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