About Writers, inspiration, writing technique

A Spooky Guy!

How many of us write with themes on our mind? Norman Mailer did.

The Spooky Art is a book on his writing history and process, and a commentary/diatribe on, as he puts it, “. . . one’s own foray into the nature of such matters as being and nothingness . . . the pitfalls of early success and how to cope with disastrous reviews . . .  identity and the occasional crises of identity.” And much more along these lines. And that’s only Part I.

Part II deals with genre and screenplays and journalism: “. . . some of the ways and by-ways down which writers search and/or flee from their more direct responsibility.” Part III, ‘Giants and Colleagues,’ is: “. . . a mix of thoughtful and/or shoot-from-the-hip candor about some of my contemporaries, rivals, and literary idols.” This is a book to be read in small bites, or you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Themes are important to him. He says of some of his early work: “I do not recognize the young man who wrote this book. I do not even like him very much, and yet I know he must be me because his themes are mine . . . I am not even without regard for him . . . he is close to saying the unsayable. The most terrible themes of my own life–the nearness of violence to creation and the whiff of murder just beyond the embrace of love–are his themes also.”

He recalls saying, in 1958: “I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” (Whoa!)

Yes, he was a man of ideas. He admires Truman Capote’s style, and also criticizes it as a way to enliven none-too-interesting characters (in In Cold Blood). I can’t comment on that. Cold Blood is another book I read fifty years ago. Of Capote, he says: “Capote wrote the best sentences of anyone of our generation. He had a lovely ear. He did not have a good mind. I don’t know if a large idea ever bothered him. But he did have a sense of time and place.”

Large ideas, aka themes . . . does my stuff have a theme? Other than: Life is rough. Deal with it.

An English teacher in seventh grade lectured us on what a book report should consist of. Too many, called on to read out our book report, gave a summation of plot. Mr. ?????–I see his face, I cannot recall his name–wanted to hear about a theme.

He terrorized me, I can tell you. After I gave too many reports on the Nancy Drew series of–YA, we call it now–mysteries, he said to me, isn’t it time you read something worthwhile? I felt humiliated. I plunged into Dickens and never looked at Nancy Drew again.

Dickens, did he have themes? He told tales. Tales published as a serial, that hooked readers and kept them coming back month after month. Tales full of dense description and characterization, both of which I enjoy. I suppose I could call him an influence.

I read a ton of Dickens. There were boring stretches, especially in Dombey and Son, but I plowed through them. Sooner or later the story picked up again. That was my impression then. I suppose I should read it again, see what I think of it now.

Ah. Google tells me Dickens’ themes are pollution and exploitation. His aim was to denounce the problems related to industrialization and pollution. Also: Social justice.

Mark Twain, did he have themes? His theme would have to be: We’re all human, all in the same boat. Hold on. I’ll look him up.

Here we go: “His novels express the importance of perseverance, loyalty, bravery, and friendship, and display a brilliant control of vernacular speech.” He wrote for the masses as well. For both these giants, writing was their bread and butter. They had to keep it coming, to pay the bills. Both men were born into poverty and had to make their way in an inhospitable world.

Hey. Same as Sly. It was a hard-knock life in the sixteenth century, and way worse for a cat with talent and ambition. He had to take care who he communicated with. He could end up burnt at the stake. Luckily, John Dee was a flexible thinker. Anyone who believes he talks to angels will not be thrown by a talking cat. Just say “Madimi sent me” and you’re good.

Dee’s angels were a quirky bunch. And Sly, when he was comfortable with you, was a terrific bullshitter. As good, I believe, as Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer is certainly full of himself. He certainly doesn’t shy from blowing his own horn. He has big ideas. And looks with scorn upon those who don’t. He talks philosophy a lot. This is going to take some rereading. Half the time I don’t know what he’s saying.

Sly talks philosophy too. He was a Natural Philosopher, like Margaret Cavendish, called ‘the first female scientist.’ She lived about seventy-five years after him, but her ideas were timeless in terms of wackiness. She had an impulse to present her scholarship in verse. So does Sly.

I had intended to bulk this piece out (it earlier appeared too slight to me) with a snippet of his verse on his Natural Philosophy (the precursor to true science). The first two lines are stolen from Cavendish, the rest of two pages of verse are Sly’s. You can thank your lucky stars this article is now a thousand words. You are spared another of my endless pieces of verse in which Sly discusses his philosophy and slams the ‘Gown-ed Tribe’, the university-educated intellectuals who refuse to accept him into, as the head of Harvard College put it at my brother’s graduation (Radcliffe was still a separate entity, with a separate degree), ‘the Community of Learn-ed Men’.

I’m pretty intimidated by Mailer, me with my little ideas. But I’ll get over it. I always do, eventually. I’ll leave the heavy lifting to the literary titans. And make do with my nonsense.

“I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” These words would fit into Sly’s mouth nicely. And a bunch of other pronouncements as well. Thank you, Norman Mailer.

Mailer can keep his big ideas. I’m content to have big fun.

Advertisement
Standard
show case, Writers Co-op, writing prompt

Go Ahead, Write It

by S.T. Ranscht

Photo credit: S.T. Ranscht

I don’t write quickly. Well, except for those weekly 500-word book reports for Honors English in twelfth grade. I churned out each of those A-graded babies in 30 minutes or less before class — In ink. On college ruled notebook paper — while hiding in the cafeteria where my friends never thought to look for me. But since then? I’ve written slowly, deliberately, editing as I go, and editing again before I start writing anew when I return to any WIP. And then I continue to edit.

Now I’m heading up the Show Case Writing Prompt Challenge here, for the Writers Co-op. One prompt every two weeks, and I’ve committed to responding to every single one of them. Or maybe I should just be committed. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Writing for these prompts is a huge challenge for me because, contrary to what Carl Reed thinks, I’m not prolific, and I don’t have the luxury of time to write any of them.

  1. I still have a labor-intensive livelihood to attend to. (I’m plenty old enough to retire. I’m just not anywhere near plenty rich enough.)
  2. I spent many, many hours over a six month period last year re-writing the first part of a YA Sci-fi trilogy as a standalone with series potential so I could enter it in ScreenCraft’s Cinematic Book Competition last November. Obviously, this hasn’t impacted the time I’ve spent writing for Show Case this year, but it does demonstrate my inherent slowness as a writer. AND, it sets up a bit of a boast: Last week, ENHANCED made the cut to the quarterfinals. (Shout out to Victor Acquista, whose sci-fi novel SENTIENT also advanced to the quarterfinals!)
  3. I’m currently writing a full synopsis — ugh — in order to enter ENHANCED in another competition in March.
  4. I’m also working on a different novel I am completely in love with that I am determined to enter in this year’s ScreenCraft competition in the fall. It’s based on a short story I wrote three years ago, and I’m only on Chapter 4. Long way to go. Limited amount of time to get there.
  5. There’s a household to take care of. You know the drill: shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, et cetera.)
  6. And a dog.
  7. There are front and back yards screaming for attention. Get a yard guy, you suggest? See number 1 above.
  8. And there’s reading to be done. Lots of reading, and I don’t read for speed.

In other words, I’m a lot like you.

Here’s my pitch. We all have lives outside of Writers Co-op, and even outside of writing. But we also have a talented, thoughtful, caring community here that urges its members to push beyond whatever point they are at in their writing journey. We lift each other up with each interaction.

That’s been particularly clear around Show Case. The feedback is not only appreciative, but in many cases, critically helpful, prodding good writers to show flashes of brilliance. And maybe brilliant writers to show flashes of genius. Do you want a piece of that?

You can learn the prompt two weeks in advance, so you have some time to mull it over while you’re driving, shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry or yard work, walking the dog or taking a shower. And by sharing these posts on other sites, I know for a fact that we have attracted some new readers, even though they haven’t submitted any of their own writing — yet. (I’m looking at you, Tre!)

Most of all, writing to these prompts is fun. It’s a chance to flesh out projects you’ve been working on for a while or take short, creative detours in directions you didn’t anticipate going. I never imagined that everyone would respond to every prompt, but I suspect each of you who has contributed to Show Case so far would agree that the exercise was stimulating and satisfying.

So shake off any hesitation you have and add your creative energy to Show Case. Start small or go big. You might unleash a new voice hiding in your brain. You might discover each piece you write feeds your growth as a writer. You might decide to compile all your contributions in a published anthology that brings you wealth and fame. But no matter what comes of your efforts, you won’t be sorry.

Standard
Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Talking Writing with Orwell – Maybe

  • by Michael DiMatteo

I find myself reading Orwell quite a bit. Not so much because of his political stances, although I find his arguments on socialism wrong—well meaning—yet wrong, but more for his commentary and style. His is a conversational tone, as though we’re both sitting in a dusty wooden coffee shop imbued with the scent of the fresh brew, morning light coming through the windows and small bulbs providing their scant illumination. There’s only three of us populating the place this early in the morning; Orwell and I along with the barista standing at the empty bar with a white rag tossed over his shoulder, waiting.

We’re in the far corner and he’s sitting across from me on a comfortable wooden chair, hair disheveled as though just coming in from the wind. His legs are crossed wearing an all brown suit, a dusty white collard shirt underneath the jacket, and worn brown shoes with the creases of use over the top of them. I can’t tell if there are holes on the bottom but I’m guessing there are.

A barely bent hand rolled cigarette is held between the first two fingers of his left hand as we talk about the art of writing. Not politics, although even Orwell himself said that his writing is always slanted toward his political bias—that’s the only way he knows how to write—how to say something. No, we’re talking about the art of it all. How to form words into sentences, to make them actually seem more than popcorn on a string, to make the reader understand, a subtle nudge rather than a bash across the head with the dull side of the shovel. Better to explain through story than lecture directly for we remember stories, rarely lectures—at least the general public anyway.

We talk about his allotted lifetime—the period of authoritarianism and how he feels he was born in the wrong era. He should have been born earlier, in a simpler time and without the shackles his epoch is putting on him. I tell him that every time period has its shackles, the degree to which they’re applied only tempered by the present, his or mine, those in the future looking back thinking they weren’t so very restricting and they have it worse. The hubris of time, we both agree, and the arrogance of our own being to think it could not get better, or worse. He informs me that his time, the time of Hitler, Franco, and Stalin had never seen the like. Kings and queens could not be everywhere, least of all the monasteries, and because of that fact, life was more free. Easier to hide in the wooden homes and stone house countryside than the cities and towns of his modern era.

I agree, but remind him that there were sheriffs and men representing the king with a thousand eyes, even back into Charlemagne’s time – the Missi Domanici – and he responds telling me that even a thousand eyes can go blind if they’re paid enough. We both laugh realizing that life hasn’t changed all that much where money is concerned. I laughed so hard a bit of coffee from my cup spills on my jeans, Orwell remarking not to worry, it’s only coffee and that he’d like a pair to try on.

Somehow, I get our conversation back to the art of writing. He asked me if I read his work Why I Write and I respond that I did. He tells me that if I did read it, I would know writing with bias is a must, but more than that, the writer must understand his bias, have something to say, but resolve to say it with an artist’s eye. I respond by saying it’s easier said than done, and he laughs, his head tilting back just a bit as he does so, his hand making sure to keep his coffee cup steady, unlike me. He then looks me in the eye and tells me that’s the reason most writers give up; it’s too hard and only a narcissist and stubborn son-of-a-bitch sticks with it.

I want to laugh but can’t. There’s nothing particularly funny about that statement other than I think he just called me a son-of-a-bitch, which I probably am. He asks me if I take care to examine my sentences. I tell him yes. He then asks me how much care? I sit there for a moment, a bit perplexed by that question. How much can one obsess over a sentence I think to myself. If I obsess too much nothing will get written.

I tell him I don’t know. He asks me why I don’t know. I respond almost immediately, I don’t know. He then tells me that’s a problem for anyone doing anything worthwhile should know how much time they’re using up. It’s like spending money he tells me. One simply doesn’t spend money without having an idea how much they have left. They might not care how much they have left and spend it all, but they have an idea of what’s contained in their purse. The same, he tells me, now leaning forward in his chair a bit, legs uncrossed with feet flat on the ground, elbows on his knees and coffee cup still upright, should be true of the writer. You must be aware of the time spent on a sentence, he says, on a work, on a story—if nothing else, so that one doesn’t become lost in that time for to become lost means the work will never get done.
Spend your time as you would your money, he tells me, knowing how much you’ve spent and how much you have left for only then will you be able to move forward.

Then, he leans back and smiles, sipping his coffee, the smile still detectable over the cup, the corners of his mouth giving it away. I’m thinking about his notion of time spent. I can’t quite figure out what he means by it other than making sure I’m on some sort of schedule or else with no endpoint by which to complete, the work will be easy to set aside. Is that it? I have to think on it more, maybe then it will reveal itself.

A bell dings in the background signaling customers and two people walk in. I see them out of the corner of my eye as my back is facing the coffee counter and my chair is positioned so that my eye corner can see the door peripherally. Orwell doesn’t glance over—he couldn’t care less as he’s focused on me, as though studying me for some later work which makes no sense to me as I’m no one in particular, just someone who found himself talking with George Orwell. Then it hits me… that’s the difference. He is able to focus while I’m distracted by the slightest movement, as though a garden bird jittering his head about right and left, pausing only to catch the elusive worm and then, after wolfing it down, barely tasting it—if
birds can taste—he goes back to popping his head right and left looking for enemies that might attack either real or imaginary.

Orwell just sits there, bent forward in his all brown suit and worn shoes fully engaged in our conversation. He’s in the tunnel and trying to get me there too, but I’m not Orwell, just some wishful thinking writer. He notices. He leans back again and laughs just loud enough for me to hear. I ask him what’s so funny. He says everything is funny if only we would take the time to look. There are degrees of funny, but funny is there nonetheless.

I sit there perplexed again, my lesson becoming more complicated and my coffee colder as I’ve only managed a sip during this entire time. He then says if I am to be a writer of sentences, good sentences, I have to be immersed in what I’m doing, outside influences disappearing during the process, only me, my pen, and my paper—along with whatever is floating through my mind. I listen.

Then, he says I must remember one thing and one thing above all others. I ask him what it is. He leans forward again—then, sips his must-be-cold coffee and says, “Truth. Not the truth as you see it, but the truth. Period.”

I inform him that in my time, the word has little meaning. There is truth, there is perceived truth, and there is truth to power—whatever the hell that means, I tell him. I inform him that in the future, truth is determined by the person telling their version and the number of people willing to listen and accept. The greater number determines the truth.

He leans back and then asks me if I think it’s any different in his time. I inform him probably not, as that’s what I think he wants to hear. He tells me I’m only partially right. The government determines the truth too, either through their minions in the press or by their might—cuffs, jail and government coercion often determine the accepted truth too. He says he’s witness to it. I tell him it’s not much different in our time except the messages of truth have become distorted as so many have a platform now, their truths, even if they’re falsehoods will find followers—rabid followers who will never waver from what they’ve accepted as truth, no matter how false it is. He laughs again, and I wonder if I am sounding so naive it’s truly laughable. He tells me it’s always been that way—always—and will never stop. The difference is in the end, actual truth wins out—although it could take many years. I tell him that’s not very comforting. He responds by telling me few things are.

Then, as though a cloud descends, a white haze surrounds us. He smiles and tells me he enjoyed our talk. I ask him, the words tumbling out of my mouth rapidly as I know our time left is almost gone, if we’ll talk again. He says “Maybe. Depends on how much you read. I talk all the time there.” Then, one last laugh, and he’s gone as is the coffee shop, the barista, and the two people who I never really saw other than through the corner of my eye.

I sit up in my bed, thinking about what just happened. I don’t know whether it was a dream or some sort of divine intervention. All I know is that the residue of the encounter is imprinted on my mind. I swing my legs over the edge of my bed, my wife still lying there breathing deeply, and realize I have no choice.

I must write.

Standard
book promotion, inspiration, wise-guy animals in pants, world-building, writing technique

You settle for the book you get – James Baldwin

Sly’s path across Europe. Hardly any stretch of this journey was planned. One thing led to another. Clockwise from Virgin Mary: Pedro, a runaway duke. An abused bear in a circus. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Sha-Sha, Queen Elizabeth’s pet monkey. Queen Elizabeth. John Dee, her royal astrologer. A rat, in the Prussian town of Hameln. A crackpot frog who believes he’s an enchanted prince.

__________________________

From a piece on Joan Didion by David L. Ulin:

“. . .  even the most apparently intentional career is a matter of serendipity. We get ideas and they stick, or they do not. “You never get the book you wanted,” James Baldwin once observed, “you settle for the book you get.” We set out to write something and end up with something else.”

I know that’s true for me. I’m haphazard in my goals for my characters, in the way I tell their stories, in the way I present the material. I meander through my plots. My telling is full of ‘by the way’ and, ‘that reminds me’. I elaborate on points extraneous to the action, but so much fun I want to get them, in comical footnotes.

My writing style is a reflection of the way I’ve lived my life. I could call it ‘Half-assed’. Many of my relatives would agree with that. I could call it ‘Anything Goes’. That puts it in a better light. I’ll stick with Anything Goes.

Plotting a way forward is not for me. I know from experience, a few pages down the road I’m going to change my mind about something major, so why bother trying to outline? I add a new character to fill a short-term need, then fall in love with him and have to give him more to do so I can keep him around.

Gato, who I wrote about recently for Showcase, is a fine example. I needed him on my ship for a specific reason. Then I found it useful to imply he’s in the employ of Francis Walsingham, the head of Elizabeth’s spy network. He’s a career criminal, a Spaniard pulled out of an English prison to keep an eye on the Spanish captain of the Santa Clara, a merchant trader sailing a regular route from Spain to the low countries. He gathers intelligence on Spanish build-up in the south and sells it up north, and on English intentions and sells it to Madrid.

At the end of book two, Gato, as a result of an incident on a beach outside La Rochelle, heads back to England. What I’m going to do with him up there, I haven’t a clue. I don’t have to deal with that for a good while. I have time for ideas to fester in my brain. I’m going to pull some yuks out of him one way or another.

I smile to think a reader, having finished The Rogue Decamps, well along in book two, having a feel for the way I operate, learning there are seven books in the series, will share my glee: How many loopy malcontents does she have in store for me?

I’ve made bunches of disastrous decisions in my life. You can bet Gato’s going to do the same. Everybody in my story makes poor decisions. Entertainingly poor, that’s my one and only goal.

Nobody in my tale is satisfied with what they have. They all want something else.

Gato wants to be seen as a gentleman. His aristocratic captain wants to have the lifestyle of his affluent cousins in Madrid; he’s the poor relation. My runaway ten-year-old duke wants to join a circus, where he feels safe for the first time in his life. My archbishop, slated for the church from an early age (he’s the late king’s illegitimate son), wants to be a playwright in Paris. So it goes.

I would have preferred to have lived life without the crisis after crisis I’ve been through. I wasn’t capable of it, due to some mental instability I freely admit to. Calm and collected I’ve never been. I’ve lurched through life as I lurch through my plots: sad circumstances strung together that I eventually manage to sculpt into a semi-presentable narrative.

Plots are overrated. I want atmosphere. I want style. I want to sink into the world I’m reading about, make myself at home in it. I want to care about the characters. Bring them to life for me or you’ve lost me.

Plot is way down on my list. I’m glad to find folks on Youtube who agree with me. Chris Via, this guy Sherd, of Sherds Tube, and, I’m sure, many others. I’m going to track them down, pick their brains, be amused, and be inspired. Better Than Food, this guy is fabulous also.

There’s a community on Youtube I knew nothing about until Rick Harsch posted his piece on social media. Thank you, Rick. I’m watching your channel as well.

I love the this-and-that of life. That’s what interests me. Hell, that’s what fascinates me.

Maybe it’s a coping strategy, a way to live with the horrible choices I’ve made. Some of that was the result of being a loner and an introvert. Until I met my husband twenty years ago, I’d lived life without a safety net. It’s warped me.

I’m a warped human being. I’ve long been aware of it. I’ve finally made it work for me, with Sly. And Maisie. And Miss Spider. And a host of other lovely loony-tunes.

Screw normal. Me and my kooks and creeps are fine without it.

Standard
Uncategorized

Fixed Point: The Doorway

I unlocked worlds of mystery & magic 

age ten 

when I learned the technique 

of focusing my gaze upon a fixed spot 

until fidgeting monkey mind 

denied ever-shifting visual stimuli 

began to hallucinate  

transfixing images of its own 

at the limit of peripheral sight. 

Sometimes 

the fixed-point image itself 

if stared at long enough 

in offset binocular vision 

wavered, shimmered 

& transmogrified 

into something else. 

___________________

I never forgot the lesson. 

___________________

Weird worlds 

startling, protean 

trickster-like 

chameleon 

everywhere intermingled  

& coexistent with our own  

manifest themselves 

if you remain still enough  

to notice. 

___________________

Author’s note: Boredom is the goad to creativity. A vision, a poem, a life. 

Standard