Growing In Fiction

Writers, how many others like you do you know who resist publishing, not wanting  to see their creations criticized? Further, how many have you known who don’t want editing help, even when it’s offered at bargain basement prices, or even for free? Know anyone who won’t join a critique group because, well, no one there will see the oh, so inspired creativity there?

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The only thing I can offer to writers with such fragility in them is that no piece of writing is ever perfect. Sure, you can improve, in structure, in appeal to readers, and in ideas put forth in story. Take this piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel. The novel in question here wasn’t perfect,but there were moments of genius, pages of inspired prose. In a sense, Fitzgerald was lucky to see this one published. But if he hadn’t listened to his peers, principally Hemingway, a subsequent and acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, would have been a rehash of the first, with the same flaws, and his career would’ve stalled long before it did.

 

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The First Person Peripheral Narrator

 

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There are many ways to tell a story, and David Guterson, in his novel, The Other, chose a method Scott Fitzgerald made famous, in which a secondary character in the story tells the tale. It’s a clever ploy, but can be difficult to pull off: the reader gets this person’s slant on the book’s events, but this person must not overwhelm the principal character(s).

To his credit, Guterson pulls it off pretty darned well.

 

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Honesty In Memoir

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

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image via thehemingwayproject.com

 

I hadn’t given this book a read in many years, and so after reading Hemingway’s Boat, I decided to take it on again. It’s funny, but it was as if I had never read it the first time. I think that as a writer and as an adult, and the commensurate growth in both, it’s possible to understand things in a well-written piece of nonfiction – particularly a memoir – at a much greater depth.  But then that depends on the skill set of the author. And whatever one might think about Hemingway, during his better years he had the skills and the understanding to put together such a piece of writing.

A Moveable Feast has endured because of its romanticization of Paris’ writing scene during the 1920s, and because he wrote about many of the other literary luminaries of that era. He wasn’t a name-dropper, per se; his sketches of such persons as Ford Madox Ford, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, as well as a lesser cast of writers, are in-depth looks at these friends and acquaintances and how they interacted within this literary garden.

Hemingway can be taken as smug in these sketches. But he did have insight into people, places, situations, and these made him the preeminent writer of his era. During this read, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trying damned hard to see these personalities in the objective light of a journalist, but a journalist involved emotionally and professionally with his all-too-real characters.

Of course, Paris itself is a character here, as well as a backdrop. Its importance to Hemingway and the other writers of that time and place can't be ignored. It was a haven, a crucible, a way to live and grow as writers – and on the cheap. 

With so much talent in one place, success was eventually going to explode for them. And this is in a way what Hemingway laments. If you read the historical novel, The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, you’ll understand more of how rich sycophants all but distracted these writers from their talent. In Hemingway’s case, it ruined his first marriage, perhaps his only successful one, with Hadley Richardson. This drove him to look back on Paris romantically and at the same time with sadness, and thus he created perhaps his best piece of writing in A Moveable Feast.

 

My rating 20 of 20 stars

 

 

 

Why Write Fiction?

The featured article in the latest issue of Writer's Chronicle magazine – and here I resist a digression – makes a statement, in the context of creative writing programs, with which a heartily agree:

"Whatever shortcomings may arise when creative activity is institutionalized…creative writing programs at their best have promoted the public good by sharpening the uses and varieties of our national narratives."

This, in a nutshell, is why we feel the urge to write – and this is why we read.

 

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image via fiatopen.rollins.edu

 

Narratives, whether they be local or national, are inescapably products of the cultures we're a part of. While historical narratives can be manipulated, truncated, or otherwise changed to accommodate the power centers (here I'm thinking of political, religious, or hot-button social groups) of our societies, they won't ring true when written about in a creative sense unless they accurately represent what's going on in society.

One of the functions of fiction – and creative nonfiction – as the above quote indicates, is to sharpen the varieties of these narratives. Which is to say it's impossible to define a narrative in a way that will take in society's complexities. But stories will do that. For instance:

 

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image via lovettus 106.pbworks.com

 

 

If we read Thomas Russell's history of WWI, America's War for Humanity And William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, we gain a broad-brushed, somewhat slanted view of the western world during the twentieth century's first half. But if we read Hemingway's, The Sun Also Rises, followed by Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Dos Passos' USA trilogy, and follow that with Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, we begin to see a national narrative's many intertwined threads. We begin to see examples of society's seemingly unresolvable paradoxes. And we begin to see the evolution of that narrative on a much more personal level and how it accommodates paradox. 

Without that personal level, then, the broader view of a society's history doesn't mean much. And without creative writers, we wouldn't be seeing our social narrative in such detail. This is a large part of what makes fiction more real than chronicles of history, yet at the same time this is what enriches history and its ongoing narrative.

The Perils of Paris

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

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This is an important book – deeply researched and near-perfectly written. Were it not about a subject I know well – Ernest Hemingway, his early years in Paris with the likes of Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Scot and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound, I wouldn’t have noticed the rather anemic early press it’s been receiving. I hope to rectify that here.

 

The story is from the point of view of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, how they met, married, and found themselves within the arty set in post-WWI Paris. Much of the story is so widely known that I’ll just drop in a few of my most memorable moments from my reading of the book.

 

Hadley’s father committed suicide in the same manner that Hemingway did, much later.

Hadley was nine years older than Hemingway, and paid most of the bills until he established himself as a money-making writer.

Hemingway despised the expatriates’ rich patrons at first, but soon became seduced by the money, fame, and their "good life."

Pauline, Hemingway’s second wife, was a friend of both Ernest and Hadley, and she and Ernest had an affair while Hadley and Ernest were married.

Hemingway “used” his friendships with Fitzgerald, Pound, and Stein, and then turned on them in his writing.

While all this sounds a lot like a tawdry romance novel, it was the life of this bunch – affairs, drunkenness, social cattiness – with a tremendous amount of good writing thrown in.

McLain’s skills here are numerous. Just a few points on the subject:

With the exception of the first few pages, she shows mastery of the Hemingway writing style, of his voice, of the tone and temper of her characters.

While she writes from Hadley’s viewpoint, she’s not unsympathetic to Ernest, and as their marriage founders, she shows both to remain deeply in love but torn by too many outside influences to have made the marriage work.

She depicts Paris as well, and she also does a bang-up job of setting the story in Italy, Austria, and especially, Spain, during the time in which Hemingway writes The Sun Also Rises.

If McLain has a villain here, it’s Pauline, with her growing possessiveness of Ernest, which cast a deep shadow over her relationship with Hadley. Still, Pauline isn’t spared the emotional wear and tear Hadley and Ernest are going through.

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As I wrote at the outset here, this is an important book. First, because of the subject matter: while fiction, McLain burrows deeply into the Hemingways’ marriage, what drew them together, and the bond that kept them together far longer than it should have.

Second, it’s more than an imitation of the Hemingway style and sensibility – it goes far beyond that – it depicts the deeper strata of this Paris bunch, how each one’s life was, in the end, irretrievably a part of all the others. This, I think, is the most significant take-away from McLain’s book – that in such a creative crowd, it was hard to keep one’s self intact, much less a marriage.

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

 

Guess The Line #10

Excellent famous line guy, Ross Goldstein, nailed yesterday's line, too. From The Great Gatsby, of course, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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Today's line will be the last in this series..at least for a while. Let me know what you think of these literary teasers, and if the response is positive, well, there are a lot more great lines out there.

This line should be easy if you're as big a fan of this 1930s American writer as I am:

"When I woke I looked around. There was sunlight coming in through the shutters. I saw the big armoire, the bare walls, and two chairs. My legs in the dirty bandages, stuck straight out in the bed. I was careful not to move them. I was thirsty and I reached for the bell and pushed the button. I heard the door open and looked and it was a nurse. She looked young and pretty."