Dumping Your Detritus

A coming of age story set in Canada’s far north. A reporter who becomes embroiled in political intrigue and responds by having a monkey’s tail surgically attached to his lower spine. A depressed would-be something who struggles through his days making a living writing pornography scripts. A fully completed graphic novel that includes zero illustrations. False starts, dead stories, paths not taken, work abandoned. Flotsam and jetsam.

The above list are just a few of the projects that I’ve let go with varying degrees of emotional commitment involved and to differing judgments of regret and relief. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and sometimes it’s very good that they don’t. About two years ago I wrote a post called “Renewal, or Resurrection?” that also considered work that was thought lost, gone, out of sight and out of mind, looking at the issue from two distinct angles: the first about a series of translations that simply got tucked away and then fortuitously published a quarter-century later when world circumstances happened to become such that they were suddenly in demand, and the second about a book that was frankly determined not to be good enough and was therefore better off dead (there’s some nostalgia for you). That previous post offered – or could be interpreted as offering – the happy notion that one never knows, that something might occur and that all those burned pages might magically re-integrate. Maybe, but that’s been said (rather, written) already and so in this post we’ll look elsewhere. And that “elsewhere” is – you guessed it – the bin.

It takes courage to admit that a project isn’t working out or is no longer worth what is required to be put in. Life, it’s true, can seem like a chore, it can feel like an endless demand of time that needs to be filled in some manner, and there is no doubt that a literary undertaking will eat up gobbles of time, easily disappearing whole days, weeks, months, years. Yet surely if one is only after idling away the moments that awareness thrusts upon us there are better ways of doing it than by plugging away mercilessly at a keyboard when all interest has evaporated and any long-term plans have shifted or been thrust aside. One needn’t necessarily hit the old “delete” button, but “close file” might in fact be just what is called for. How to decide on that? Brutal, unflinching self assessment, and maybe too a trustworthy second opinion. Is this a keeper? Why? How? No? Well my friend, I’m afraid it’s a case of catch and release. And then?

Then fate unfolds. The days spin on and the question marks keep presenting themselves. Back to it? Another way? Transformation? Regeneration? A final wave goodbye? No matter how things fall out what was put in has become a part of the personal past that we all call “my writing”. Good or bad, lively or dull, engaged and engaging or left aside and unloved: steps on the way. “On the way to what?” of course being the most open query there is, but soon or sooner every writer will be able to answer that. Looking back on where she’s been from where she is now, perspective is the most any of us can ask for. There might be pride in that, even joy, but then there might also be nothing but a shrug of the shoulders. Our false starts – if we can call them that – will nevertheless be a part of our stories, our lived stories, in the book that our parents christened with all of their hopes and dreams much as we do with our texts, eyes filled with the same mixture of love and worry. Letting go can be hard, yes, but holding on could be much worse.

 

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Rehabilitating Nihilism

Nihilism is one of those terms that has lost its niche, a word whose associative network of concepts and symbolisms has gone adrift and failed to find a new mooring. In the popular imagination it used to be tightly aligned with anarchy, with revolutionary fervor, with a rejection of the entire established order of things, and its utterance brought to mind scary-sounding and foreign names like “Bakunin”, in turn followed by a wild-eyed visage framed with flowing and unkempt hair pressing in on one’s mind. Call the authorities! Give me security! Keep me safe from these ruffians! (Photos of the man actually show a very calm and kind face, but he did have a great head of hair.) Yet then nihilism slipped and stumbled, anarchy moved on and discovered it never needed nihilism, from the start the two didn’t actually fit. Anarchy had its transcendence, its telos, but nihilism? It had so much of nothing that it didn’t even know what it had. And who needs nothing? Who fights for an abyss? Who champions a zero? Nihilism for a time was forgotten; anyway there was far too much else to do.

The existentialists, some phenomenologists, and a certain set of German theologians then re-discovered it, dusted it off and turned it over, working out its hidden nuances and potentialities. This meaninglessness could mean something, they thought, this idea might have some worth, some merit, some saving grace. It might even be a saving grace. No one could have foreseen that. (Except of course Nietzsche; possibly – probably – Kierkegaard.) Nihilism was something to go through, a kind of obstacle course for the spirit from which one emerged, if one emerged at all, expressly stronger and more capable, more fully oneself and much less a product of the time and place you screamed your way into at birth. (A tangent: How appropriate is the fact that we greet life by coming into it with a wail?)

Among artists we writers must be the most anti-social lot, the most inwardly gazing, the most internally obsessed. Locked up in our heads and keeping likely far too much to ourselves we observe – creepily, stalkingly; menacingly? – the world around us and then put something onto paper for reasons that even if known cannot really be fathomed in any kind of rational sense. (Leaving out writing purely for pay, naturally. Bread on the table makes a lot of rational sense.) In the end life can seem merely a passing of the time, especially if one considers each of us separately and takes individual pursuits as non-contributory. There might be much more at work though, and all of our little nonsenses may in fact be building towards something larger, something emergent. That isn’t a conclusion you can just be handed however, it needs to be felt to really be embraced, and the viewpoint behind it needs a nudge to get it going. That nudge is nihilism.

We write about lives, we craft stories wherein this happens to that person and they react with such and such. Or we pen essays and arguments that explore the human condition, but it all still boils down to this happening to that person and the reaction of such and such. Human beings, really every living creature and the entire interlocked and unfolding cosmos, are exemplars of repetition par excellence. Keeping one’s eyes locked on one’s own life and its winding trajectory quickly engenders a deadening pointlessness, and it’s no wonder the answer to this has so often been a pining for a better world elsewhere, either postmortem or post-revolution or post-fill-in-the-blank. We’ve got to get there! But then nihilism grabs you by the shoulders and your mind snaps back to – what?

Perspective, a shifted world, a climb up the ladder, a stepping out of the well and into the light. Or the reverse; darkness can after all be its own luminosity. Real writing needs hard thinking, and that is often neither easy nor pleasant. The experience of and the wrestling with nihilism offers a tour de force down this path, but it certainly isn’t for everyone. Of any group of people though, I’d wager that writers stand to benefit the most from it. We are reflective by nature and therefore suited to the battle ahead, pre-oriented to find our way. What might appear on the other side is admittedly unpredictable, and we could well ruin ourselves and/or our art in the process, but transformation requires risk, and there is no resurrection without first hanging oneself Odin-like on the tree. The story goes that after nine days he looked down and found the runes – can we?

 

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Seriousness

Artists, speaking generally and fairly stereotypically, tend to view their creative works in the long term. At least, this is the case amongst the people I’ve interacted with, and especially so for writers. Legacy is an issue for many, and the thought of their efforts “standing the test of time” or “being remembered” or remaining as a “gift to the ages” or as the proof of “leaving my mark on the world” is a major motivator. Such ideas are natural, perhaps, and it might be that any creature with a sufficiently developed sense of ego will tend towards them, but in the end this type of concern must be seen for what it is: self-defeating. Ironically so, of course, given that the core concern here is not the work per se but the self who formed the work. In many ways we humans are messed up animals. Beautifully tragic might be the positive spin, cripplingly self-obsessed the negative. Even our brightest stars can be subject to this trait (or failing, depending on how charitable one wishes to be), as a biography of Kurt Vonnegut revealed in its portrayal of a man who rather bitterly and tellingly asked the biographer to look up his name in a dictionary and, not finding it, to then look up Jack Kerouac’s, which was listed. “How about that?” Vonnegut asks.

We are ever so serious, and we take ourselves that way, but not only ourselves. We also take our work as reflections of our selves, and our work’s worth (judged externally or internally) as indicative of our own worth as people, as living beings with all of our many complexities. Could there possibly be a more potent recipe for misery than this? It’s just asking for trouble, particularly in the case of outside determinations as surely reception is one area beyond anyone’s control – even a shred of control. The best that could be done would be to increase one’s chances by essentially playing the lottery as many times as possible and hoping to sooner or later hit on a winner. Fate, it spins its thread (or, truer to the cultural roots invoked here, The Fates, they spin their thread), and on its fibers our lives dance and twist, rising and falling inexorably as we struggle to make some sense of it all. But I think there is sense to be had – when it comes to one’s work anyway – some sense and some purpose, although first we’ve got to get over ourselves, get over our selves.

Finitude: embrace it. The lesson of the existentialists, the smirk and the wink at absurdity. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” writes Camus, and indeed we must, for if we don’t then we find ourselves stuck in the same rut as that poor hero. If it is, in the end, all a rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again, all a repetitive straining that gains nothing of any significance or lasting value, then what’s the point? Certainly not chasing fame, certainly not daydreaming of immortality. We will be forgotten, and everything we’ve produced will wilt and fade, even if it does outlast our physical bodies to some degree and even if it does outlast our physical bodies to a great degree (we are, after all, still talking about Shakespeare – although will we still in a thousand years? Ten thousand?). Yet now we are alive and we are making something with our being alive – that is a wonder. The process, the act, the experience, the journey of it; who could ask for more? Who could expect more – why and how wisely?

For life itself and so for the labors of life. The fruits of our efforts are not in what they might or might not bring, rather they are in the efforts themselves, they are the efforts themselves. We lighten up! We sit to write with a sloppy grin on our faces for in all the wide world we have this, now: a keyboard, a typewriter, a pencil and a pad, an idea and a brain and a hand or two that can tell it. What a stunningly generous gift we have received, what a blessing it is to be breathing and to be capable of that to which we choose to put ourselves. There is no call for the frowning futurist here, only the silly person of the moment, the shouting and singing presentist twirling out a Dionysian jig and tossing afar her words in freedom and abandon. Come what may, she says, today I create, today I do.

 

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Story seeds, Planning, and Intuition

It’s happening again. The bug, the itch, the fever: you know what I mean. An idea has taken root, a seed has been planted, a tiny sliver of green has sprouted. A writing project, another one. Am I mad? I must be, I’ve only hardly finished my last and here I am jotting down notes and juggling ideas for another one. What is wrong with me?

The same, I’d wager, that’s wrong with you. Writing, it gets under the skin, it’s in the blood, the DNA, whatever it is if it’s a part of you then – for better or for worse – it’s a part of you. There’s no doubt that being struck by a concept, a storyline, an intriguing character, and/or all of the above, carries with it a great deal of excitement. This time of early planning is probably the most enjoyable part of the whole process, really, for as we all know the distance from first idea to final book is a vast stretch, and along that path the horizon always seems to be shrinking further and further away. Little lies between here and there but pain and suffering; but oh the sweetness of these instants now. We dare to savor them.

Each of us will no doubt approach this “seeding” phase differently, depending both on the type of project in mind and on personal nuances related to writing and working habits. For myself I like to keep any initial planning fairly loose – doodles or sketches more than anything else – in order to give my preconscious mind, my intuitive brain, time to mull everything over. I avoid setting any deadlines, and most definitely any defined starting and ending dates, as experience has taught me that such are almost never met and tend to create far more stress than is either necessary or helpful. And after all, if this half daydreaming, half structural framing period is the most fun then why not let it stretch itself out? See where it goes, see where your heart takes it before it really takes it as the characters begin their interactive dances, their confrontations, collaborations, highs and lows and all that passes between.

Here once more is where I think intuition demonstrates its strength. The non-rational, non-actively engaged mind is able to process many millions more pieces of data than the rational mind is (this has to do partially with the confines of the working memory; there is quite a bit of very interesting research in this area in the fields of psychology and cognitive science), the only catch being that access to it is limited to what bubbles up into one’s awareness. That is, we cannot rationally choose what our non-rational (preconscious) mind will deliver to us, we simply take it once it has been given and then, if we are sufficiently thoughtful, chew it over a bit before deciding or acting on it. What this potentially means for the early stages of a writing project is that one allows one’s inner machinery to chug along on its own, only putting in those core kernels, those seeds, and then more or less waiting to see what happens. Although the preceding might be one of the least romantic ways of describing the creative process I think that for what it’s worth that essentially hits the nail on the head. On top of that, of course, is the added factor that the initial idea itself, the originary germination (to put it needlessly technically), is anyway almost certainly a product of that selfsame procedure. For me, for this time, it all started on my walk to catch the tram to work in the morning when I happened to spot something while traversing an overpass. What was it? Well, you’ll have to wait for the book to come out… Wink!

Our projects, they define us to a certain extent, certainly they give shape and meaning, and likely purpose, to our days. They come and go and come again, and there are times when we abandon them, just as there are times when we slog through no matter how hard the going gets. Whether or not a story is worth telling is probably something that will reveal itself as it is being told – at least to its writer, but then no one else may agree with said writer’s verdict. Nevertheless, when a seed is in the soil, when a plan is in the works, when the inner heart is engaged in doing what it does best, those are moments to cherish, and not just because they cannot last.

 

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Experiential Reading

Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry was that which cannot be paraphrased, and by defining it that way he added his considerable literary weight to the debate on the topic of form-content unity. By this definition he might in fact have started that debate, I don’t know and purely for reasons of unnecessary self-restraint will refrain from Googling it. Whatever the case, the idea is a very interesting one: Can the expression of something be so tied in with the how of its expression that the two cannot be split? That is, cannot be split without losing the meaning of what is being expressed. The contours of the argument are pretty plain to see, and a few moments’ reflection can give one plenty of ammunition for both sides. Intriguing though is the related thought that in focusing on meaning kept or meaning lost we may after all be looking in the wrong place.

What is a text’s meaning? If language is a communicative tool then it must be the content of that attempted communication, the meat and bones of it. If in writing we are trying to “say” something (given the context it’s an oddly placed verb, I know, but that’s convention for you) then that something must surely be sayable in another way if it is there at all. Take this short stanza from the poem “Thaw Compass” in Joseph Massey’s Illocality, for example (found on page 76):

March rain snow thaw
crumpled metal sign stuck
gravel-grained mud   mulch
ground to dust over sidewalk divots

The meaning here could very easily be paraphrased, in prose form or any number of ways; it is after all a description of a natural scene. It could be paraphrased, that is, but could the whole of it be? Things here start to get a bit more interesting. Let’s try: “Rainfall in March has caused the leftover snow to thaw. There is a misshapen metal sign stuck in some mud that has bits of gravel in it. There is also some mulch that has been stepped on or otherwise crushed and is spread over bits of broken pavement.” That certainly gives the meaning of the poem, but not much else. Our prose-ification does seem to be missing something, and missing a great deal. What has been lost?

It is of course the experience of reading Massey’s work that has gone by the wayside. His framing of the scene, his meter, his grammatical compounding, even his use of spacing (note the extras preceding “mulch”) to offset reader flow and thereby insert a mental break, all are missing from the paraphrase. The meaning may have been maintained but the magic is gone. In a sense, then, we are tempted to conclude that the real unity involved in form-content unity might be experiential and have little or nothing to do with meaning per se. If we take this approach it has the added advantage of appearing to work for all kinds of poems, even those in the Dada tradition where nonsense and the irrational are prized. Extending this beyond poetry we might wish to further the case by stating that any reading is primarily about the felt experience of that reading at that time and only secondarily about actual textual meaning. Would that though imply that the communicative efforts made by the author had been diminished or nullified? I don’t think so, for surely a part of any communication is the way it makes its recipient feel, and in favoring that aspect we do not need to affect any of the other elements involved.

Does Pound’s definition stand? Given the above I don’t see how it could, and that is because of the meaning of paraphrase itself. To paraphrase is simply to restate alternatively, to give the same meaning in different words, and if a poem does have a communicative content (acknowledging here that many poems do not, e.g. some Dada poems but not only them) then that content could conceivably be put in any number of ways and still assert the same thing (more or less). What cannot be translated – as it were – is the emotional movement generated by the structure of the writing, but that is not an issue of paraphrase. It is instead one of phenomenology, one of awareness of the internal, one of life now. And when it comes to reading that, I think, is really where our attention ought to be.

 

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There Is Only the Work

In carrying on with our recent theme of finding value in the doing (and on that, here too), consider the well known writer’s coping mechanism (or happy delusion, willful illusion, nighttime solace, etc. etc. and take your pick) of “famous when dead”. It has of course happened, and the historical examples are sufficiently numerous that it’s easy for anyone to think of a few off the top of their heads. A book’s journey through the world, once it has made those first tentative post-publishing steps, is an unpredictable affair that is so thoroughly entangled with many multiple threads of the historical tapestry that not even chaos theorists or macro-statisticians have much hope of making a reasonable forecast. What happens is what happens, and what that might turn out to be is anyone’s guess. This means either that, depending on one’s half-full or half-empty inclinations, there is a great deal of room for hope or very little – but that dichotomy doesn’t allow for a middle ground. Foolish optimist or hard-nosed realist? Disappointingly shattered or pleasantly surprised? If it’s “famous when dead” then naturally none of the above: a gravestone is a hard border for information on readership or distribution (freebies and/or sales) to bypass. What is the writer to do?

Legacy. Since we create works with at least some potential to last (be it in digital form, paper, or otherwise) the temptation is always there to concentrate overmuch on what’s been left behind, on what one has given to (burdened?) the world. Putting attention there is a focus on results, uncontrollable results, and it is also to equate personal worth with third party appreciation. Again, what happens is what happens, and if a piece of writing’s readership cannot be guessed at then how could the reactions of other people possibly be? As artists we all know this, yet there remains that voice in the back of the head, that refrain of “What if” or “This time” or “Famous when dead” – but at least famous, at least acknowledged, at least read. Loved? What is this drive that possesses us, this yearning to play the toddler to the world’s caring mama and cry out, “Look at me! See what I’m doing! What I’ve done!” Undeniably the desire is there, and even when faced, even when you think you’ve finally got it beat, it can haunt like little else. In the meantime what remains?

The work – there is only the work, there has only ever been the work, there can only ever be the work. Writing must be its own reward, and not the final product, not even the feel of the last typed page and closing edits. If there is little real or long-term comfort to be found in reception (and even a very good reception cannot last forever nor be uniform in its accolades) then there is equally little to be had in the pleasure one gets from glancing at one’s own books on the shelf. They are there and you made them, yes, but so what? What now? Ahh, there it is, we have at last hit the nail on the head: What now, indeed. Now is for what one does next, now is for the shape of one’s resolve, now is for the strength of one’s grit. A writer writes, that is how a writer engages the world in which she is sunk, and there can be no two bones about it. If joy cannot be found in the act then absolutely anything resultant will be even more hollow than what has already been outlined in the above. Meaningless and empty, nowhere near being satisfactory, and quite possibly a gigantic waste of whatever time was invested. And that is our one real commodity, for however we choose to spend our time is how we actively make ourselves. It must be the doing, the process, the highs and lows, the losses and triumphs that occur along the way and only during the way, not the failures or successes that strike the finished object. All we have is what we do, all else is beyond our control, beyond our means, beyond our persons. Hope is not even relevant here, wishing has no relation to anything. The work is its own reward not in the sense of what is held in the hands nor even in the gratification of a job thought to be well executed, but only in that execution. Writing – one keystroke after another, one swipe of the pen to the next. Therein lies a writer’s happiness, therein lies a writer’s life.

 

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Intrinsic Rewards

There’s a scene in the lead up to the climax of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre where the Autodidact character – in this part of the novel essentially playing the foil to the lead character Antoine Roquentin, in whose first person perspective the book is written – reveals that he is a Socialist and that he thinks that, like him, Roquentin lives for “the people”, and further that the historical biography Roquentin has been writing is perhaps also being done for “the people”. Roquentin, for his part, sees in the Autodidact all of the humanists he has ever known, of all the varying stripes of humanism, and internally derides the lot. He denies that this is why he writes, to which the Autodidact then rather predictably challenges him with, “Would you write on a desert island? Doesn’t one always write in order to be read?” (From the “Wednesday” section, page numbers will vary with versions; incidentally, this entire commentary is made somewhat more interesting by the fact that only a few years later Sartre’s famous lecture and essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” would appear.)

That old chestnut. It’s a topic that comes up often for any writer, and it’s been considered here a number of times over the years as well. (Way back in our archives is this post, and much more recently this one.) It’s a question, the question, that we all must struggle with, and what I think helps to put some perspective on it is the nature of the rewards being sought, or anyway the nature of the potential rewards of any (creative) endeavor. Those rewards come in two stripes: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic rewards are in part indefinable as they tend to be emotionally-based and wholly, or almost wholly, internal. The joy of doing I suppose would be one way to put it, or the pleasure taken from the activity while the activity is being undertaken. This joy or pleasure or bliss or “high” or whatever one wishes to call it may last beyond the time of the actual engagement, but it just as well may not. If it does last then it will be a lingering pleasant subtlety, perhaps something like a feeling of satisfaction at having done it, or a sense of accomplishment. Neurologically speaking there is probably dopamine or another brain reward chemical involved, but I’m not sure so don’t quote me on that.

External rewards, on the other hand, are what the Autodidact and everyone else on planet Earth is typically focused on. Readers, riches, fame, adoration, flirtations at cocktail parties with the debonair literary flame, book signings and speaking tours, fanzines and a whole scholarly cottage industry rolled out in your honor to dissect and celebrate your work. This is the stuff dreams are made of, and comparing a soft and fleeting notion of satisfaction or accomplishment with that is about as enticing as a frozen convenience store burrito over the real thing served fresh and steaming from a mom-and-pop Tex-Mex diner in El Paso.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that the first lies fully and always within reach while the second is attained by… Luck? Prayer? Beneficial circumstantial alignment? All of the above? Note that hard work goes into this no matter what kind of rewards come out of it. At least, hard work, discipline, and strenuous and continuous effort will go into it if one is anything close to being a dedicated writer. (If one is a scribbler, or a first-draft junkie, then maybe not. But any writer worth their salt will know.) The choice of what we chase is ours, and while the extrinsic does shine brightly, and while daydreams can be a lot of fun, I do think that it’s entirely possible to base one’s writing life solely and fully on the intrinsic aspects involved. Getting there likely does require equipping oneself with a fresh perspective, a point of view that hasn’t been born out of the capitalist claptrap we’re all surrounded by and indoctrinated with, and that process might well mean quite a bit of mental gymnastics, but it is possible. And given that we tend to appreciate what we can control a whole lot more than what we can’t, I’d also say it’s very much worth whatever it takes.

 

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A Writer’s Enemies

In last week’s post we considered some aspects of fictional enemies – more specifically the writing of villains – and in this week’s post I’d like to stay on the same general theme but move it out of our heads and into our hearts, from pages to people, from efiles to paper forms, from the easily escapable to the stubbornly present. Lurking closer than we might imagine these folk can torture us day and night, turning our passions into torments and our dreams into nightmares. As if our struggles weren’t enough as it is, we have these others whom we ignore only at our peril. Yet who are these enemies and what can a writer do about them?

We might think first and foremost that publishers are, can be, or maybe have become, our enemies. After all, they are the ones who determine what is printed and what is not, what is advertised and to what extent, what is packaged, prepared, and shipped, and what remains on the cutting room floor. With them we can add their in-house editors, of course, for the two are of a single money-obsessed package, and the only real goal they seemingly understand is the amassing of lucre. But is this an accurate view? Without publishers our shelves would be largely empty and our childhoods shorn of many wondrous afternoons lost between pages. Sure, publishing houses might not be what they used to, they might not even be necessary like they used to, but they have done us and all readers and writers alike who went before us a great service in expanding literature to the very roots of cultural and public life. Whatever our issues might be with individuals within the industry, publishing itself is not an enemy but instead a fellow traveler on a hard road.

Agents then, perhaps. These are the true gatekeepers, and these scoundrels parasitically attach themselves to anything that smells like an easy meal, a lifeline for their continued avoidance of any meaningful work and another sucker to disguise the fact that they themselves are talentless hacks who have been piggy-backing their way through life. On second thought though, no, agents are not to blame for anything. It was only by their expertise in a dizzying array of areas that our forebears were able to navigate the stormy waters of commerce, and that is the role they continue to fill, albeit in a shrunken way amidst very different circumstances.

It must be the critics. They are the ones who cannot even write and yet have the gall, the bombast, to tear down anyone and everyone who puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and dares to express themselves artistically. If they had any true ability they’d be writing themselves. Yet they can write, and many do write very beautifully, it’s just that their writing is of a more analytic bend, their minds are differently wired and their actually formidable prose otherwise formed. And were it not for critics all of us readers would often be at a loss, we would be less appreciative and less knowledgeable, and the literary world would certainly have less of a sound foundation.

Readers? They often misunderstand what we wish to say, they hurry through our texts and make no efforts at their own comprehension, demanding instead easy answers from us and nothing but feel-good happy endings. They treat the result of our years of painstaking labor as if it were a candy bar, easily and tastily consumed and then soon forgotten about. But this is nonsense, where would any writer be without readers? Responsibility for any misreadings ultimately lies at the writer’s own feet, and occasionally hearing from and interacting with one’s audience – however small or large – must be one of the few true joys to be had in any artistic endeavor. Readers are the real heroes in the entire set-up.

Ourselves, that’s who our enemies are. What are we doing with all this writing if we cannot conquer our own fallibilities? Why would we keep at it if we constantly look outward for someone or something to blame? Writing is not a forgiving enterprise, it is not a rewarding enterprise, it is very often not even an enjoyable enterprise. To paraphrase Orwell, no one would do it if she weren’t possessed by some daemon whose relentless commands she could neither purge nor ignore. We are obsessed, addicts, we cannot help ourselves, we just keep writing. Coming to terms with that facet of our natures, that is the real challenge. Overcoming and learning to live with (love?) ourselves, that is the adversary to best. Can we? It’s a years-long journey, I fear, and I for one know of no easy shortcuts. The way is open though, and asking to be trod.

 

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Writing Characters You Don’t Find Likeable

Villains. As a child I used to root for them in all of my favorite cartoons (memorably G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Transformers, and amongst them especially Destro and then later the denizens of Cobra-La when they were introduced). The good guys were just so bland, so one-dimensional, and their victories so banally predictable that even my young mind found it hard to root for them. Maybe it was the intrinsic appeal of cheering on the underdog, or the beautiful shine of all that struggle for all those lost causes that got to me. And if we’re honest, haven’t at least some of those bent on world domination arguably done much good with the bad when a long view of history is taken? Cases can be made for Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and others. (Although those cases do require the almost impossible task of ignoring all that blood – but then who of our heroes have clean hands?) It is only a romanticized and indoctrinated view of democratic institutions as contemporarily practiced that make us think we’ve got it all worked out and that what is can be said to be “the best” (or, if one is more thoughtfully inclined, the “least bad”). Does it come down to a frame of mind?

Perspective, it’s unavoidable. So much so, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that our hopes for arriving at truly objective conclusions ought to be replaced by an acceptance of what I call perspectivism: that unavoidable view from within. Even the results of our most rigidly controlled empirical experiments will contain elements of (data) interpretation and analysis that are inevitably prejudiced in one way or another. Scientists of course make allowance for this in keeping their conclusions open and in welcoming criticism (most of the time, anyway), and we are grateful to them for that. The point remains, however, that there is no really undeniably solid ground upon which to stand. Thus it is that we operate solely out of our own blinkered headsets. And this is what we must keep in mind when writing.

Stories need character interaction, and interaction needs conflict. What is driving anyone along if not goals, objectives, and the obstacles on the way? Even within a plot wherein everyone is friends and everyone is always on the lookout to help one another achieve their cherished X there will be something to overcome – else why tell the tale at all? “Once upon a time there was a young girl who wanted to do Y and her friend helped her and she did it.” My eldest daughter – nearly five now – insists on daily bedtime stories from me, can you imagine how she’d react if I offered that up? The results would be disastrous.

Everyone acts nobly from their own point of view (or at least justifiably), and that, I think, is the key to writing characters that serve necessary roles within your work vis-a-vis your main character(s) but whom you personally may find less than savory. These characters too, whether “villains” in the traditional sense or not, are also acting with their own interests in mind and in the real world very rarely do such ever include the complete and absolute disregard of others. When they do, in fact, we look for diagnoses of psychopathy and expect to find them. Humans are simply not, on the whole, built to behave that way. However warped or embittered or self-regarding any particular character’s perspective may have become there will be a long history of experiences and considerations behind it, and all of that will exist for the character on conscious and preconscious levels. She will move out of her past as she has been shaped by it and as she has adjusted to it in countless ways rationally and intuitively. Surely as we write her we can find some empathy within ourselves. After all, not even cartoon villains are without their charms.

 

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A Poem a Day

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) spent almost the entirety of his life within a fairly small geographical circle of the Northeastern United States. He was primarily employed as an executive for an insurance company based in Hartford, Connecticut, born into a wealthy family, son of a lawyer and studied law himself at the New York Law School. He married a woman his parents objected to (considering her low class), and had a daughter fairly late into his middle years. They lived in a white, two-storey home and vacationed in Key West, Florida. All of that reads as being terribly unremarkable, and even just typing out the description has left me on the edge of boredom. His life, like yours and mine, was passed in an endless series of routines and small comforts, of quiet expectations met and three square meals a day, taking the dog for an extra long outing on Sunday afternoons. Yet he was also a poet, and is said to have written as steadily as the rest of what he did. He walked to work and wrote one poem a day. Here are two stanzas from his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“:

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

There are many things that could be written about this poem, many ways to parse its lines and analyze its phrases, to lift up and out and observe its words, carefully, delicately. That, however, is not our task, for what interests me most about this seemingly staid and oh-so-average, oh-so-white man of the nineteenth into twentieth centuries is how he incorporated his writing into the fabric of his life. I do not know if it is actually true whether he wrote a single poem per waking day, and the fact of the matter hardly seems to mean anything. What he did was to make writing a central part of his life, within the confines of that life as circumstances dictated to him. He made the deliberate choice to honor and enact his desire to write, but he did not place it on a romantic pedestal nor ask more of it than it could provide for him – and in his case that provision was essentially personal and probably mostly hidden. He did publish his works, starting with a collection called Harmonium in 1923, but it sold terribly and the run was remaindered. A measure of success greeted him in 1951 though when he won the National Book Award for Poetry, and then suddenly in 1955 it seems that the public caught up with him for he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (and the National Book Award again), only to die later that year. (Yet what good fortune to have been alive to receive the Pulitzer!) What must he have been thinking all those long years as he trod out his career in insurance and penned poem after poem after poem?

I’ve written here before on goals, objectives, targets, desired output and the like, and concluded that what is needed for the writing life is some kind of format, a steady structure – in whatever shape that might take – if it is to entail a “writing life” and not merely a “life with writing”. Stevens had that, and he had it in spades. What his personal motivations might have been is anyone’s guess, but it’s a safe bet that they weren’t externally oriented. He must have genuinely enjoyed writing all of those poems, and his own satisfaction kept him at it. Did he consider himself a poet? Was that an integral part to his identity, or did he see it more as a hobby? Those are important questions, but they are also impossible to answer. Impossible for us to answer for him, that is, but not so for ourselves. For us, each of us, we must face writing as it calls, look it in the eye, and decide what to do with it. Will we dance with it, flirt with it, give it a call on an empty Friday night, or set it up as the basis of our chosen lifestyle? Stevens had his response, and he lived that despite all the cold he must have felt from the literary world that surrounded him and clearly penetrated deeply into his thoughts. We must imagine that he passed his days contentedly, never even guessing – or caring – about that Pulitzer waiting so close to his grave.

 

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