his time spent pretending to be a tramp in the working class sections of various European cities leading up to World War II.
When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.
Why I Write
He explained how these experiences shaped him as a writer:
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.
Why I Write
He outlines the different motives all writers share:

Four Great Motives for Writing
These four motives are active in every writer, in different proportions, and vary at different times throughout life. It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.
  1. Sheer Egoism
  2. Aesthetic Enthusiasm
  3. Historical Impulse
  4. Political Purpose

In Why I Write he defines each of these motives; follow the link for his in-depth explanation.
I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
Why I Write

Don't Hold Back

You have to say what needs to be said, and say it in your unique voice. Know that the events of your time shape you as a writer. If you feel outraged by events happening around you, let your readers know.
In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties.
Why I Write
You know how your mind begins to fog over when you're reading some business or political fluffery? In his essay, Politics and the English Language, he gives examples of this vague, wandering style of writing and shows how to sharpen it and make it more readable. (I may have some of these exerpts out of order, but this flows nicely to get the gist.)

Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly... 
This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose... 
The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. 
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. 
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.

I was especially glad to read this:
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable."
Fascism has always been a slippery word for me; I have never been able to hold a definition of it in my mind long enough for any given sentence to have meaning. "Democracy" is another word that has multiple ambiguous definitions. I struggled with Whitman's Leaves of Grass because I could never get my head around what he meant by "democratic art."

Even though he calls the following "rules for political writing," I can see how most of my own writing would be better by doing this:

Six Rules for Political Writing
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Write what you want to write, what you need to write, not what you think you should or what you think your friends or family or church want you to write. Be bold. Be daring. Take risks.
To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer.
Writers and Leviathan

Don't Give Up

I know you've heard that said at least a couple times in your life.

George Orwell didn't write his two most famous novels until the end of his life.
Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.
Why I Write
After writing Animal Farm and before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, he wrote:
I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.
Why I Write
I like to keep this final quote in mind when I think of him writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, only a few years before he died, suffering severely from tuberculosis:
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.
Why I Write

And here is an inspirational poster with that last quote on it.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Walt Whitman on Writing

I've heard the titles and parts of some of Walt Whitman's poems over the years without connecting them to him. "Song of Myself," "I Sing the Body Electric," "O Captain! My Captain!" I've enjoyed this past month as I've gotten to know his work better.

Leaves of Grass, First Impressions

I hadn't read Leaves of Grass before this month. Two things I knew about it were that Bill Clinton gave a copy of it to Monica Lewinsky, and the chemist Gale Boetticher gave a copy of it to his mentor, Walter White, in the series Breaking Bad. What book of poetry could cross that gap?

I approached it with an open mind and immediately became confused. It was written in the mid to late 1800s and I could understand the patriotic themes, but shuffled between that theme and long rambling lists were bits of erotica and amazing perception. What rabbit hole was this? In the heat of passion the last thing I'd want to hear is the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Maybe times have changed but the patriotic themes were an anaphrodisiac to me. It seemed like porn for Tea-Partiers.

His Life's Work

But this was his most famous work and I didn't want to judge it too quickly. As I read his prose writings I learned that Leaves of Grass was actually put together carefully over the course of thirty years. He published the first edition in 1855 when he was 36 years old and he kept adding to it, printing new editions until shortly before his death. He considered Leaves of Grass his life's work and had a clear purpose in writing it:

“The theory of my Leaves of Grass as a composition of verses has been from first to last, (if I am to give impromptu a hint of the spinal marrow of the business, and sign it with my name,) to thoroughly possess the mind, memory, cognizance of the author himself, with everything beforehand—a full armory of concrete actualities, observations, humanity, past poems, ballads, facts, technique, war and peace, politics, North and South, East and West, nothing too large or too small, the sciences as far as possible—and above all America and the present—after and out of which the subject of the poem, long or short, has been invariably turned over to his Emotionality, even Personality, to be shaped thence; and emerges strictly therefrom, with all its merits and demerits on its head. Every page of my poetic or attempt at poetic utterance therefore smacks of the living physical identity, date, environment, individuality, probably beyond anything known, and in style often offensive to the conventions.”
Walt Whitman's Last, Complete Prose Works

Whitman saw firsthand how close we came to the dissolution of the United States, so the theme of democracy became central to his writing. He saw things as democratic or non-democratic. He even imagined that Shakespeare—who wrote from a strong pro-aristocratic perspective—may have been alluding to democracy in his plays. He saw it everywhere.

Strong Drink, Small Sips

I think Leaves of Grass was hard for me to take in at first because I was trying to read it too fast.  It contains some of the most vivid imagery I have read. He removed everything he felt didn't belong, so even all the long lists of occupations and place names are there to reinforce his underlying purpose. 

“...after many MS. doings and undoings—(I had great trouble in leaving out the stock "poetical" touches, but succeeded at last.)”
Through Eight Years, Specimen Days

I enjoy it much more when I read a few poems at a time.

On Writing

He always carried paper with him to write on, a notebook or the blank end papers torn from books. On his daily walks he would often stop and record his impressions.

“I find the woods in mid-May and early June my best places for composition. Seated on logs or stumps there, or resting on rails, nearly all the following memoranda have been jotted down. Wherever I go, indeed, winter or summer, city or country, alone at home or traveling, I must take notes...”
New Themes Entered Upon, Specimen Days

One thing I've learned from reading Whitman is to be observant and capture your impressions as quickly as possible: 

"The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment—to put things down without deliberation—without worrying about their style—without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote—wrote, wrote…By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught."

Another important thing to keep in mind when writing your story is to make sure your characters are grounded in their time as well as place.

“No great poem or other literary or artistic work of any scope, old or new, can be essentially consider'd without weighing first the age, politics (or want of politics) and aim, visible forms, unseen soul, and current times, out of the midst of which it rises and is formulated...”
An Old Man's Rejoinder, Complete Prose Works

Pissing on Poe

Whitman was well acquainted with the works of his contemporaries, and even knew some of them personally. He wrote an essay, "Edgar Poe's Significance," in which he struggled to say something nice. After illuminating why he didn't like Poe's style he reluctantly concedes:

“For a long while, and until lately, I had a distaste for Poe's writings. I wanted, and still want for poetry, the clear sun shining, and fresh air blowing—the strength and power of health, not of delirium, even amid the stormiest passions—with always the background of the eternal moralities. Non-complying with these requirements, Poe's genius has yet conquer'd a special recognition for itself, and I too have come to fully admit it, and appreciate it and him.”
Edgar Poe's Significance, Complete Prose Works

Poetry is a Mutual Endeavor

After trying to read a scholarly work on poetry titled, The Theory of Poetry, he gave up in frustration and wrote some of his own ideas on the subject.

“At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather'd is far more—perhaps the main thing.”
After Trying a Certain Book, Complete Prose Works

A poem is a shared experience between the poet and the reader. The poet shouldn't spell everything out. There needs to be enough room for the readers' experiences to complete the understanding, making the interpretation personal.

“I only seek to put you in rapport. Your own brain, heart, evolution, must not only understand the matter, but largely supply it.”

He expands this idea in referring to the works of Shakespeare:

“In the whole matter I should specially dwell on, and make much of, that inexplicable element of every highest poetic nature which causes it to cover up and involve its real purpose and meanings in folded removes and far recesses. Of this trait—hiding the nest where common seekers may never find it—the Shaksperean works afford the most numerous and mark'd illustrations known to me. I would even call that trait the leading one through the whole of those works.”
Walt Whitman,  Complete Prose Works

True American Literature

At the end of his life he wondered if there would ever arise a true American Literature. "We want mighty authors" who not only respectfully build on the literary heritage of our past, but

“clearly understand and justify, and be devoted to and exploit our own day, its diffused light, freedom, responsibilities, with all it necessitates...”
American National Literature, Complete Prose Works

What do you think? In the 122 years since Whitman's death, who would you identify as our "mighty authors?"

And finally, here is a poster of Walt Whitman with an inspirational quote on writing.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Showing Up

The muse will be here shortly, she's running late.

I've been working on a novel for the past year. As always, some words have been a gift, the rest I've had to work for. When I hear of authors who churn out book after book I can't help looking back at my snail pace and wonder how I could be so deluded to think I was a writer. Wasn't there some threshold to admittance? In the back of my mind there is some measure of daily word count, some formula of X pages per month. What if they find out I've been practicing literature without a license?

Then I just have to take a deep breath and try to relax. I know I am slower. I work at my own pace, I'm diligent. I don't have a deadline; if I did that would make it easier. There's no one making me write this except myself. I know it will be finished when the story has been told.

As I've been keyboarding the novel from my handwritten notebooks I found a few places where I knew I was alone, no muse was coming to save my day, and I just had to dive in and write anyway. I hope this helps you find some motivation to keep writing with or without the muse.

August 4, 2013
I'm dragging this morning. My mind feels mushy. All that clarity from yesterday is gone. I like what I wrote, it finally feels the right direction. I've been sitting here mulling things over in my head so I just need to mull them over on paper. I have a lot of deadlines starting to add up... . Leave that alone. Those are problems outside of this story. Keep this time in the morning for writing, not thinking about all the other things you should be doing.
August 10, 2013
My pen is in my hand. My thoughts are out there somewhere. I wasn't writing. Just sitting here, looking blankly ahead, trying to grasp the random thoughts as they zip by.
Finally I realized I was just procrastinating, so I put my pen to the paper and here these words are. These thoughts were not in my mind a moment ago, but they're here now. It's like magic.
I can see how easy it is for people to attribute this to inspiration, but really it's just showing up at the same time and place every day. I've been doing this consistently for over a month. Yesterday I forgot to set my alarm for 6:00 am but I woke up anyway. Nice how you can develop new habits.
August 31, 2013
I'm not in the mood to write this morning. But I got up at 5:30, drank my protein shake, took my Alleve, settling in. If it wasn't for this all being a habit right now I'd still be in bed. But here I am with my pen and notebook, watching a moth outside in the dark of the morning trying to get to my desk lamp, bumping against the window.
It doesn't matter if the muse shows up or not, at least I'm here.
September 10, 2013
Wow, a blank. I should just put the pen to paper and wait for something to come out. It's like drawing. Things are kind of loose, I start filling in the details, but sometimes there's an area I just can't envision clearly. So I go with it, everything else is looking okay but this one part just bothers me. When I look at the picture my eye goes straight to the part I didn't spend enough time on. That's what this feels like right now. There are things I don't know about the characters.

So I write, muse or no muse. And every day I'm that much closer.

Have you had a difficult time writing when the muse doesn't show up? What do you do to get the words out?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Vladimir Nabokov on Writing

Pen and ink drawing of Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov is most famous for his novel Lolita and his richly-detailed writing style. Reading his work is like watching a virtuoso performer. His multi-lingual perspective was a deep reservoir of experience that inspired his writing—he spent the first twenty years of his life in Russia, the next twenty in Europe, the next twenty in America, and the end of his life in Switzerland.

On Descriptions

His descriptions have affected me most. It feels like I'm there with him, seeing the details that make the setting, that create the mood. I feel time slowed down and I get a chance to take a breath.

What do the observations tell me about the character? In the short story, Beneficence, a sculptor comes to terms with losing his lover. While waiting for a rendezvous his attention is drawn to a nearby little old woman selling postcards and knick-knacks from a stand near a guardhouse. The window of the guardhouse opens and a soldier calls the old woman over and gives her a cup of coffee.

 “Then she began drinking. I have never seen a person drink with such utter, profound, concentrated relish. She forgot her stand, the postcards, the chill wind, her American client, she just sipped, sucked, disappeared totally into her coffee—exactly as I forgot about my vigil and saw only the velours jacket, the bliss-dimmed eyes, the stubby hands clutching the mug in their woolen mittens. She drank for a long time, drank in slow swallows, reverently licking off the fringe of skin, heating her palms on the warm tin. And a dark, sweet warmth poured into my soul. My soul, too, was drinking and heating itself, and the brown little woman tasted of coffee with milk.”

After finishing the coffee  she returns the cup with a couple postcards. The main character then observes:

“Here I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation, and I realized that the joy I had sought in you was not only secreted within you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed on us and unappreciated.”

By slowing down and showing us the details we see the things that led to his conclusions.

Nabokov rarely sums things up so nicely. Nor does his work always leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. Often his work is dark, but I always feel his honesty in observation. He doesn't judge or hold back. I can't help but think of him saying, "This is what I saw, and this is how it made me feel."

On Characters

You can't talk about Nabokov without talking about despicable characters. I'm 54 years old and I had not read Lolita until this past month. It has always been on the periphery of my awareness. I knew it was a famous book but the subject matter was so off-putting. There was a part of my mind that attributed the subject matter—pedophilia—to the author himself. I'm embarassed to admit that, being a writer myself. I suspect it's just human nature because that question came up often in his interviews. In the book of his collected interviews, Strong Opinions, he said:

“I am very careful to keep my characters beyond the limits of my own identity. Only the background of the novel can be said to contain some biographical touches.”

Nabokov is by far one of the greatest developers of character. He talked about Humbert Humbert from Lolita, when asked if he was inspired by someone in real life:

“He’s a man I devised, a man with an obsession, and I think many of my characters have sudden obsessions, different kinds of obsessions; but he never existed. He did exist after I had written the book.”

On Inspiration

At an early stage of a novel's development Nabokov would collect bits of information, names of things, descriptions—before he even knew what it was all for. Like a bird collecting bits of string and fluff. Then suddenly there is an awareness—"This is what I'm going to write." After that the novel starts to breed itself.

“Since this entire structure, dimly illumined in one’s mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not have to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception, I may direct my flashlight at any part or particle of the picture when setting it down in writing. I do not begin my novel at the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper.”

For him, this process was made easier by writing everything on index cards, rearranging them, numbering them only later when everything was complete. About three 5x7-inch index cards made up one typewritten page.

He said creative writers must study the works of rivals, and they
“must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world...Art is never at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.”

The Reader's Reaction

When I read Lolita I experienced a visceral reaction I have felt only rarely while reading. Perhaps I've been reading the wrong books. I've felt it while reading Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood, Steinbeck. Why do I feel it when reading Nabokov?

“ read an artist’s book not with your heart (the heart is a remarkably stupid reader), and not with your brain alone, but with your brain and spine. 'Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel.'"
Reading Nabokov gives me that tingle in my spine.

And finally, here is a poster of Nabokov with some inspiring thoughts for writers:

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Take a Trip

A couple weeks ago I took a trip to an area in central Utah where you can do some rockhounding. It's called Topaz Mountain and is about 25 miles west of Delta.

I had been been there years ago when my kids were young. I didn't find anything at the time, not knowing exactly what to be looking for; naively expecting crystals like this to just be laying around:

In case I didn't find anything I planned to get there early enough to photograph the sunrise so the trip wouldn't be a total bust.

I went with my youngest daughter who took the day off from work. She had no recollection of being there as a kid.

I know, nice pics and all, but what does this have to do with writing? I wondered if I could paint the experience with words and get close to the same feeling.

I opened the car door and looked around at my purple-tinged surroundings thirty minutes before sunrise. I walked around the CRV and popped open the back, opened the passenger door to get my camera bag. 
If it was a movie you'd expect to hear a breeze, the clichéd scree of a hawk, various subtle but unidentifiable animal noises, maybe a rabbit running through the brush, little birds taking off. But there was none of that. Complete silence, except for a slight hi-pitched tone of tinitus. Completely alone. 
The first sounds I heard were my boot-crunch on the dried sticks and rocks as I wandered among the dried parchment flowers of the fourwing saltbush, and brittle, twisted, frayed-silver sagebrush roots.  The plastic click and aluminum slide of the tripod legs and various soft button presses as I got my camera ready for sunrise. 
Then it was just waiting. No wind, so the 24-degree temperature didn't feel cold at all. Slowly pacing and wandering around until moments before sunrise I saw a better view for the picture. I ran back to the camera, slipping in the sand, grabbed the tripod and ran back to the better spot just as the sunlight grazed the mountain.

So did I capture the feeling? Whether I succeeded or not doesn't matter. It's the attempt. I had to slow down and quiet my racing mind enough to re-live the experience and try to put it into words.

So here's your challenge. One of these weekends coming up, take a solitary day trip and try to capture it in words as well as pictures.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ovid's Influence

Vivid Imagery

I had never heard of Ovid until I was reading a book on Shakespeare and the author mentioned him. He summed up his comments with this statement:
There is hardly a single Shakespeare play or poem that does not owe character, language or plot to Ovidian mythology.
Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" by Another Name

My curiosity was piqued and I've been slowly reading him since. The "Ovidian mythology" refers to the book Metamorphoses and I downloaded several free versions on iBook. I finally paid a few bucks for the complete works that includes the original Latin, English verse translations, and prose translations of not only Metamorphoses, but the rest of his poetry, and a biography.

So why bother reading some dusty old poetry written a couple thousand years ago? Because the imagery is surprisingly vivid. For example, here is how Ovid describes the goddess Envy:

[Envy] rises sluggishly from the ground, and leaves the bodies of the serpents half devoured, and stalks along with sullen pace. And when she sees the Goddess [Pallas] graced with beauty and with splendid arms, she groans, and fetches a deep sigh at her appearance. A paleness rests on her face, and leanness in all her body; she never looks direct on you; her teeth are black with rust; her breast is green with gall; her tongue is dripping with venom. Smiles there are none, except such as the sight of grief has excited. Nor does she enjoy sleep, being kept awake with watchful cares; but sees with sorrow the successes of men, and pines away at seeing them. She both torments and is tormented at the same moment, and is ever her own punishment.”

Isn't that just how envy feels?

Here is an excerpt of the story of Phaethon taking a joyride on his father's Sun chariot (with a time lapse of me sketching a portrait of Ovid):

Book of Changes

Metamorphoses is made up of fifteen books and spans from the creation of the earth to the reign of Augustus. These myths were recorded by others before him, but Ovid was the first person to bring them all together in chronological order. The first eleven Books deal with the Gods and Demi-Gods, and Book 12 tells of the Trojan War. The remaining Books gradually bring us to Ovid's time, with the death of Julius Caesar and the beginning of Augustus's reign.

The theme of metamorphosis seems to start with Jove raping various nymphs and humans, and his wife, Juno, punishing them by changing them into various trees, animals, rocks, whatever. And so it goes, the Gods punishing everyone for their own actions and petty jealousies.

However, there are no lessons to be learned. These aren't morality tales.  Ian Johnston, retired instructor at Vancouver Island University, observes:

The lasting impression is that the metamorphoses provide a wonderful basis for telling stories effectively, nothing more. 
It is there for us to enjoy as an example of a story for its own sake, something we can read and enjoy for the moment, without being led to some system of belief about the world or some cosmic understanding. 
What we remember from the poem is the clarity of particular episodes memorably delivered, rather than any consistent illumination of what one might call a vision of life.

If you read the prose translation of Metamorphoses you'll notice the structure is a bit different. The Books are further broken into Fables, and after each Fable is an Explanation. When I first started reading the prose translation I was confused by the explanations. The fables were entertaining, but the explanations seemed misguided, didactic, and often ludicrous. I was glad that Ian Johnston shed light on them:

The extraordinary tendency of the Middle Ages to moralize Ovid, to force onto the poem very didactic interpretations entirely consistent with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, becomes easier to understand. Interpreters in that period certainly put something into the poem that is not there, but did not displace or violate some central vision of things.

Ovid's Influence on Writing

Writers will benefit a great deal from reading and studying Ovid. Ian Johnston also points out:

...if one wants to have any sort of historical appreciation for the development of English poetry, understanding the influence of and the reference to Ovid is essential. 
What we are learning, as we read this poem, is not how to understand the world but how to use language and the resources of fiction delightfully.

(In researching Ovid it was inevitable that I'd come across lots of discussion around the various Greek, Roman, Latin, and English poetic forms. I won't go into that here, but see the footnotes if you're interested.*)

Fun Things I Learned from Reading Metamorphoses

  • Origin of werewolves (lycanthropy).
  • Rover was the name of one of Actaeon's hounds.
  • Earth as a sphere was common knowledge in Ovid's time.
  • Dreadlocks were referred to (dread-inspiring locks).
  • The raven was Pallas's favorite bird. (I wondered why Edgar Allan Poe had the raven sit upon a bust of Pallas.)

How to read Metamorphoses

  • Keep in mind Ovid is dark. The stories are often brutal and violent, but the poetic imagery is mesmerizing.
  • Read the verse translation, and if you need a little clarification read the same passage from the prose translation. I know, it seems like a translation of a translation but sometimes it helps.
  • When you read the prose translation, skip the explanations. They were added by translators in the Middle Ages to impose didactic interpretations reflecting teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
And finally, here is a poster of Ovid with some motivational thoughts for writers:

*Here are a few links that will give you a great refresher on poetic forms:

Thursday, February 27, 2014

John Steinbeck on Writing

I've been aware of John Steinbeck as long as I can remember. I've known the titles of his famous novels but never read any until last year. When Elmore Leonard died I read about his writing inspirations and at the top was John Steinbeck. I've always marveled at Leonard's gift of dialog and was excited to learn that it was Steinbeck that inspired him. In 2002 he wrote:
For me that is what John Steinbeck inspired, the simplicity that if you can’t do it well, don’t do it. If you can do something well . . . from that time on, 1954, I concentrated on telling my stories in dialogue so I wouldn’t have to describe the characters.
Library of America blog
After reading Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and The Grapes of Wrath, I have to agree, Steinbeck's ability to convey character through dialog is a wonder.

In 1975 The Paris Review published an interview with Steinbeck.

In that interview, a close personal friend of Steinbeck, Nathaniel Benchley, made the following observations:
• He once said that to write well about something you had to either love it or hate it very much. 
•...his fierce dedication to his writing, and his conviction that every word he put down was the best he could find, were signs of a man who dreaded ever having it said that he was slipping, or that he hadn't given it his best.

The remainder of these quotes are from Steinbeck's East of Eden diaries (Journal of a Novel), and personal letters.
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

In a letter to his Creative Writing teacher at Stanford, Steinbeck tells just how easy it is being a writer:

But surely you were right about one thing, Edith. It took a long time—a very long time. And it is still going on and it has never got easier. You told me it wouldn't.

It gives me hope that even the best struggle. All that matters is perseverance.
It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know.

I hope I can keep all the reins in my hands and at the same time make it sound as though the book were almost accidental. That is going to be hard to do but it must be done. Also I'll have to lead into the story so gradually that my reader will not know what is happening to him until he is caught. That is the reason for the casual—even almost flippant—sound. It's like a man setting a trap for a fox and pretending with pantomime that he doesn't know there is a fox or a trap in the country.

My work does not coagulate. It is as unmanageable as a raw egg on the kitchen floor. It makes me crazy. I am really going to try now and I'm afraid that the very force of the trying will take all the life out of the work.

Suddenly I feel lonely in a curious kind of way. I guess I am afraid. That always comes near the end of a book—the fear that you have not accomplished what you started to do. That is as natural as breathing.

In a short time that will be done and then it will not be mine anymore. Other people will take it over and own it and it will drift away from me as though I had never been a part of it. I dread that time because one can never pull it back, it's like shouting good-bye to someone going off in a bus and no one can hear because of the roar of the motor.