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Alter Egos - I Am Done Watching This

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Cat with its Teeth in a Pidgeon's Neck

Whoh - Cahiers de Corey - stole this from them - a long quotation by Edmund White:

"Here’s an admission: I sometimes wonder why people bother with poetry. After all, the best novelists (Proust and Nabokov, to name just two) offer the reader page after page of language as precise, as unpredictable and as ravishing as the language of any poet—and the novelists simultaneously make their local delights serve larger structural or thematic ambitions (the generation of suspense, the play of ideas, the revelation of character, the depiction of society, the weaving of a thick, tragic sense of duration). In great fiction the language is not only satisfying in itself, but it also fulfils larger purposes of design: it is sculptural, in the round, gestural. Fiction makes a world, dense and social. Or, to change the figure, in poetry words are like notes from a flute, the tracery of a tune, whereas in fiction words are like notes of a symphony orchestra—compositional, the integers of a giant calculus.I say all this, at the risk of seeming philistine, in order to demonstrate that I’m no friend to poetry unless it is indispensable to me, unless in does something no prose could emulate."

Cat among the pidgeons time - cat with its teeth in a pidgeon's neck

So You Want to be a Writer

“But this too is true: Stories can save us.”

Oh Mr. O’Brien you tell us that, and yet I read your stories and feel anything but saved.

But there you have it, you, Tim O’Brien, would undoubtedly say, to be truly saved you have to feel unsaved. Christ, it does not get any more difficult than this. You see O’Brien is not simply Resisting the Murder and Mayhem he is tackling it head on. Never mind what is expected of you, never mind what can lead to success, write what has to be written. Write the true stories that engulf us. These are not issue bound and emerge organically from the environment of the story.

“Stories can save us.”

We have to believe this. I read once where Toni Morrison said that she did not believe her writing had any impact on the world. She may well be right. She may well be wrong.

Stories can save us.

“In Vietnam too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead. Shaking hands, that was one way. By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was. By our languagle, which was both hard and wistful, we transformed the bodies into piles of waste. Thus when someone got killed, as Curt Lemon, did, his body was not really a body, but rather on small bit of waste in the midst of a much wider wastage. I learned that words make a difference. It’s easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse: if it isn’t human, it doesn’t matter much if it’s dead. And so a VC nurse, fried by napalm, was a crispy critter. A Vietnamese baby, which lay nearby, was a roasted peanut. Just a ‘crunchie munchies,’ Rat Kiley said as he stepped over the body.
We kept the deal alive with stories. When Ted lavender was shot in the head, the men talked about how they had never seen him so mellow, how tranquil he was, how it wasn’t the bullet but the tranquilisers that blew his mind. He wasn’t dead, just laid-back.”

Damn it, if you have to write stories, and some of you do, you have to learn how to keep the dead alive. Nothing else will suffice. Anything less, in the words of Kundera, is immoral.

The Things They Carried

“It’s time to be blunt.
I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago. I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
Almost everything else is invented.
But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly , because I was present.
But listen. Even that story is made up.” - Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

I am sorry to lay it on you, and I am not a bit sorry at all. What else would I do as a responsible writer of fiction? Hear me: I am forty three years old. I am a writer now. But I did not walk through Quang Ngai. I did not watch a man die on a trail. But you can guess the ending. Even that story is made up.

And so if we want to write stories, and we do, then we better walk that trail, we better feel the burden of responsibility, and we sure as heck better blame ourselves. We are present.

Whatever you write about, write about the things they carried.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Literary Sticky Note

A sticky note of sorts.

Just to let you know that I have a new blog for ‘young writers’ whatever that means, called HOWL - A New Generation of Minds.

I know what’s with this Beat thing? Damned if I‘m sure.

Anyway let us make sure these young minds are not destroyed by madness. Direct them my way, and I will insist on the sanity of the writing process.

Better still check it out yourself. We are all young writers at heart.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Immorality of Facts

Sometimes I go on a bit. You wouldn’t have noticed.

Anyway one of my going ons is the difference between facts and truth. Truth is the essence of all great writing. Great writing aims to reveal the truth. I am not saying it succeeds, but it gives it a damn good shot. It’s like Kundera says, the sole raison d’etre of a novel is to reveal a hitherto unknown piece of human existence. Any novel which fails to do this, he states, is immoral.
Don’t you love it? Another guy to invite to your party.

But I am in agreement. Literature in whatever form you are working in is about truth. And the facts rarely (never) reveal that.

Here’s another gate crasher who promises to be the life and soul - Mr. Gardner again, “Telling the truth in fiction can mean one of three things: saying that which is factually correct, a trivial kind of truth, though a kind central to works of verisimilitude; saying that which by virtue of tone and coherence does not feel like lying, a more important kind of truth; and discovering and affirming moral truth about human existence - the highest truth of art.”

Whoh! Take a moment to wipe the sweat from your brow.

So you have to let go of the facts. There is nothing real about story or poem. They are fictitious in the way your waking hours are fictitious. Make it up folks. That’s the creative part. The writing - well that will get at the truth.

Smart Chimps and the Art of Fiction

Here’s an old friend of any student of Creative Writing - John Gardner. You know the guy who wrote The Art of Fiction - notes on craft for young writers not to mention a bunch of novels of importance. Oh yes, and by the way, instructed a young writer by the name of Ray Carver. Carver has a good essay on him in his book Fires. Anyway, Gardner’s book is mandatory reading. Listen to his opening sentence: “This is a book designed to teach the serious beginning writer the art of fiction.” Would that I had the gall to say something like that. Anyway we know we know we can trust him. He has the goods.

Now here’s the second sentence: “I assume from the outset that the would be writer using this book can become a successful writer if he wants to, since most of the people I’ve known who wanted to become writers, knowing what it meant, did become writers.”

God bless him. And you know he’s right. But wait up…

“…Though learning to write takes time and a great deal of practice, writing up to the world’s ordinary standards is fairly easy. As a matter of fact, most of the books one finds in drugstores, supermarkets, and even small-town public libraries are not well written at all; a smart chimp with a good creative writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant. Most grown-up behaviour, when you come right down to it, is decidedly second class.”

Move over David, Gardner is king of the heap.

That’s what Resisting the Murder and Mayhem was all about. Let the chimps keep on banging away I’ve got the art of fiction to learn about first.

Resisting the Murder and Mayhem

I was thinking about the writing process, well what else is a person to do? Anyway I was berating my slow method. I am very disciplined at first drafts. Day after day churning out the pages. And it’s quite solid really in terms of a first draft. The difficulty with rewriting is the distance necessary. You get so close to it, you can’t see the woods for the trees. So it takes a while for all the rewrites to happen. My ‘follow-up’ to The Eskimo in the Net is currently sitting ‘finished’ on my desk while I have just completed a first draft of a new novel. I still need time for the ‘follow-up’. Not sure if it is really finished or not.

The Eskimo in the Net came out in 2003. My publisher had a theory how it would be good to get another book out within a year and then maybe wait a few years for the next. Well here we are three years later and not a finished copy in sight.

I notice other writers I know who published around the same time and have their quota on the boil. I thought I worked hard, but I was beginning to wonder if really I was just not getting down to it. You get a bit panicky. The world is passing you by.

But somewhere within I know this is just an ego thing - publishers, marketing, sales. And so when my Dad sent me a clipping from the Sunday Independent in their Bookworm section I was heartened to read how Eamon Sweeney (the next big thing in Irish literature and a fine writer to boot) withdrew his third novel from his agent because he had “written it for the wrong reason.” He found himself thinking of his advance, his profile, the publishing world’s demands. He says when he started out writing it “had been its own reward” and he “needed to get back to that place.” Good on you Eamon.

And good on Catherine Bush who recently, despite being short listed for the Trillium award for her novel, substantially rewrote the paperback version because she felt rushed to finish the hardback draft.

Also from the clipping, the Observer’s literary editor Robert McCrum wondered if the serious novel had lost its way amongst the demands of marketing and publishing. “In 2006,” he wrote, “the novelist has become a cross between a commercial traveller and an itinerant preacher.”
I couldn’t agree more. For years a number of top publishers looked at The Eskimo (which is a sort of existential literary mystery) and wanted more action - murder and mayhem. I resisted, and I believe I was vindicated. I’ll bide my time, write the books I want to write because I believe they will produce the best works of literature and not get too caught up in the celebrity nature of the business.

There are already far too many books out there, and most of them are unfinished.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Writing the Truth

Read this. It’s by O’Brien again, The Things They Carried. The form of the book grows organically from the form of the stories of our life, from the stories of war. Read this and continue to read it until you understand it completely, and if you feel you understand it completely, you understand nothing. If you truly call yourself a writer, do not put pen to paper ever again until you have tried to grasp at that comprehension O’Brien is offering us.

Furthermore, it has been said that there are only two types of story: a man and a woman go on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Well that’s blatently wrong. There is only one type of story, and we are all writing the same one. Here it is:

“You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterwards you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.
For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and save his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen - and maybe it did, anything’s possible - even then you know it can’t be true, because a war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie, another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, Man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
That’s a true story that never happened.”

A True War Story

If I haven’t told you a thousand times already, if you care anything about writing, if you care anything about humanity, read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. The older I get the more convinced I am that this may be the most important book ever written.

Here we go, “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.”

Okay, I’m taking a break here. I need to catch my breath. You too, breath in deeply, “If a story seems moral, do not believe it.”

Onwards, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Listen to Rat Kiley. Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl. He says cooze. Then he spits and stares…”

Later he writes, “Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get tot the end you’ve forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife’s breathing. The war’s over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what’s the point?”

Maybe this is why I get more convinced as I get older. The point hadn’t hit me until now and even now I don’t know what the point is, but I listen to my wife’s breathing, and I have never been to war, but I want to shake her, wake her up and tell her the story.

On the Road - Again

Let’s hit the road again ( see Road Trip) . This time think plot and sub-plot. The main highway can be the plot. The novel , the story is driven by it. The back roads are the sub-plots. Veer off onto them. They will add to the journey, make the experience richer, but if you go too far off course, you are going to lose your way. The reader will get lost too.

So we venture off, but we return to the main route. This route is the journey which will take us from the beginning to the end. We drive a ways, we turn off and explore, we come back and drive a ways again. It is a good trip. We learn a lot. We get where we want to go.

Read Kerouac again - don't believe the myth - written on the back of a newspaper! The man knows the road. That's why we trust him.

Road Trip

Going on a road trip soon. Was going to visit my friend Al Pope (author of Bad Latitudes - fine book) in the Yukon but don’t have enough time. So heading to Waterton Park in Alberta instead. Now none of this would be important if my journey wasn’t relevant to writing, yes?

I very often talk about the writing process, in particular plot, using this travelling metaphor. You have got to get from point A to point B. From the beginning of the story to the end. You can take the highway and get there in fairly short shrift, but what do you see? Who do you meet, and what do you learn?

Or you can take the back roads. Takes a little longer, but you’ll usually find more points of interest. Instead of by passing the towns and villages you can drive right through them, stop off for a coffee, check out the local museum.

The thing about back roads is that it is easy to get lost or way laid. The reader can forget where they are really supposed to be maybe even feel a little motion sickness. It is okay to veer off the main route as long as we return back to it further along in our journey. If it is bringing us in the wrong direction, too far away or doubling back on itself, you can be sure you have got a problem. Too many pee stops, too many cries of “are we nearly there yet?”

So we are looking to get from A to B. We want the journey to be interesting. We want to make discoveries, learn things about this particular journey we did not previously know. So feel free to depart from the highway and check out those small towns along the route but keep an eye on the map nevertheless, make sure you are going in the right direction.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bringing the Corpse Back to Life

Folk Festival over and the audience had their asses kicked. I went overtime. Don’t think I’ve ever done that before. I usually bail out early. Then it was open mic. You know I’m wary of this whole thing. On one hand it encourages people to think about poetry, but darn it if Groff (Threatening to Kick the Audiences’ Ass) isn’t right. Some people get away with murder, others get accused and found guilty even though they brought the corpse back to life.

I used to stand up in an upstairs room at the International Bar in Dublin in the very early days and spout out my poetry (at a weekly event called Voicefree) at anyone who would listen or was forced to do so in order to get their moment. It gave me encouragement by way of the social aspect of meeting other writers, and this was a good thing, but truthfully most of what I read and most of what was read was woeful.

I guess that’s why some people like it - the hit and miss nature - but maybe that’s just an excuse. There is a fine balance between encouraging poetry and encouraging bad poetry. I think the whole poetry slam, read it aloud, open mic, talking crow thing teeters on a dangerous edge. Whoops, there goes rewriting and revision. Gee, didn’t that used to be form. Splat!

It’s tough. I’m with Groff and I’m against him. Poetry needs to take risks if it is to lead anywhere. Remember, as writers we are first and foremost explorers. Imagine if old Christopher C. had said, “Gee, I’m not too sure about those tall waves out there.” Nevertheless, good explorers find their way back home.

Yeah that’s it, I think. Too many ‘spoken word’ poets set out on an unexplored route, a perilous road, and are never heard from again.

Groff would probably think that was not such a bad thing. Maybe it’s time the audience kicked the writer’s ass.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Taxidermy and Other Useful Occupations for the Would-Be Writer

Courtesy of Monsieur Mamet I have been talking late of film in relation to fiction and poetry. Okay so I omitted in previous posts to tell you that, but that is what I was about. So now you know, you can counter, “but screenwriting is not the same thing as fiction or poetry…”
That may be so, but is taxidermy? And yet I have a book on taxidermy that I will quote you one of these days (when I can find in under the mountain of other books avalanching in my basement office) which will teach you more about writing than any number of workshops or fancy Creative Writing courses.

Look around you. The form of writing is everywhere. This was my point in Pollacks, Woodpeckers and Imaginary Selves. We cannot assume writing has a form of its own. Its form is the very form our living and our life, nothing less. Sadly, nothing more.

We are limited by our experience. We use writing to learn more about ourselves, but it may be pointless since our writing is limited by the very act of being ourselves.

We may get to know ourselves better, but we won’t get beyond that. I feel this is the truth. And while we hold ourselves in lofty adoration, we are no more than a weak link in a chain. Think about it. Only humankind would be bothered inventing words to write about themselves. It’s quite pathetic.

We understand ourselves by understanding our form. We learn about that by observing forms around us.- structures, animals, light etc. And so I’ll mumble on about Dave (Monsieur Mamet to you) and we’ll fumble around looking for combinations of words which tell us more about our choice of patterns than anything else. We’ll call that writing, and for now it is the best we can do.

The Perils of Joyceless Fiction

The thing is…

I am heading to the Winnipeg Folk Festival tomorrow and I am still thinking about readings (see Threatening to Kick the Audiences’ Ass). It occurred to me that no one writes about the perils of fiction readings. It’s true. Well it’s only fiction… not real art like poetry I suppose. i.e. it may have a bigger readership. It certainly has a lot more pages and way more words. So the perils of readings have something to do with word count. I kid you not. This is my conclusion.

Well, not so much word count but conciseness of words. Yes? But even then that falls flat. Think Dr. Williams and Paterson. No shortage of word count. No shortage of prose. Damn poor plot thought.

That’s it. Fiction has too much plot.

Now I have it. If we could only take the plot out of fiction, we would have more perils in reading it aloud in public.

Wait a second. Didn’t Joyce already do that in Finnegan’s Wake? - take the plot out of fiction that is.

Maybe I should read it aloud at the festival.