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.

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Apothegms of Wince: The Masses Speak of Things Bookish & Grammatical

For over three decades now I’ve been recording in a series of journals the most astonishing utterances one could ever hope to hear as one goes about the daily business of surviving on planet Mayhem. Some of these were said directly to my face, most were overheard as I eavesdropped on the conversation of others. I have winnowed down thousands of quotes from young and old, educated and miseducated, the intelligent and, err . . . somewhat less intelligent in order to focus on 100 jaw-droppers primarily concerned with writing, reading and literature. If you think most people hold these subjects in high regard, well . . . all I can say is that you haven’t been listening very closely to your fellow man or woman.

Although not notated as such please understand that every brain stem utterance, non-sequitur, reality-wrenching misstatement, microburst of ignorance and/or illogic reproduced here is to be understood as being end-capped thusly: [sic]

And if some of these ring familiar (see especially those utterances coming from the mouths of novice writers), all I can say is that the complexity and uniqueness of human experience apparently only goes so far: certain patterns repeat, so it would seem—everywhere.

In no particular order, then:

………………………………

  1. “Reading?! I’ve no time to read; I’m in college.”
  2. “I decided to be impressive and use a semi-colon.”
  3. “I hate any book that has more than 300 pages in it; it’s so unnecessary.”
  4. “If you really want to call attention to a word or phrase tilt it.”
  5. “Unless your name is Virgil or Julius Caesar you shouldn’t be writing in Roman.”
  6. “Reading is so gay.”
  7. “The problem with most contemptible bourgeois literature is that it shamelessly propagandizes for autocratic hetero-normative values.”
  8. “I never read books written before I was born; people were so stupid then.”
  9. “I’m suspicious of science fiction; it keeps coming true.”
  10. “You know the symbol I mean: the ‘a’ with its tail wrapped around itself, like a dead possum?”
  11. “I like gun violence in the books I read; shrapnel is so random.”
  12. “The Canterbury tales weren’t written in modern English; they were written in Old English–which is French.”
  13. “I can’t read books by women; their names on the cover stop me.”
  14. “Of course women now comprise 70% of the book-buying public. Why is this so surprising? Video games do a much better job of scratching the male itch once catered to by Conan comics and Mickey Spillane paperbacks.”
  15. “The greatest writer in the world is Stephen King.”
  16. “The worst writer in the world is Stephen King.”
  17. “I can’t read fantasy; it’s so unreal.”
  18. “The thing about a good western is that all the right people die in it.”
  19. “All characters ever do in Shakespeare is talk, talk, talk.”
  20. “Greek mythology is perverted; no wonder they died out to the Mongols.”
  21. “Reading ruins your eyes and everything else.”
  22. “I only read books I can’t understand. I believe in improving myself.”
  23. “You think you’re a writer just because you use words?”
  24. “You can’t call it a mystery if you’ve finished the book.”
  25. “Libraries are arrogance centers.”
  26. “The Bible is the only book anyone needs. The correct version, of course; the _____ version.”
  27. “The only punctuation I use is the period, comma and question mark. Oh and those two little talking slashes.”
  28. “I don’t like to be shouted at by exclamation marks.”
  29. “My boss was mad at me because he thought I was mad at him: I typed in all capital letters. I told him I knew his eyes were bad.”
  30. “I couldn’t finish the book; my mother stole it.”
  31. “I caught my boyfriend reading my romance novel. He said he was jealous and wanted to know what I was up to.”
  32. “Did you read those Anne Rice s&m novels? There was so much bisexuality in them! I didn’t.”
  33. “Boldface is helpful if you want to move beyond subtlety.”
  34. “They call it literature because teachers like it. If kids like it they call the principal.”
  35. “Books are a blunt instrument; there are much faster ways of inducing clinical depression.”
  36. “I thought I would like Poe but then he Frenched me.”
  37. Moby Dick is boring! Boring, stupid and boring! I wish I was dead.”
  38. “My dad says I’ll appreciate books like that once I’ve lived long enough to understand what the author is trying to say. I said why doesn’t he just fucking say it?”
  39. “I don’t like authors who use flowery words. Like containment.”
  40. “I don’t understand a thing about poetry. Or why it’s called poetry.”
  41. “Norman Mailer’s not so tough. He’s dead, isn’t he?”
  42. “Your story needs a rape scene.”
  43. “The book exploded my brain.”
  44. “I’m going to write a bestseller next summer when I start writing. Like Tom Clancy.”
  45. “I guarantee you this story idea will make you rich; all you have to do is write it–then give me half the money you make. I’ll need you to sign a contract, of course.”
  46. “Say something in writing.”
  47. “You’re a very good writer. I didn’t read your story.”
  48. “I don’t have time to worry about lining up every dot and letter; that’s what editors are for.”
  49. “She criticized me by helping.”
  50. “What’s the fastest way to get an agent if you don’t need one?”
  51. “Will you read this and tell me what you think? It’s great! My first story. And it’s all true!”
  52. “Is the book fiction or nonfiction? Hmm . . . Neither sounds right. I think it’s that other category; they’re reading it in school. History?”
  53. “She marked my paper up to belittle-ize me.”
  54. “It’s a word that sounds like another word: a hama-nuh-nah-muh-moon.”
  55. “I couldn’t stop reading the book so I put it in the freezer.”
  56. “My dog hates that book.”
  57. “The teacher was very clear on this—if you have a parenthetical thought, forget it.”
  58. “I never read footnotes; they’re Aunt Celery to the text.”
  59. “Dictionaries are full of something, alright.”
  60. “Smug people buy thesauruses.”
  61. “This book shouldn’t be on your shelves; it’s offensive. Call the manager.”
  62. “The thing I’ll never get about writers is why they keep writing. Don’t they understand they’re irritating people?”
  63. “It’s a very good book; you’ll like it. The words are so normal you don’t even notice you’re reading!”
  64. “The whole thing ends with sharks eating the goddamn fish and I was so disgusted I started sobbing.”
  65. “The elves in Tolkien are meant to symbolize the Irish.”
  66. “A good Lovecraft tale ends in a dead professor and a muttering elder god.”
  67. “I think Andre Norton is a woman. I’m serious.”
  68. “Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men is the greatest book I ever read. It was so short; I really appreciated that.”
  69. “A novella is a book that ran out of steam.”
  70. “Sure you can read a book and not be a dork—it’s called sports or mechanical.”
  71. “He insulted me with words I’m going to look up.”
  72. “I started reading and woke up on the floor. You see what happens?”
  73. “And the ironic thing about Dante’s Inferno is that you get to the center of hell and you’re just glad it’s over.”
  74. “Yeah, but if Huckleberry Finn had kept going into Mexico, Mark Twain would have more Hispanic readers, that’s all I’m saying.”
  75. “You know what they say: use a bookmark, not a small rock.”
  76. “I never read the author bio before I start reading the text; I’ll lose respect for the book.”
  77. “Novelists think they’re so clever.”
  78. “The title The Red Badge of Courage should be re-appropriated for a YA feminist novel of menstruation.”
  79. “Every time I see the words The Naked and the Dead I think about zombie orgies.”
  80. “I don’t waste my time on short stories; the author didn’t.”
  81. “She’s like, _________ and I’m all _________. I know, right?!” [Repeat this sentence structure five times in a row.]
  82. “John Gardner was a brilliant writer who crashed into a tree.”
  83. “When someone writes a screenplay it’s called a movie. When they turn a movie into a book it’s called desperate.”
  84. “It’s amazing! They’re just letters on the page, but when the letters turn into words and the words attack you . . .”
  85. “I never remember what I read. So why read? Waste of time.”
  86. “I abhor sexist language like his, her, policeman, cock.”
  87. “How did a crucified Jewish messiah wind up with a Greek name and a Roman Empire? God’s will.”
  88. “Emily Dickinson hid in an attic because she didn’t know what her poetry was talking about.”
  89. “It’s an oxymoron, like Burger World.”
  90. “What’s that word for a sentence that reads the same backward or forward? Hippodrome? Emperor Palpatine?”
  91. “I turned all the books in his library around so that the titles faced the back of the shelf.”
  92. “You never read anything by Rudyard Kipling? You’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, right?”
  93. “The essay is a form better left unwritten.”
  94. “I don’t call it cheating; I consider it rapid studying under pressure.”
  95. “I don’t need to read the book to know what I think about it; I’m educated.”
  96. “The book is called—what’s that title with three words in it?”
  97. “The problem with Shakespeare is that he wrote in Elizabeth Town dialect.”
  98. “It’s supposed to be a dirty book but it’s all cultural. I sweated buying it for nothing.”
  99. “She insisted I read the book. We’re not talking now.”
  100. “They said the book would change your life. So I read it. Same ‘ole life.”
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About Writers

Why I Write – Carl E. Reed

writer

For those merry fictioneers and poets past 50 years of age (I am now a member of this august, somewhat-worse-for-wear group) who keep putting pen to paper, hammering on keyboard keys and/or barking into tape recorders as twilight approaches, the question might well be asked: Why do you keep doing this? After all, depending on whose statistics you reference, only 2% – 5% of published writers make their living from the writing of fiction or poetry. What are the reasons to continue practicing the craft, then? Speaking only for myself (and in no particular order) my top ten reasons are:

1. I am compelled to do it. There is something about the aesthetic frisson and sublime pleasure occasioned by the fashioning of words into cunning order that scratches a deep-rooted psychic itch in me like nothing else can. (“A word after a word after a word is power.” —Margaret Atwood)

2. I write to save my sanity and calm, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, that “dog’s breakfast, 3½ pounds of blood-soaked sponge” ceaselessly monkey-chattering away inside the “bone housing maelstroms” (this latter phrase from a poet whose name I have unfortunately forgotten). Or as Ray Bradbury commands in Zen & the Art of Writing (close paraphrase): If you’re a writer, you must write yourself sane every day. (Direct quote: “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.”) When I don’t write I feel vaguely unsettled and nauseous, nerve-jangled and angry, peevish and resentful, churlish and depressed.

3. I write to discover what I actually think and feel. There is no better way to interrogate yourself than to put characters of divers temperaments, backgrounds and agendas on direct collision courses with one another in your plots. All you need do then is stand back and record the resulting fireworks as honestly and directly—as devoid of dogma and cant and easy bullshit conflict-resolution answers—as you can manage. (“A writer should be of as great probity and honesty as a priest of god.” —Hemingway)

4. I am never more myself than when I write, so I write in response to Plato’s dictum: “know thyself”. (Or as no less an authority than Socrates observed: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”)

5. Practice of “the spooky art” (Norman Mailer’s numinous phrase for the craft) allows me to better appreciate the hard work and consummate skills of “The Greats”. After all, who better understands and appreciates music—the musician, or the stereo owner?


6. It is the hardest work I’ll ever do—therefore, the most satisfying. (“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” —James Joyce) It is also, at times—to immediately contradict myself—the easiest, most exhilarating work that I’ll ever do. (“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.” —Truman Capote) This is also most satisfying.

7. I enjoy the tactile feel of fingertips on keyboard and the clack-click clickety-clack sounds my keyboard makes. (“If typewriters hadn’t been invented by the time I began to write, I doubt if the world would have ever heard of Jack London.”) Never underestimate the love an artist has for his instrument, or the concomitant impact such technical idolatry might have on his or her continued enthusiasm for the work. Do you think there are any great guitarists indifferent to guitars; accomplished painters unaware of subtle differences in canvas, brushes and paints?

8. I write for recognition. In this, I have utterly failed, of course. Heh! So it goes . . . (Update: Here in mid-2022, I can no longer say this. Hurrah! Noticed by S. T. Joshi, Ellen Datlow, John O’Neil, Robert Price, Frank Coffman . . . )

9. I write for money. Yes, that is one of the reasons I write, despite the long odds of ever receiving a check large enough to cover a month’s bills. (See first part of rueful comment above.)

10. I write to connect with others, to let them know that they are not alone. (“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.” —Albert Schweitzer. “Only connect!” —E. M. Forster, Howards End)

What are your reasons for writing, I wonder?

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