Revolutions and Writing

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It’s been said that the best creative writing comes from periods when political and social revolutions are happening. I suppose the drama of a revolution is a part of that, and the intellectualizing or rationale for the revolution generates situations and characters that writers can easily work with. But a quick survey of modern revolutions and their run-ups reveals different sorts of creativity.

Nothing much in the way of literature came directly out of the American revolution, but in its aftermath, as American society began to settle in, we had novelists Melville and Hawthorne, poets Whitman and Dickinson. The French revolution? Here think foremost of Hugo and Marat, who wrote their stories amid the revolution’s action. And similarly in Russia, the great writer Tolstoy. However, preceding the Soviet Union’s dismantling – a relatively gentle revolution – we have firebrand novelist Solzhenitsyn and poet Yevtushenko.

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In later years, the literary medium changed. The Cuban revolution and the U.S.’s almost-revolution of the fifties and sixties brought a new form of creativity to the fore: songs. Things were happening so rapidly, in the U.S. particularly,  that songs quickly written, recorded and put on the airwaves were the best way for energy to coalesce about the day’s drama.

In South Africa, the grander literature preceded the revolution outright, in the novels of Coetzee, and Gordimer, to name a mere pair of many.

And so we see the great fertile literary periods of the twentieth century were in times of ideological change and consequent revolution. What will this century bring, with its social media and blogs – something new and as yet undeveloped?

 

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Beware of the Hiccups

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It’s been my experience – from my own writing and workshopping and editing others – that most problems – call them hiccups – for writers working on novels come in three places:

  • the beginning
  • the middle
  • the end

I don’t really have tongue in cheek as I write this, and, no, I don’t mean writers have problems with the whole thing. But let’s take a brief look at this:

  • The beginning: you’ll invariably get a comment from an editor that, despite starting knee deep in the action or characterizations, you should’ve started later. There’s a balance point to this, though. If you start too far in, everything you write will seem anticlimactic. But starting somewhere within the story, at a place of conflict, will give the reader an idea of what lies before him/her in resolving conflict or completing characterization. Prologues are somewhat frowned on now, but if they seem necessary, make sure they don’t give away the farm.
  • The middle: I can’t count the times, particularly in literary novels, that once I’ve settled into reading the book, say 100 or so pages in, the novel seems to be marking time. I call this the Kansas of the novel – – nothing but rolling terrain and miles of nothing but corn. This is where many readers lose interest. Minor conflicts/character revelations, etc. are the perfect meat to keep readers turning pages here.
  • The ending: Short story writers will tell you to reach the conclusion and then get outta Dodge. This is good advice for novels, too, but the ending can be drawn out a bit. Remember literary modernity would have you leaving the ending a bit up in the air, so don’t keep on keeping on.

 

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Literature’s Separate Reality

Part 2 – The Re-Enchantment of the World – Secular Magic in a Rational Age, Edited by Joshua Landy & Michael Saler

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I promised another post on this book a couple of weeks ago, emphasizing these essays’ approach to literature. After some thought, this:

 

I often hear from readers that such and such a work “isn’t realistic.” From others, particularly writers still struggling with the basics of creative writing, that dialogue should be as it actually occurs. As in:

 

Joe’s telephone rang.  “Hello,” he said.

“Hi, Joe, this is Fred Flintstone.”

“Ah, yes, Fred. How are you?”

“I’m okay, I guess.”

“Great, Fred. And the wife and kids?”

“They’re doing okay.”

“Great. What can I do for you today?”

 

By this point of the text, the normal reader will be twisting with impatience, wanting to know where this conversation is headed. Whatever occurs hereafter will be watered down by the banality and meaninglessness of this initial exchange.

 

But what if it had been written thusly:

 

Lunchtime: Joe’s phone rang. He sighed, looked at his watch, and answered.

“Joe, this is Fred Flintstone.”

 “Ah, yes, Fred. How’s that old Studebaker of mine treating you?”

“That’s why I’m calling. The clutch isn’t working. I want my money back.”

 

The second pass through this conversation is likely a truncated version of a more "realistic" one, cutting out the normal hemming and hawing that usually accompanies such an exchange. Too, the dialogue and narrative snippets in this second pass accomplish much more: Joe’s probably in a hurry to get to his lunchtime watering hole. Fred doesn’t buy Joe’s attempt at nicety. He has a problem with the used car he bought from Joe, and he’s in no mood for anything other than the business at hand.

 

In the chapter regarding re-enchantment and literature, we discover that literature at its best doesn’t try to reproduce the turbulence of “normal” life. Instead, it reproduces the feel of that turbulence while imposing order on it.

Admittedly, this is done arbitrarily on the writer’s part, and the order imposed is his or her own version of such ordering. Still, this attempt exposes the situation’s chaos and leaves it more nearly open to resolution.

 

Quoting Stéphane Mallarmé in this regard: “Things exist, we do not have to create them; we have only to seize the connections among them…”

This is the skill implied in the second dialogue version – the passage is structured so that the dilemma between Joe and Fred is enhanced by implying the connection between the two men – the connection that is at the root of their unfolding conflict.

 

This is one of several examples presented in this book regarding the manner in which resolving a problem might be handled in literature. But, you ask, Where’s the enchantment the book speaks of? Or more to the point, where’s the re-enchantment?

 

We might say that there’s the possibility that Joe has sold Fred a lemon, and we know that’s wrong. The enchantment, then, is in the supposed fairness of their dealings, superimposed on their ensuing conflict. In this case, perhaps, Joe wasn’t as forthcoming with information about the car at the time he sold it to Fred. 

Re-enchantment is seen here as yet a third stage of life experience via literature. In this instance, as readers, we understand both the conflict of the passage and the moral dilemma it poses. The re-enchantment, then, is in our understanding of the skillful manner, perhaps even the mental and emotional beauty, in which the writer connected Joe and Fred in depicting their conflict.

 

In this way, through this three-stage understanding, we allow the alternative reality of literature to raise us above conflict. Some will even say regular inoculations of this alternative reality, presented in this way, might lead us to a sense of liberation from such human turmoil.

 

My rating (for this segment of the book): 5 of 5 stars.

 

 

 

A Final Word On Ethics As Based In Tolstoy’s Literature

“Father Sergius” from The Death Of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy

 

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My last comments on this collection of Tolstoy's stories:

"Father Sergius" is a rather long story, some 11,000 words. It concerns a long span of years in the life of a Russian prince, Stepan Kasatsky. A bright student with every social advantage, Kasatsky becomes an officer in a regiment of well-placed young lads. He’s a goal-setter despite his elevated social status and one of his goals is marriage to a young Countess Korotkov. Predictably, he succeeds in winning the countess’ love. A few days prior to the marriage, the young countess lets slip that she has had an affair with the Tsar. This leaves Kasatsky so shaken that he breaks off the marriage and enters a monastery.

In this phase of Stepan's life, things come easily, too – at least on the surface of it. But he becomes bored and enters a life of seclusion. Here, Sergius, as he is now known, begins to face the demons he has hoped Church life would spare him: fame, social connections – and women. As the story rolls on, he faces a number of temptations of the fleshly sort, but he remains tortured by his overwhelming attraction to women.

Sergius/Kasatsky grows impulsive and quits his hermitage and his responsibilities as a man of the cloth. A footloose mendicant, he seeks the counsel of an old friend, Pashenka, a woman. Pashenka has had an unfortunate turn in her life, too, and is now making do by teaching music to children. When prompted, she admits that she’s pretty much given up on the Church (she sees herself as a bad person because of her misfortunes) and only takes Communion because of her children.

 

so to the (promised) ethics of this story:

 

While music means little to Pashenka, she uses it to cultivate, educate, and inspire children. She takes no great pride in her work with the kids, but she continues to do it – for her family. This becomes an epiphany for Sergius: he sees that work for others, in which no overdose of personal pride is involved, is the highest form of service to humankind.

Tolstoy tells his tale in the context of Church doctrine. But perhaps the larger, secular lesson is that he depicts it in terms of non-attachment. That is, when one has no great attachment to things, to people, to habits or customs, but decides to incorporate things, people, habits, etc. into his life anyway in order to perhaps alleviate a few of life’s burdens, then this person is living from a high level of ethics. While such an ethical base can be articulated in a general sense, its nature is as specific as the people and conditions involved.

Also, Tolstoy is depicting a modern adage of behavioral psychology, i.e., one can only be held accountable for one’s actions, not one’s thoughts. While actions can certainly be based in recurring thought, such thoughts are often conflicted. When one chooses between conflicted urges, one will only bear responsibility for the choice made.

 

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