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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When Is A Story Not A Story?

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A friend who is an avid reader read an in-progress manuscript of mine recently (bless those who volunteer to be beta readers), and as with any constructive critique, I learned from the reader’s side of the story. Readers, he reminded, want to engage with the characters – if not to like them, at least to care whether they live or die. And so as I dug into that in the context of stories such as mine and expanded on it, here’s what my takeaway from what that valuable experience tells me.

Many things can carry a story. Mine is a period piece, set in the heady years of the ‘sixties, with a large cast of characters, whose lives cross others, and cross again. To write about that most dramatic decade is a challenge – you know – what to leave in, what to take out. Here’s just a quick spin through that decade’s events and experiences to consider:

  • rebellion
  • drugs
  • Vietnam
  • the pill
  • family
  • the workplace
  • interpersonal relationships
  • assassinations
  • counterculture
  • music

So the test here is what defined this decade, and how to capture those things in the lives of characters. As a writer, you have to honor your audience. Some will be reading for the historic feel, for instance, others will seek out characters they can superimpose over their own personalities to perhaps learn about themselves. And others, as a witty fellow, once told me, “…don’t give a damn if it’s true or not, long’s it’s a helluva story.”

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I’m finding that much of postmodern literature, especially of the domestic (USA) variety, tends to give short shrift to character as the paramount object in that form of the novel. Instead, it’s used to amplify setting, historical era, or other social perspective the author wants to express in story.

 

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Dylan and the Nobel

So Bob Dylan has won the Nobel for literature in 2016. I’m not sure what I think about that.

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Not that I disparage Dylan’s work over the past half-century; he’s certainly set trends and erased boundaries within the music world during that time. During the ‘sixties, he wrote and performed songs in the topical, bluesy folk style that had a profound on the American civil rights movement and the greening of youth worldwide. He later moved into movie scores and toward mainstream pop music, trifled with a new form of gospel  music, and has recently recorded a CD of popular standards. The effect of all this? Beyond a demonstrated personal awareness of the sensibilities of these musical forms and genres, many of his pieces have entered the American musical canon. Much the same as Hemingway’s early work changed the way we thought about fiction, Dylan’s work has done something similar for popular music.

My concern isn’t his talent in the field of popular music (you may contest my constant use of the term popular music to describe his work, but many of his songs have gained such broad appeal that it’s hard not to place it under that heading); it’s the limitations inherent in the popular song in a literary sense. Sure, he uses poetic tools: imagery, wordplay, rhythmic patterns. But the popular song, in any of  its multifold blendings of genre, places equal weight on its musicality alongside its literary worth.

This then is my concern; virtually all songwriters, with few exception, must contend with the marketability of those songs; meaning they must attract listeners in the 3-4 minutes the music industry insists on limiting them to.

That Dylan’s lyrics are now recognized for their literary worth by the Nobel judges is as daring as if his lyrics represented a step forward in poetic evolution. Dylan certainly deserves some sort of similar recognition, but the Nobel, which does generally recognize lifetime achievement, may not have been the best device to recognize his half century of work.

Still the power of his work is undeniable, as the following song attests: “I Shall Be Released,” recorded at The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz, made into a movie by Marty Scorcese.

The Open Door, Grammatically

I’ve been reading a new novel written by a colleague, and it’s a fine piece of writing. He knows his way around the techniques of writing but, as happens once in a while for me, the reading taught me a lesson. You see, being a writer is as much a curse as it is a blessing; I can’t to save me read for pleasure any more. I’m always trying to learn something from the way a writer uses words, structures a story, uses grammar rules to his/her advantage. Or not.

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The lesson this reading taught me has to do with the use of passive voice. (Now, if you’re a reader only and think I’m going to go technical on you, bear with me. What I have to say here just might enhance your future reading.) Consider the two sentences below:

The skyscraper was built, and it’s now the pride of Baltimore.    (passive voice)

(                ) built the skyscraper, and it’s now the pride of Baltimore.    (active voice)

Passive voice is just fine, given its intent. Normal grammar dogma tells you to use passive voice if your intent is to write formally. This is great in business when you don’t want to give details that might provide a certain judgment on the subject at hand. Then notice the active voice option above. It gives you the same information as the previous sentence but, as the parens indicate, something’s missing. So let’s fill in the blank below:

A small-time developer built the skyscraper, and it’s now the pride of Baltimore.

See how active voice begs for specifics? How, when that one blank is filled in, you have the makings of a story? I.e., How did the small-time developer get the job? Was the developer able with his/her resources to build such an edifice? Was the public against it? Did no big-time developer want the job? And if so, why? And so on.

So, writers, know you intent in structuring sentences, and write accordingly. Readers, if you see a bit of writing laden with passive voice, you may be heading into troubled waters, reading-wise. Or it may just bore you to tears.

 

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The River of Literature and Truth

This quote speaks to the enduring life behind literature. Literature is kind of like religious scripture; it manifests enduring truths and values wrapped in the clothing of its various eras, whereas the various scriptures are frozen in the time of their writing.

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“I can’t speak for readers in general, but personally I like to read stories behind which there is some truth, something real and above all, something emotional. I don’t like to read essays on literature; I don’t like to read critical or rational or impersonal or cold disquisitions on subjects.”

~ Laura Esquivel ~

Looking for the Universal in Literature

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It’s so very tempting as a writer to have an agenda, to put your own personal set of ethics up front in whatever your write. This is the thrust of many religious writers, who get a serious case of “feel-good” by doing so. But are you underestimating your readers in doing this? Take Tolstoy, for instance.

You can look long and hard and not find a writer who was/is more devout in his/her faith than Leo Tolstoy. Still, he had the good sense to look for universal truths in his writing, as he made plain in this very short book of his. To my mind this accomplishes a very good thing – the one thing literature is all about: he puts his story and characters into a cultural context, but he couches the issues of the story in such a way that just may urge the reader to dig deeper than the personal, the current ethos.

Doing this is the heart of literature and, I believe, the thing that continues to urge readers to keep turning pages.

 

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The Patience to Re-live a Life

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Researching and writing biographies is a noble pursuit, particularly for certain writers. Me? I feel too rushed – always have – to take on the piecing together of a famous life, one shrouded by the passage of years and myth.

Ron Powers has done a great service to the life of Samuel Clemens – Mark Twain, as we more commonly know him, and it’s a read you’ll enjoy from birth to death of this giant of American letters.

 

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