Thursday, December 25, 2014

Reading What You Want to Write

One of the best ways to put yourself in the right mind frame to create a certain type of writing is to read works in that same mold. For instance, if you plan to write formal poetry, read formal poetry. If you plan to write a novel in the voice of a female, first-person speaker, read books that have a similar narrator. The advantage is not just that you have a model to imitate. I believe it actually affects your brain to read certain types of literary works.

The so-called “Mozart Effect” was announced by researchers in a letter to Nature magazine in 1993, claiming to show that the IQs of test subjects spiked upwards after listening to ten minutes of Mozart. I believe from my own experience that listening to complex music such as classical or jazz can energize the creative sectors of the brain. I also feel that my own ability to write in a literary way increases when I read or listen to good books. There may well be biochemical changes that happen in our brains when we read or listen to certain kinds of writing.

I experienced the benefits of this myself when I was trying to translate George Sand’s novel Horace from French to English. 

George Sand
It took me about two years to translate this remarkable novel, written in the 1840s, and so far ahead of its time in its treatment of the rights of women and working people. During the two years I was working on that translation, I read almost exclusively novels by nineteenth century authors, mainly women. I was trying to get into my head an English voice that I felt would be an equivalent to George Sand’s narrative.

What an amazing education and privilege that was, to read Persuasion by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, (who took part of her pen name from Sand), The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and other books. Oddly enough, though, none of those writers reminded me of the wry, urbane George Sand. The English Romanticism of the Brontës or George Eliot is more earnest and less urban than Sand’s Horace. Austen is similar—she's also a comic writer, but her world of rural Regency England is so much more innocent than the Paris of George Sand during the Romantic era of the mid-nineteenth century. The book written in English that most sounded to me like the voice of the novel Horace was William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, with its satiric look at London society.

It is possible to overdo reading what you want to write. When I was translating George Sand’s Horace, I became so immersed in Victorian diction that every sentence I wrote in English felt as though it was choking on a tightly knotted cravat. I had to back away and rewrite the translation in a more contemporary voice, and then merge the more modern version with the draft that was written in old-fashioned and formal diction. I was very much helped and guided in this process by my editor at Mercury House publishers, Tom Christensen, an accomplished author and translator, who is also a fellow editor at Catamaran Literary Reader.


But in general, I think reading what you want to write is a good rule of thumb. So unless you plan to write blogs, this is probably the place for both you and me to stop for now!

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
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, December 6, 2014

How to Get Started on Publishing Your Work: Themed Issues and Anthologies

I recently updated this post from a couple of years ago:

One good starting place for writers who are new to submitting their work for publication is to begin with theme issues of magazines and themed anthologies. Publishers announce they are looking for work for a themed issue or anthology by putting out a call for submissions. Calls for submissions often appear on several websites and in magazines. Probably the most useful listing right now for publications in the U.S.A. is the  New Pages site, since it is updated several times a week. Other sites are also very helpful, including Poets & Writers Magazine, which has a comprehensive list of publications looking for new work, and Poetry Flash. 


Joyce Jenkins, editor of Poetry Flash
I’ve recently bookmarked another site called writingcareer.com that focuses only on publishing opportunities that pay writers. It has sections devoted to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. 

There is also a site called Writer's Relief that has a page just on anthologies that are looking for work, although they are now charging for subscriptions to their service. I also visit a website that lists calls for submissions in the U.K. and in other countries outside the U.S., called The Poetry Kit. Another good site for international publications seeking work is 15 International Magazines Seeking English Submissions. I’ve also been consulting The Review Review, a website that also has some good calls for submissions.

Why begin your publishing career with themed issues of magazines and anthologies? For those publications, editors are keenly interested in work by writers from a particular group or region, or work written on a specific topic. They tend to be much less interested in whether you have published before, or whether you are a well-known author. The editor(s) of the magazine or anthology might also solicit work from well-published authors, but that’s all the better, since your writing, if accepted, might appear side-by-side with the writing of an author you admire.

When you submit work to a themed issue or anthology, be sure to read the guidelines extremely carefully. The editor’s phrasing will give you a sense of how loosely or strictly the publication is interpreting the theme.

As an illustration of how to make use of a call for submissions, here’s one (no longer current) from the website of Slipstream, an excellent poetry magazine: We are currently reading for another theme issue (#32) for which we will explore ‘Cars, Bars & Stars.’ A poem could include any combination of the subjects or only one. Creative interpretations are encouraged.” Clearly the editors are leaving the theme fairly loose, as they indicate by the phrase, “Creative interpretations are encouraged.” You have some leeway here.

Here’s an example of a stricter theme I saw a couple of years ago on the website of Poetry Flash: “Windfall, A Journal of Poetry of Place is accepting poems about places in the Pacific Northwest for its spring issue. Submit up to five short poems that should not exceed fifty lines each.” This is much more specific. You don’t have to actually live in the Pacific Northwest to submit, if I’m reading this correctly, but you do have to write about its landscape and/or geography. The length requirement is also very specific, and would rule out any poem longer than a page and a half. You have to pay careful attention to those details when you are submitting, otherwise you are wasting your time and the editor’s.


Some journals, such as Slipstream, often publish theme issues, and those are ones where you might want to check their website regularly, to see what their latest theme is. Another good example of this is Spillway magazine, edited by Susan Terris. You may not think of a work you’ve written as being about a specific theme, but if you look with the lens of that theme, you may discover a side to the work you never saw before.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
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
How to Be an American Writer

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Writing Prompt: Surrealist Proverbs

I’ve been leafing through John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations: Poetry, part of a monumental two-volume series of Ashbery’s translation work edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie. One of my favorite sections is called “The Original Judgment,” (as opposed to the Last Judgment?) a collection of sentences that I can only call surrealist proverbs. These wild aphorisms were a collaboration by André Breton and Paul Eluard, the French surrealist poets. 

Paul Eluard and André Breton, photographed by Man Ray
Here are a few of my favorites from Breton and Eluard’s text:

Put order in its place, disturb the stones of the road.

Form your eyes by closing them.

Sing the vast pity of monsters.

Speak according to the madness that has seduced you.

When they ask to see the inside of your hand, show them the undiscovered planets in the sky.

Do me the favor of entering and leaving on tiptoe.

Adjust your gait to that of the storms.

Perform miracles so as to deny them.

Write the imperishable in sand.

Never wait for yourself.

[translations © 2014 by John Ashbery]

I’ve been trying to think of what these remarkable sentences have in common. In other words, how do you create a surrealist proverb? First of all, the verbs are almost all imperatives or commands: put, write, sing, speak, etc. Proverbs often take this form: “Waste not, want not,” for instance. Breton and Eluard’s sentences frequently involve a jagged juxtaposition of opposites, as in “Adjust your gait to that of the storms.” Clearly, storms don’t really have a gait, so the authors have fused together two terms that normally aren’t combined, one of the key techniques of surrealism. The authors also assume a tone as if they are speaking the obvious—pure common sense—but what they say is only meaningful in the most Daffy Duck way: “Never wait for yourself.” Literally, we can’t wait for ourselves, but figuratively, we do that all the time, afraid to keep pace with our desires and impulses.

So, how would you go about writing a surrealist proverb? Some of these statements begin with a phrase that is perfectly logical: “Never wait for…” or “Sing…” or “Write the…” Start off with a phrase or structure that could have a rational outcome, but then twist the sentence into a Moebius strip that ends up somewhere completely unexpected.

Don’t think too much about how the sentence is going to turn out. Allow the surrealist spontaneity of your fingers to outpace your rational mind. Make a fanning generalization about something incredibly pinpoint.

Begin with what seems like a rational structure, something a “wise” elder would tell a young whippersnapper, and then suddenly flip it the way a flying saucer moves after take off, right as it hits warp speed. 

Here are a couple of my own takes on this form:

Be the writer your fingers want to be.

Take no chances, and you will taste no clouds.

Promote asymmetry in all that you touch.

I think you could also alter this form slightly and make the sentence a question. Instead of a surrealist proverb, a surrealist koan:

What role will you play in the inevitable fireworks?

If you'd like to leave your own surrealist proverb here, please add it as a comment. 

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
How to Be an American Writer

Friday, November 7, 2014

Audiobooks vs. Print Books

It’s a commonplace notion that movies of great books never quite equal the texts they're based on. Maybe that’s because the author’s voice is such a crucial part of an excellent work of literature. The dialogue never quite makes up for losing the poetry of the narrative. How would you make a movie of To the Lighthouse, for instance, that could approach the wainscoted interior worlds of those characters?

On the other hand, not all audiobooks fall short in comparison to their hard copy cousins. I’ve been listening to a lot of recorded books this past year, since I now commute a little over 30 miles (50 kilometers) each way to my job. For me, some of the books gain as recordings. I’ve been thinking about which ones, and there seem to be some common denominators.

Recently I listened to the audiobook of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, read by Jay Long

Ernest J. Gaines
This extraordinary novel takes place in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s and concerns a young African American man who is wrongly convicted of first-degree murder. It’s a gripping story, and I got so caught up in the scenes that I found myself involuntarily reacting out loud to many passages, even though I’m alone in my car. That’s partly because the actor Jay Long has done extraordinary work creating the voices of many, many different characters, from the freethinking schoolteacher Grant Wiggins; to his Tante Lou, the tough and pious woman who raised Grant; to the narrator’s attractive and upstanding girlfriend; to the barely educated plantation farmhand who awaits execution; to the Southern sheriff with his ten-gallon hat. I’m sure this novel would be terrific anyway you heard or read it, but I think I would miss the varied and lively voices of Louisiana that are so much a part of the audiobook. I don’t know if I could have recreated those in my head.

A book where I actually had a chance to compare the audiobook and the print version was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. That novel has six different narrators, played by six different actors in the audiobook: Scott BrickCassandra CampbellKim Mai GuestKirby HeyborneJohn Lee, and Richard Matthews. Since I had to return the audiobook to the library when someone recalled it, I read the rest of the book in the print version, and I regretted not hearing those narrators with their quirky verbal mannerisms.

The kind of book that I would not want to hear out loud would be a very densely written book with an intricate plot, a book where I want to keep looking back to events that occurred earlier to understand how they connect to later action. A book like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Or a book where the passages are so tightly woven that you want to read each one several times in order to taste every phrase again. An example might be Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces.

I do really enjoy humorous audiobooks read by the authors, if those authors are fine comedians in their own right. I’ll list some favorites at the end.

But many books, especially books that use a distinct dialect or particular manner of speaking for the narrator, are probably just as good, if not better, as audiobooks. I always appreciate when an actor creates entirely distinct voices for each character in the book, and can bring to life personages with different ages and genders. Another advantage to audiobooks is that you can share them with others while you experience the book, and not just afterwards.

Here are several audiobooks I’ve enjoyed a great deal:

Humor
Wishful Drinking written and read by the late, great Carrie Fisher
Bossypants written and read by Tina Fey
Standing Up: A Comic’s Life written and read by Steve Martin

Novels
Jazz by Toni Morrison, read by Lynne Thigpen
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, read by David Horovitch
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, brilliantly read by Jeremy Irons
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Books on Tape
Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle, read by Ger Ryan
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, read by Kimberly Farr

Nonfiction
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, read by Lisette Lecat
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou, read by Lynne Thigpen 

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
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Utopias and Dystopias in Fiction

We seem to go through waves where several works of utopian fiction are published in succession, and then waves where dystopian visions prevail in literature. Sometimes these waves overlap, like when a retreating wave in the ocean slides under a new breaker, and their ripples interweave.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about utopias and dystopias in fiction—I’ve been listening during my commute to David Lodge’s book A Man of Parts, about H.G. Wells, a biographical novel about that English writer. Wells wrote several books that could be considered both utopian and dystopian, but he was essentially an optimist. One of his novels, in fact, is called A Modern Utopia, published in 1905.


The other reason that these ideas have been crossing my mind regularly is that my son is deeply involved in reading contemporary bestsellers that take place in dystopian worlds, such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. He can’t read those books fast enough—and all their sequels.

H. G. Wells came of age with the generation that grew up before World War I started in 1914 and before the Russian Revolution took place in 1917. Several writers of those pre-war years were drawn to writing utopian fiction. In addition to Wells’s novel, there was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian fiction, Herland, published in 1915. Not too long before that, William Morris’s book News from Nowhere appeared in 1890 (the word “utopia” means “nowhere” in ancient Greek).

William Morris, illustration from News from Nowhere
Utopian visions might have been particularly appealing to those generations because they were formed by a period in history that saw the beginnings of modern technology and the rise of many progressive movements. It was the era of the airplane and motorcars, and the hope that electrical appliances might reduce the drudgery of daily life (which they have, to quite a degree!). The spread of socialism and feminism seemed to promise the overthrow of some of the most entrenched forms of human oppression.

Following the rise of communism and fascism in the mid-twentieth century, though, utopian visions became suspect. Communism and fascism, were, after all, misguided utopian projects, or more accurately dystopian projects masquerading as utopian movements. Not only that, but the promise of the new technology was soured by the use of aerial bombing and other modern weapons in World War I, when so many millions died in the trenches, and the invention of atomic weapons during World War II. The middle of the twentieth century gave rise to two of the most dystopian novels ever written, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1948). Not long before that, in 1920, Karel Čapek’s dystopian play, R.U.R. (which stood for Rossum’s Universal Robots) showed the nightmarish side of modern technology in its depiction of a robot mutiny that wipes out humanity.

That midcentury gloom changed, though, with the rise of the New Left in the 1960s, and the rebirth of feminism and the growth of the ecology movement in the 1970s. Once again utopian visions overtook dystopian, closely linked to the global rebellions of that time. That period witnessed the green paradise of Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (published in 1975), where the Northwest coast of the United States becomes an ecological haven, but pitted against a dystopian remnant of much of the rest of the country. That period also gave rise to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), another novel that contrasted a simpler, utopian society with a hostile, neighboring dystopia.

That same year another favorite of mine among utopian novels was published, Dorothy Bryant’s The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You. This book’s main character is a material guy who is transported by an auto accident to an alternate world where the goal of life is to act in such a way that one has good dreams. Each morning, the members of a cohort recount their dreams to one another to see how well their conscious life is in harmony with their subconscious. 


One could also mention Ursula LeGuin’s sci-fi The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), with its utopian look at gender roles, portraying a world where no one is either male or female, but everyone becomes both at different times, unpredictably, depending on hormonal and seasonal fluctuations.

That wave of optimistic utopian visions, sparked by the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s has given way to an unrelenting series of dystopias in the present day, from the potboilers I mentioned earlier, such as The Hunger Games, to the more literary Cloud Atlas of David Mitchell, a book I very much enjoyed. In Cloud Atlas there are two different dystopian futures. One is highly technological, where clones are slaves to humans, but begin to rebel, to no avail. Another is a post-nuclear-war society in which modern technology has mainly been lost, and large areas of the planet have become dead zones. Tribes of survivors in Hawaii live on subsistence agriculture, victimized by whatever vicious marauders are in the ascendancy at the moment.  

Why this current wave of dystopian fictions? It’s partly that the political movements of the 1960s and 70s have run their course, either making reforms that have been absorbed by the existing political systems, or failing to make really substantive changes to daily life. In this time when the headlines are dominated by the almost inevitable momentum of global warming, by the War on Terror, and by a reawakened Russia encroaching again on its neighbors, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which there will ever be an end to armed conflicts, or a world in which a truly sustainable economy could be a reality.


I can imagine that eventually global realities will again give rise to mass movements for change. And those movements will have their dreams, and their utopias. The pendulum will swing back.

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
How to Be an American Writer

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Solidarity with the Hong Kong Democracy Protestors

In this blog I’d like to salute the protestors currently staging a brave campaign in the streets of Hong Kong for a democratically elected government for their city. These demonstrators are risking their lives, facing a well-armed police force and right behind them the world’s largest army. But the protestors refuse to give in, despite the odds against them. May they and their allies be the future of China.

Protestors for democracy in Hong Kong
To honor Hong Kong’s demonstrators for free elections, I’d like to talk about a few favorite quotes on democracy. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his Politics, “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” Sharing in government “to the utmost.” Isn’t that the heart of democracy? To the greatest extent possible, people must make the decisions that affect their lives. And aren’t liberty and equality the true aims of democracy? The freedom to do what one pleases, provided that does not impinge on one’s neighbors, and the right to stand and be treated as the equal of anyone.

I don’t say that democracy is a perfect system, or that the United States of America, where I live, has a monopoly on ideas about how to organize a democratic government. I think that democracy is a flawed system, often soured by the influence of money in politics. But Democracy is less flawed than any other system of government. As Elwyn Brooks White described it, “Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.” I love his use of the word “suspicion.” Politics is never a sure bet. The democratic process doesn’t work in every instance. But it works more consistently than any other process.

This is particularly true in the case of corruption. Political systems, no matter how idealistic or noble their beginnings, deteriorate into machines for the personal gains of the leaders without the corrective of democratic elections. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary,” said Reinhold Niebuhr.

Is it true, as Jean Jacques Rousseau said, that “In the strict sense of the term, a true democracy has never existed, and never will exist.” I believe that the digital revolution and the Internet provide both a possibility for the invasion of privacy, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and an opportunity for grassroots democracy, the likes of which we haven’t seen before. Which opportunity will triumph?

Maybe the democracy that protestors are enacting right now in the streets of Hong Kong are the start of a new kind of politics that will go deeper than citizens just showing up once every few years to cast a ballot, a democracy that will give direct voice to the people, not just through representatives.


“We have frequently printed the word Democracy,” wrote the poet Walt Whitman. “Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”

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
How to Be an American Writer


Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, née Coles, was an English fiction writer who lived from 1912 to 1975. Critics who have written about Elizabeth Taylor the novelist have speculated that part of the reason for her relative obscurity might be because she was eclipsed by the actor Elizabeth Taylor, who was born twenty years after the novelist. Despite their age difference, both the fiction writer and the actor flourished at the same time in the 1950s and 60s, because the more famous Elizabeth Taylor achieved celebrity as a child actress.

The fiction writer Elizabeth Taylor
I stumbled on the work of the fiction writer Elizabeth Taylor through the film Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, a delightful movie that stars the great Joan Plowright in the title role. Mrs. Palfrey, based on one of Taylor’s final novels, is representative of much of Taylor’s work in that it involves two themes the author was fond of: a woman alone, and a person caught in a fictitious or false role that she has created.

The Wikipedia article on Taylor mentions that she was briefly a member of the Communist Party, and afterwards a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party. Her political persuasions do occasionally enter into her writing in a subtle way. But one of Taylor’s outstanding qualities as an author is that she almost never oversteps the role of the writer as an objective observer of personality. Her endings are nearly flawless in their even-handed meting out of fates to the characters.

I’ve read a couple of Taylor's works of fictions, including the novel The Wedding Group, a wry look at the culture of self-realization of the late 1960s. Each character is determined to have what only he or she wants, with no regard to the well-being of others. In the end, no character really arrives at a satisfactory life.

I"ve also enjoyed a short story collection of Taylor's, A Dedicated Man and Other Stories. One benefit of reading short stories, as opposed to novels, is that they give a quick overview of the kinds of plots and characters that a writer is drawn to. A specialty of Taylor’s that appears in several of the stories is her insight into the conversations of couples talking about other couples, including their friends. There is that strange distancing after a dinner party, where a couple sizes up the other duos, making little remarks that showcase their own relationship as the party line.

There is a wonderful story in A Dedicated Man called “The Prerogative of Love,” about a couple who are giving a dinner party for another couple on a sweltering summer night at their house in the suburbs of London. The lady of the house, Lillah, is a beautiful, childless woman, renowned among their circle of friends for her romantic marriage to a man named Richard. Overcome by the heat, Lillah seems unable to lift a finger to do anything to make the evening a success, leaving the entertaining to her husband and the food preparation to the cook. Richard rather resents that his wife has been home all day but has done nothing to get ready for the party, leaving him no time for a quick dip in the river after he commutes home from London.

In barges Lillah’s niece, Arabella, a fashion model, even more self-preoccupied than her aunt. In fact, all the characters in this story could be placed on a continuum of selflessness or self-absorbtion, with Lillah and Arabella the most concerned with themselves, and the cook at the other end of the spectrum, since she is almost psychically attuned to the needs of others. (The class politics do sneak in from time to time.)

The couple who come to dinner, John and Helen Forester, are somewhere in the middle of this scale, rather conventional English parents who breed dogs as a hobby and have none of the glamour of their hosts. Helen falls all over Lillah with admiration, and her husband develops a fantasy crush on the young model.

The point of view at the end of the story switches to the Foresters, as they dissect the evening when they drive home from the party. (Taylor is quite unattached to any one point of view in her stories, moving fluidly from one character’s perspective to another—a technique writers can learn from her stories.) Taylor begins with the wife’s comment about the hostess’s dress, but the husband, still thinking about the young model, misunderstands her:

“A really beautiful frock,” she was saying.
“Unusual,” he replied. “Not much of it.” He suddenly laughed.
“I meant Lillah’s.”
Presently she sighed and said, “He’s so wonderful to her always.”
John knew the pattern—the excited admiration invariably turned to dissatisfaction in the end—one of the reasons why these evenings ruffled him.
“I’m sure that to him she’s as beautiful as on the day they married,” she went on.
“Still a very fine woman,” he replied.
“Is it because they’ve never had children, I wonder? The glamour hasn’t worn off by all those nursery troubles. All their love kept for one another.”
“It is better to have children,” John said.
“Well, of course. Who ever’d deny it? You know I didn’t think that. But I wondered if it had drawn them close together, not having them. They never seem to take one another for granted.” “As we do,” she left unspoken, though her sigh was explicit.
“Well, we musn’t compare ourselves with them,” he said rather smartly. “And who are we to be talking about love? They’re the ones. They’re famous for it, after all. It’s their prerogative.”

Taylor laces this brief conversation with many rich ironies. First of all, the wife, Helen, is scolding her husband for his lingering thoughts of the young model’s skimpy outfit, then making a pointed comment that their hosts have a much more romantic relationship.
Meanwhile, the husband, John, is humoring his wife’s fascination with the hosts, remarking slightly sarcastically that only couples such as Richard and Lillah have a right to be considered not only as a domestic unit but as a romantic one.
Most ironic is the author’s own viewpoint. The author has let us in on the secret that Lillah certainly does take Richard for granted, and is quite spoiled. Taylor seems to be criticizing the way that love is linked in most people’s minds with the personality of self-indulgent beauties, rather than with more selfless personalities, such as that of the cook, who is able to anticipate her employers’ every need.

I know this is going on longer than a blog post should, but I can’t help giving a shout out to another short story of Elizabeth Taylor's that I love, “The Letter Writers,” from The Blush, also collected in You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor. “The Letter Writers” is a delicious story about a celebrated male novelist and a woman fan of his who have corresponded regularly for ten years without ever meeting, until... Well, I won’t give it away. You have to experience this fabulous story for yourself.

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
How to Be an American Writer

Monday, September 22, 2014

Poetry vs. Memoir: "Forcing a Genre"

By “forcing a genre,” I mean insisting on writing a piece in a certain form, even if that form is not right for that specific work. I see this on a regular basis as a contributing editor of Catamaran Literary Reader. A writer will submit a poem that is divided into lines, the way a poem usually is, but the line breaks feel artificial. The language has the warp and woof of prose. It doesn’t have any of the compression or music that marks strong poetry.

Often when I see this happen, the author is writing very autobiographically. The story might be extremely compelling. So compelling, the writer feels such urgency to tell the story that he or she doesn't have the time to enrich the language with metaphor, imagery, and the sounds of words. It may not seem to that writer as if he or she has the luxury of using all those literary tools, since the message is so immediate. 

So why not write that piece as prose memoir? Memoir and poetry can be extremely close. Some writing that may feel thin when written as poetry can make wonderful memoir. 

Poets often recount particularly intense moments from their lives, as do memoirists. But for writing to be poetry, it requires a different approach, an approach where the writer is determined to wrestle the experience into art, rather than simply to recount part of a life. Poetry also often focuses on a small moment of large significance, whereas memoir usually tells a story over a longer period of time.

A book that's useful to look at in this context is Linda McCarriston’s Eva-Mary, a collection of poetry that is deeply rooted in the poet’s family history.


Linda McCarriston
Eva-Mary is partly focused on the abuse that McCarriston and other family members experienced when the author was growing up. There is nothing prosy about the writing in this book. The experiences that McCarriston recounts are memoir, in the sense that she is testifying that she witnessed them, but they are also poetry in every sense of the word. The music of the language and McCarriston’s deft use of metaphor all contribute to make this book pure poetry:

                               her heart
the bursting heart of someone
snagged among rocks deep
in a sharkpool

(from “To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons”)

McCarriston's book also tells the story of a family, but focused on particular, highly charged moments.

I don’t think that all autobiographical writing should be poetry, or that it should all be memoir. But it’s important to recognize when a piece of your writing wants to be a different genre from the one you are forcing it into. Often this happens when a poem should really be memoir.

This can also happen in reverse. A piece of prose can be so dense, so tangled with metaphor and imagery that it demands the breathing room of line breaks to be assimilated and appreciated. Or a memoir that is fixed on particular moments in time could work better as a series of poems.


One caution about switching a work to another genre. Once you switch, there are alterations you have to make. The demands of prose are different from the demands of poetry. A prose version of exactly the same story may require more elaboration, more development of certain details or characters. Some poetic diction may have to be purged in the interest of maintaining authenticity. 

Conversely, a verse version of a story may require focusing more on a particular moment. Poetry also requires more figurative language and more focus on the rhythms and sounds of the words, so even the most poetic prose will need heightening to make it sing when it is broken into lines.

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
How to Be an American Writer

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What Writers Can Learn from Baseball Players

Writers and athletes might not seem to have much in common, since one occupation is mostly cerebral, while the other is very physical. I do think writers can learn a lot from athletes, though. Athletes are also absorbed in a quest for excellence. Like writers, athletes are performers whose goal is not a performance, but a career-long struggle to do their best at their craft.

Baseball is the sport that I know better than any other, and there are two things about playing baseball well that seem valuable for writers. One of them is adjusting. To succeed at baseball, you have to make constant adjustments, sometimes in the space of one at-bat. When Barry Bonds was playing, I watched him hit many times at the San Francisco Giants’ beautiful waterfront ballpark. 


Part of Barry’s success was that he could adjust to a pitcher’s strategy incredibly quickly. If a pitcher got Barry to swing at a ball that was low and outside early in the count, Barry would just act cool, as if he had no idea what the pitcher was up to. Then, maybe after Barry had fouled off a pitch and taken a couple of balls, he would know what the pitcher and catcher were setting him up for. He knew they were hoping to sneak that same low, outside pitch by him for a swinging strike three. Barry just casually inched closer and closer to home plate with each pitch, so his bat could extend a bit farther, and the next time that pitcher threw him the same pitch Barry had hopelessly missed earlier in the at-bat, WHAM!—home run.

So, what does that have to do with lyric poetry? A lot, in my opinion. Just as batters have to adjust to what the pitchers are throwing them so they don’t make the same mistake twice, artists have to make constant adjustments. It doesn’t work to write the same book twice, or the same poem, short story, memoir  or essay, no matter how good it was the first time. The reader is already expecting a certain type of character, a certain tension, a certain ending. Writers have to continually vary the sounds, images, situations, characters, settings, tones, and/or points of view in their work. Otherwise their writing becomes stale, predictable, tired.

Another way that baseball and writing are similar has to do with confidence. If the same two teams play one another with the same two starting pitchers on the mound, the outcome can be completely opposite on two different days in the same baseball season. What is the difference? Many times, it has to do with confidence. The vital importance of confidence in baseball is something I’ve learned from listening to the San Francisco Giants’ broadcaster Mike Krukow, a former major league pitcher. 


Kruk, as he’s known to fans, always talks about how winning builds confidence in a team. That confidence allows them to play loose, relaxed, and with enjoyment. This prevents a hitter from pressing during an at-bat, trying to do too much, feeling the weight of expectations. The result of confidence is often success.


Again, what the heck does that have to do with writing the twist at the end of a short story? Well, it does have to do with writing—I think that when a writer is enjoying the process of creation, that fun can be reflected in the reader’s own enjoyment of the finished product. But this also has to do with reading one’s work out loud. So much of reading aloud has to do with confidence. If you stand in front of an audience and feel assured that your work is going to please and engage, that is a crucial part of giving a good reading. If you’re so nervous you could die, you’re not going to be able to connect to the audience of readers. But how do you gather confidence as a reader of your work? I think it’s a largely question of practice, and of writing work that you believe in, that you feel is important for you personally to deliver to an audience, or that you have fun reading to an audience.

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
How to Be an American Writer

Friday, August 22, 2014

Anne Sexton as a Love Poet

Readers don’t normally think of Anne Sexton as a love poet. Confessional, yes. Powerful, definitely. Romantic? Not really. The author of poems such as “Her Kind” is better known for verses that show the grittier side of the psyche, rather than the smooth surfaces of love.

Anne Sexton 
Recently I stumbled across a book of hers I didn’t know, Love Poems, published in 1969, five years before Sexton’s death. This is not the face of Anne Sexton we usually see, as in the portrait on her Wikipedia page, staring off intently into space, looking slightly abstracted. Love Poems reveals a passionate Sexton, making a headlong effort to connect to other individuals:

Then I think of you in bed,
your tongue half chocolate, half ocean

from “Eighteen Days without You: December 11th

In Diane Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography, Sexton is quoted in an interview as saying, “The love poems are all a celebration of touch…physical and emotional touch.” The sensuality in these poems is about linking deeply with another person.

Of course there is a confessional side to Sexton’s love poetry as well. This book is not about love in marriage, but her various affairs with men and with at least one woman. The lesbian poem, “Song for a Lady,” ends with this couplet, with its play on the word knead/need:

Even a notary would notarize our bed,
as you knead me and I rise like bread.

Nothing apologetic here about this affair with another woman.

The poems are often about missing an absent lover. Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife,” is the ultimate Other Woman poem, the language electrified by emotion. A mixture of compassion, admiration, and fury, the poem describes the wife the speaker’s lover retreats to:

           She is all harmony.
She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy,

has placed wild flowers at the window at breakfast,
sat by the potter’s wheel at midday,
set forth three children under the moon,
three cherubs drawn by Michelangelo…

There is something a little too perfect about this ’60s Normal Rockwell domestic scene, particularly since we know that her lover was driven to escape it.

What struck me most about these love poems is that the image commonly presented of Anne Sexton as the madwoman—not in the attic but in the knotty-pine suburban den—is often not accurate. Sexton wrote verses of the greatest fulfillment, as well of poems of emotional desperation. Here, in full, is my favorite of Love Poems:

US

I was wrapped in black
fur and white fur and
you undid me and then
you placed me in gold light
and then you crowned me,
while snow fell outside
the door in diagonal darts.
While a ten-inch snow
came down like stars
in small calcium fragments,
we were in our bodies
(that room that will bury us)
and you were in my body
(that room that will outlive us)
and at first I rubbed your
feet dry with a towel
because I was your slave
and then you called me princess.
Princess!

Oh then
I stood up in my gold skin
and I beat down the psalms
and I beat down the clothes
and you undid the bridle
and you undid the reins
and I undid the buttons,
the bones, the confusions,
the New England postcards,
the January ten o’clock night,
and we rose up like wheat,
acre after acre of gold,
and we harvested,
we harvested.


I love the contrast between the snow outside and the hothouse lovemaking indoors, by the gold light of a fire or a sunset. Then there is the archaic language: crown, slave, princess, psalms, bridle, gold. The poem's diction has a formal dignity, which acts as a foil to enhance and ennoble the sensuality. What an image: “I beat down the psalms”! The repetition of the final phrase, “we harvested,” is such a triumph. Unlike many poems in the collection, there is no note of guilt or nostalgia in that ending, just fruition.

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
How to Be an American Writer