Monday, January 28, 2008

Irreverent Conferencing

Fellow writer John Yelverton shared this with me. This passage is quoted in The Long Embrace, a biography of Raymond Chandler by Judith Freeman.

Raymond Chandler wrote this in 1950 called "A Couple of Writers."

"...Just a flat emptiness. The emptiness of a writer who can't think of anything to write, and that's a pretty awful painful emptiness, but for some reason it never even approaches tragedy. Jesus, we're the most useless people in the world. There must be a hell of a lot of us, too, all lonely, all empty, all poor, all gritted with small mean worries that have no dignity. All trying like men caught in a bog to get some firm ground under our feet and knowing all the time it doesn't make a damn bit of difference whether we do or not.

We ought to have a convention somewhere, some place like Aspen, Colorado, some place where the air is very clear and sharp and stimulating and we can bounce our little derived intelligences against one another's hard little minds. Maybe for just a little while we'd feel as if we really had talent. All the world's would-be writers, the guys and girls that have education and will and desire and hope and nothing else. They know all there is to know about how it's done, except they can't do it. They've studied hard and imitated the hell out of everybody that ever rang the bell.
What a fine bunch of nothing we would be, he thought. We'd hone each other razor sharp. The air would crackle wi
th the snapping of our dreams. But the trouble is, it couldn't last. When the convention is over and we'd have to go back home and sit in front of the damn piece of metal that puts words down on the paper. Yeah, we sit there waiting--like a guy waiting in the death house."

John thinks that Raymond was down when he wrote it.

So now, fifty-eight years later, the lady (me) speaks to the grumpy protagonist in the late Mr. Chandler's story:

Oh, why bother with the pretense of a writer's conference? Especially if we know the crackle and sizzle just won't last? Who needs to be reminded that the lady in front of you submitted a short story to journals 77 times before having anything accepted? Or the girl who spent $60 grand on an MFA can't get a job at a University, nor can she afford to move to NYC and no one wants her manuscript? Do we need to get embroiled in the font controversy and hea
r that if you submit in Courrier rather than Times, the lackeys below will think you're a neanderthal? Does it really matter whether or not the group you've been assigned to think your trans gender protagonist would be better as a metro sexual male, and do we really need handouts with passages from Wittgenstein and Gardner with no opportunity to discuss what they were saying or acknowledge the crossover between fine arts and writing?

No. I say go on a cruise. Why not a cruise of writers, where the
pages are lost below deck, everyone plays drinking games, goes for broke in the casinos and then uses rusty social skills and reacquaints themselves with the concept of "dressing for dinner?"

At least the booze would be decent, we'd know the
life stories were bullshit and there'd be time for outrage and fun. That's exactly what I think of the $1500 spent for a conference fee. Better to upgrade and get a balcony view room on a good cruise line, workshop lightly, flirt outrageously with someone you'll never see again, and have a really great time. And there'd be no academia la la la.

And if Josephine Damian and Chumplet Writes came along, at least there'd be a few saucy minxes.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Writer Impossible: Form --When Traditional Becomes New

I was middle aged and tired. And so I did what so many others have done ...I took a creative writing class. It was a break from writing press releases, newsletters, travel stuff. Though one can do this stuff, there is something lacking in it for me. My background --creative seamstress mother, music training, degree in fine arts, creative writing was a great fit. (Oh, lord, does my upbringing have hopeless literate writer all over it?) Sensing this, the teacher, Les, suggested that I take poetry in order to really learn how to craft prose.

They were the hardest classes I've ever taken. All that sculpting, shoving, cutting, carving ...utterly exhausting. Naturally, given my background, I'd play with the form --a poem like Water On Glass that was one long sentence, for instance. It was natural even playing with the shapes text could make on a page (on the blog, it's a bit different), an extension of the feelings I wanted to capture in a scene. Others did it as well, while some kept to a "coffee house" standard and produced strong works that were akin to rants.

So we continued with free verse, refining our imagery, cutting out words to get down to the core of our message. Kristin Herbert -- co-author of "A Fine Excess," was patient. She knew she had to instill in us a sense of fearlessness before she presented traditional poetic form to us. Imagine how vexed I was when I saw this:
Kristin & Kirby Gann's book
A1 (refrain)
A2 (refrain)

A1 (refrain)

A2 (refrain)

A1 (refrain)

A2 (refrain)

A2 (refrain)

That of course, is the structure to "Do Not Go Gentle" by Dylan Thomas,
which is one of the greatest villanelles of all time, and resonates with foreboding considering the hard road he took. When I think how many coffee house rants I've heard this (and other forms) come across as fresh and challenging. In a sense, taking something very old and infusing it with contemporary images. The writer, artist and blogger Wind on The Quilting Sword has written a great villanelle, "La Seine."

I have yet to write a villanelle. Someday, I will. As for form, when I find myself getting comfortable as I plough through the final rewrite of my novel, I start to think --what can I do to make this fresh? To get rid of the drag? Inevitably, it means that I have to cut, move and reshaping to breathe a new perspective into it. And sometimes, it means digging around a bit and looking at what others have done and starting anew and pushing the form.

Writer Impossible appears on this blog on Wednesdays (or Thursdays), and will be warehoused over its own blog when I get the chance.

Writer Impossible: Revealed

Bodega Bay, CA

As the writer crafts a story, a good portion of his experience is poured into it. From setting to characters, they come from places he's been, people he's met. But as he writes, increasingly he becomes uncomfortable and is confronted with the age old question: how much of myself do I reveal?

For what the writer inevitably finds out is that the more he writes, the more he finds out about himself, his life, how he feels.

This isn't always an easy situation. What will people say, what will his parents think --it doesn't matter that he is over fifty. Will anyone identify themselves, his friends, his children?

A few years ago in a workshop, a former child actress --of whom I'd never heard of and was unrecognizable even to me, wrote a story with a hateful father, a weak protagonist, predictable men, and lots of smoking. Smoking in cars, smoking in bars, the smoke serving as a substitute for diversity of thought. At 300 pages, the writer worried if her work would upset too many people.

"Like who?" someone asked, after reading yet another very long scene that takes place in a car (this is Southern California, where most thought happens behind the wheel).
"My father," she said.
Yet because of her feelings, the father character was the strongest in her story. By comparison, her protagonist was flat, unsympathetic, was in fact, too weak to carry the book without the help of a cigarette, a glare and a car. Perhaps her bigger need was to ask "what is my character feeling beyond I-hate-him?" And to do this, she needed to ask herself the same.
Self discovery at 75 miles per hour. Flesh those characters out. Take them beyond the reality of the inspiration behind the people you know. This is fiction, so free yourself up and give them a soul.

Perhaps the most wry and best summation was written by Guggenheim and NEA award winning writer Thomas Farber in his hauntingly subtle twenty year old book about writing, "Compared to What? On Writing And The Writer's Life:"
"Am I in your book?" she asked.
"No kiddo, no," he replied. "Not unless you want to be."

"Compared to What?" is out of print, available used. However, some of the contents have been rolled into A Lover's Quarrel, On Writing & The Writing Life, reissued by Ellsberg Books, available through Amazon.

His latest book, A Lover's Question, Selected Stories ,published by Ellsberg Books, available through Amazon.
...quietly devastating. The people in these stories stay with you, and in fact you begin to run into them everywhere you go. --Rolling Stone