Monday, August 13, 2018

The American Scene in Literature


There was a lively movement in the visual arts in the United States in the mid-twentieth century called The American Scene. This celebration of North American culture, landscapes, social life, and work reached its peak around 1930 with such paintings as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the murals of Thomas Hart Benton, the jazz-age cityscapes of Archibald Motley, and the Midwestern regional canvases of John Steuart Curry. The paintings and sculptures of this period boldly celebrated American life in a realistic style.

Grant Wood, Dinner for Threshers, 1943 (detail)
There were parallel developments in all the other arts in North America, and literature was definitely part of this movement. But this artistic focus on the New World was something of a revolt against what had previously prevailed in U.S. art. Again, literature was very much involved in this rebellion.

Before the rise of American Scene writers, literature in the United States was very much dominated by the sensibility that all that was typically North American was provincial, backward, and conservative. In novels such as Henry James’s The Ambassadors and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, everything that is Continental is sophisticated and forward-looking, while everything American is backward and narrow-minded. 

Henry James and Edith Wharton

Undoubtedly James and Wharton were accurately portraying the Puritanical sensibility they found in bourgeois American life. But the only alternative they could envision to that chauvinism and small-mindedness was the Old World sophistication of Europe.

The visual artists of The American Scene, on the other hand, were inspired by the work of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, who embraced the imagery and revolutionary history of their country over the abstractions of modernism.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, Detroit Institute of Arts (detail)

A parallel surfaced in North America writing, where authors began finding complexity and depth in local stories and in uses of language that were distinctively American. This movement was sparked by Sarah Orne Jewett’s tales of coastal Maine in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896); and by Willa Cather’s earliest novels of the Midwest, including O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915). African American writers began celebrating the music of Black English and the beauty of Black culture, initially in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose volumes of poetry, notably Majors and Minors in 1895, were some of the key works in this movement to celebrate North American life.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

So what do these literary currents mean for writers today? These two movements seem like polar opposites: the one exposes North American provincialism in favor of European savoir faire (Henry James, Edith Wharton, etc.), and the other lifts up specific U.S. regions and cultures (Jewett, Cather, Dunbar, etc.). But in some ways these currents that flow in opposite directions bubble from the same source. Both are seeking authenticity and freedom. The pro-European-sophistication writers seek these values by rejecting the narrow-mindedness of the Puritan worldview. The American Scene writers are praising more or less the same qualities in what is of the people, by the people, and for the people. As writers and literature enthusiasts today, we can appreciate both the revolt against provincialism by James and Wharton, and the truths and dynamism of regional and multicultural expressions in the writing of Jewett, Cather, Dunbar, and those who came after them.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Rework an Unfinished Project or Start Fresh?

Often as a writer you’re confronted with a choice between reworking a previous project that you set aside before completion, or starting from scratch with a new project. How do you decide which one to work on, particularly if your time is limited?

Part of that choice depends on how much effort you’ve put into the unfinished project. If you’ve devoted years of research into the historical background for a piece, and if you’ve already substantially drafted the work, I can see the rationale for not giving up on that project.

But to me the most important factor is whether the characters are speaking in your thoughts. A writer should be like Joan of Arc, hearing voices. 

Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ultimately, you listen to the conversations and arguments that your characters are having in your thoughts, as odd as that may sound. A piece of writing is alive if you can hear the characters speaking and see them doing things. If that isn’t happening, no amount of research, background, or planning can rescue a piece of creative writing.

I would suggest not getting fixated on securing a return on investment for a previous project, unless that project is alive and talking. In fact, you might complete a new project that is vital and active more quickly than trying to resuscitate a work that you no longer have a feel for, even if it is partially complete or researched.

Not all literary projects get finished, even if you devote years to them. Even if you finish a manuscript, it sometimes doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, and it can’t be sent to an editor or a producer, or it doesn’t get the response you’d wished for. In those cases, the best thing to do is to cut your losses, and start with a new project.


The good news is, ideas for literary projects are not numbered. They’re like waves: there’s always a new one arriving on shore. Not all waves are perfect, but there isn’t a limit on how many occur in your lifetime.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

How Long Does It Take to Finish a Piece of Writing?

It could take a few minutes to finish a work of literature, and it could take a few decades. It depends in part on your method of composition, and the texture of the text you’re weaving. (Both text and texture come from the Latin verb texere, to weave.) It also depends on how prepared you are to embark on the project you’ve selected.

One method of composition that the writer finishes rapidly is automatic writing, a technique invented by André Breton and the French surrealists.
 
Members of the surrealist group in Paris. André Breton is third from the left.
In automatic writing, the author dreams onto the page, allowing the subconscious to dictate to the hand. The writer deliberately attempts to write faster than s/he can think, letting the deepest parts of the mind create a spontaneous cascade of images:

And as a
Little girl
Caught in a bellows of sparkles
You jump rope
Long enough so that the one green butterfly that haunts the peaks of Asia
Can appear at the top of the invisible stairway
I caress everything that was you
In everything that’s yet to be you

André Breton, “I dream I see you endlessly superimposed upon yourself,” from The Air of the Water, in Earthlight, translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow

In this poem, Breton creates a dreamlike collage of his beloved at various moments in her life, layering each sequence on the next. To generate an image such as “You jump rope/Long enough so that the one green butterfly that haunts the peaks of Asia/Can appear at the top of the invisible stairway,” no amount of editing or rewriting is of use. Only the first-take, last-take method of writing, where the author doesn’t stanch the mind’s spring of creativity, is effective. Scholars have gone over Breton’s drafts and found that he edited very little. Ben Jonson famously said of the legend that Shakespeare never blotted a line of his scripts, “Would he had blotted a thousand!” Maybe Breton should have edited his writings more. But when the spontaneous method of composition works, it produces a unique and loose weave of language, an amazing texture that a more laborious method usually can’t reproduce. This is the few-minutes version of finishing a poem.

But there are other types of writing that require a much more time-consuming process. James Joyce reportedly took 17 years to write Finnegans Wake, and there is a story that he was still making edits until the publisher’s messenger snatched the overdue manuscript out of his hands. Elizabeth Bishop’s book The Complete Poems: 1927–1979 is all of 287 pages, meaning she only produced an average of one page of poetry every two months. 

Elizabeth Bishop
Certain types of writing just can’t be done quickly, because the texture of language requires a very tight weave that can only be accomplished with many drafts, and much revision:

The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.

Elizabeth Bishop, “At the Fishhouses”

Bishop’s exquisite description of the Favrile surfaces of the wheelbarrows does not seem like a momentary inspiration, but rather a meticulous accumulation of precise details combined with le mot juste, a carefully chosen phrase such as “plastered” or “coats of mail.” That’s the kind of writing that takes many drafts.

Another reason that a work of literature may need a long time to complete is that we often come up with ideas before we have the skill and knowledge to realize them. More than once, I’ve had the experience of rereading a poem I published decades before, and seeing that I had had a genuine impulse behind the poem, but I hadn’t gotten it right. The diction or the imagery or the ending weren’t quite what the original idea was pleading for. With more years of experience, I was able to revise a poem that I thought was complete, but really needed one or two more drafts.

So, how long does it take to finish a piece of writing? That’s a bit like asking how long it takes to fall in love. It might happen with a moment’s encounter, or it might be decades in the making.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, May 26, 2018

“Pay-to-Play” Now on the Increase in the Arts

The marketing world has long been familiar with the “pay-to-play” style of doing business. There are many websites and publications where articles are published or institutions are listed in rankings only when money changes hands. For instance, many magazines that cover issues of interest to lawyers charge contributors hundreds of dollars to publish an article, since authors displaying their expertise is a form of advertising their services to potential clients.

In the art world, people don’t like to talk about the growth of “pay-to-play.” Spending money to have your work reach the public smacks of self-promotion and vanity. But increasingly, and quietly, arts organizations are charging artists to present their work. Many literary publishers are asking writers to buy a certain number of books in order to cover their costs; more and more literary magazines, presses, and contests are charging ever-larger fees for submissions; many theaters are requiring playwrights and performers to pay for expenses such as space rental, tech services, and marketing; and some galleries are charging artists to show their work.

I don’t blame arts organizations for passing some costs along to artists. It’s not as if nonprofit theaters, publishers, and galleries are raking in big bucks that they’re hiding from artists. The arts organizations are under enormous financial pressures that have forced them to adopt the “pay-to-play” model, often against their own inclinations. I do think it’s worth discussing the “pay-to-play” phenomenon in the arts, though, because it has implications for whose work is presented, and how and when artists attempt to reach the public.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the arts were often supported by wealthy patrons. I recently visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, for example, and was reminded that Peggy Guggenheim supported a number of artists and writers in the mid-twentieth century, including the painter Jackson Pollock and the writer Djuna Barnes

Peggy Guggenheim
If you read the letters of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, you can see that he diligently corresponded with his numerous patrons, updating them on his artistic progress and requesting funds or places to work.

One cause of the current “pay-to-play” situation may be the increasing number of artists competing for funds and a public. For example, the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in North America began in 1972 with a couple of hundred attendees. The most recent conferences have all averaged well above 10,000 attendees. With so many artists vying for attention and venues to present their work, arts organizations have also proliferated. The funding sources for these organizations have not kept pace, and government support for the arts in the United States, for one, has declined or remained mostly flat for many years.

Another reason that arts organizations are asking artists for support is that the wealthiest philanthropists currently are finding other outlets for their gifts. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, for instance, we have recently seen a wave of hospital construction and rebuilding, including the stunning Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto; and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital renovation, both in San Francisco. Those are wonderful additions to our communities, and my own family has benefited from the fantastic care at one of these institutions. But where is the tech philanthropist who is going to support independent theaters or literary publishing? You don’t have to be in the arts to fund the arts. The Guggenheims didn’t make their fortune as surrealist painters, but Peggy Guggenheim helped surrealist painters by buying their work.

The downside of the current regimen in the arts is that many artists can’t afford to “pay-to-play.” Their work is at risk of being lost in today's art economy. Even those who can occasionally afford to fund-raise and use personal resources to launch a project in the arts may find that their ability to generate funds through crowdsourcing campaigns is not as great as their creative output, forcing them to limit the number and ambition of their projects.

I would like to see more discussion of “pay-to-play” in the arts, not to point fingers at nonprofit arts organizations, but to explore the implications of this phenomenon and to try to brainstorm alternatives.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Types of Closure, Part 4: The “Killer” Ending

One of the most dramatic methods of creating closure in a poem is to include a last line that is a dramatic revelation, a surprising or even shocking disclosure or insight that switches the entire mood of the poem. Poets often refer to this type of closure as a “killer ending.” This is the type of writing Emily Dickinson was describing in her famous letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

The killer ending takes the top of your head off because it says something so deep and so true in an artful way. The poet I think of first in the context of the killer ending is Sharon Olds, who has succeeded so many times in writing poems that end with deep revelations, often incredibly honest and personal.

Sharon Olds
In Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May 1937,” the speaker of the poem imagines traveling back in time to the period when her parents met and became a couple. Instead of being a happy and nostalgic moment, though, it is almost unbearably painful for the speaker:

I want to go up to them and say Stop,   
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,  
he’s the wrong man…
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die.

That is one of the darkest moments I can imagine. But the poem doesn’t end there. The speaker instead opts not to tell her parents what will happen, she even pushes her mother and father to conceive her, like a child playing with paper dolls. Olds finishes with this stunning line:

Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

When I first typed that line, I accidentally typed it as, “and I will write about it.” But no, that’s not the verb in the poem. The speaker is going to tell the story, like a parent speaking to a child. Telling is a more direct form of communication than writing.

That action of the speaker seems to redeem all the pain of her parents’ lives and of her own life. And all of that happens in the last line. Of course, Sharon Olds is an incredibly skillful poet, and she has been preparing us for this redemptive ending even before the poem’s first line. The poem’s title situates us in the month of May, in the renewing season of springtime. In the very first line of the poem, the speaker positions the parents, “standing at the formal gates of their colleges.” By placing the parents at gates, Olds both evokes the myth of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise for their sins, and creates a sense of something beginning, an entrance as well as an exit/exile. She is so brilliant!

In other words, the killer last line may seem totally unexpected the first time we hear it, but a good poet will subliminally create the possibility of that revelation from the very start of the poem. Otherwise a disclosure unrelated to the rest of the poem can seem as if it doesn’t belong. The perfect killer ending is one that the reader could never guess, which seems to come out of nowhere. And yet the killer ending feels moving, authentic, and connected to the rest of the poem in a way that is anything but obvious.


Types of Closure in Poetry, Part 1Part 2, Part 3

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Types of Closure, Part 3: Using Repetition to End a Poem

One tried and true way to create closure in a poem is to use repetition. Repeating a phrase, line, or series of lines establishes that the poem has come full circle and is now ending. Ironically, the fact that some words in the poem are the same indicates to the reader that these words are different from any others, since they announce the ending.

There are different ways that poets use repetition to create closure. One way is to use the rhythms and cadences of the repeated lines as a sort of chorus, the way a song often ends with a repeated refrain. The master of this sort of repetition is the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca

Federico García Lorca
In his classic “Sleepwalking Ballad” [“Romance sonambulo”], Lorca opens with these unforgettable lines:

Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montaña.

Green how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea,
and the horse on the mountain.

(translation by William Bryant Logan)

The poem depicts a surrealistic world where strange and mysterious events take place, such as a young gypsy woman with green hair being suspended over water by an “icicle of the moon.” But in some ways, this poem is much like a traditional ballad. Lorca repeats the opening lines in various permutations in the poem, sometimes just duplicating the opening line, sometimes the first two lines. But at the end of the poem, he repeats all four of the opening lines, as if we are hearing the refrain of a ballad, and it’s clear that the repetition signals the end of the poem. By extension, that repetition indicates the fate of the gypsy bandit who is bleeding and pursued, and his doomed lover.

A different way of using repetition is to repeat a phrase at the end in a very different context and with a different emphasis. This sort of repetition establishes closure by contrast—we hear or read the same words as we did earlier in the poem, but now we understand their deeper meaning. It’s the sharper insight that makes for closure in the poem.

Lorca uses repetition in this way in his poem “Your Childhood in Menton.” Here he describes a lover who cannot answer the call of his passion because of social conventions. The poem begins and ends with the same line:

 Sí, tu niñez ya fábula de fuentes.

Yes, your childhood now a fable of fountains.

In the epigraph, Lorca attributes the line to a poem by Jorge Guillén. The first time we hear these words, they sound innocent: they refer to youth and fables and running water. By the end of the poem, the line resonates very differently, since we know that the person addressed in this poem has betrayed his own impulses in favor of norms he absorbed in childhood.

Another example of using repetition in a different context at the end is “Each Bird Walking,” by Tess Gallagher one of my favorite poems. 

Tess Gallagher

Gallagher uses a fascinating series of flashbacks, quickly going backwards and forwards through different layers of time to tell a complex and moving story that the reader has to construct, like a detective solving a mystery.
The poem is about the end of an affair, an affair between the speaker and her lover, who is in a long-term relationship. To end the romance without bitterness, the speaker elicits from her lover the gift of an unforgettable memory. He chooses to tell her how he bathed his own mother by hand at the end of her life, as if he had been her mother instead of her son. Describing this incredibly intimate moment of cleansing, the lover quotes his mother as saying, “That’s good, that’s enough,” when the washing of her body is complete.

That's a banal enough phrase. But it becomes extremely powerful when it’s repeated only 10 lines later. Now the speaker is the one saying the phrase, since she is satisfied that her lover has given her access to a part of his soul that no one else has shared. The second time the poet quotes, “That’s good, that’s enough,” the phrase has a deep resonance, since we know it means not only that the speaker and her lover have exchanged an imprinted moment of intimacy, but that their relationship is now done.

Types of Closure in Poetry, Part 1, Part 2, Part 4

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Types of Closure in Poetry, Part 2: Ending a Poem with a Resonant Image

For me, one of the most effective ways to achieve closure in a poem is to end with a resonant image.

The temptation when you are ending a poem is to try to tie up every loose end. You want to tell the reader exactly what it is that you’re trying to say, what you’ve been building up to for the entire poem. That strategy is very likely to put the reader off. No one likes being lectured to, least of all fans of poetry. The chances are, if you have written the entire poem with a particular emotion or idea in mind, the reader has gotten the message by the time the poem is almost done.

One way to end a poem that doesn’t hit the reader over the head, but reinforces and/or expands on what the poem has explored, is to finish with an image that lingers in the reader’s thoughts and echoes other elements in the poem. Ending with a particularly vivid and haunting image changes the tone so that the poem has closure at the end.

The best way to explain this is to give an example. The classic instance of this is John Keats’s sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Basically, the speaker of this poem is saying that he’s read a lot about Homer’s Greece, but he never really got it till he read George Chapman’s translation of The OdysseyNow he understands the beauty and majesty of Homer’s poetry and the world he describes.

John Keats
But instead of saying that flat out, in the poem’s sestet, or final six lines, Keats gives us two seemingly unrelated images. The first is an astronomer discovering a new planet when it “swims” into view (you gotta love that verb, “swim”!). The second is the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, leading an exploratory party to a cliff in Panama, where for the first time, Europeans gazed on the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, from the Americas.

More than any didactic conclusion, these two images give a sense of the incredible wonder that Keats felt when he read Chapman’s translation of Homer. That last image, of the ocean that was undreamed of by Cortés and his men, just rolls on and on in the mind, like a long chord, as vast and inspiring as the Pacific.

What provides the closure here is that we have switched from Homer to another realm, but one that vibrates with Keats’s feelings about discovering Chapman’s version of The Odyssey. The poem has shifted, but is still in the mode of awe, in fact, deeper in that mode because of the resonant image, so much more expansive than someone sitting in a library reading a translation from ancient Greek, but reflecting on how amazing that experience can actually be.

One contemporary poet who has mastered the art of ending on a resonant image is Joseph Millar. Millar has a way of finding a final image that engages the reader, brings together threads in the poem, but opens the door to deeper emotion or contemplation. 

Joseph Millar
In his poem “Labor Day,” for instance, Millar describes all the ways that labor is not being done on that holiday. The speaker is celebrating all those who have earned a day off because of their hard work. Instead of winding up with this theme, though, he ends with a cinematic image that encapsulates and expands the poem’s ideas and emotions:

the tuna boats rest on their tie-up lines
turning a little, this way and that.


This last image is a symbol of Labor Day itself, with the boats docked and not in use (and you know tuna boats see some serious fishing!). But that image also lets in another range of ideas and emotions, because of the restlessness of the boats in the water. This motion might suggest that Labor Day may be a time of repose, but it also highlights unresolved issues about those who work with their hands, and those who manage or profit from their labor.


Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration