Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Writing tips. And more writing tips...

A while back I wrote a post about Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. I also wrote a piece on How Not to Write About Sex.

For those still looking for more rules (how to and how not to), here are some more splendid writing tips from the Guardian from the likes of Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Anne Enright and more--because, seriously, who can get enough rules for writing?

Especially if one is avoiding writing by studying the rules for writing--and neglecting the first rule: just do it (apologies for the Nike tie-in).

Margaret Atwood on plot

Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

Anne Enright on persistence

The first 12 years are the worst.

Richard Ford on the writing life

Don't have children.

Jonathan Franzen on the Web

It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

Zadie Smith on revision

When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

Jeannette Winterson on ambition

Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.

Neil Gaman on readers' critiques

Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

These aren't the best excerpts. In fact, Anne Enright's are worth executing in their entirety. "Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn't matter how "real" your story is, or how "made up": what matters is its necessity."

And, as a final tip, be assured that you'll be able to return to this blog for more wrting tips. And even more tips after those.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing tip no. 3,046: Sam Shepherd and voices and cowboy mouths

Voice. How to hear it, how to speak it, how to write it?

Some are lucky in that voice or voices seem to possess them in such an overwhelming (yet perhaps unforgiving) way. Think Rimbaud, Kerouac, Virginia Wolf, William Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry—all of the mad caps of literature.

But whether voice possessed them like a poltergeist or not, they had to honor the voice, listen to it, give it form. The voice didn’t just speak itself.

This is all to say that I don’t think writers should be too mystical about voice. I don’t think Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses” is the path, just a path. One might seize upon voice through prayer, or, I don’t know, jogging, crocheting, sipping tea.

Voice is a commitment. To hear it you simply have to privilege listening to it over the din of the other noises in your life.

I’m thinking about voice because I just read the profile of Sam Shepherd in the Feb. 8 New Yorker. It’s always interesting when someone like Shepherd emerges out of nowhere, literally stepping off a bus in New York City in 1963, unread, unschooled, unconnected, and then he writes such a tangle of compelling stories, seemingly without the tortured ambition and wrangling with revisions that others muscle through.

He’s one of those blessed (or cursed) naturals. Because he listened.

“I had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression, that there was a voice that wasn’t being voiced,” he said.

Is there any better definition of the first powerful impulse to be a writer?

“There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. I felt kind of like a weird stenographer….There were definitely things there, and I was just putting them down. I was fascinated by how they structured themselves.”

Shepherd’s plays grow out of a certain beat tradition, the words, characters, and structures spawning from his trust in the more intuitive forces of creation.

“You find all the rhythms and the melody and the harmonies and take them as they come,” he says.

Such a raw trust in voice seems absent in most of the stuff I read these days (with the exception of Roberto Bolano). I suppose the easy answer is that we’re living in the age of MFA programs and social networking and email. Authors are well-read and schooled and connected. Our age of writing is very practiced, very intentioned. Stories tend to be neat, not messy. It takes a very brave writer to trust in the voice more than the structure, the sale, the marketing, etc.

I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.

The article includes so many of Shepherds voices as he chronicles “the whacked out corridors of broken-off America.”

People want a street angel. They want a saint with a cowboy mouth.”

Shepherd also provides a nice angle on characterization: “I preferred a character that was constantly unidentifiable.”

An author shouldn’t answer for a character’s behavior, in other words, or at least not entirely. These are the people we’re compelled by in real life—the ones that don’t fit into our expectations. The ones who trouble us.

It fits with a quote I remember reading from Shepherd over 20 years ago: “Always write within a contradiction.”

Voices colliding…

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Literary Drunks and Addicts and Scourges

What do William Burroughs, Ayn Rand, James Baldwin, Jim Carroll, and Louisa May Alcott have in common? They all enjoyed substances, whether alcohol, amphetamines, or absinthe (or all of the above).

LIFE Magazine has put together a slideshow collecting portraits of some of history’s most notorious literary dabblers in all varieties of substances (and some of the photos are even for sale, for those who like to hang drunken authors on their walls).

We love our literary addicts, don't we? It's almost a shame the tradition is dying. I certainly don't want to be an advocate for addiction, but there's something a bit dismaying about the image of contemporary writers at 24 Hour Fitness, keeping a calorie count on the elliptical, dallying over organic salads afterward, turning down a second glass of wine at the weekend's dinner party.

There's a magnificent photo of Dorothy Parker (one of my favorite artistes of the drunken barb), as she bangs away at a typewriter, her eyes and jowels all full of the bags of a weary, joyous life of revelry and damnation--and then there's a wonderful view of the countryside behind her, a man who looks like Rock Hudson lounging in the next room. But she's writing, writing and writing and writing.

James Baldwin's eyes pop out in the livliest, most electrified way.

Jean Cocteau is being lifted to heaven (or taking a roundabout way to hell).

You've gotta live, right? Or you've gotta die to write.

Consider thes quotes--which might be more magnificent (or downright disturbing) than the photos:

You just got to see that junk is just another nine-to-five gig in the end, only the hours are a bit more inclined toward shadows. -- Basketball Diaries

I'm Catholic and I can't commit suicide, but I plan to drink myself to death."

-- Jack Kerouac

To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving.

-- Jean Cocteau

Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you're allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It's like killing yourself, and then you're reborn. I guess I've lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now."

--Charles Bukowski

I'm an alcoholic. I'm a drug addict. I'm homosexual. I'm a genius.

--Truman Capote

Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off.

--Raymond Chandler

We'll leave the drinking right there. With all of the clothes off. Drama shall ensue.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by August Kleinzhaler

All reviews are a reckoning of expectations. In this case, my expectations were perhaps too high for The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by San Francisco poet August Kleinzhaler.

One, there’s Kleinzhaler, who was awarded the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry for Sleeping it Off in Rapid City—a must-read book for me after reading the reviews.

Then there’s his tantalizing title for the collection, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, that promises a skewed, evanescent, shady vision of our lives in motion and a probing of what travel means.

And finally, and most importantly, there’s the gripping first poem that’s eponymous with the title of the collection.

The markets never rest

Always they are somewhere in agitation

Pork bellies, titanium, winter wheat

Electromagnetic ether peppered with photons

Treasure spewing from Unisys A-15 J mainframes

Across the firmament

Soundlessly among the thunderheads and passenger jets

As they make their nightlong journeys

Across the oceans and steppes

I might venture to say that this short stanza defines the movements and machinations of the world as accurately and evocatively as any 50 words could.

Kleinzhaler combines the words of commerce, capitalism, technology, and nature in such a criss-cross of restless movement that it makes me feel life as a strange force—both mechanistic and natural—beyond our understanding (and this was before the economic crisis of the last year—he easily could have sprinkled in “mortgage derivatives,” etc. to signal another wild weave of the pattern).

The poem goes on to relate the life of our strivings, our production, to nature itself in its metaphors— “Nebulae, incandescent frog spawn of information,” and “Like an enormous cloud of starlings”—while still evincing the essential loneliness one can experience in such a world through a simple image: “The lights of the airport pulse in the morning darkness.”

I wanted every poem in the collection to riff on these themes, to rise in a crescendo—or perhaps a swarm—of similar startling and telling images. Alas, I don’t think any of the rest of the poems in the collection are nearly as good, which isn’t to say that they aren’t good.

“The Old Poet, Dying,” touches on a different kind of travel—the fadings in and out of one leaning toward the grave. Fragments. Memories. Bodily functions. Strange TV shows. Stories and nurses.

Kleinzhaler is best when he’s focused as a witness, either to another’s story or as an observer of the world; his poems become less compelling the more personal they are.

In “Citronella and Yellow Wasps,” he’s fortunately on the road again, much as he is in “The Strange Hours Travelers Keep,” and he patches together images of I-35, Austin into a fragmented blur of the crazy yet sometimes disturbing beauty of the American road, whether it’s methamphetamine, NASCAR, or Jesus.

Before the heat and after

The little pink beeper ship and the flamingo

In the logo

Same color as the icing on the cookies inside

And the votive candles that heal bad sprains

Also, the billboards overhead

Through the dusty branches

Big square decals mounted against sky

A bit of nose here, some lettering

Jesus or barbecue

Exit 205

Cobalt blue background cut out of sky

Kleinzhaler writes without judgment; his poems are at once critique and appreciation. America’s kooky, yet sometimes menacing road images become totems of a traveler’s appreciation in “An Englishman Abroad.” Our talk radio hosts go with “coral pink” sunsets in a way that no other country can match.

In such travels, a placelessness can ensue. As he says in “On Waking in a Room and Not Knowing Where One Is,”

Cities each have a kind of light,

a color even,

or set of undertones

determined by the river or hills

as well as by the stone

of their countless buildings.

I cannot yet recall what city this is I’m in.

It must be close to dawn.

The book closes with a bang—or more than a bang actually. The definition of travel shifts to those marauding bands of yesteryear, “attached to their ponies like centaurs,” and the strange hours they keep are spent in a similar pattern as the opening poem, except they’re pillaging places, destroying buildings they never aspire to live in. It’s a vicious poem, full of “Ripping the ears off of hussars and pissing in the wounds.”

We’re born with an urge to pillage, to travel. Creative destruction. Destructive creation.

Perhaps I liked the book more than I thought I did.

Watch video of Kleinzhaler reading: