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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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Teaching Behind the Lines

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French Resistance Fighters putting up posters.  Image from “History in Photos” Blog (available here)

It’s been a year now since the election, and here I am, still fighting off a sense of futility and hopelessness about the future. During that time, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Accord in an astounding demonstration of willful ignorance about climate change, suffered a spate of horrific mass murders due to lax gun laws, and threatened nuclear war with North Korea. Suffice it to say that things are not going well.

But I should point out that the emphasis in my first sentence should be on the word “fighting,” because that’s what I’m doing these days: in my own small way, I’m waging a tiny war on some of the ignorance and egotism that seems to be ruling my country these days. Somewhere (I can’t find it anymore, and perhaps that’s just as well), the French novelist Léon Werth said that any action taken against tyranny, no matter how small, no matter how personal, helps to make things better. I’ve taken his words to heart, and I’m using this space to take stock of what I’ve done in the last year. I do this not to brag–far from it, because I know I’ve done far too little–but to remind myself that although I feel powerless too much of the time, I am not quite as powerless as I seem.

Let me begin, however, by saying what I haven’t done. I have not run for office. I did that in 2012, perhaps having had an inkling that things were not going well in my part of the country, but I was crushed by an unresponsive political system, apathy, and my own supreme unsuitability for the task. I am not ready to run for office again. In fact, I may never be ready to run again. I did write about my experience, however, and over the past year, I have encouraged other people, specifically women, to run for office. I’ve talked to a few activist groups about my experiences, and perhaps most important of all, I’ve donated to campaigns.

The thing I’ve done that merits any kind of discussion, however, is what I would call “resistance teaching”: going behind the lines of smug, self-satisfied ignorance, and using any tools I have to fight it. I still believe, naive as I am, that education can fight tyranny, injustice, and inequality. So I have engaged in a few activities that will, I hope, result in creating discussions, examining benighted attitudes, and opening up minds. I haven’t done anything too flamboyant, mind you–just a few actions that will hopefully develop into something more tangible in the months to come.

Here is my list:

  1. In spite of feeling gloomy about the future, I’ve continued with my writing, because I felt that even in difficult times, people should concentrate on making art. I self-published my second novel, and I wrote about it here, explaining why self-publishing can be an act of resistance in and of itself.
  2. I began to translate a novel about WW I, written by Léon Werth. I am now nearing my second revision of the translation. I have submitted a chapter of it to several fine magazines and received some nice rejection letters. I will be using my translation to present a short paper on WW I writing and Hemingway at the International Hemingway Conference in Paris this summer.
  3. I’ve traveled–quite a bit. I went to Italy, to Wales, to France, to Dallas, to Boston, and some other places that I can’t remember now. Traveling is important to open up barriers, intellectual as well as political. For example, in France I learned that while we Americans thought of Emmanuel Macron as a kind of savior for the French, he was viewed with some real skepticism and even fear by his electorate. Sure, he was better than Marine LePen–but he was still an unknown quantity, and most French people I met expressed some degree of hesitation about endorsing him.
  4. I directed a play for my community theatre group. Although it was hard and very time-consuming, I discovered that I really believe in the value of community theatre, where a group of individuals come together in a selfless (for the most part) effort to bring the words and ideas of a person long dead back to life. So what if audiences are tiny? It’s the work that matters, not the reception of it.
  5. I gave a talk at the C.S. Lewis Festival, which you can read here. It was fun and stimulating, and I remembered just how much I enjoy thinking and exploring literature and the ideas that shape it.

All of these things are fine, but I think the most important thing I’ve done in the past year is going back into the classroom again, this time as a substitute to help out some friends, but also to engage in what I think of “resistance teaching.” As a substitute professor, as a lifelong learning instructor, I can engage students and encourage them to think without being bound by a syllabus or any other requirements. I can get behind the lines of bureaucratic structures and work to create an atmosphere of free discussion and intellectual exploration. It is small work, and it may not be very effective, but I have taken it on as my own work, my own idiosyncratic way of combating the heartless ignorance, the dangerous half-assed education that prevails in our society.

I have always loved the idea of Resistance Fighters. I just never thought I’d be one myself.

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Three Things I’ve Learned from Kazuo Ishiguro

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Image from the New York Times (October 5, 2017)

 

I had actually planned this post a couple of days before my favorite living writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Nobel Prize in Literature (announced on on October 5th). So, along with the satisfaction and sense of vindication I felt when I woke up last Thursday morning and discovered that he’d been awarded the Prize, I also felt a sense chagrin at being late in making this post. After all, I could have gone on record about Ishiguro’s talent days before the Nobel committee made its announcement. Still, better late than never, so I will offer my belated post now, and explain the three most important things I’ve learned from Ishiguro over the years.

The most important thing I’ve learned from Kazuo Ishiguro is this: great writing often goes unnoticed by readers. (This point, of course, is now somewhat diluted by the fact that Ishiguro has indeed won acclaim for his work, but I think it deserves to be made all the same.) I remember reading Never Let Me Go about eight years ago and being gob-smacked by its subtle narrative brilliance and its emotional resonance. And yet I’ve met many readers of the book who, while affected by the narrative, seemed unimpressed by Ishiguro’s writerly achievement. It’s almost embarrassing that my reaction to the novel was so different than other people’s. Could I have gotten it wrong, somehow? Was it possible that Never Let Me Go really wasn’t the masterpiece I thought it was? While I considered this, I never once really believed I had made a mistake in my estimation: it is a tremendous book. The fact that few other people see it as such does not change my view of it. It simply means that I see something in it that other people don’t. Hence my first object lesson from reading Ishiguro: genius isn’t always obvious to the mass of readers out there. Perhaps it just isn’t that noticeable with so many other distracting claims for our attention.

The second thing I’ve learned from Ishiguro also stems from Never Let Me Go: genre doesn’t matter. When you really think about it, categorizing a work based on its plot is a silly thing to do, and yet we are firmly locked into that prison of categorization, since almost all bookstores and libraries, as well as readers, demand that every work fit into a narrow slot. I commend Ishiguro for defying the convention of genre, incorporating elements from both science fiction and fantasy into realist narratives. In my view, the sooner we break the shackles of genre, the better. Good, responsible readers should never restrict themselves to a certain genre any more than good, imaginative writers should. A certain amount of artistic anarchy is always a good thing, releasing creative juices and livening things up.

And finally, the third thing I’ve learned is this: a good writer does not hit the bull’s eye every time he or she writes. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are truly wonderful books. An Artist of the Floating World is promising, but not nearly as good as Ishiguro’s later works.  The Buried Giant, I’d argue, is a failure–but it is a magnificent failure, one whose flaws emanate from the very nature of the narrative itself, and thus it transcends its own inability to tell a coherent story. I’ve learned from this that a writer should never be afraid to fail, because failing in one way might be succeeding in another, less obvious, way. This is as good a place as any other to admit that I have never been able to get through The Unconsoled. And as for When We Were Orphans–well, the less said about that disaster of a book, perhaps the better. I can’t imagine what Ishiguro was thinking there–but I will certainly defend his right to fail. And I am thankful that even a writer with such talent as Ishiguro does, from time to time, fail–and fail big. It certainly gives the rest of us hope that while we fail, we can still aspire to success.

I will close by saying that I am grateful to Kazuo Ishiguro for the wonderful books he’s written. If you haven’t read any of them, you should–and not just because some panel gave him an award. But I am just as grateful to him for the three important lessons he has taught me about the nature of writing.

 

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Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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Homage to Miss Pennybacker

photoOne of my literary heroes is someone whom you’ve never heard of–and I’m not referring to a little-known essayist from the eighteenth century or an obscure poet from the Harlem Renaissance. No, this person is someone that you’ve literally never heard of, but I think it’s important that someone sing her praises at least once before she fades into complete obscurity.

My hero is Ruth Pennybacker, who taught creative writing at the University of Houston from the mid-1930s until the early 1970s. Her students included, among many others, the poet Vassar Miller and the novelist Donald Barthelme. She taught her students well, encouraged them in their work, urged them to enter contests (in which they were surprisingly successful), and created an environment in which creative writing flourished.

Yet as far as I can tell, she never published a single poem, short story, or essay. She was a rara avis: a selfless writing teacher who helped foster creativity and artistry in those around her, without possessing an ounce of ambition or professional jealousy. Getting her students to write well was enough for Miss Pennybacker: she herself had no apparent desire to enter the game of writing, publishing, and posturing.

About fifteen years ago, I wrote a magazine article about the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. I delved into old library archives, studied decade-old issues of the university’s literary magazines, and interviewed some alumni and faculty members. Over and over again, I heard Miss Pennybacker’s name from the old timers, those who remembered the university before creative writing programs in this country experienced explosive growth and popularity. These older faculty members and students referred to their long-dead teacher with nostalgic smiles and softened gazes, and I realized then that she had been an important person, perhaps even a critically important person, in the lives of many emergent writers.

Nowadays I see Miss Pennybacker as a midwife of sorts. Perhaps, being from an earlier generation and therefore old-fashioned, she might not mind being described as a handmaiden to art, a servant to the creative impulse, a person who waited on others in order to guide that impulse and shape it, enabling inexperienced writers to bring their work to fruition. So just for today, I ask my readers to join me in raising a metaphorical glass in a to toast Ruth Pennybacker. Just for today, I ask that we celebrate Miss Pennybacker’s selfless devotion to good writing, remembering that in the words of Milton, “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

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