Friday, September 28, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 4

           One other suggestion about sustaining your work as a writer: don’t try to do too many things. I’m sure most of you have other talents besides writing. I know many writers who are very skilled at music or the visual arts. It’s possible to combine one or more of those arts with your writing and expand your range as an artist and the audience for your writing at the same time. For instance, you might make a film that showcases your poetry, or you might write songs as well as poems or short stories or nonfiction. But it’s a very rare person who can successfully pursue two arts seriously in one lifetime. I can only think of a handful of writers in the entire history of literature who have also excelled at other arts, at the level where their work in a second art is valued for its own sake, rather than as an interesting sidelight to their writing.
That doesn’t mean you should give up the other arts you practice and enjoy, but writing is not a discipline that you can learn to do well if you pursue it casually, like throwing a Frisbee. It’s a lifelong quest if you do it right, because a writer is constantly gathering information about life and craft. You have to continually make adjustments in how your write, based on life experiences and on the latest information you’ve gleaned from reading and writing. You’re always assimilating new experiences, social conditions, and influences. You don’t want to be a literary dilettante.
The word “dilettante,” means a person who dabbles, rather than pursues something seriously. It comes from the Latin dilettare, to delight in. You should delight in your writing, but you also have to work hard at it, and to do that, you have to be a specialist. You wouldn’t want to be operated on by an amateur surgeon, so why would you want to read the work of an amateur writer? Writing is your profession.
It’s great to be a sensitive person who loves art. But that’s not enough, if you want to be a writer. You have to be prepared to fail at your writing. Why fail? Because that’s how artists learn. A dilettante never fails. A dilettante just flits from one art or one project to another, without really improving his or her craft. As an artist, you need to fail in order to derive lessons from each misstep, until you discover how to create work that is worthy of an audience.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 3


One way you can maintain your career as a writer is to try to do at least one thing each day that advances your writing. Here are a few suggestions:

1)    begin a completely new piece of writing
2)    continue writing a piece you’ve already started
3)    edit a piece of writing you’ve already begun
4)    make notes for a writing project you’d like to begin
5)    do research for a piece of writing you plan to start or add to
6)    read the work of a writer you’ve heard about but haven’t read
7)    reread a favorite work
8)    buy a lottery ticket (just kidding!)
9)    attend a reading
10) attend a workshop or a writer’s group
11)  read a literary magazine you’ve never read
12)  submit your work to a magazine
13) research contests you might want to enter
14) send your work to a literary contest
15) have a conversation with another writer about your work or their work or the work of a writer you’ve been reading or they’ve been reading.
16)  read a work of literary criticism or biography about a writer you want to know more about
17)  apply for a grant
18) buy a gun and hold up a bank (just checking to see if you’re still with me) 
19)  apply for a writer’s residency or retreat
20)  research reading series
21)  contact a reading series to set up a reading
22)  research possible book publishers
23)  send a query to a possible book publisher
24)  follow up on emails or letters sent to you from magazines or publishers or reading series
25)  research jobs teaching writing and/or literature
26)  apply for jobs teaching writing and/or literature
27)  teach a class or workshop on writing or literature
28)  write a book review
29)  write an article on a writer whose work intrigues you
30)  write an anonymous hate letter to a writer whose work you don’t like (just kidding again!)
31)  collaborate with other artists such as musicians, actors, visual artists, filmmakers, etc.
32)  negotiate a contract for a book or a reading
33)  write a blog on your art or on art in general
34)  start or add to a Facebook page that includes news about your writing

As you can see, very few of these suggestions actually involve creativity, with the exception of figuring out how to rob a bank. While it’s desirable to be creative as often as possible, few of us have the spark to do that every hour of every single day. But your creative downtime can be your active time for getting your work to your audience, or for finding the time or resources to continue writing. The business of writing is also an important part of being a creative artist. The students I’ve taught who’ve continued as writers are mostly the ones who also pay attention to the other work, getting their writing to readers and obtaining resources to keep going.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 2

Another consideration for writers who want to sustain a career, is not to put all your eggs in one basket, to coin a phrase. If you focus your entire creative effort on one book, and invest years of your life in that book, it better be an incredibly good idea that you are the right person to carry out—and a book you can finish. But even if it’s the greatest idea on planet Earth, and you are the one person in the universe to write it, and you finish it, it may still not be the book that gets you published for the first time. Even if it is published, it may not be the work that finds the audience you’re seeking.
So I would advise you to work on multiple projects. Don’t count on that first book being the one that gets you in the publisher’s door. Write a second book, and after that, a third book, even if you haven’t gotten the first manuscript published yet. Especially if you haven’t gotten the first manuscript published yet.
The nineteenth century French writer George Sand wrote more than 100 books or plays. Here’s a portrait of George Sand by the great French painter Eugène Delacroix:


Sand was famous for staying up all night to write, burning many candles. Then every morning she slept in, and entertained her children and friends all afternoon and evening. There is a story that she once finished a novel halfway through the night, and instead of going to bed, she started writing another book. We could all emulate that drive. 
Of course, there are writers who write just one great book. The classic example is Harper Lee:

 Born in 1926, she has written just one book in her lifetime. That book happens to be To Kill a Mockingbird. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize and selling more than 30 million copies, the book has changed the lives of countless people who’ve read it. If you’re Harper Lee, fine, just write that one book. No complaints. But most of us are not that sort of writer. We’ve got to keep trying, throwing out more than we keep of our writing, getting better at certain aspects of this crazy job as we go along.
I’m going to make up a person who is a composite of several different creative writing students I’ve encountered. This student is terrifically talented. Not only does she write, but she’s also an accomplished professional. In short, a person with lots of skills, including excellent people skills.
She’s been done with her MFA now for about seven years, and she hasn’t published a book yet.
Why? She’s invested years in finishing the book she started as her MFA thesis. The book is a novel with a very challenging structure. It’s a work of fiction, but based solely on nonfiction stories from her own family history. That’s a tall order to fill, since in a case like that you feel you can’t change the story, even when it doesn’t work for the reader, because it’s based on fact. The manuscript also has several main characters who live in different centuries.
It could be a fascinating structure for a novel, but maybe too challenging to pull off for a first book. It’s the kind of project that might be better to work on later in life, when the mechanics of writing a good plot and having a polished style are almost second nature. 
So I would suggest that you don’t put all your chips on one number, and play that number over and over. The odds are, you will run out of chips before that number comes up. Keep working on different projects, and increase your odds of finding the readers you seek.
 
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Monday, September 17, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1

 
The best way to avoid becoming a literary dropout is to keep writing. As all of us know, that’s easier said than done. There are many elements to keeping the writing flowing. I’ll try to cover several in this series of blogs.
To begin with, I’ll start with factors that relate just to the writing itself, and not to circumstances peripherally connected to, or outside of the writing.
The first suggestion I’d make is to choose projects that you can complete successfully. I had a terrific student several years ago, a guy who had a remarkable facility for spontaneous writing. Our class was studying the surrealist movement at the time. I asked the students to attempt automatic writing as a learning exercise. Automatic writing is a type of writing devised by the surrealist group in Paris in the early 1920s as a way of liberating the subconscious. In automatic writing you don’t edit or look back at what you’ve already written but compose spontaneously, as if dreaming onto the page. It’s a great exercise if you’re suffering from writer’s block or just want to warm up. The student I’m referring to was one of the few I’ve ever encountered who could create a finished piece of work using automatic writing. The whole class was amazed at what he created during that in-class exercise, without editing. If he had lived in Paris in the 1920s, he’d be a legend.

Surrealist group in Paris practices automatic writing
Now, you would think that a person who can compose literature so fluently would have absolutely no trouble finishing a longer work. Poof! You sit down, you write, it’s done. But that wasn’t the case. For his MFA thesis, he attempted to write a sort of modern-day Dante’s Inferno. A worthy project. The task was almost impossible, though, since the way he set it up, not one of the characters interacted with anyone but the narrator. Not only that, but we knew that each story ended with the death of the person recounting it, since all the characters besides the narrator were ghosts. And there was a talking-head aspect to the format that killed almost all of the drama.
You should be extremely ambitious in the projects you pick for yourself as a writer, but don’t choose a project that you can never finish, or that won’t interest many people even if you do finish it. Stretch yourself, be daring in your aesthetic choices, do things that no one has attempted before, but don’t try to climb Mount Denali on rollerskates.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Using Poetic Forms, Part 5: The Tanka

Many know about haiku, that ultra-short form of poetry from Japan that captures a flash of consciousness in only three lines. But a thousand years before haiku was created, Japanese poets developed and perfected the tanka form. Tanka is slightly longer—five lines—but it’s significantly different from haiku in the type of moment that sparks it.

Like haiku, which crystallizes one specific moment in time or consciousness, tanka is about a particular observation of the poet. But unlike haiku, tanka can reach both backwards and forwards in time to include a broader observation, or even a story. How can just five short lines of poetry tell a narrative? It’s not easy, but with the conciseness of tanka, a poet finds the fulcrum of a story, the moment of truth in that encounter.  Here’s one of my favorite tanka poems, by the great Japanese woman poet Yosano Akiko, who lived from 1878 to 1942, and wrote over 20,000 poems:

Early evening moon
Over the flowering field,
I felt somehow
He was waiting for me
And I came.

(translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda)

Here the poet describes the moment when she made her choice to embark on a difficult relationship. The image of the evening moon suggests the expectant lover, wishing for her. The flowering field makes me think of the fullness of her love.

I haven’t said anything yet about the rigorous form of the tanka. In Japanese, each of the five lines must have a specific number of syllables. The number of syllables per line is: 5-7-5-7-7. I haven’t mentioned this because this form works beautifully in Japanese, but when English-language translators or poets attempt to duplicate the form exactly, it often takes away from the freshness and the gentle punch of the tanka. Personally, I prefer poems that follow the spirit of the tanka and don’t count syllables like small change. On the other hand, if you’re up to twelve syllables per line, you’re losing the concentrated flavor of the language in tanka.

Another fascinating side of the tanka is that the poet often sharply splits the five lines between two seemingly unrelated images. The writer does not directly link these two worlds, but leaves it entirely up to the reader to make the connection. Yosano Akiko does this in the poem just cited about the moon over the evening field and the lover’s impulse. Here’s another example, a thousand-year-old tanka by the 10th century poet Fujiwara no Toshiyuki:

in the Bay of Sumi
waves crowd the shore
even at night
by the corridors of dreams
I come to you secretly

(adapted from the translation of Kenneth Rexroth)

The poet never says that the waves are like him, the lover. He never directly mentions that the shore is a metaphor for his beloved. It’s all just understood. That’s what I love about it! And the fact that the waves are not simply approaching the shore, they are crowding it. It is a little invasive to tell your beloved that you can visit her at night, even when she’s dreaming. The poem acknowledges that, in the midst of a wonderfully romantic moment. That’s an amazing amount of emotional complexity to create in five lines.

If you’d like to read more tanka, here are some collections of the form:

Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Tanka
Yosano Akiko, Tangled Hair: Selected Poems from Midaregami

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Using Poetic Forms, Part 4: The Ghazal


First of all, how is it pronounced? The ghazal exists as a poetic form in many languages, and depending on the language, it’s pronounced differently. I just pronounce it “huzzle,” to rhyme with “puzzle,” for the sake of simplicity.

The ghazal can be traced as far back as about 600 C.E., in the period of Arabic literature before the advent of Islam. The form was originally a lament sung by nomadic troubadours, part of a longer poetic form called the qasidah. The quality of lamentation is still an important part of the ghazal. For more background on the origins of the ghazal, see David Jalajel’s “A Short History of the Ghazal.”

Like many North American fans of poetry, I first came across the ghazal through translations of the work of Federico García Lorca. That great New Directions volume of his Selected Poems first published in 1961, has several magnificent poems that Lorca calls gacelas, Spanish for ghazals. These were part of Lorca’s last book of poems, Divan of the Tamarit, a book he never got to finish or publish in his lifetime because he was murdered in 1936 during the fascist coup in Spain. This book consisted of poems that Lorca called casidas and gacelas, but in reality the poems had very little to do with those forms in Arabic, which Lorca may not have known well. Lorca did stay true to the spirit of lamentation in his gacelas, and he used couplets, also a feature of the ghazal. Lorca’s embrace of Spain’s Moorish history seems prophetic to me even today, when we see our politicians and the media so often demonize the Muslim world. This is one of the reasons I find the ghazal so fascinating—it spotlights a wonderful feature of the literature of a part of the world that our country seems to have very little use for now except to make war on. For a couple of decades, the translations of Lorca’s poems stood as the only well-known model for a ghazal in English, a model that led many astray, since Lorca didn't use most of the form in his poems.

That lack of information about the actual ghazal form changed as the result of one person: Agha Shahid Ali. Shahid was an enormously entertaining and brilliant poet who grew up speaking the Urdu language in his native Kashmir. He chose to write in English, and he became the first poet to write excellent ghazals in English. Through Shahid’s publications, readings, and workshops, something closer to the real ghazal form finally became known and practiced in English.

The ghazal consists of a group of couplets or two-line stanzas, often on unrelated or loosely linked themes, like a series of two-line haikus. Part of what ties the stanzas together is the rhyme scheme. It’s not a “moon, June, tune” rhyme scheme, but one that involves a rhyme (termed the “qafiyah” in Arabic), directly followed by a repeated sound or series of sounds at the end of a stanza (called the “radif”). Remember “q” comes before “r.” In the first couplet of a ghazal, this rhyme scheme occurs in both lines. In subsequent stanzas, only in the last line. One other feature I like about the ghazal is that the poet has to mention his or her name or pen name (called a “takhallus”) in the second to last line of the poem, one of several features of the form that seems surprisingly contemporary. In South Asian languages, where the ghazal has flourished, there are also very specific meters for the form.

When I began exploring the ghazal in my own writing, I had enormous difficulty trying to use a qafiyah and radif in English. That intricate rhyme pattern seemed impossible to me, and contrary to the lyrical traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I just couldn’t get my mind around this rhyme scheme, until I started to hear it in something very unlikely and very American—Broadway show tunes. I started to realize that a rhyme before a repeated sound or word is actually a very common form, not in U.S. poetry so much as in popular music. Here’s part of Lorenz Hart’s great lyric to the song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”:

I’m wild again,
beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Couldn’t sleep
And wouldn’t sleep
Until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Do you see the qafiyah—“wild,” “beguiled,” “child”’—right before the radif, “again”? And then in the next verse, the qafiyah is “Couldn’t,” “wouldn’t,” “shouldn’t,” right before the radif, “sleep.” If that isn’t similar to the ghazal rhyme scheme, I don’t know what is. So many of the Broadway show tunes were penned by Jewish writers that I suspect that there is some place in history where Jewish popular song meets the ghazal. Maybe in Muslim Spain in the Middle Ages? I haven’t found that intersection yet, if it exists.

I also started to realize that the connection between the ghazal and popular music is not just in English. In the poetry of South Asian languages, this link is very much alive. I started attending mushairas, something like the Indian or Pakistani equivalent of a poetry slam, that were held in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. When I heard these ghazals performed, I realized that poetry lovers from the Indian subcontinent don’t usually recite ghazals, they sing them. And when they recite or sing poems, they don’t read them the way we do, where the audience quietly sits on its hands listens to each line being read in order: line one, line two, line three, etc. The audience participates in a mushaira, calling out during the reading, singing or reciting favorite lines along with the reader, demanding that a performer repeat a particularly good couplet over and over till they get their fill of it, repeating the radif along with the poet. And the performer does not necessarily recite a line just once. A performer will repeat lines, parts of lines, or whole couplets, sometimes out of order, often spontaneously. A good performer of poetry will make up his or her own melody for a ghazal that he or she likes. It’s a very creative and active process for the poetry lovers as well. I think English-language writers and readers have a lot to learn from it.

To make the ghazal accessible to an English-speaking audience, it’s going to take a fusion of the ghazals that have been written in English so far, and the musical ghazals that are popular in Urdu. Something like a mix of the great Indian singer Ghulam Ali and Bob Dylan. There’s a potential there that hasn’t been tapped. I think we need to go back to the musical roots of the ghazal and the connection of the ghazal rhyme to American show tunes, to make the ghazal all it can be in English. For an example of my own very personal take on this, please see this YouTube video. The ghazal starts at 6:05.

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