Category Archives: Publishing

How I Became a Writer, Part 3

And now, as promised, the last installment on how I became a writer.

By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a writer. I also knew that I needed to read as much as I could, and, with an older brother in college who evicted me from my bedroom each summer when he came home and left his previous semester’s English syllabi laying around, it was not difficult for me to devise a reading plan to fill out my knowledge of literature. For example, I declared tenth grade the year of the Russian novel; during that year, I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. It was an ambitious undertaking, and I neglected my math and science classes to achieve it.

But I worked hard at the task I set myself. For example, one day in Band class (I was an underachieving clarinet player), the instructor was going through a piece with the flute section. Earlier that month, I had found a fantastic copy of The Brothers Karamazov–hardbacked, with two columns of print on each page–and I found that it fit perfectly on my music stand.

Usually I would put my sheet music on top of the book to camouflage my reading, but I had reached a really rivetting section (a chapter called “Lacerations”) that morning and I was oblivious to pretty much everything around me. I didn’t realize that Mr. Wren had crept up behind me and was, along with everyone else in the band, watching me read. When I finally realized the entire room was silent, with no flutes playing dissonant notes and no baton clicking out a rhythm on the conductor’s stand, I looked up to see what was going on, and met Mr. Wren’s small blue eyes peering at me. I expected to be duly chastised, but all he said was, “Lacerations? Do I need to send you to the counselor?” Mortified, I shook my head and shoved my book beneath my seat.

This is merely a long-winded way of demonstrating that I was a dedicated reader at a fairly young age. I tried to create a system, a reading method, but when I reached college, I realized how very inadequate my system was. My subsequent years in graduate school were probably an attempt to fill in the gaps of my literary knowledge. That attempt also ended in relative failure. I got a master’s degree and filled in a few of the many gaps left by my undergraduate education, then continued on to the Ph.D. level and filled in a few more. I was still very imperfectly educated in terms of English literature by the time I received my Ph.D., but thankfully education has no definitive endpoint. And if one becomes a generalist, as one must at a community college professor, then one can continue to add to one’s knowledge year after year after year. Even now, some years after retiring, I am still working hard to fill in those gaps.

But of course all this reading derailed me from becoming the writer I had originally planned to be. In other words, the preparatory work I set myself that was designed to make me a good writer eclipsed the desire to write for a great many years. There was, after all, so very much to learn and to read! I decided that if I had to choose between writing and reading, I would opt for reading, because I wanted to know what was out there. I guess you could say that my quest to perfect my knowledge of English literature (certainly an impossible task) has never been anything more than mere nosiness.

I would still pick reading over writing any day. In fact, most days I usually do. There is still so much to read, so many gaps to fill. For me, reading comes first, and it always will. I write to show that I am reading, that I am paying attention to what is out there. In the end, I write not because I love story-telling , but rather because I love the stories we’ve told throughout the ages so much that I cannot keep myself from adding to the ever-growing collection of them that makes up human culture.

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How I Became a Writer, Part 2

As I recall, my first real attempt at critical writing involved a book review of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, written in third or fourth grade–I’m not sure which. Why did I pick an obscure novel by a largely forgotten American writer? I believe it was because I had read White Fang (or was it The Call of the Wild? or perhaps both?) earlier that year and felt that writing a book review about a book I’d already read seemed to be cheating, so I found another book by Jack London. Perhaps this was my first foray into literary studies. I didn’t really get much from The Sea Wolf, unfortunately. My book review basically argued that London’s use of curse words within the narrative was a distinctive feature of his writing. I have no idea whether or not this is true, never having gone back to read The Call of the Wild, White Fang, or The Sea Wolf again.

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Some more recent critical writing

This was, if I recall, the year I had requested to be allowed to bring in the Bible for independent reading. My request was denied, which was a good thing. Mrs. Cirillo (or was it Mrs. Moss?) was right to curtail my outrageous desire to be a precocious reader. No one who spells the word “universe” with almost every letter of the alphabet, as I did back then, has earned the right to be a waywardly precocious reader. As for writing, we were allowed to make a book that spring, and I chose to write an elegy about my parakeet Dinky, who had dropped dead on Christmas morning. (This, coupled with the fact that during the Easter pageant at my church that year I was chosen to play the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, may account for the fact that I later converted to Judaism.) The little book, which I can no longer locate, itself is nothing special, but it may be telling that the “Note About the Author” (written in a pretentious third person) at the end of the book refers to its author’s ardent desire to become a writer.

After this, there was a long spell of forgettable short stories, poems, and other forced writing assignments. But then, in my senior year of high school, I was nominated by my long-suffering English teachers to compete in a nationwide writing contest held by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The contest had two components: first, a prepared story (mine was some atrocious story about Brian Boru, King of Ireland–even the passage of fifty years cannot erase my shame at having concocted it) sent in ahead of time, and second, an on-demand essay. I remember being pulled out of algebra class on a April morning in 1976, ushered into an empty classroom, given pencil and paper, and losing myself in an essay in which I mused on my relation to my birthplace–Brooklyn, New York–a place I had moved away from some nine years earlier. I also remember that I left the classroom feeling somewhat pleased that I had mentioned my grandmother, who still lived in Brooklyn, noting that she was in fact the last thread that drew me back to my birthplace summer after summer. Somehow, I was surprised but not shocked when, an hour or so after I got home from school that day, my father called to tell me that my grandmother had died that morning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she had probably died while I was actually writing my essay. (Two days later, I received an Easter card in the mail from Grandma. She always had great timing.)

I won the contest despite my dreadful story about Brian Boru, and was chosen as one of 26 students from Texas to win the NCTE Writing Award in 1977. It wasn’t such a big deal. While it may have helped me get into college, I have to admit that I completely forgot that I’d won such an award until a few years ago, when I was cleaning out some old papers. It came as something of a shock to me to realize that I had been involved with the NCTE years and years before I myself became a teacher of English and a member of that organization.

I have not gone into detail about the short stories I wrote in my high school years, because they are too pedestrian to stand out. Everyone writes those kind of stories. I was, however, quite a letter writer in those days, stealing funny bits from P.G. Wodehouse and other comic writers and inserting them into my letters to my parents and siblings. Below is a letter I found while visiting my mother last year. (Obviously, she recognized my genius–or she decided to save it as evidence that time travel really happens.)

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Once again, I’ve made less progress on this project than I had anticipated. That leaves one more post (I promise–just one more!) to bridge the gap between my young adult and middle age years, and how I postponed my writing career (such as it is) by making a study of literature and becoming a professor of English.

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How I Became a Writer, part 1

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a writer. Perhaps I didn’t care about writing back when I was too young to understand what being a writer meant–before I’d really learned to read, in those days when, as a young child, I read only the books  that were placed in my willing hands, those rhyming, oddly illustrated children’s books that were so common in the 1960s. It’s quite possible that back then I didn’t have a hankering  to join what I have come to consider the Great Conversation, that I was content to look and pass, not feeling compelled to offer something–some small tidbit at least–to the exchange of stories and ideas that has gone on for centuries now.

My first memory of reading was from the Little Bear books, which my father, an accountant, got by the cartload, since he worked for the publisher (I think?). I am confused about this, however. It’s just as likely that we had a surplus of these books laying around our house. I was the youngest of three children, after all, so it makes sense that children’s books would pile up, and that they would be handed off to me. I don’t remember actually learning to read, but I do remember the laughter that ensued when I tried to sound out “Chicago,” as well as having to struggle with the word “maybe,” which I pronounced incorrectly, with the accent on the “be” and not the “may.”

But these books certainly didn’t enchant me. That would have to wait for some years. In the meantime,  I remember seeing a copy of Julius Caesar on our dining room table, with its cover illustration featuring a lurid, bloody toga attracting more than a mere glance at it, and although I didn’t try to read Shakespeare’s misnamed tragedy, it couldn’t have been mere coincidence that I became enamored of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, to such an extent that I would wrap myself in striped beach towels and stomp through our Brooklyn duplex declaring, in all seriousness, “I wish to be buried with Mark Anthony.” My elaborately crafted Cleopatra-fantasy imploded, however, when I convinced my second-grade class to put on a short play about Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony. (Is it possible that I wrote the play myself? That seems unlikely, but I cannot imagine that many age-suitable plays on that subject were available.) I was over the moon–until I got the news that I was to play Julius Caesar. And that was the end of that fantasy, much to the relief of my family.

The books that did grab my attention were a set of great books that my grandmother had20171225_142442 bought for her two children back in the 1930s: a set of all of Dickens, all of Twain, and some odds-and-ends, such as William M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, as well as a full set of encyclopedias. (I still have a few of the Dickens works, but most of the books were destroyed in a flooded warehouse back in the 1990s.) I am sure that my grandmother’s purchase was an investment in wishful thinking: I would swear an oath that neither my uncle nor my father ever read a word of these books. I am equally sure that I, feeling sorry for the books (which is something I still do–and explains why I sometimes check out books from the library that I have no interest in but will read because I think someone should pay them some attention), picked a few of them off the dusty shelf one summer and began to read them. I remember reading, and delighting in, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad long before I ever read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.

As the youngest child in the family, I was frequently left to my own devices, and that was fine with me. But I think I might have been a little lonely, a little too strange for children my own age, and this was something that my parents wouldn’t have noticed, not back in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was less attention placed on the lives of children. So it’s natural that the books became my friends. When I visited my father after my parents got divorced (there was no joint custody back then, which was delightful for me, as it meant that I was able to stay with my father in NYC for a huge swath of the summer vacation), I started reading through the set of Dickens. In doing so, I found a whole new set of friends and family. Even today, when I open a Dickens novel–any Dickens novel–I feel like I am at a family reunion full of quirky, oddball relatives. It is a wonderful feeling.

This oddly rambling blog post is doing a fine job of explaining how I became a reader, but it is completely missing what I set out to do: explain how I became a writer. That, I can see now, will have to wait for another post.

 

 

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On Self-Publishing and Why I Do It

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Let me get one thing straight right from the get-go: I know self-publishing is not the same thing as publishing one’s work through a legitimate, acknowledged publishing company. I also know that self-publishing is looked down upon by the established writing community and by most readers. In fact, for the most part I agree with this estimation. After all, I spent much of last year writing freelance book reviews for Kirkus Reviews, so I know what’s being published by indie authors: some of it is ok, but much more of it is not very good at all.

Knowing this, then, why would I settle for publishing my novels on Amazon and CreateSpace? This is a tricky question, and I have thought about it a great deal. Whenever anyone introduces me as an author, I am quick to point out that I am, in fact, just a self-published author, which is very different from a commercial writer. (And if at any time I am liable to forget this important fact, there are enough bookstores in my area that will remind me of it, stating that they don’t carry self-published books.) When I meet other writers who are looking for agents, I do my best to encourage them, largely by sharing with them the only strategy I know: Be patient, and persist in sending your queries out.

So why, since I know all this, do I resort to self-publishing my work? I’ve boiled it down to four main reasons.

First of all, I self-publish because I am not invested in becoming a commercially successful writer. I write what I want, when I want, and when I decide my work is complete, I submit it to an electronic platform that makes it into a book, which I can then share with family and friends and anyone else who cares to read it. In other words, for me writing is not a means by which to create a career, celebrity, or extra income. I have long ago given up the fantasy of being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air; my fantasies are more mundane these days.

Second, I do not need to be a commercial writer, with a ready-made marketing machine to sell my books, because I am not hoping to make any money from them. Rather, I look upon writing as a hobby, just as I look upon my interest in Dickens, Hardy, and the Brontes as a hobby. I am helped here by having spent many years engaged in academic research, a world in which publications may win their authors momentary notice, but certainly not any money, unless one happens to sell out to the lure of literary celebrity, as Stephen Greenblatt has. I have a few publications out in the academic world, but no celebrity and certainly no money to show for them–and I am totally fine with that. In my creative writing, I am lucky enough to have a hobby that satisfies me and costs me relatively little–far less, in fact, than joining a golf or tennis club would cost.

The third reason that I self-publish my work is that I actually enjoy doing so. There are some aspects of publication that have surprised me. For example, I have found that I really enjoy working with a great graphic designer (thanks, Laura!) to develop the cover of my novels. It is an extension of the creative process that is closely related to my work but something that I could never do myself, and this makes me all the more grateful and fascinated as I watch the cover come to life and do its own crucial part to draw readers into the world I have created.

As a retired writing professor, I realize how important revision and proofreading is, and to be honest, this is the only part of self-publishing that gives me pause, because I worry about niggling little errors that evade my editorial eye. But for the most part, I am old enough now to have confidence in my writing. Plus, the beauty of self-publishing is that it is electronic: if there are errors (and there are always errors, even in mainstream published books), I can fix them as soon as a kind reader points them out. So I suppose the fourth reason to self-publish lies in the fact that it is so very easy to do it these days.

These are four good reasons for me to self-publish, but the most important reason is that I apparently love to write, and self-publishing allows me to do this without worrying about submitting the same piece of work over and over again to agents and publishers, stalling out my creativity. While at the Bronte Parsonage Museum this past summer, I picked up a card that expresses how I feel about it, a quote from Charlotte Brontë: “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.” (It is a testament to my literary nerdiness that I happen to know that this quotation comes from Brontë’s Roe Head Journal, but strangely enough, before I encountered it on a greeting card I never realized that it applied to myself as well as to Brontë.) In my idiosyncratic view, self-publishing allows the reader to decide whether a novel is worth reading, rather than punting that responsibility over to an overworked and market-fixated literary agent or editorial assistant. I am willing to trust that reader’s judgment, even if it means I will never sell many books.

And so today, as I am releasing my second self-published novel (Betony Lodge, available on Amazon and CreateSpace–and this is my last attempt at marketing it here on my blog), I am fully aware of the stigma of self-publishing, but I realize that what’s right for other writers may not be right for me. Today, then, I am taking my courage into my own hands and pushing that key to make the book go live.

And tonight I will be making my own champagne toast: here’s to living in the 21st century,  when digital publishing makes authors of us all!

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New Feature: Book Reviews

The title is a misnomer of sorts: most contemporary book reviews, I’ve noticed, are little more than marketing ploys designed to get you to buy the book they’re reviewing. If the reviewer is quite brave, the review might actually critique the book, but the point remains the same: to weigh in on a book that has grabbed, or wants to grab, the attention of a large body of readers.

That is not my goal in writing book reviews.

Am I alone in wailing and moaning the lost art of reading? Certainly not. Yet I am advocating here a certain kind of reading, a way of reading which demands thoughtful yet emotional responses to a book. This kind of reading and critiquing is not systematic, like a college paper; it is not formulaic and profit-generating, like a Kirkus book review; and it is certainly not aimed at gaining a readership for a book, or for this blog, either, for that matter. I am simply modeling the behavior I would like to see in other readers. I want to log my emotional and intellectual responses to certain books, to join or create a critical discussion about the the works I’m reading. Some of these works will be current, but many more will be older. As I used to tell my literature students, I specialize in works written by long-dead people. Long mesmerized by the works from the nineteenth century and before, I have, one might say, a severe case of century deprivation.

But today I am starting with a book by Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance. Published in 1992, it is a historical novel set in Naples, Italy, at the end of the eighteenth century, focusing on Sir William Hamilton and his second wife Emma, destined to become the mistress of Horatio Nelson.

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Image from Wikipedia

Let me say that I have never read many of Sontag’s essays, and now I feel I don’t really have to, because this book seems in many ways much more a essay than a novel. There’s a good story in the lives of Sir William, Lady Hamilton, and Lord Nelson, but Sontag pushes this story into the background, eclipsing it by allowing her narrator’s cynical distance to diminish the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and events portrayed in the novel. Sontag gets in the way of the story a great deal too much. Egotism has no place in the act of telling a story; unfortunately, this lesson is something many writers are slow to learn, and indeed, some writers never learn it at all.

The true protagonist of the novel emerges only in the last eight pages. Sontag has had her revenge on the prurient reader who has picked up this novel only to delve into the lurid details of one of the most famous threesomes in British history. She pulls out a minor character, one that has had only the most fleeting reference given her, and gives her some of the best scenes to narrate. By playing hide-and-seek games with her story in this way, Sontag regrettably implodes her own narrative.

In the end, Sontag is much too clever a story-teller, and this hurts her novel–irreparably, in my view. There is one sentence in the novel that I think is worthy of remembering, however. Describing Sir William long after her own death (yes, Sontag does this, time-hopping with impunity, apparently), his first wife describes him like this in a single-sentence paragraph: “Talking with him was like talking with someone on a horse” (376). That’s a clever description, and I will give Sontag her due by calling attention to it.

In the end, though, I am left feeling frustrated and annoyed by The Volcano Lover. I have no idea how it can be construed as a romance, just as I have no idea why this novel, with its sly undercurrent of critical attitudes–towards the characters, the actions, and perhaps even the very nature of novel-writing–should hold a reader’s attention. Sontag’s work, described on the jacket as “a book of prismatic formal ingenuity, rich in speculative and imaginative inventiveness and alive with delicious humor,” is in reality a self-absorbed narrative, filled with annoying commentary, strained attempts at originality, and a smug disregard for its readers’ desire to like the book they’re reading.

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How I Spent My Winter Vacation

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It has been a long, dark winter for many of us. The key to surviving such bleak periods is keeping busy, and I am lucky to have found an absorping, yet perhaps a pointless, task. A project fell into my lap, and to explain how it got there, I have to go back to a very dark time indeed: Election Day.

In those days after the Election, I, like many other people, struggled to come to grips with a president who had not won the popular vote, who represented the very things that I have come to despise about my country, and who was, in short, an embarrassing representation of the intellectual and cultural vacuity that threatens the United States. I was in a dark place. I clutched at straws for salvation. One of the things I found online was a fine essay that I forgot to bookmark, which is now lost to me. But in that essay was a reference to the French writer Léon Werth, to whom Antoine St. Exupéry had written a moving dedication in The Little Prince.

My lost essay referred to Werth’s book 33 Days, which recounted the author’s harrowing journey to escape the German occupation of France in 1940. The book, it seems, was lost until 1992 and only translated into English in a few years later. (You can buy the book here, at Melville House Press.) After reading about Werth, I became interested in his second novel, Clavel Soldat (in English, Clavel the Soldier) which was published to some national acclaim in 1919.

I looked for an English translation, but could not find one, so I had my son, a student at Michigan State University, check out the original French version (which had to come out of “Deep Storage”–the very phrase sends shivers of excitement down this scholar’s spine). When at last he handed the book to me, held together with a string, and I held it in my hands, I was in for a shock: the pages had never been cut.

I knew what this meant well enough. No one, despite its presence in the MSU Library 20170402_163630from August 22, 1949, to the present day, had ever read this copy of the book. I now had a thorny ethical dilemma to resolve. Was it right for me to cut the pages, even if that meant that I would in all probability harm the book, perhaps destroying it? Like any other scholar, I respect the sanctity of the written word. And yet books are meant to be read, aren’t they? If I refrained from reading the book, wasn’t I doing the worst disservice possible to Léon Werth, by not reading a book over which he had labored? After all, I’ve done my own share of writing things no one can be bothered to read; I know how easy, perhaps inevitable, it is for a writer to become invisible. Looking at it from that perspective, I realized that I had no choice. I was compelled to read this book, to rescue it, at least temporarily, from complete obscurity.

Yet I was disturbed by the need to cut the pages, because it seemed somehow like a wanton act of destruction. And so I decided on a compromise of sorts. Though I am not a translator by any means, I can get by (je peux me débrouiller) in French, having majored in it in college some two thousand years ago. The last literary work I had translated was a mere twenty pages of  Mongo Beti’s Ville Cruel, which I had to do back in graduate school, but it was a cold, dark winter, Trump had been elected president, and I had to find something to keep me from succumbing to existential despair. It seemed clear to me that I was called on by some strange cosmic force to translate this novel into English, if only to prove that one person, at least, had read it.

And so I embarked on my translating work. I began some time after Thanksgiving, and each day I translated a few pages. It became a habit as well as a self-imposed duty. I used a cartridge pen (and at least 30 ink cartridges) to write by hand in a spiral notebook, in order to slow down the process of reading just enough to allow me some deliberation about wording. I relied on my very old Harrap’s French-English dictionary, a wonderful bookstand from A+ Bookstand with which to prop it up, a utility knife lent to me by my husband to cut the pages, and a total of three spiral notebooks. I resorted to on-line dictionaries as well when I came across difficult phrases.

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It was only when I was a third of the way through the translation that I began to suspect that no one had ever translated Clavel Soldat into English before. After all, 33 Days had only been translated in the mid 1990s; perhaps this novel had escaped the notice of international readers. I emailed the British Library to see if their copy was in English, as it was listed online; three days later, they emailed me back to say that it was, in fact, in French. At the moment, as I write this blog, I believe that I am the first person to attempt to translate Clavel Soldat into English.

Yesterday, I finished my first round of translating Clavel the Soldier. The task has taught me a great deal, even though I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do with the translation (after I’ve done my best to polish it). Through translating Werth’s novel, I’ve obviously learned a lot about World War I. I’ve also picked up a great deal of out-of-the-way information–for example, Peter Kropotkin is now my hero, although I’d never heard of him before. And I’ve learned that our age does not by any means have a corner on the market of despair and cynicism. Most of all, however, I’ve learned about patience, about the art of slinging words together as well as you can to communicate with a reader, and, more important than anything else, about the need to engage in creative acts even during the darkest times, even when you think that you might be the only person in the world who will ever acknowledge or celebrate them.

That’s a lot to take away from one simple winter project. As I said, I’m not sure what will become of my translation of Clavel Soldat, but I am very grateful to have discovered the novel and to have done my part, however fruitless, to bring new readers to it. It has been a humbling but enriching experience, and I look forward to refining the translation in the months to come. After all, winter is over. Spring is just beginning.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Revision

 

Fair warning: this post is not political. It is for all the writers out there who hate revising their work.

Guys, I know the feeling. You labor over something for weeks, months, even years, and when you reach the end, or what you think is the end, it’s so very tempting to stop, put down your pen or push aside your keyboard, and break out the champagne. You love what you’ve written, if only because (1) it’s finished and (2) it meets your expectations, which, let’s be honest, have been systematically lowered throughout the duration of your project. The last thing you want to do is pick over every word and line you’ve sweated over in a pointless effort to tear it apart.

I used to feel that way, too. In fact, I suppose a pretty substantial part of me still does. But today, on the eve of 2017, at the end of a year that so many people are calling a very bad year, if not a catastrophic one, I pause in my own revision work to offer other writers a new way of looking at revision.

I am learning to love this part of writing, because I see it as a perfect marriage between creativity and analysis. Note that I am  using the word “analysis,” not the word “criticism,” because that’s too negative for what I think we do in revision. The job of revision is to help make something better, not to tear it apart. (Tearing it apart should come later, during the critical review, but only in as much as the critic must tear something apart in order to see what it’s made of and how it works. A good critic will always put the work back together again after she does the work of criticism.)

My secret to loving revision, then, is this: Revising a work must involve a willing, enthusiastic attitude. The writer must regard the task of revising with excitement, because it is this part of writing that really shows the essence of craftsmanship, that separates those who write for fun (whether they are published authors or not) from those who write because they are compelled to do so. But how can a writer change their attitude about this pain-in-the-ass time sink? I’ve devised a very simple solution. Instead of hoping that your work contains few mistakes and needs minimal revision, you should assume that it houses many mistakes, some of them not easy to find. Rather than bewailing the need to revise, growing bored and frustrated with finding topical errors, learn to use revision as a sonar device to locate the buried as well as the superficial mistakes. Once found, even deep mistakes are usually fairly easy to fix–much easier to fix than most writers would think. I’ve found that when you let go of the inherent desire not to have to fix something and give yourself over to the idea that fixing it is not only a good thing to do, but an entertaining and satisfying aspect of the nature of the job, revision loses its drudgery. It becomes a pleasant and in some ways delightful stage in the work of creation, and it invites the best use of problem-solving tactics–and creativity–a writer possesses.

There you have it. Stop avoiding revision. (You know you have.) Change your attitude–for real. Love revision and all it offers. Because it’s revision, and not the mere act of writing itself, that makes us real artists. Any third-grader can write. Only a real writer has the ability, and the drive, to revise.

–Offered on this last day of 2016 with a minimum of revision

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In Praise of Bad Novels

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I read a lot. Not as much as my husband seems to think, but a respectable amount nonetheless. This year I am keeping track, and since January 1st, I’ve read fifteen books. That’s three books a month, a figure that includes one audio book but does not include the four books I’ve read for reviewing purposes. And among those books, I’ve found two books that I think are actually bad novels. Surprisingly, these two bad novels are by acclaimed authors–authors whose works I have enjoyed, recommended, and highly admired. Hence today’s topic: why reading a bad novel isn’t an utter waste of time.

Many of us have had those moments in which we spend a good chunk of time resolutely plowing through a New Yorker short story only to complain afterwards, muttering something like, “That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” And the same could be said about these two novels. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and listening to Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana left me frustrated and perplexed until I began to think about bad novels. After several days of thought, I began to see the value of reading books that simply don’t measure up to our standard of writerly quality.

Don’t get me wrong: while in the midst of these two books I kept reading and listening precisely because, knowing the authors’ other works, I expected things to take a turn for the better. When they didn’t, I grumbled and complained, and marveled at the insipidness of the stories being told. I finished Ishiguro’s novel thinking, “That’s strange–it never did get any better. Where is the writer who produced two of the finest novels of the last thirty years?” I finished Eco’s in even worse shape, thinking, “At least I knitted several dishcloths while I spent fifteen hours [!] listening to this thing.”

imgres-2So why would I celebrate bad novels? There are a number of reasons. First, there’s value in reading a body of a writer’s work, just as it’s worthwhile to watch a body of a director’s films. Watching the ebb and flow of good writing within one author’s body of work is instructive: it shows us readers that all writing is experimental, even the writing created by excellent and talented writers. Second, it makes us question our values. What makes a novel bad rather than good? Is it predictability and relying on telling rather than showing, as in When We Were Orphans? Or could it be long-winded musings that interrupt and detract from the real narrative, leaving readers with a shaggy-dog story rather than an enriching experience, as in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana? Would we judge these books as harshly if we didn’t know the authors’ other works, masterpieces in their own right? These questions may not have clear answers, but they are certainly worth considering.

And for those writers out there (and aren’t all of us writers, even those of us who don’t regularly produce manuscripts or succeed in getting our work published?), I’d offer this thought: considering bad novels gives us hope. If Kazuo Ishiguro can miss the bull’s-eye, even after he wrote The Remains of the Day, then we can certainly forgive ourselves for not coming up to snuff. We can continue to labor at our work, trusting that, like Ishiguro, we can still produce some wonderful work, a heart-breaking novel like Never Let Me Go, jaw-dropping in its artistry. Using Eco’s example, we can say to ourselves that our present work may not be quite the thing, but that another, beautiful piece of writing lies within us, struggling to come out.

And most important of all, we can remind ourselves that all stories are significant, and that even the not-so-good ones deserve to be told–and read.

 

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Why I’m Trashing My Novel

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Sometimes when you write a draft of a story in your head, you go back and read it and see all the flaws in it. That’s normal; artists rarely produce good work on the first g0-round–although there is that story about Mozart showing his latest score to Salieri, who asked to see the rough copy. Mozart replied that he was looking at the rough copy. When Salieri asked where the cross-outs and emendations were, Mozart stared at him, puzzled. “The mistakes!” said Salieri, losing patience with his young colleague. “Where’s the copy with all the mistakes?” Mozart looked at him in amazement, and finally said, “Why on earth would I want to make mistakes?”

See what I did there? In an essay about writing and revising, I inserted a little story. It’s not original–I picked it up somewhere, probably from my music teacher. And it may not even be very good. But the point is that most people, other than Mozart, make mistakes as they write their stories, and that’s what revision is for. However, every once in a while you read what you’ve written, and you say to yourself that you just can’t go on with it. There can be many reasons for this: flawed writing, trouble with dialogue, problematic plots. But when you’re thoughtful and intentional about writing (which may itself be a problem in producing a story), you analyze what went wrong. It probably won’t help the draft you’re contemplating–you’ll probably still have to relegate it to the trash pile–but it may help you from making the same mistake again. In the hope of helping other writers out there, I thought I’d offer this bit of advice to those writers who have decided to end the struggle.

Before I offer it, however, I’d like to say that all would-be novelists who pull the plug on their novels should be thanked, even celebrated, for their decision. There are far too many novels out there, and those of us who decide to shit-can ours are doing a favor for our friends and family members, and for the unsuspecting public who might actually buy our poorly written and executed novels. We should be lauded, not pitied, for our decision to end the struggle. We are doing a service to readers by not adding to the morass of bad literature already cluttering up our bookshelves. Our self-denial is somewhat heroic.

But all this aside, I believe that good stories should have two qualities: they should be interesting, and they should be authentic.

What does this mean? “Interesting” is easy enough to define: a story should be intriguing enough to make us want to know more. What happens next? Who does what to whom? Yet it’s good to realize that “interesting” is a quality that will vary from reader to reader. My husband may find dramas with lots of explosions and bloody confrontations interesting, but they put me to sleep. I find Victorian novels delightful, yet he has never made it through one yet. “Interesting” is so relative a term that we will just leave it out here for other critics to dissect.

“Authentic” is another matter altogether, although it is just as difficult to define. It bears no relation to reality; rather, it is connected to Hemingway’s dictum that a writer must write “one true sentence” to be successful. By “authentic,” then, I mean that  the writer must be true to herself. This is much harder said than done. You have to put yourself into your writing, which is often uncomfortable and scary, because you can’t hide behind the writing. You have to reach into yourself and lay it on the line, and that in itself is so much harder than simply telling a story. My little story about Mozart above may be interesting (to some), for example, and it is authentic enough for its purpose (to illustrate a point), but it’s not really authentic because there’s too little at stake in the telling of it.

My aborted novel contains some seventy pages. On reading it, I found that it has an interesting idea, but it fails the authenticity test. It’s not “true” enough; I haven’t invested enough into the telling of the story. I might have been able to fool some readers into thinking it was authentic, but there are too many books out there that are authentic to try to produce one that fails in this category. And these days, those of us who self publish must be especially vigilant; there are already enough books in the world that need to be read, so why add to the chaos?

I may take up my idea again and try to make a novel out of it, but for now, I’ve learned my lesson, which is that writers have to strive for authenticity in their narratives. And that, I think, is an important enough lesson to share with others.

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Correction to an Earlier Post: Why I Like Go Set a Watchman

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In a previous post, I maintained that the newly discovered book Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was merely a rough draft for To Kill a Mockingbird.

I need to correct that. I will admit, after reading Go Set a Watchman, that I was wrong, for a number of reasons. To be honest, I’m surprised, after thinking about this for a while, that no one called me on my inherent hypocrisy. In that earlier post, I maintained that because To Kill a Mockingbird was the result of editing and wound up being the published novel, it is superior to and actually eclipses Go Set a Watchman. This reflects a faith in publishers and editors that I don’t really have. In fact, I think serious readers should question the power vested in publishers to make the decisions about what they will read. I now think that Go Set a Watchman deserves to be read as a work on its own right–not because of its quality, or because of its importance, but simply because it is a novel, however flawed, written by an important writer of the mid-twentieth-century United States.

How flawed is Go Set a Watchman? It certainly is not a masterpiece of writing. But then again, neither is To Kill a Mockingbird, whose value rests not in its well-crafted sentences or dramatic dialogues, but rather in the fact that it is a relatively simple but powerful story that appeared when its readers needed it most. However, Go Set a Watchman, unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, violates the one rule that every creative writing student must learn: show, don’t tell. Lee spends much too much time telling her reader about Jean Louise, rather than showing us her in action, particularly in the beginning of the book. In addition, the dialogue, written to reflect a Southern drawl, almost always seems inauthentic and affected, and there are large sections that become preachy rather than dramatic or revealing.

So with all those criticisms, what is there to like about Go Set a Watchman? I find several things in this category. First, it shows us an independent-minded young woman observing the world around her. The Jean Louise Finch presented in this novel is grown up, no longer a cute, ungendered tom-boy; she is now a woman, one with a sexual past, present, and future, who sleeps in pajama tops only, with no apologies. As a female reader, I find this aspect of her character refreshing and revealing. Second, it presents Jean Louise with an intellectual and moral dilemma, which she is able to work through with the help of her Uncle Jack. If we readers can stay with the dialogue, we are rewarded with the understanding that Scout actually emerges as Atticus’s ethical superior. We discover that this novel is the story of how a woman is able to perceive that her childish worship of her father is misplaced, and that she must make up her own mind about things such as the relations between white and black Southerners. In a sense, then, Go Set a Watchman is a woman’s coming-of-age story, in which Scout must learn to function in a complex world without Atticus, without Jem, without Dill, and without her almost-boyfriend Henry Clinton.

Maybe the reason the novel changed so much from its original version is because the United States didn’t want a female coming-of-age story in 1963. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t ready for such a story; all it wanted at that time was a simple fable, which To Kill a Mockingbird, in its simple and spare narration, delivers beautifully. And certainly there’s a great deal of clutter in Go Set a Watchman, but a lot of it is clutter that I like. For example, the character of  Dr. John Finch, Atticus’s brother, with his obsession with Victorian literature, is powerfully appealing to a Victorian scholar like me. Because of Uncle Jack, this book is much more literate than To Kill a Mockingbird, which is perhaps another way of saying it’s filled with clutter. References to Bishop Colenso and Lord Melbourne are welcome to me, but probably to few other readers. I especially liked this sentence: “you and Jem were very special to me–you were my dream-children, but as Kipling said, that’s another story…call on me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man.” References to Romeo and Juliet (in which Mercutio, wounded by Tybalt, says, “call on me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man”) are not hard to find, and Lee gives away the Kipling quote, but a nod to Charles Lamb’s  sad and beautiful essay “Dream Children: A Reverie” is as delightful as it is rare.

So, in a nutshell, my earlier post was misguided, if not completely wrong about Go Set a Watchman. To Kill a Mockingbird is a book of its time, perhaps the most important book of its time. And, while Go Set a Watchman may not be a book for all time, while it may only be of interest to readers today because Harper Lee wrote it, it is a solid and fascinating book, and I am glad that I read it.

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