Facts Don’t Make A Fiction

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It’s abnormal and absolutely strange for me not to be reading a book a week – or nearly so. The knee – my new metal one – is the duly appointed culprit in this “good habit breakdown.” If you’ve never had a modern knee replacement and gone through the discomfort of physical therapy, you don’t know pain a’tall.

But not to worry; I am slowly finding the time to read and the ability to concentrate on a book, and so I’m now wrapped up in a historical novel concerning one of the U.S.’s most famous personalities. Without naming names – I’ll do that at a later date – I can say that the author is, in my estimation, one of the better historical researchers, at least where research meets fictionalized history.

As much as I admire this writer and respect his work, this book is boring. Why, you ask? Because there’s too much attention to minor details. But wait! you exclaim. Minor details are important. They’re inactive characters that give a richer feel for the historical era and those who live within the era.

True, and I can cite two reasons this objection holds water, even as I object.

It’s a question of context and proportion. If the central character is a world famous whittler, then there’s no need to drum up big, Hollywood-esque scenes. In that case, your literary camera can quite rightly zoom in on the most minor details, first to give a microscopic view of the whittler’s rather staid life. And second, done properly, that sort of scene will make almost anything the whittler does seem high drama.

If your protagonist is a wildly active person, a gangster, perhaps, scenes and narrative passages concerning this guy should virtually take care of themselves by depicting the antics as simply themselves, but perhaps a shade larger than life. In a scene charged by such character actions, the minutiae details should settle into the background the way a brick wall would in an Eastern U.S., gentrified community.

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And so you get the idea. It’s perfectly fine in historical novels to have strategic “information dumps”that give the reader a better feel for the era, a sense of the main character’s connection to the era, and the facts that would be awkward to display in a scenic way. Overdoing historical data in such novels is largely a by-product of research: You’ve ferreted out all this neat info, and it’d be a shame not to plug it in somewhere.

Not!

As above, remember: it’s a question of context and proportion.

 

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Tears and Applause at Dylan’s Award Ceremony

 

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Two weeks later, the president strode down the hall to a conference room where the Nobel board was in session. She opened the door a crack and peeked in. Their meeting was just breaking up, so she entered and waved to gain the attention of the board chairman.

“Ah, Mona,” said the man, Bjorn, tall and bulky, who in another age might have been a Germanic warrior. “Have you heard from this Dylan fellow yet?”

She waved a piece of notebook paper. On it a message had been hand-printed, front and back, in a busied, childlike style. “Yes. Rather informal, but this is Dylan’s acceptance speech.”

He held out a hand for the paper and read it:

Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all,

Bob Dylan

“Not your normal Nobel speech,” said Bjorn.

“I’ve come to understand something of this Bob Dylan,” Mona said. “He’s an artist through and through, but he seems to reject accolades. That’s why, I think, he’s couched his thoughts here in such common language.”

“An interesting man, certainly,” said Bjorn. “I’ll have the American ambassador read it in Dylan’s stead She owes me that favor. Is this my copy?”

“The original. I’ve made copies and have had it digitized for safekeeping.”

“So how do we present this?” Bjorn asked. “Are we going to play a record or some such?”

“A woman of some renown, a Patti Smith, has volunteered to sing one of his songs. A guitarist will accompany as will the orchestra.”

A sigh from Bjorn. “Very well. I’ll inform the king and queen, and let’s just hope everything goes off without a hitch.”

And then came December:

Following, Patti Smith gave her performance:

~ The End ~

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Bob’s Music Slays Madame

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Dag, Marte, and the chairperson sat for a long while—well over an hour—for their audience with the Nobel president. While they sat, a parade of other persons entered, spoke to the receptionist, and after a minute or two entered the president’s inner sanctum.

“What goes?” Dag said occasionally, loud enough for the receptionist to hear and frown. “We just sit here while others come and go. Don’t they know we have an appointment, that we were summoned?”

Marte elbowed him each time he said this while the chair chuckled to herself, refusing to glance to the receptionist. Finally the receptionist’s phone buzzed, she picked up, spoke, and hung up.

“You may go in now,” she said.

Our trio rose on creaky knees and Dag pushed open the large oaken door to the president’s office. The president, a frowzy woman with salt and pepper brown air, didn’t look up; instead she continued scribbling on a yellow legal pad. Finally she glanced up and smiled.

“Is there a problem, Madame?” said the  chair.

“I was prepared too tell you I disapproved of your choice,” said Madame, “but it seems fortune has changed my mind.” She looked to each of the three in turn and said, “Would either of you like coffee?”

Almost in unison the three answered in the affirmative, and the president picked up her phone, said, “Hilde, three coffees. With all the accoutrements.”

They made small talk until Hilde  brought in the coffee, set it on a low table before the president’s desk. When they’d stirred their concoctions, Madame said, “I want to emphasize that your choice is unusual, but I will defend it to the board. Mark my words, however…” she paused to shake a stubby finger, “…I will not be so benevolent if next year you nominate the likes of…what’s the curly hair Welshman’s name who does the dirty dancing?”

“Tom Jones!” shouted Marte. She’d bolted from her chair in speaking, but now she blushed and slipped cautiously back.

Madame nodded. “It was my son who got me over this. He’s one of those…”

“Hippies?” asked Dag.

“Yes,” said Madame. “He played me songs from his iPhone, and I must say, your Dylan can’t sing any better than the alley cat that’s been camped outside my bedroom window.”

“Well, that’s not what the award’s for,” said the chair.

“Of course. Let me compliment you on your daring in this, Mona. It may very well give all the fiction and nonfiction writers out there pause for thought. So many of them live with their heads in the clouds. Well, that’s it, really. Keep up the good work, won’t you?”

They were shuffling their feet in preparation to leave Madame’s suite when Dag said, “Tell me, if you don’t mind, what was the most memorable song your son played for you? Out of curiosity, I mean.”

Madame didn’t speak for a moment. Then: “I preferred one named ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, myself, but Hans…” She stopped to mimic the comical smoking of a cigarette. “…He preferred ‘Rainy Day Woman.'” She frowned. “It had some numbers attached to it as well.”

“We should go, Madame,” said the chairperson, “and thank you so much for your support.”

Outside the suite, the chair blew out a breath and laughed. Loudly.

“What?” asked Marte.

“Those two songs her son played? I wouldn’t have dared suggest them to our committee.”

 

~ Coming up: The Ceremony ~

 

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He Has ‘Em Knocking’ On Heaven’s Door

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The Literature Committee meeting broke up, the chair still seated, sorting her notes and packing papers into her briefcase. The lanky man approached, the black woman beside him. The chair, looked up, frowning in puzzlement. “Yes?”

“We wanted to tell you, um…”

The black woman stepped forward, “What Dag is trying to say is that we—”

“Yes,” said Dag, “we wanted to tell you we support the decision.”

“Why, Marte,” said the chair, her puzzled expression remaining, “I was sure you would be against me on this.”

“Oh no,” said Marte, “I just wanted our best foot put forward. I didn’t want the committee to be derided, or perhaps disbanded.”

The chairperson clicked her briefcase closed, set it on the floor beside her chair. “Yes, well, I want that, too.”

“If you’re going to present our decision to the President,” said Marte, “I’d like to be there with you to help you support it.”

“This is quite a surprise,” said the chair, “thank you, Marte, and you too, Dag.”

“I’m just now ready to go,” said Marte, “Why don’t you leave that stuff here?”

“Might we accompany you?” asked Dag. “If it’s all right.”

 

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The chair looked to Marte for a moment, and to Dag. Then a smile. “Of course you may. I’ll likely need the moral support.” She rose, stooped for her briefcase, and the three turned to leave. The door opened to a young black man who was soon to be a Literature Committee member. He handed a note to the chair and left.

The chair read the note, sighed, and read it again. Then she folded the note and stuck it in her purse. “It seems the President has already heard about our choice, and she has called me on the carpet, so to speak.” A mischievous look at the pair over her glasses. “Still want to accompany me?”

Marte glanced to Dag, and they laughed self consciously. “I suppose,” said Dag. “Surely she wouldn’t fire us all.”

And so they began their shamble down the hall to the President’s suite. As they walked, the chair, who hadn’t yet abandoned her mischievous turn, began humming a dirge-like song of this Dylan fellow’s.

~ To Be Continued ~

 

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A Debate Slowly Won

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The lanky committee member seemed to wither under the chairperson’s poetic sensibility. He stacked his papers, bowed his head, jaw clamped shut.

“All right, then,” said the chair, “If you don’t want Dylan, whom do you want? And why?”

The room swelled with an uproar of opinions. Some wanted Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist who had been keeping a rather high literary profile for several years. No, someone groused, too postmodern. Really? a shrill voice answered, how is too postmodern possible? Other names soared, and then fluttered into silence: John Banville, the Irish novelist. Adonis, the Syrian poet. Joyce Carol Oates, the American novelist, short story writer and essayist. Ngugi waThiongo, the Kenyan man of letters. Ko Un, the South Korean poet. But there were seemingly fatal objections to each. And these amounted to a few rationales:

  • Too predictable
  • Too enmeshed in national or local politics
  • Boring
  • Obscure

The chair placed her hands on her table, palms down and sighed contentedly. “Then let me give you my reason for going forward with this Dylan fellow.”

“Please,” a plump, black woman hissed. “Surely there must be one.”

“More than one, actually,” said the chair, “and I recited one on page forty-five.” She waved the paper “A Simple Twist of Fate” had been typed on. “He’s been at this a rather long time; since he was twenty or so.”

A man in saffron and red robes leaned forward, an earnest, questioning look on him. “Was his writing developed at that age? Because he was at it at that age doesn’t mean much otherwise.”

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“Better if anything,” said the diminutive committee leader. “Let me read you a couple of samples. The first was at the time termed a protest song – “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gathering
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears

The robed man nodded slowly. “Powerful,” he said in a near whisper. “Most powerful.”

“The most elegant call to action I’ve ever heard,” said a man with a deep basso.

“Quite so,” said the chairperson. “And now a sample from one called ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.’ Also written in his youth.”

Oh, what did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

No one spoke for a while. A woman wiped her eyes with a kerchief, and the basso man attempted to speak but his voice trembled too much for utterance.

“It’s a dystopian image as hard as that McCarthy man from America writes.”

“He wrote this in his youth?” asked the robed man.

“Yes,” said the chair, “an old soul, though, it seems.”

“Well,” the lanky man said, clearing his throat. “I suppose it wouldn’t be out of line to award this Dylan, then.”

Approving voices rose all around.

The chair smiled. “I was hoping you’d agree.”

 

~ To Be Continued ~

 

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An Argument Breaks Out In Norway

I’ve just read Bob Dylan’s letter of acceptance to the Nobel Committee. Having done so and giving it one more modicum of thought, I find myself hovering over the Nobel deliberations.

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“Bob Dylan?” one incredulous member of the Nobel Committee, a blond and balding, pear-shaped man said. “Why, he’s nothing but an itinerant folk singer.”

Two others smothered chortles, turning their amusement into coughs.

“Not so,” said the chairperson, “his writing is highly regarded. That’s why we’re here to consider him.”

A short, frail woman of perhaps forty, who looked twenty years older, sneered and said, “Highly regarded. Where? Besides that infernal list…what’s it called?” An aide bent and whispered. “Yes, said the frail member, “that’s right, the top forty.”

Groans around the table. It was hard to discern whether these guttural utterances were in sympathy with the frail member, or perhaps bemoaning her measured vitriol.

“Perhaps an example or two will explain better than I could ever manage,” said the chairperson.” She straightened a stack of paper, thumbed through them until she found the appropriate sheet. “Let me direct your attention to a lyric segment from a song named ‘A Simple Twist of Fate.'”

Shuffling, as the members searched out the page.

The chairperson looked over her glasses until satisfied that each held the proper page. “Please follow along as I recite the second verse.”

They walked along by the old canal
A little confused, I remember well
And stopped into a strange hotel
With a neon burnin’ bright
He felt the heat of the night
Hit him like a freight train
Moving with a simple twist of fate

“Awkward,” said a lanky man from the Swedish border. “That’s all I can say.”

“Yes!” the frail woman said. “It hardly qualifies as secondary school pap, now does it? I mean, just look at the last two lines. They have as little to do with one another as do China and New York City.”

Then this from a dapper, youngish man: “Actually China and New York have a lot in common. First consider population density-”

“Oh, shut up,” said the frail member.

“Please!” said the chairperson. “Let’s be mature, shall we? All right. Now. Dylan has made a career of speaking for and about the world’s disenfranchised, the poor, the weak.”

“Well,” said the lanky member, “I must simply ask this: Must we consider homespun lyrics about a night in a cathouse?”

The chairperson leaned back in her chair, a victorious expression beamed toward the lanky member. “And how do you know it’s about a cathouse? The term is nowhere in use in the song’s lyrics.”

A hum of approval scattered about the room’s oval mahogany table.

 

~ To Be Continued ~

 

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Dylan and The Writer’s Journey

I’m still thinking about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel this year for Literature, and my previously caustic attitude toward his being so honored has been softening. Nobels are normally capstones to careers, and much as I’d like to think Dylan will keep on writing his genre-busting, earth-shaking lyrics and songs, I think that at age 75 he’s edging toward a well deserved retirement.

Too, if I may be so presumptuous as to imagine his thinking upon hearing about the award, his mind surely turned back to the 1950s and how it all started for him. How in the world, he likely wondered, did I step into this long, strange trip of songwriting?

And so I think I’ll re-post an earlier entry of mine on that subject, one that may help explain further the how and why of some muse or other picking us out of the crowd to play the part of writer (it doesn’t escape me that we are both Bobbys). My presumptuousness, though, ends quickly. He’s dashed off pieces that seem universal, touching the hearts of millions, and I, well, I’ve lit a candle of lesser flame. Still, I’m betting we both started from the same innocent impulses.

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Do you remember the day you became a writer? No? Good answer!

Then you have, as I have, realized that perhaps you were born to writing, and you’ve been involved in that creative field since you became you. But maybe, as you tried other creative endeavors, such as music, art, or drama, writing lay dormant underneath, somehow adapting to fit those creative fields and waiting to come to full bloom.

The first time I cast the others aside and embraced writing, I was a tender eight years old. At first we creative types tend to emulate the writing of others. I wrote (actually I dictated it to Mom, who wrote it down in her precise handwriting, correcting my grammar as she went) a story I called “Peter and the Golden Cave.” It was a blatant ripoff of an Arabian folk tale most American kids have read, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” But my imitative bent was all right; it was part of a process only just beginning.

And then there was the necessary development of imagination. After all, how can you devise a story without being hard-wired with things imaginative? As in:

“Look, Ma, that tree looks like a pickup truck.”

And her blasé reaction to my ongoing litany: “That’s fine, Bobby.”

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“Why are you looking at your dinner plate, son?”

“I was mopping up gravy with my bread, Daddy, and look, there’s a five in it.”

He looked, and sure enough, I’d accidentally formed a perfect “5” on my plate.

These things together – imitation and imagination (like hydrogen and oxygen; when subjected to a spark they form water) when subjected to the innate spark of the will to express, form story. Or poem. Or song. You get the picture.

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Then with these things boiling within, you decide, “I want to write stories. Real, quality stories.” And this is where your true apprenticeship begins: Some say it takes a decade of serious writing, workshopping, and editing, to learn the craft and become competitive with other, established writers. I would say that a decade is fast-track. Make it fifteen or twenty in many cases.

So you see that at each step within you, from imitation to imagination to the long years of learning the craft as you write, you are a writer. No, that’s not right; at each of these steps you’re becoming a writer, for there’s never been a complete writer nor a perfect piece of writing. It’s a process that you commit to over a lifetime. So there’s never a time when you aren’t a writer. And there’s never a time when you aren’t reaching out to make your craft -and you – fulfilled as a writer.

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