I have been writing for a long time. I would not call it work. Other writers' say "my work" but I don't know what they are talking about. Writing has given me solace and diversion in troubled times and in good times recreation and delight. Writing is thinking in a relatively systematic way via words and the way they hang together in sentences: the ends in this kind of thinking, if done honestly, may not be obvious but rather therapeutic in the way that football or psychoanalysis are said to be therapeutic. In the process of my avocation I have learned a few general understandings. Perhaps you will ﬁnd them interesting.
I really don’t like autobiographic writing, or whatever it is presently called. My dream has always been to write imaginative stories. I have tried for a long time to learn how to use the imagination. I am embarrassed to tell you exactly how long because then you'll certainly wonder about just how with it I am, I mean that I did not give up a long time ago. I didn’t want to let the imagination get to extremes. Usually that’s what happens. Wildly imaginative "creative" writing can be very popular. I still don’t know what it all means. I avoid thinking about it because I dislike it. For some people it is "entertaining" to spend time on subjects that will never nor have ever had any possibility of being real. But even if you are a person who has art burning inside you, you shouldn’t have to suspend disbelief to the point that you wonder if you are cracking up! Take "Romeo and Juliet". While the professor was waxing effusive, I was wondering, "Humpf, do ya think?" The English tradition is all tangled in similar amusing confusions. To keep myself safe from the subsequent stoning I'll avoid the long list. But I personally am waiting on the truth, and it is in my nature to be skeptical. Anyway I have resolved some of my personal qualms about the imagination and I have been able to move on.
I don’t think anymore that truth has much to do with the real world; truth has more to do with the unreal world. When you are driving in trafﬁc and you are irritated by an extra long stop light, you are engaged in a great untruth. Stoplights like untruths come and go; untruths are here now and then vanish. Truths are more stubborn and persistent. They ﬁnd a niche in the world and they persist, and damned if you are not stubbing your toe on them your whole life! You may stub your toe on an untruth, too, like that stop light above, but that has more to do with accident. So what I mean by realism is not what comes and goes but rather the patterns that are incessantly THERE; and it seems like at times they’re gonna drive you crazy. When I was a young philosophy student, I was impressed by Plato's Theory of Forms. Now I am an old philosophy student, though I hardly ever read Plato any more, still the thought that a story is how characters are conducted through the forms always gets my attention.
So I try to stick to realism, even though sometimes it is not autobiographic. I try to stick to the stuff of ordinary life that you are constantly stubbing your toe on. So I try to be realistic. I haven’t gone off into fantasy very much. The upshot is that if you go by this notion the writing must be believable and not in the sense of "verisimilitude" but in terms of factual matter relating to data that is the everyday case. The data does not have to be autobiographic but it must be the case.
Now, I’m thinking of the word “fair”. It disturbs me that a fair-minded person in this world tends to sound like a radical, or like a person who has let his imagination get the better of him. You take a fair-minded person trying to explain why it is better to compromise with another person than kill him. Fair-minded people tend to clear the air, but how has it come to be that they sound so weird? I used to be a nihilist and an anarchist. I still love the theory that the least and simplest of everything is best. If you want to improve something make it simpler; if you want to mirror the real world use common sense. My youthful nihilism, which simpliﬁed everything it couldn’t destroy, eventually made it a little easier to believe because in reducing the number of blockhead pre-conceptions, it made my ideas about the real world a little truer. (I hope!) So I try to convey that perception because it has been a struggle to learn to believe in it myself. The result is that I want to be fair to my characters and not kill them off just because they have slipped up and some notion has suddenly occurred to me that they deserve that end. I don’t mean to suggest that everything I write about really happened. Something very similar to it did happen to me personally. But I’m only a soldier, a lover of the written word who is incapable of shutting up, but not one of the brass. I’m not interested in the doings of the brass, what I’m interested in is the greater world that exposes the darkness that surrounds and limits the self. I am convinced that the fact that we can actually turn back darkness into light is what makes us human, and a little less than angels.
What I have tried to write about are the mysteries that surround every one of us, to turn back that darkness a little. Well, a man can always dream. In my life I have been a terrible dreamer, and not much of a success. Any kind of light can be a very long time coming.
Another word, balance, has bothered me for a long time. Everybody thinks about Ulysses’ avoidance of extremes. Now suppose. You want to write a best seller. But you want to be loyal to your upbringing and your mother’s admonition about not lying your ass off, and true to the experience of the world you have gathered over a lifetime. So invoke balance. Stand there, let them take their shots. Fantasy defenders, go ahead! Maybe you’ll even get taken seriously. In other words: show up!
When I was a young fellow, I used to search all over for stores that sold used paperback books for a nickel. I loved glossy new books, too, but I was a rag tag kid. There was always some crazy guy in there who’d give you a cardboard box, and pretty soon you were walking out with ﬁfty or a hundred books, a big pile of them anyway. My dream was that one day I’d ﬁnd a book that had everything you could imagine in it. Not The Holy Bible, which, of course, is okay for starters—I spent many hours loitering over it—, but a for real scuzzy paperback that had everything in it, and no bullshit. Then I’d have it to screw around with and keep in my back pocket. Leaves of Grass, plenty of good reading there, I used to tell myself, better get started, time is wasting; and there were others. Now I’m dreaming that one day I’ll write that big book with everything in it and no bullshit. But that’s just energy and enthusiasm. The simple object is to write a best seller, the complicated object is to get read. How do you do that now? A little sex, a little violence (guns and war always help), a little love, family. If you can write about kids, that’s a good thing. Not very many writers have been lucky that way that they can really write about kids. Something for the head, something for the heart. If anybody can explain to me how you get read, I’m open to all suggestions. Well, I guess that’s about all I am pretty sure about.
My shoes are more like hiking boots than shoes. I've hiked around in them quite some, and maybe they'll fit you too.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Being by nature a prolific list maker, this morning I made a list. A writer must bring with him a thing or two in order to face that blank space to put the letters on. I think about now it snowed a bitter few snowflakes in the last of the darkness.
- Experience. Pretty hard to avoid. I don't want to sound like a moron explaining it. Young people explain it back and forth to each other. For some of them it is a "thing".
- Book learning. I guess books are always there; morons tell you how learned you have to be, how well read. I've been on the wrong end of those sermons more than once. Book learning is expensive. Time passes and you have written nothing. Enough! I don't think you are born with book learning. That should tell you everything.
- Grabbing stuff out of the air. If you can do it it is a good idea, and may be the best thing for you if you have the knack for it. It reminds me a lot of experience, but it is more about simple attentiveness, paying attention to what you are really doing, and how what you are doing looks to who is looking at you doing it. (This one could pick up some elaboration. Maybe tomorrow.) It's so simple it must be a gift from God!
- Listen to elders, wear their old clothes, even if just for a little while. Everybody knows old clothes get thrown away when they are worn out. But if it fits, why not wear it?
- Somehow put it all together. I used to use the word fuse all the time. Then fuse got all mixed up with purity, and then damned if I knew what either of them meant. So I don't know about fuse, it's a violent word, as if you collide ideas into one. Identities have to be retained. I am unhappy when through incorrect utilization identities become corrupt, fuzzy. Fathers are not sons. Poetry is not prose. One is this, the other is that. The commonsense phraseology is "it is what it is." Yet, if you have any fight in you, you'll put likenesses in one column, and differences in another column.
- Avoid vanity like the plague. (Check out Solomon.)
- All the frigging hours I've spent staring at blank spaces to put words in you'd think I'd have figured some thing out. Okay. Write one sentence then write another sentence.
There was a nineth part to this list, but I forgot it, and time now to take Sunshine, my dog, for a walk. I can see, though just a dog, how disappointed she is when I am late.
The house was sleeping, and the darkness outside imprisoned the windows. I started to read a Hemingway short story, "Fathers and Sons". Besides this one there are several others from that period, "Summer People", for instance, that though rarely anthologized are unusual. As was this starless morning for me, these stories are dark, almost sinister. Their realism is blunt, direct. Many of the details are the last that would come to mind when you think about beauty. But the style is precise, clean, gritty, in the vernacular, mostly common words given a new light by their correct use and setting. It taps the pure fount of American English to a fault, the which, I might add, in this case written by a globe trotting linguist who in the greater part of his life seemed to avoid the country of his origin. This story and some of the other later masterpieces seem more intensely autobiographic than the early stories that we read in school. Does the middle-aged Hemingway, several times husband and father, eschew the imagination for the actuality of more immediate memories? Perhaps the time lost between the conception and the execution was shorter. When we are young the stories bank up fast, so it may be ten years or more before a certain conception is dealt with, then the original impression is dulled by time — and often becomes less painful to deal with. More complex still are stories forgotten about which suddenly emerge into memory as if from nowhere. When we are old, why not write what happened yesterday because what else is there? So time has no time to dull the original experience. No matter how you do it...the fresh colloquialism "alternatively" comes to mind: you may do it this way or alternatively you may do it another way...wait for the execution to come, or do it day after tomorrow, armed with copious journal notes...you will get nowhere without somehow rounding up for yourself an intellect. It is a subject I have wondered about since I was nineteen: what is intellect and how do you get it? By intellect, I don't mean the general intelligence you are born with. We are all smart enough: some do better in life, others do better in school, some manage, others get lucky, every dog will have his day, and so on. So this is what I was thinking about as the darkness encasing my window began to lighten. One day long ago I asked Hannah Arendt if you had to read every book in the library before you could start writing. She said, "No!" To this day I am not embarrassed by that question. The professors who were protecting her from the student peasantry like thugs a despot were embarrassed that they had not caught the crazy kid in time. As the years passed and I ran into a few more literary people, I admired Ms. Arendt more for that blunt, one word answer than for her numerous famous books. A blunt answer to a blunt question is a rarity. Now the sun has risen, filling my dooryard with light, as I knew it would. It is one thing I am certain of. The dawn I am certain of; but how a Tolstoy or a Yeats or a Hemingway came to be I can only guess. Maybe one day someone will explain it to me.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Everybody knows I am addicted to lists. This is my T-day list:
1. First freedom, this above all. Praise to democratic man!
2. Don't forget error. How can you explain it? Just because there are two points of view, why does that have to mean that one is in error?
3. If you do anything mistakes happen, and they are essential. Get over it.
4. If a website doesn't open, don't spend ten hours trying to get in. Forget about it and try again tomorrow. A lot of things are like that.
5. It is not true that you don't know anything. It is true that you don't know much.
6. The way of doing something you are most familiar with may not be the right way or even the way you'd want to use.
7. It is better to have somebody pass you the potato than to be damned to taking it for yourself.
8. Congratulate yourself. You have made it this far.
9. Don't trust in God. Figure it out for yourself.
10. There's more than one dog show in town. And every dog will have its day.
11. An empty room is not perfect, it is empty.
Have a great Thanksgiving from StoryNoir, me Pablo.