Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Finish a Book: Promise Yourself Rewards

Completing a book-length project is never easy, but it’s something that writers need to learn how to do. It takes inspiration, desire, and hard work. Combining those at the right times is not simple. Here’s what I do to keep myself going when I work on a project that can take me years.
While I’m working on a book, I make myself little promises about what I’ll do to reward myself when the book is done. One reward I think about is just announcing to someone that the project is complete: When this book is done, I’ll get to send an email to the editor, telling her that I’ve finished, and I’ll say…
Another reward for finishing that you see in your mind can also be spending more time with your loved ones, or taking a special vacation. Sometimes I imagine doing readings of a particular part of the book that I like, and I picture the audience’s reaction. Another fantasy that keeps me going is to visualize the book on the shelf in a bookstore, though not all books are marketed in stores these days.  
Often I pretend that the book will be nominated for a prize. Whether that’s realistic or true is not the point—it’s an idea that keeps me going. I have a little awards ceremony of the imagination where a favorite literary figure introduces the award and then announces (drumroll, please!) that my book is the winner. That fantasy, silly as it is, also allows me to hold myself to the highest standards while I’m working on the project. I know I won’t have a chance for that prize if I don’t do the best I possibly can on the book.
That’s another challenge when working on a long project—you’ve got to keep the quality consistent. If you feel as if the quality is lagging, take a break till you’re ready to work at your highest level of creativity and attention.
If the book involves an advance, I spend that money in my mind many times over. I think about all the things I could do with the funds, from paying my taxes to going on a shopping spree for my favorite music.
The important thing when working on a book is to keep your nose to the grindstone, but your eyes on the prize—which is finishing. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Literary Contests, For and Against

There are many reasons to enter literary contests, and at least as many reasons not to.
Hundreds of literary awards exist, and many thousands of writers apply for them. Sometimes it seems as though the odds are so much against winning (the number of entries exceeds 1,000 for many first-book awards in the U.S.A., for instance) that it doesn’t seem worth it to enter contests. There have also been many instances in the United States where a prize goes to someone personally connected with the judge. Not to mention that contests can become a distraction from the real business of creating literature that is meaningful and reaches people. I can sympathize with those who refrain from participating in literary contests for those reasons, and personally, I hardly ever enter literary contests.
On the other hand, I know about fifteen writers who have won a prize in the United States that involves publication of a book, and in no case did the writer know the judge. Often the prizes in the U.S. include a cash advance and/or a reading or series of readings. The Poets Out Loud Prize from Fordham University Press, for instance, is given each year by the press to two poets. The writers get the winning manuscripts published as books, a cash advance of $1,000 each, and a reading in New York City in the Poets Out Loud series at Lincoln Center. The contest entry fee amounts to $28.
A prize that involves book publications comes with publicity and a chance to reach a larger audience—not to mention cash. All that is good for a writer, particularly a writer trying to launch a career. It’s also a good exercise to assemble a manuscript for a contest—the stakes are high enough that a writer has to take seriously the task of polishing and arranging a manuscript, a good thing whether you win or lose the contest.
So what’s the downside? I think a writer can become obsessed with trying to win awards, and spend precious time and money researching and entering endless contests. Even worse is the emotional energy writers expend thinking about prizes they do not win. 
Newer writers often waste resources entering contests at a stage when they don’t yet have a manuscript that is really competitive. Before you plunk down $25 for a contest entry fee, make sure that your manuscript measures up to the work of recent winners for that prize. If you book consists of poetry or short stories, at least a third of the work should be published in various literary journals before you enter a book publication contest, and preferably more than half of the work should already be published in magazines. The manuscript should be carefully copyedited for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
What sorts of books win prizes? In the U.S., contest-winning manuscripts usually have a very consistent style, format, and theme. Some good books fit into that category, but some definitely do not. For books that are more eclectic and varied, it seems to me unwise to enter them in contests. A commercial or small-press publisher might have a more open-minded approach and be more likely to accept a manuscript of that sort.
If the contest sponsor makes public the name or names of the judge(s) in advance of the contest deadline, I would research that before entering. Judges, like anyone, have preferences. It’s not worth entering a contest when the judge’s aesthetic conflicts with your own.
For a good listing online of literary contests in the U.S., consult the website of Poets & WritersTheir listing has the advantage of being organized as a calendar, by deadline date for contest entry. It’s also cross-listed under the name of the contest sponsor.

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 Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, November 17, 2012

One in the Other: A Surrealist Game for Writers

One in the Other is a game invented by the Surrealist group in Paris in 1953. The game (called l’un dans l’autre in French) started when the poet and group leader André Breton struck a match and decided to describe it in terms of a lion. He said something like, “I’m a lion with a mane of fire, I’m a lion that lives in a little box with a herd of other lions, etc.” The game evolved from that spark.

Paul Hammond describes the rules of the game in his book Constellations of Miró, Breton:

“The rules of ‘l’un dans l’autre’ are straightforward. Let’s assume there are four players gathered in a room. Player 1 leaves the room and mentally chooses an object (object A). Players 2, 3, and 4 debate amongst themselves and come up with another object (object B). Player 1 reenters and is given the name of object B. Player 1 then has to improvise a description of object A—without naming that object—but solely in terms of object B. The game ends when one of the other players divines what object A is.”

The game is based in part on an idea of the ancient alchemists. According to alchemy, each thing contains the seed of every other thing. Lead can contain gold, to cite the most famous example of alchemy. But this applies to all things—a beach blanket can be seen as a cluster bomb, a cube of cheddar cheese can be thought of as a baseball glove, etc.

How can writers use this game for inspiration? The game can be played by a group, such as a workshop, as a warm-up for a writing session. But an individual writer can also assign himself or herself a game of One in the Other, plucking two contrasting objects out of the subconscious, and then knitting them together through metaphor. The result can sometimes be worth saving or expanding on.

The 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud prophetically titled one of his prose poems, “Alchemy of the Verb.” In that poem, Rimbaud says, “For a long time I’ve bragged of possessing every possible landscape…” In the imagination, all landscapes are ours. With One in the Other, each thing is connected to every other thing.

When the Surrealists played the game, they used the first person to become the object that was also the other object: “I’m an hourglass, a part of which, contained in a larger hourglass, is gradually disengaging itself and cutting all ties. I’m opaque, reddish, and elastic. The red sand I contain is turned upside-down every second. I function for an average of several decades.”

The two objects in the example I just mentioned are a baby being born and an hourglass. I find the game also works if the person who is “it” just says, “I’m thinking of an hourglass…” etc.

Here’s an example of One in the Other that I came up with, choosing the random objects “lips” and “a manhole cover.”

I’m thinking of lips you find in the street
I’m thinking of lips that form a perfect circle
I’m thinking of lips with a name molded into them
I’m thinking of lips poured from molten steel
I’m thinking of lips so heavy it takes a strong person to open them
I’m thinking of lips that reveal a world beneath our world

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 Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Learning from Writers You Don't Like

I teach in the low-residency MFA in writing program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. One of the assignments the students have is to write responses to books by authors they’re not familiar with. I sometimes find that if a student does not connect immediately with an author’s work, the student dismisses that writer offhand. “I just couldn’t relate to this author’s preachy style.” “I found this writer’s diction very stilted and old-fashioned. “I couldn’t see the point of this author’s work.” By painting with such a broad brush, those students could be missing out on an important experience for a writer.

I think we actually have vital things to learn from writers whose work we don’t like. Why bother? Because sometimes the authors we don’t like have exactly the quality, theme, or tone that our work is lacking. Even if we don’t want to write like authors we find uninteresting or distasteful, we may learn from then how to tweak our work so it contains features that we don’t often include in our own writing. I’m not saying we should surrender to the enemy. But I am saying that we should learn why our enemy’s army has better boots.

Here’s an example. When I was in grad school in a writing program, I was studying with the poet Joel Oppenheimer. He assigned us to write a sonnet. At the time, I felt that sonnets were just the most outdated, boring thing a person could possibly write. I didn’t even want to read any more sonnets, except ones that were exploded, unrhymed, free-verse versions of the form, such as Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, with its collaged, Buddhist moments.

I absolutely refused to write a sonnet in Joel Oppenheimer’s class, and that occasioned a heart-to-heart talk from my instructor, which was maybe what I was really after, without knowing it. I could have learned a lot from writing a sonnet in Joel’s class, but I was too stubborn then to realize it. At the time, I was rebelling against traditional verse, to the point where my poems were prosy, disconnected, and self-consciously loose. Sonnets, on the other hand, have tightness, conflict (between the premise stated in the octave and the conclusion in the sestet), and require careful word choice. Writing a sonnet was exactly what the doctor ordered to correct some of the imbalances in my writing. Not that I needed to become a formal poet, but I would have done well to develop certain skills that were lacking in my work. By studying the poets whose writing is opposite from ours, we can often learn to make useful adjustments to our own work. That doesn't mean we're going to prefer writing we don't like—I wouldn't wish that on anyone! But it does mean that we can learn from any writer.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Rilke's "Autumn Day"

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke uses language in uniquely powerful ways in his moving poem, “Autumn Day” (“Herbsttag”). The poem appears in the first section of Rilke’s collection The Book of Pictures, published 1902.

                                              Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)

Here’s my own English translation:

Autumn Day

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Time, Lord, it’s time. The summer was vast.
Now drape your shadow over sundials,
And in the fields, make the winds blast.

Command the last fruits to brim on the vine;
Give them two more southerly days,
Push them to perfection and blaze
The last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house yet, will build none.
Whoever is alone, will stay alone,
Wake up at night, write long letters, sift
Through pages, and walk up and down
Tree-lined streets, restless, while leaves drift.

            (translated by Zack Rogow, translation © 2012 by Zack Rogow)

What a fascinating structure Rilke has created for this poem! He substitutes for the stanza of regular length his own distinctive formula where every stanza acquires one more line as the poem goes along, as if each stanza digs to a deeper layer of fall and the emotions connected to it.

The first two stanzas create a sense of fulfillment. This aura is still partly abstract in the first stanza, beautiful, but limited to disembodied shadows and winds. In the second stanza he adds color, taste, and smell to the richness of fall by expanding to the sensual realms of fruit, warmth, and wine.

Now look at Rilke’s German:


Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

[emphases added]

He highlights the feeling of fulfillment in the first two stanzas by using the German word ‘voll’—full—in two different forms, the adjective, ‘voll,’ and the noun, ‘Vollendung,’ which means completion, finishing, ending, consummation, perfection. Not only that, Rilke takes the wide-open vowel o from the German word for full, and lavishes it over the first stanza: groß, Sonnenuhren, los, emphasizing the sound by using it in rhyming words that end lines one and three. I’ve highlighed in blue each word in the poem that contains the letter ‘o’ in the German.

The sentences in the poem start out very short and then get increasingly long in the first two stanzas, as the imagery become more lush and hypnotic, while the picture of fall’s completion develops— “Now drape your shadows over sundials,” “Command the last fruits to brim on the vine.”

Suddenly, in stanza three, we are back to short, declarative language: “Whoever has no house yet, will build none.” The words have the authority and stateliness of a biblical judgment, or of a proverb. The second line in the last stanza seems like it’s about to mirror this structure with another matter-of-fact, symmetrical pronouncement: “Whoever is alone, will stay alone,” but then surprisingly the sentence continues, sweeps us along to the end of the poem and into the very private world of the solitary person whose autumn is not one of fullness but of emptiness and loneliness.

Take another look at the German. Amazingly Rilke is able to write the entire last stanza without once using the vowel o, the vowel in the German word for ‘full’ that saturates the first two stanzas, where it continually evokes the sense of fullness. There are few other poets who would use sound in such a methodical, unique, and strange way, foreshadowing the lipogrammatic experiments of OULIPO group members such as Georges Perec, who wrote his entire novel A Void without the letter e.

There is a powerful sense of nostalgia and melancholy in Rilke’s poem, but in two different shades: in the first two stanzas we have yellow-orange sunlight and the long shadows of fall afternoons, colors of ripe fruit and the final warm days; in the last stanza there are the bare trees and the nocturnal scene of the lone man, a colorless world where nothing seems anchored or still.

What kind of person is the figure in the last stanza who wakes up late at night, reads, and writes long letters? An artist, specifically a writer. We know Rilke lived this kind of restless existence, moving from city to city and country to country every few months during many periods of his life. Perhaps he is talking about entering a stage of his life when he will banish himself from the warmth of the family home, destined to a solitary pursuit of literature and his correspondence with friends. This was, to some extent, the plot of Rilke’s life, which he might have seen taking shape at the juncture when he wrote “Autumn Day.” It’s so paradoxical that the poet has the otherworldly power to order God to begin the change of season to the fall (“drape,” “Command,” “push,” etc.), but he ends up alone and isolated at the end, despite that force (or because of it?).

Rilke was involved for several years with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a brilliant woman of letters who had been romantically connected to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche when she was a young woman. 

                                         Lou Andreas-Salomé

There were thoughts Rilke confided only to Lou, and, as a practicing therapist, she understood the poet better than many. She discusses Rilke’s Duino Elegies in her autobiography, Looking Back: Memoirs: “…one sees clearly, and with a shudder of certainty, how greatly Rainer longed for human experience, for the revelation of life, which, in spite of the perfection of his achievement, would go beyond the work of art, beyond the poet’s word. Only there could that which was most deeply human in Rainer find a resting place, and peace.…Nothing is more certain than that Rainer achieved the joyous affirmation of his own despair in the celebration of the Elegies.” I find this comment about Rilke revealing. Maybe “Autumn Day” is, like the Duino Elegies, both a celebration of the poet’s own despair, and his expression of longing for human warmth. That conflict is part of why "Autumn Day" continues to fascinate and endure.

Other posts on Rilke:
Learning from Rilke
Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo"

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 Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Dramatic Monologue, Part 3: Writing Your Own

If you’ve never tried writing a dramatic monologue, or you’d like to try again, what character should you pick? Maybe you already know whose voice you’d like to use. In that case, go for it!
If you don’t know, or you’re looking for ideas, consider choosing a character you’ve always wanted to be. I wrote a dramatic monologue in the voice of the great African American singer/dancer/entertainer Josephine Baker because I admire her tremendously. I also love the setting of her early success—Paris in the 1920s. I wanted to know what she might sound like talking to a friend in private about her very public life, so I just made up their conversation, based on research I’d done.
Another reason to choose a persona might be an individual whose life illustrates a particular point. A good example of this is June Jordan’s “Unemployment Monologue.” The poem is in the voice of a young Black male who might be standing on a street corner, talking to someone from a more privileged background. The speaker is called by different tags, from Herbie Jr. to “Ashamah Kazaam,” a name somewhere between an Islamic given name and a superhero punch. We get a sense that this young man is creative and smart, but going nowhere in a society that has no use for him. He boldly challenges the person he addresses—an interesting stance for a dramatic monologue.
Another reason for picking a character for a dramatic monologue might be to choose someone so different from you that it creates a challenge to put yourself in that person’s shoes. The difference could be gender, age, class, historical time period, race, sexual orientation, religion, politics, geographic location, physical abilities, etc. Make sure you are not falling into stereotypes about a group, and that you are creating a character with the complexity that you hope others see in you. If you write about someone from a group not your own, consider showing that person not just at his or her lowest point. Without whitewashing the adversity your persona has to encounter, allow that individual at least a moment of triumph or connection.
One other consideration with a dramatic monologue: who is the speaker addressing? Is it a generalized audience, or an individual the speaker knows? If it’s a specific person, that can create more depth and/or drama. In Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” for instance, the fact that this speaker is a mother talking to her child makes it much more moving. In June Jordan’s “Unemployment Monologue,” the young man addressing a person of relative privilege sets up a dynamic tension. In a sense, even a monologue is a dialogue of sorts, since it is addressed to another or to others.

Other recent posts about writing topics:

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Dramatic Monologue: Part 2, Pros and Cons

The dramatic monologue has many advantages for a writer. The form allows for a distance between the author and the speaker because, in a dramatic monologue, the person using the "I" is by definition not the author. Why should that matter? With distance, the burden of self-disclosure is lifted. By its nature, the dramatic monologue tends to preclude self-pity or gut-wrenching confession, no matter how intimate the subject matter. Interestingly, the distance between the author and the speaker sometimes allows for a more personal revelation, since the writer does not have to claim the material as autobiographical. Sometimes we are most truly ourselves when we are wearing masks.
By standing in the shoes of a character different from ourselves, we are able to show the unique ability of writing to empathize with another person. Film and theater, for instance, can only show a person from outside. In a dramatic monologue, a writer has the ability to actually understand the thoughts of another human being.
The disadvantages of the dramatic monologue include the fact that the reader is sometimes not sure if the content is real or fictional, so the impact may be lessened. The authenticity of autobiography is also missing. A writer may use a persona as a mask, and hide or lose awareness of his or her real thoughts and/or emotions.
For these reasons, the dramatic monologue fell out of favor for many years. This change of aesthetics began with Anna Akhmatova and the Acmeist poets in Russia in the early 20th century, starting with Akhmatova’s first book, Evening, published in 1912.

                                          Frontispiece from Akhmatova's first book, Evening

Akhmatova wrote, “I’m somewhat anti-Browning. He always spoke in another character, for another character. I don’t let anybody else speak a word (in my poetry, it goes without saying). I speak myself and for myself everything that is possible and that is not.” Akhmatova says she is "anti-Browning," because Robert Browning was the acknowledged master of the dramatic monologue in poems such as "My Last Duchess" and "Andrea del Sarto."
Akhmatova's viewpoint was echoed by Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam, and an important chronicler of this generation of Russian writers: “In poetry, every word is a confession, every finished work is part of the poet’s autobiography…”
The eclipse of the dramatic monologue continued during the decades of confessional poetry that began in the 1950s with the writing of U.S. poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Identity politics of the late 1980s and the decades that followed also made dramatic monologues somewhat suspect, especially when the author and the speaker of the monologue were not from the same background. If the speaker and the author were not of the same origin in some regard, many readers felt that the author was attempting to speak for or appropriate the material of another group.
In the last decade or two, the dramatic monologue has made something of a comeback. At a panel on the dramatic monologue at the 2011 conference of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Washington, DC, a group of poets including Cornelius Eady, Julie Sheehan, Robert Thomas, and Melissa Stein championed the form and discussed their own recent work using dramatic monologues. There was a similar panel at the 2012 AWP conference in Boston. Maybe the pendulum has swung back, now that identity politics has made many of its points, and confessional poetry has explored in depth a range of topics approached by an author testifying from a standpoint very close to her or his own.

Other recent posts about writing topics: