Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to Deliver Your Message, Part 2: Are Messages Passé?

In my last blog I tried to make a case that The Big Moment, a passage where the author delivers a statement of belief directly to the reader with no finesse, is not a useful strategy for a writer. So, is it outmoded even to try to communicate a message or theme or emotion in a work of literature? Maybe such a corny idea has been made obsolete by postmodernism. Aren’t most people who read literature well-educated liberals or social democrats who already think and feel the same way about most things?
There are certainly a lot of authors who write as if they believe that a message or emotion is not important to a work of literature, or that the message should be understood by the reader even before approaching the writer’s work. I’m thinking of authors where there are so many fragments or so little context in their work that very little of coherence is expressed to the reader. Instead, the writing becomes shards of references that the reader is either in on, or not. Mostly this type of work is read by other writers or artists, often ones the author knows personally.
I have to agree with the poet Pablo Neruda about this sort of writing. In his Memoirs, he describes an encounter with T.S. Eliot. I’m assuming this is a fantasy of Neruda’s, since it’s a strange moment where Neruda says he locks himself in the bathroom to avoid listening to Eliot reading his poems. (Eliot’s poetry is generally written for a smaller and more elite audience than Neruda’s.) Actually, Neruda only refers obliquely to Eliot’s work in this passage.
Neruda concludes: “…if this continues, poets will publish only for other poets…Each will pull out his little book and put it in the other’s pocket…Poetry has lost its ties with the reader…”
The work of the poets and fiction writers who put chapbooks in one another’s pockets and never try to reach a larger audience is work that doesn’t have a message, or doesn’t try to convey emotion. It’s work organized as a collage of splinters, without any attempt to change or move the reader. The writer assumes that the reader is already in accord with his or her ideas or thoughts, and makes no attempt to persuade or move. The author might allude to those shared beliefs or feelings as a sort of common currency or in-joke with the reader, but there is no attempt to deliver a message or emotion.
This is the situation that much of poetry finds itself in today, at least in North America, and in other regions of the globe as well. Nor is fiction exempt from this sort of writing. And it’s this situation that Neruda worked his whole life to transcend, by including a message in his wonderful lyrics, like a delicious dessert that includes both ice cream and fresh fruit, so it’s both sweet to the tongue and nutritious to eat.
In the next blog, I’ll talk about some strategies for conveying messages that are not dogmatic or opaque.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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, January 22, 2013

How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Avoid The Big Moment

Most writers want to say something that's going to have a strong and lasting impact. To deliver a message to your readers, it’s tempting to go for The Big Moment. The Big Moment is a point when the author reveals The Truth. Suddenly the plot and characters and metaphors and images fall away, and the author bares the real meaning of the work, and maybe even what the writer feels is the real meaning of life.
Is this sort of direct message a good idea for a writer? What are the consequences of reaching for The Big Moment?
Here’s an example of a Big Moment. In Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, the architect Howard Roark, loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright, has to stand trial for dynamiting the façade of a building he himself designed. Roark destroys the front of his own building because his design was altered, and the new version violates both his vision and the agreement he had with the developer about artistic control.
When Roark goes on trial, he elects to defend himself, and speaks to the jury for eight solid pages. Yes, eight uninterrupted pages! At least it only takes 710 pages to get to his harangue. Here’s a sample of what he says:
“The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption.… This country was not based on selfless service, sacrifice, renunciation or any precept of altruism. It was based on a man’s right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else’s. A private, personal, selfish motive.”
[Copyright © Ayn Rand, 1968]

In this endless lecture to the jury, Howard Roark is only a megaphone for Ayn Rand. He's not a character with a personality, only a vehicle for an idea, and not a very well-thought out or humane idea. It’s a Big Moment.
Poets are not immune from The Big Moment, either. The temptation to wave the moral like a flag is just too great at times. At the opposite end of the political spectrum from Ayn Rand is the French poet Louis Aragon, one of the founding members of the surrealist group and an avowed communist.

                          Louis Aragon, photographed by Man Ray

Aragon published the poem “The Red Front” in 1931 in Moscow, a poem that speaks of the time when the supporters of communism will triumph under the banner of the proletariat (referred to as "it" at this point in the poem):

It’s just waiting for the day the hour
the minute the second
when that lethal gunshot hits home
and the bullet’s aim is so true that all the social fascist doctors
leaning over the corpse of its victim
try in vain to run their eager fingers under that lace shirt
to listen with their stethoscopes to its heart already rotting
no they won’t find the usual cure
and they fall into the hands of rioters who line them up against the wall


(translation © 2013 by Zack Rogow)

“Social fascist” is a term that doctrinaire Marxists use to designate progressives and liberals. Not a lot of subtlety in that Big Moment! Aragon lays bare his political agenda for everyone to see. Communism galumphs to victory, capitalism and its apologists bite the dust. At least he extends the metaphor of the rotting corpse of capitalism! Though it’s quite a cliché.
I’ve picked extreme political philosophies to illustrate my point that The Big Moment rarely works. I could have picked statements I agree with, though. The Big Moment is usually a flawed artistic strategy no matter what the message. The reality is that few generalized moral judgments directed as a speech to the reader still surprise, provoke, or inspire us any more. They simply produce a yawn in the reader. Not only that, the reader is likely to recoil from the overbearing tone of a Big Moment. The Big Moment generally creates the exact opposite effect from what the author desired, which is to persuade the reader.
In my next blog, I’ll talk about why whether it’s still important, desirable, or possible to make a persuasive point or to deliver a message in a work of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction

Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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

Friday, January 18, 2013

Guest blog: Richard Chiappone on The Next Big Thing

I'm continuing to participate in the Internet chain letter, The Next Big Thing, where writers discuss their works in progress. This post is a guest blog by the writer Richard Chiappone. Richard is a colleague in the low-residency MFA in writing program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. He's the author of Water of an Undetermined Depth, a collection of short fiction published by Stackpole Books (2003). Opening Days, a newer collection of short fiction and essays on outdoor sports was published in 2010.

                                                       Richard Chiappone

Here's Richard's blog:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

Mister Almost and The Enemy of Fun, a novel.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
When I was a kid in the fifties, there was a terrible apartment fire in our town, Niagara Falls, New York. Some very poor African American people died in the fire, and the landlord of the apartments, the father of a neighborhood friend, was charged with building code violations in relation to those deaths. I never forgot how embarrassed and mortified my friend was.  I’ve always tried to imagine what it would be like to be the kid whose father was in prison for a major felony like that. An apartment fire in a fictional poor black neighborhood is the central event in the novel.  

What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a character-driven novel about a working class family. I guess booksellers will call it “upmarket” or “literary” fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
There are several young boys in the story, and I don’t know the names of actors in that age bracket. But, for the key adult roles, I picture Claire Danes as the mother and titular Enemy of Fun. And I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the father.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When a fatal fire results in the jailing of a boy’s father, the boy and his mother must set aside their contentious power struggles and work together to salvage as much of the family as they can.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It’s currently in the hands of Sam Hyate, at The Rights Factory.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I wrote the major events as a short story in 1992. At some point over the years of revision, I realized the story was too big for the short form. The first complete draft of the novel version was finished in 2009. So, I guess the answer is, seventeen years.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Well, it’s set in 1960, and racial issues are a big part of it, and justice and the legal system are part of it too; so, that subject matter hopefully makes it a little less presumptuous to associate it with the venerable To Kill a Mockingbird. And it’s a coming of age story about a young man growing up on a big river (The Niagara) so, I’d love to be even more presumptuous and say The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But, of course, beyond those facile similarities, it’s nothing like either one. If I could find any justification at all, I’d include The Bible, and all of Shakespeare’s plays as comps too.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My childhood friend whose father went to jail; my mother, who always wanted to move up socially; my father, who wanted only to live a quiet, peaceful life; my brothers and sisters and all the kids in the neighborhood who were, and still are, my tribe, my clan, my family; growing up in the industrial, ravaged, and polluted natural world along the Niagara River—which I believed to be a paradise; but, most of all, having come of age myself in the tumultuous, unforgettable 1960s.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
Mister Almost and the Enemy of Fun is about family, race, religion, friendship, first sexual attractions, fear of death, crime and punishment, frogs and snakes, and the magical way that childhood is illuminated by a young person’s imagination.


Monday, January 14, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this blog to bring you an installment of: The Next Big Thing. This week I’m taking part in an Internet chain letter for writers by that name. The idea is for a writer to answer a series of questions about a current project in the works, and then tag other writers to respond to the same questions about their own work.

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

I’m working on a book of poems called Talking with the Radio.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I live in California and I spend a crazy amount of time driving in my car. I always listen to the radio to calm me down while I drive—I didn’t learn to drive till I was 39 years old, and I can use some calming.

I mostly listen to the jazz station in the San Francisco Bay Area, KCSM 91.1, also available streaming at KCSM.org. Whenever I hear a song I really like, I start talking to the radio, imagining that artist’s voice in a monologue. Or I just react to the music, making up words that go along with it. I know, I should be paying attention to the road! But that’s how I’ve written a lot of the poems in this book.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry. But some of the poems are intended as song lyrics.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

There are some dramatic monologues and dialogues in the book that would work well for actors to recite. I’d choose Beyoncé or Queen Latifah to sing some of the lyrics in the book, and B.B. King to sing the blues song “Washing the Soap.” I wrote a dialogue between the singer Dinah Washington and her mother—I’d pick Alfre Woodard to play the mother. I’m not sure who would play Dinah. OK, I’d settle for Beyoncé again.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Talking with the Radio features poems and song lyrics about popular music and jazz.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Do any agents represent poetry? If they do, they must be one sonnet short of a sequence.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’ve been writing this book very slowly, since a poem about a singer or a song doesn’t come to mind every day, or even every month. I’ve written several poems a year for this book over a five-year period.

What other books would you compare this to within your genre?

Many, many poets have written about popular music and jazz in their work. Their work inspired me. My book is dedicated to those poets, from Jack Kerouac to Ntozake Shange to Cornelius Eady.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I just love jazz and popular music. I grew up listening to my mom’s Ella Fitzgerald vinyl LP records as she puffed on her cigarette holder, sipping Johnny Walker Red Label. I had a little transistor radio as a kid that I snuck into my bed at night and listened to Top 40 hits to put me to sleep.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The book includes a series of ghazals. The ghazal is a popular song form in South Asia. It’s also one of the oldest poetic forms still used. It comes from Arabic, and it was perfected during the Golden Age of Persian poetry in 12th century Iran, during the period of Rumi and Hafez. I like to sing my ghazals as blues songs. Obviously, that’s not how ghazals are sung in Asia. But the blues was originally a fusion of African and European vocal styles. Many of the Africans who were brought to the U.S. first as slaves were Muslims who knew how to chant Arabic prayers. Quite possibly the blues was influenced by Arabic song and poetic forms as well, forms such as the ghazal.

I’m tagging three wonderful writers whose work I admire greatly, to post blogs next week in The Next Big Thing: Richard Chiappone, one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever met; Beverly Burch, who is triply talented as a published fiction writer, poet, and author on psychology; and Andromeda Romano-Lax, a terrific historical novelist. Thanks to the amazing Sammy Greenspan of Kattywompus Press for tagging me.

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

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Beyond Gangnam Style: Korea’s Real Culture

Now that Psy’s hit single and video “Gangnam Style” have put South Korea front and center in pop music, I hope fans of that song will also explore the enormous outpouring of culture from Korea in many other areas.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit South Korea twice, most recently in 2011 for the 3rd Seoul International Forum for Literature. The forum was organized by the Daesan Foundation and programmed by Kim Seong-kon, professor at Seoul National University and director of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. The events mostly took place in the Kyobo Building, an office tower in downtown Seoul, where the entire basement floor features the enormous Kyobo Book Centre, larger than any in my hometown of San Francisco. The bookstore was packed with customers each day, as are many of the bookshops in Korea.

That enthusiasm for reading is due in large part to the vibrant literary culture in Korea. The well-known writers include the poet Ko Un, often mentioned as a possible Nobel laureate. Ko Un served as the head of one of South Korea’s largest Zen monasteries and later became an activist in the democracy movement, spending years in jail. His wisdom and humor as a poet have made him internationally known, and many of his books have been translated into English, including recently The Three Way Tavern, Selected Poems, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg.

Korea also is home to many fine fiction writers. They include Yi Mun-yol, whose fiction has recently appeared in English in the New Yorker, among other magazines;  Ch’oe Yun, who writes eloquently about Korean women; and the up-and-coming young novelist Kim Yeon-su.

Korea’s literature, both contemporary and modern, has become much more accessible to readers of English thanks in part to the efforts of Brother Anthony of Taizé, a Christian monk who lives in Seoul and has taken Korean citizenship. Brother Anthony’s recent translations include the work of the younger poet Kim Seung-Hee, published as Walking on a Washing Line.

I had the pleasure of traveling around Korea with Brother Anthony in 2005 when I was invited to the conference of the English Language and Literature Association of Korea by Professor Lee Young-Oak of Sungkyunkwan University. Brother Anthony took me to see a traditional-style house in Seoul; the studio/home of a potter (Korea also excels in ceramics) in the countryside near the city of Gwangju, stronghold of the democracy movement; and a Buddhist temple at the outskirts of that city, where we got to hear beautiful chanting.

During my visit to Seoul in 2011 I was fortunate to visit several historical sites and museums, guided by my skillful interpreter Lee Bome. We visited the Leeum, a museum that houses the collection of Samsung founder Lee Byung-Chui. The Leeum, in a stunning modern building, includes both treasures of Korean pottery, and a terrific selection of contemporary Korean art. 

“Gangnum Style” is a fun video, now viewed by more than one billion people around the world. I hope that will be a wide doorway for many into the exciting and varied culture of Korea.

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