Recently, we had a query from someone who was having trouble writing because so many thoughts were clamoring for attention in his head that he couldn’t figure out which ones to get into words or how. We often have a similar problem: fighting through all the extraneous day-to-day stuff to access our writing thoughts.
Yet we think the ability to get with the writing and stay focused is prerequisite number one for writers, and recently, our opinion was backed up by Salman Rushdie, author of MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN and the just released children’s book, LUKA AND THE FIRE OF LIFE.
In an interview with bigthink.com, Rushdie says writing is all about developing the skills of concentration:
“I think inspiration is nonsense, actually. Every so often I mean like one day in 20 or something, you will have a day when the work seems to just flow out of you. And on days like that it’s easy to believe in a kind of inspiration, but most of the time it’s not like that. Most of the time it’s…a lot slower and more exploratory and it’s more a process of discovering what you have to do than just simply have it arrive like a flame over your head.”
Rushdie says “the ability to shut out the extraneous and focus on what you are doing” is a skill that can be developed. The more time you put in as a writer, the better you get at it – and the more time you get to enjoy the reward of writing which Rushdie expresses this way:
“When you write, you in a way write out of what you think of as your best self, the part of you that is lacking in foibles and weaknesses and egotism and vanities and so on. You’re just trying to really say something as truthful(ly) as you can out of the best that you have in you. And so somehow the physical act of doing it is the only way you have of having access to that self.”
Since Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa has just been awarded the Nobel Prize, the book club decided to read his FEAST OF THE GOAT this month. What an amazing book! Inspired by a 1975 visit to the Dominican Republic, Llosa spent three years meticulously researching and writing this fictional account of the last days of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molinas. Known as the Goat, Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. He was one of the most brutal and bloodiest dictators of the 20th century.
We are blown away by the degree of detail that Llosa absorbed and wove into this ten-year-old book – and how much work it must have taken. It reads with the authenticity of history even though it is very much a work of sweeping dramatic fiction fitting to the cult around Trujillo. From a 2001 review in the New York Review of Books:
“Externally, (the Trujillo years) had about them a grandiosity, an obsession with show, with public ostentation. The dictator’s megalomania was enshrined in buildings and monuments, in icons and photographs, in public rituals, in his fastidious collection of private uniforms, and in the ubiquitous presence of his name and his shadow. He was a cult in himself, known in turn as the Father of the Country, ultimately as the Benefactor. He was also seen in the popular eye as the great machista, the insatiable sexual conqueror of women. The army was his. The Treasury was his. The country was his.”
The book is an interweaving of three narratives: 1) the last day in the life of a brilliantly depicted Trujillo, 2) the tensions and thoughts of the group of men waiting to assassinate him, and 3) years later, the return of a Dominican woman living in New York. The inclusion of the woman, Urania Cabral, allows Llosa both to take a longer view of the events in the book and also to bring them down to the personal level by showing how directly Trujillo affected his subjects.
The book alternates among these three narratives up until the point of the assassination. Then, it becomes a fascinating political novel as events take an unexpected turn and power is seized by the most unlikely of Trujillo’s henchmen. At the end, the story comes back to Urania and her searing personal experience.
The book took forever to read and its construction is so complex we can’t get our mind around it in a usual way. We feel as if we experienced the events in the book, rather than read them because they came at us from so many directions in such vivid bits and pieces. The above mentioned review accurately likens FEAST OF THE GOAT to a written film “so carefully and precisely placed are its scenes, its flashbacks, its conversations.”
It is remarkable how many books the book club has read over the years that involve Trujillo. His tyranny has inspired a lot of writers. On a visceral level, Llosa’s book makes it clear why.
When we have a cold or flu and feel too awful even to lift our fingers to the keyboard, we find it is the perfect time to plot. Usually, not our favorite activity, plotting books requires us to lie flat on a sofa or bed with our eyes closed and let our mind play with ideas and potential scenarios. Since this requires shutting out the world and our to-do list and all the niggle-y things that occupy us much of the time, it is hard. But when we are sick, confined to bed in the first place and unable to do or even think about all the things on our various lists, we seem to have permission to plot – and we love it.
Wondering what other writers do when they are down and out with a cold or flu, we googled and came up with the following blog written by a writer named Julia Anna Lindsey on her Musings from the Slush Pile Web Site (http://blog.juliealindsey.com/):
I’m no doctor, but I have been sick for a week and I haven’t been writing. What I have been doing is reading. This week, I’ve been devouring beta reads and pages from my critique group and my crit partner on the side as well. The conclusion I’ve come to is this: reading pages from other works in progress (WIPs) is the equivalent to getting a flu shot for your manuscript.
Beta reading subjects your brain to writing errors, and being exposed seems to make us more vigilant in our editing. This week, I’ve found myself making notes in other manuscripts and really taking those to heart. I see the faux pas I know I make and I work a little harder to see those in my drafts. Then, something else happens too. I see errors in other WIPs and realize I do the same things.
While I’ve been too tired to really whip out some new material, I have been wearing my editing hat, and my WIPs are cleaning up nicely. I’m taking my own advice, opening my eyes and seeing things I hadn’t noticed before a healthy dose of those other reads. I know my craft is improved because of the time I’ve spent reading other writers works.
Obviously, nobody welcomes flu season but for writers anyway, it does have its compensations. What do you do when you are down with the flu or a cold?
While acclaimed for his essays (remember Self Reliance from high school?), Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal writings far exceeded the essays in sheer volume. Recently selections from his journals have been published by the Library of America (edited by Lawrence Rosenwald). The two-volume selections are almost 2,000 pages long, and they represent about a third of Emerson’s journal writing.
It is not this volume that makes Emerson an early blogger. (How many bloggers will ever run to 6,000 pages?) It is his attitude towards his writing that puts him in the company of today’s bloggers. Emerson thought self-expression rather than learning was the key to his inner growth. “Not to know, but to grow,” says a reviewer in the October 28th New York Review of Books. Emerson himself writes in his journals:
“Expression is all we want. Not knowledge, but vent: we know enough; but have not leaves & lungs enough for a healthy perspiration & growth.”
Welcome to the world of blogging in the 19th century!
Emerson’s journals are widely held to be his crowning achievement. The aforementioned review says Emerson’s daily production of content is “like the rhythms of the tide” that leaves unexpected things on the beach. And many of these are shiny and insightful.
Emerson gives today’s bloggers something to aim for.
A recurrent book club question is to what degree the author being discussed is writing “from experience.” We think the answer to that question is 100 percent, all the time. Who else’s experience would an author be writing from? We also think the question is irrelevant to most books which should be allowed to stand by themselves as works of fiction or non-fiction to whatever degree those labels apply. What counts is what rings true to the reader.
Still, month after month, the question comes up. David Sedaris, whose non-fiction humorous essays leave one wondering if they can possibly be true to life, has a hilarious take on this. In The Learning Curve from his book of essays, ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, Sedaris recounts a stint teaching writing at the Art Institute of Chicago:
“‘Let me get this straight,’ one student said, ‘You’re telling me if I say something out loud, it’s me saying it, but if I write the exact same thing on paper, it is somebody else right?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and we’re calling that fiction.’
The student pulled out his notebook, wrote something down, and handed me a sheet of paper that read, ‘That’s the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard in my life.’”
Stupid, but true.
After someone discovered the mystical secret of doing things ironically, we felt a great weight lift from our shoulders. Now, we dwell in thickets of inverted commas. Want us to come to a rally? Better make it a “rally.”
Washington Post Blogger
By now, everybody knows that the millennial generation speaks in quotes. It puts them – we surmise – at a comfortable distance from everything – and makes anybody at all older feel really, really uncomfortable. We hired a millennial Web designer last February. He was going to “launch” the new Web Site last “April.” But then he broke up with his girlfriend and entered into some kind of fugue state before re-emerging a month ago – having re-united with his girlfriend – and promising to “launch” the Web Site by the middle of “October.”
Now we – still without a Web Site – know that he was just being “ironic.”
Leaving aside what this does to the conducting of business, just think what it does to language and writing. The number of words has just been doubled. There are the standard words, the ones in the dictionary, and the “words.”
We wrote a blog last June about the use of scare quotes:
http://wpwordprocess.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/scare-quotes-aghhhhhhhhh/. (Yes, they are called scare quotes and actually, they are scary.) In the blog, we came out pretty much against them because they separate the reader from the writer. We might as well have come out against a tsunami because now scare quotes are everywhere.
Millennials are Generation I, for whom life exists so we can put as many things as possible in quotes.
Washington Post Blogger
Great. To use scare quotes ubiquitously is cast doubt on absolutely everything. It will make for some interesting millennial literature. Will we ever want to read it? As an experiment, we recast the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ TALE OF TWO CITIES in a millennial voice:
IT WAS the “best” of times, it was the “worst” of times, it was the “age of wisdom,” it was the “age of foolishness,” it was the “epoch of belief,” it was the “epoch of incredulity,” it was the “season of Light,” it was the “season of Darkness,” it was the “spring of hope,” it was the “winter of despair,” we had “everything” before us, we had “nothing” before us, we were all going “direct” to “Heaven,” we were all going “direct” “the other way”- in short, the “period” was so far like the “present period,” that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for “good” or for “evil,” in the superlative degree of “comparison” only.
What do you think?
We spent the weekend reading short stories in past issues of the New Yorker. Drum roll please. If this sounds like a slightly stupid thing to do on a beautiful fall weekend, it turned out to be quite rewarding.
When we were young, we used to greedily devour short stories along with all other kinds of fiction. But in recent years, like most of our New Yorker-reading friends, we have skipped the short fiction in the magazine. Our complaint and that of our friends was that the stories were so abstract, they were impossible to connect with. Other than occasional forays into collections of Alice Munro, we have pretty much confined our fiction reading in general to novels. The book club, for example, has never selected any short fiction.
Well, the sands of time have shifted, tastes have changed – or so it seems – and it is clearly time to start reading short stories again. Two of the five stories we read this weekend knocked our socks off and one, The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934 by David Means, is one of the best short stories we have ever read. It is the story of two FBI agents, an old guy and a young one, who are staking out a Kansas farm in the possible event that a wanted gangster named Carson will show up there. Carson is the nephew of the farm’s owner, and five days the two agents (particularly Barnes, the young one) have been discussing the likelihood of Carson’s showing up:
“Barnes was still talking, saying, This guy knows we’re looking for patterns, and he’s even considered, I’d venture to say, the idea that we’d expect him not to come back here, and in expecting him to expect us to expect him not to come back, he’d expect that we’d take that expectation into consideration—the potential pattern—and stake out his old uncle’s farm. You see, Lee, I think he has a self-awareness that a man like Hoover doesn’t. (And you do, Lee thought, lifting his head, nodding, feeling—again—an intense hankering for a cigarette.)”
The story, in a little more than 3,000 words, deals with knowledge, what it is, how it is acquired and ultimately, whether there is any point to knowing something. In the October 25 issue of the New Yorker, it can be found at http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/10/25/101025fi_fiction_means.
It used to be thought that writers should cut their teeth on short stories before venturing into longer fiction. Now, the accepted view seems to be that short stories are their own, worthy thing. David Means, for instance, has published four volumes of short stories but no novels. Here is what he said in June in the Paris Review:
“I love novels, and I read them more than anything, but stories cut in sharp and hard and are able to reveal things in a different way: they’re highly charged, a slightly newer form, and inherently more contemporary.”
Newer. More contemporary. That’s the short story in 2010. We look forward to reading more of them.
Our neighbor, winner of the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award – and we think, the next big thing in thrillers
Congratulations to our neighbor Simon Conway who this weekend was awarded the British Crime Writers’ Association 2010 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for his book, A LOYAL SPY. Simon beat out three other finalists, including Scott Turow who was nominated for his sequel to PRESUMED INNOCENT. We are in the midst of reading A LOYAL SPY so we cannot comment on the book as a whole, but we are engrossed – a good sign. A thriller should thrill. We also think it is safe to say this is not your father’s thriller. Thriller writers have been hung up for years over the end of the cold war. Not so Simon, whose background in the British army and clearing landmines in war-torn countries around the world gives him the chops to take on diamond mining in Sierra Leone, terrorist training in Afghanistan, post war Iraq and the potential threat to modern society. We are finding that the shapes of good and evil in this book are forever shifting and the result is a feeling that our feet are never on the ground. Nothing or any character is solid or unalloyed. This serves the genre well, but it also feels unsettlingly right for this day and age. Writers, who read this book, will be reminded how important a role research plays in writing any book. We know how hard Simon works to “get it right,” and his book is packed with information. Reading it, we are learning a lot. Until our neurotic border collie put her paw down and refused to walk in that section of woods, we used to meet Simon as part of a dog-walking group in the woods near our collective Washington, DC homes. (The BC now has to be chauffeured to another section of the same park where she dips in redolent Rock Creek and powders herself off by rolling in the dirt assured of our undivided attention.) We still see Simon walking with his uber-healthy husky and know that during some of those long walks in the park he has been engaged in research. The ‘hood is to make an appearance in his next book, and we can’t wait to find out what we will learn about it when it does. (So far, A LOYAL SPY is only out in the UK. Simon lists ways to get it on his Web Site, http://simonconwaybooks.com/index.html.)