A Few More Thoughts on Reading and Writing

I thought before I return to book reviews I would try to sum up the past couple of posts, albeit in a rather circuitous fashion, by asking this question:

Why do you read?

I ask this because books – or their electronic counterparts – have a lot of competition in this the early twenty-first century. You can watch TV. Movies. You can go to poetry slams and hear verse recited and, often, acted out. You can listen to audio books on those long commutes. And on an on.


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So what do you require in order to read? First you have to carve out some time, maybe an hour during late afternoon, or in bed, just before going to sleep. Then you have to have a reading preference: Mystery? Suspense? A book of essays? Celebrity biography? Literary fiction? Romance novels? Young adult books? Self help? Spiritual?

And finally there’s what you hope to gain from reading a given book. In other words, with last page turned, are you glad you read it? Are you disappointed? Are your preconceived notions of the subject matter challenged? Are you entertained?

Maybe these questions are overwhelming, so let me use my own reading habits as an example.

I read fiction, love it, in fact. I love the author’s wordplay, the well-turned phrases. I love to experience far away places and people, whether these places and people are fictional or real.

I like to challenge my cultural predispositions, and so I’ll occasionally turn to history, to biographies, even at times to modern pop culture.

But why do that? It might seem I’m making work of reading books, but that’s not the way I see my own reading impulses. it’s hard to have a perspective on the cultural framework you live within – sort of like not being able to see the forest for the trees. If, as Robert Frost might have put it, I’m to be comfortable in my harness, shouldn’t I have an unvarnished perspective on my culture? Shouldn’t I learn what it takes to settle comfortably into my proper place in family, community, society, without misconceptions and delusions?

Books can do that. And you don’t have to read the most high minded literary works in order to keep you turning pages, to have you reach eagerly for another book when the one in your hand is done. Books inform, they inspire, they entertain. If you want these things in your live, indeed, NEED them, then read!

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Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

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A Broader Take on Story

Today’s world is ever-changing, adapting, mutating. If you see that glass half full, fine. If you see it half empty, then let’s suppose that a given new thing under your microscope hasn’t been fully fleshed out…yet. But to stay on point, what’s changed in the structure of stories, and why?

I won’t cover well-trod theoretical ground, except in passing. There’s Aristotle’s inverted check mark (or whatever else you’ve learned to call it), reproduced in one of its forms here:

Aristotles-InclineIf you fancy yourself a writer and haven’t come across this, well, let’s be nice and just say you should study this diagram. But today’s writers are trifling with this structure, if not abandoning it altogether. Why? Since the era of Henry James, James Joyce, and the like, there’s been an increasing emphasis on characterization. Now I’m all for convoluted stories, upsetting structure and time, and emphasizing character, but a complete surrender to casual characterization can only work under certain conditions.

Full disclosure: when conceiving my first novel, I had only a vague idea of where the story should go. I spent most of my time developing my characters (even walked around my condo, acting them out). As it turned out, my characters determined the direction of the novel, and that direction was the story. So no matter how you devise a piece of fiction, there should always be some vestige of story.

All right, then, what are the rules to structuring fiction in our postmodern world? The thing to consider here is that in our world of flux, your responsibility, dear writer, can be summed up in perhaps two things:

  • What your characters confront should challenge your readers’ deeply held convictions. In a world of change, life, even in fiction, should have meaning. Being willing to leave the past is only half the solution, though; meaning much be transformed as well.
  • As a corollary to the above, the writer must change the way his/her readers see the world, it’s failings, its urge to move toward the future’s promise.

A caution: Reading is a private act. Have you ever read a book in your teen years, then read it again in your middle years and discovered new perspectives, new slants on old perspectives? Do you wonder why Emma Bovary maintains such a hold on modern readers? Do you wonder why the pre-revolution world of Tolstoy’s writing seems so relevant today? That Mark Twain’s tweaking of prigs’ noses works as well today as then? It’s the writer’s inspiration, if one is a true talent, to be able to reach beyond good and bad, beyond belief and certainty, into the always changing nature of the human essence. If reading were anything other than a private act, reaching such depths, allowing the alternative worlds of fiction to displace one’s certainties would be all but impossible.

If you seek simply to write dogma, whether it be social, religious, political, or historical, you’re not writing fiction. If you have an agenda of cut-and-dried good and bad, fiction isn’t what you’re doing.

But in all that the muses give you in the way of inspiration and talent, remember: whatever you write will be incomplete without the movement of life – and that’s what story is all about.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Let Us Inspire You

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Poets & Writers, January/February, 2014

To my mind P&W struggles to be worthwhile to the writer who has been around the block a few times. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of spending a rainy afternoon reading.

I love charts – especially when they indicate something substantial, and the mag’s “Anatomy of Awards” article indicates that almost half of 2013’s awards went to poets. (I suppose that’s okay to throw them that bone; poetry sells very little.) And fiction writers take most of the other half. So where are these writers located? Mostly in the northeast and west, although the regional split is relatively equal.

But a few highlights:

Benjamin Percy tells us in his essay, “Modulation in the Moment,” that he thinks his pieces through over a number of months before sitting down to write.

As for chatting up an agent, P&W talks in this issue to David Gernert, John Grisham’s agent, after having worked in the publishing field for Doubleday. Gernert, however, struggles along with writers in knowing how to build a platform. He’s old-school, asking readers and writers to support bookstores.

The inspiration meme: P&W offers mini essays by seven writers on how to amp up the passion – your own, writer, and that contained by what you write.

An interesting profile of poets indicates a stable of verse-writers who are mostly in their thirties. How long do they spend in writing, editing, and getting their work ready for book publication? On average, more than two years. How long to find a publisher? About a year.

 

The bottom line here? It’s still tough to get published, even tougher to get to the make-a-living point. But don’t let that dissuade you. Keep writing. Hang in there.

 

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

 

Midlist Crisis/NYTimes

 

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What Lopate doesn’t say here is that modesty and humility are the basis of the writer psyche. Even if you’re a successful writer, you still have to contend with the fact that the inspiration to write comes through you; it isn’t innately you.

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Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

The River of Writing

 

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What is it that makes writers so passionate about their craft? By all rights, writing – writing well – would seem a chore of monumental proportions. I was reminded recently by good friend and musician/composer extraordinaire, Ken Bonfield, of the time, body and finger aches, the thought and inspiration that go into composing a musical piece.

For a poet, a fiction writer, a memoirist – and forget the time spent marketing, hoping to publish, either traditionally or DIY – the process can wear a good person down:

  • First you have to have a seed, a germ of an idea for a story. I’ve often been asked where mine come from. I just don’t know – from life experience? From imagination? Piggy-backing on history or a story someone else has written? Possibly. This is the work of the muses – something in the subconscious bleeding to get out, onto a page, to be told before the hearth, squirming to explain itself through the vehicle of real but imagined life. And this is perhaps the easiest part of the writer’s jaunt.
  • In today’s reading world, in which “reality” (true or contrived) rules, a writer must do research. I was once told that because I once had a cell phone’s existence some five years out of place in a story of mine, this reader would scrupulously avoid any stories of mine from that day on. Nice guy. The point being that imagined stories must be settled into a realistic setting, historically placed. And that means research.
  • Then there’s the writing itself: the labor intensive first draft. A 60,ooo word novel can take as long as a year to write well. Then there are the editing phases, in which story, characters, rising action, setting, narrative, voice, tone – all these must come about seamlessly, as if the whole thing had happened to perfection in spontaneous fashion.

This takes a lot out of a person, of course, physically, emotionally, psychically. Still, there’s the question of why the writer does it once, then does it again, and again. The only answer I have  is that it’s like being swept up in something larger than one’s self, a wild, primitive river, begging to express, to be understood, in some yet-to-be-determined fashion. We grab a laptop, a pen and pad of paper, and leap in, never afraid of drowning in it, but hoping that you will.

 

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

Inspiration

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image via vi.sualize.us

 

Although I don't sit to write for more than 2-3 hours per day, I do have a fairly prolific output. And for that reason, writer's block is an alien concept to me. Not that everything I write is top drawer, you understand. Sometimes I bite off too complicated a subject, or one that's too hard to make a story of. But sometimes an idea fits me just right and flows onto my digital pages as if I'm taking dictation.

That said, where do the ideas come from? I've posted on this before, and my answer remains somewhat vague. In retrospect, I really can't tell you that, yes, I devised this idea while walking at a nearby lake. Or I worked this one out while planting my vegetable garden. Or that one popped into my thoughts while driving. 

All of these are true to some extent, though. But were I to generalize, I can only say that I tend to chronicle life about me. Life is archetypal to a certain degree. That is, we all live similar lives, made different by millions of degrees of fate and choice and external circumstance. But each choice, each circumstance, sets us apart from one another, creating the potential for the specifics of story. 

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image via inspirations-magazine.blogspot.com

All one has to do is to be open to life, without judgment, and stories are born. 

The Millions : Where We Write

Searching for the perfect spot for the muse to crawl across your shoulder and begin those creative whispers? Check this out.

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The ultimate in writing spaces seems to be the writing shed, a spare, distraction-free room set in some verdant landscape, where, in fertile solitude, the writer may create worlds out of nothing. Roald Dahl had one, so did Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps one day, we’ll each be writing in our own. Until then, as our Millions staffers share in their illustrated entries below, we’re making do (often happily!) with offices, studio apartments, coffee shops, and guest bedrooms. Share a photo of your own writing space using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter and we’ll repost some favorites on our Tumblr.

via www.themillions.com