Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Making Plans

It's that accountableness time again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

What I have done this week (8/23/2011-8/30/2011):

1. Finished a chapter just in time to hand in a submission to UGWP. May the force be with it, because I don't think there was much force behind it. I was trying to finish up two chapters...but it just wasn't to be. Ah well, I'll get 'em next week.

2. Speaking of getting stuff next week - I did manage to figure out that  I can finish the thing up in six months at my current pace...which I'll admit I was disappointed by. But writing and immediately editing is a tough thing and it takes more time than just banging it out. Then those snarky writer's group members find even more stuff that I have to fix. All of which I've already put in my Track Changes file. (That's pretty impressive actually - I just got the critiques yesterday. Can I get a GO JENNY!)

3. I formulated a plan to finish in six months too. Along with looking at what I was comfortably accomplishing plus an extra push, I have it broken down month by month - time to bang out words and then time to revise said words each month until I'm done. (This may or may not mean something because I've formulated many, many, many plans in the past...the plan that I just came up with is, in fact, a revision of my previous plan.)

4. Switched novel notebooks. I know this seems so silly. However, I write faster in the cheapy little spiral notebooks when I'm working on something large like a novel - so I quit fighting it and am ignoring the pretty notebooks...which shall be saved for notes or random jottings or fits and starts. The things we sacrifice for progress.

All right guys, your turn. Whatja do?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Alcoholism, The New Fitness, and Writers

"At some point, he [Tobias Wolff] says, he would like to tackle another memoir. He recently read a book about literary life in 1940s Dublin and fancies writing something in a similar vein, about the writer's place in 21st-century America. Are there any obvious comparisons? Wolff laughs. 'Well, there's less alcohol than there was in Dublin, that's for sure. In fact, that's been one of the big changes during my time as a writer. We all grew up inspired by men like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Robert Lowell – all of these great authors who drank too much and led these troubled lives. But then, over a period of about four or five years, the whole culture shifted and the drinking just stopped. So writers in America today are very different. They live on the campus, they're supported by the universities. It's all extreme health with them. It's about energy drinks and running programmes.'" ~ from "Tobias Wolff: 'I still feel as though I'm faking it'" by Xan Brooks, from The Guardian, Thursday 25 August 2011

(Special thanks and shout out to Ajay, who pointed the article out to me!)

Jack Kerouac lived life hard, and his writing reflects this. There are a lot of drugs mentioned in his novels. The number one: alcohol.

There have been enough hard-drinking, alcoholic writers through the centuries to make the hard-drinking, alcoholic writer a cliche. Substance abuse has traditionally been part of the package, right along with depression, manic-depression (bipolar), and suicide.

Kerouac was a poster boy for alcoholic writers everywhere. He died from it. A liver hemmorage, caused by cirrhosis, killed him at the age of 47.

I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty damn young. And it seems like a real waste of talent.

I've heard the arguments/reasonings for alcohol and/or drug induced writing. Stuff like: drinking can relax a writer. Drugs can stimulate a writer. Alcohol and other substances help enter that dream-state where creativity waits, just out of reach.

In my opinion, it all boils down to the idea that a writer has to get out of his own way in order to write.

Do I agree with Wolff's assessment of how writers have changed? That, instead of margaritas, they hit Jamba Juice and ask for an extra shot...of wheat germ?

In my experience, that's exactly what's happened. The Pulitzer prize winners are teaching at universities. A ton of writers of my acquaintance are vegetarians. (I'm also from Colorado, where we have the highest percentage of fitness junkies around...so my impression could be skewed.)

So, why would writers today be more likely to die from a sports related injury than cirhossis of the liver? There are millions of reasons outside of the writing sphere -D.A.R.E. programs, Got Milk?, and anti-meth billboards abound, for example.

But I think there are some changes within the writing world itself that have created these changes.

Here are my completely unresearched, unscientific, unverified theories regarding the shift from Alcoholic-Inspired Writers to Aerobic-Inspired Writers:

1. The alcoholics blew it for the rest of us. After Kerouac and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, do you think publishers want to work with that today?

2. Publishers are big-business. This ties to #1. Here's a truth about big-business: you can't keep up if your eyes aren't focused. These editors are not going to risk their careers on a production company (that's you, writerly brethren) that can't deliver on time. They can't be bothered to track your butt down at the local bar and hope that you have a manuscript tucked in the bottom of your glass. Your head has to be in the game. (Perhaps this self-publishing trend will bring back the glory days of alchies...but I doubt it...readers can see a jack-off as fast - if not faster - than professional editors)

3. Those troubled writers of yesteryear, when faced with today's world, would be slapped on Dr. Phil faster than you can say "Twelve Step Meeting." Society just doesn't put up with that kind of shit anymore. Reading Kerouac is actually irritating because you can see the psychology behind what's going on...and, even as a reader, you know that this kind of behavior can be moderated. There's no need to die for it.

4. Try figuring out "Track Changes" on Word when your drunk.

5. There isn't a whole ton of money in writing now (or then) but today's writers get a lot of funding (as the Wolff article states) through Universities. The competition for those jobs is fierce - maybe fiercer and bloodier and more personal than getting a publishing contract. You think you're gonna beat anyone if you're drunk? Nope. It won't happen. Sure, there are some remnants of the old school, but the liberal arts students-turned-profs are more likely to be doing those shots of wheat-germ than shots of whiskey.

6. Author photos. You cannot be ugly nowadays and be an author. We don't have to be super-model attractive yet, but hot authors on the back of the cover do sell more books than ugly authors. (Like I said, this is a completely unscientific opinion....) We've all seen those anti-meth billboards and, even if you're not all that pretty, you will not sell books looking like those teenagers.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Kerouac’s Genius/Interpreter Theory vs. Jenny’s Genius/Genius Theory

Let’s examine the word ‘genius.’ It doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive ‘talent.’ It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare.” ~ Jack Kerouac, “Are Writers Made or Born?”

If you get a chance, you should really read the whole text of “Are Writers Made or Born?” – Kerouac covers a lot of ground in a short space of essay. In it, he talks about the difference between a genius and an interpreter. His argument is that a genius is someone who does something that has never been done before: like Walt Whitman with poetic lines or James Joyce with the stream-of-conciousness thing.

He goes to explain the idea of an interpreter: “I always laugh to hear Broadway wiseguys talk about ‘talent’ and ‘genius.’ Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a ‘genius,’ but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter – in other words, a ‘Talent.’”

So, in other words, there are genius writers and there are interpretive writers. You can be talented, but still not be a genius.

I don’t know if I entirely agree with this assessment. I’m more inclined to think that there are two types of genius.

The first type is identical to Kerouac’s definition of genius – the guys and gals who put out something that hasn’t been seen before. You know their names: James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and even Gertrude Stein’s weird repetition, weird repetition.

However, I have to disagree with his assessment of interpreters not being geniuses in their own right.

In his essay he brings up Thomas Hardy – a genius writer, right? Kerouac thinks so, and I think so, but Kerouac says that Hardy was an originator…and there I have to disagree. I say Thomas Hardy was a kick-ass interpreter.

He wrote long, sprawling, Victorian epics whose subject matter stretched the boundaries of what was ‘decent’ or ‘acceptable’. But he didn’t create the three-volume form that was so popular during the Victorian period. Nor did he develop the serialized epics that were equally as popular…and in which he participated. Nor did he create the idea of writing epic tales of relationships, industrialization, or interfamily conflicts. He’s a genius the same way George Eliot and Charles Dickens are geniuses: working with subject matter, and working within a structure that’s already been developed, and telling the world as they see it, building on the authors that have come before. That’s interpreting something, not creating it.

Now, Kerouac defends Hardy as a genius because, no matter what, Hardy would always write like Hardy – and I see and appreciate that argument. But I’d also argue that a genius interpreter would always sound like him or herself. If we’re going to use some musical examples, yes, Brahms is an originating genius…but he doesn’t sound the same when performed by, say, Yo-Yo Ma. It takes on a new life. You know when Yo-Yo Ma is playing. That skill level, that talent, is a form of genius.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Almost, not quite

It's that Tuesday time again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

What I have done this week (8/16/2011-8/23/2011):

1. I was hoping to say DONE with the chapter I'm working on, but I'm not quite there yet. Trying very hard to finish it for this writers group submission go-round. It's getting there....(I've gotta say that these last two chapters have been the most difficult to write so far. I think I'm making it too hard on myself.)

2. Got a list of new markets to submit short stories to, but again didn't quite make the submissions themselves. Ah well. I guess this is the week of "Almost"

3. Did figure out the next few steps in my novel outline, so I know where I'm going. That's a plus. I don't outline a whole piece before I write it -- though I generally know the end spot. So I 'outline' a few chapters at a time. When I first write a chapter outline it'll be something like "A and B fight" and by the time I get to actually writing the chapter, I know what A and B are fighting about and what the outcome needs to be...because generally the next chapter is outlined as "B recovers from fight" or something.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Writing to a Soundtrack

My proclaimed 'protégé', Oliver, likes to put the “song of influence” (my term, not his) underneath the title of the short story or novel chapter that was inspired by the tune. He has received much feedback on this, ranging from: “don’t do that” to “I can see how that fits.”

He is not the first writer to be influenced by musical stylings. I admit to being pretty influenced by music as well.

Nowadays, when writers talk about ‘soundtracks’ to their work, I think we refer to inspiration instead of interpretation. The music acts as muse (ha! word roots, anyone?) for subject matter, not style. That’s certainly how I refer to it. I make playlists on the iPod with the names of my WIPs as constant re-inspiring material. These songs remind me why I wanted to write the story, or they remind me of a character’s motivation, or something else related to the storyline.

Jack Kerouac is a little different.

Kerouac was heavily influenced by Bop. The jazz stylings were something new, different, and emotionally compelling to the generation following WWII. While I’m sure Kerouac was inspired the same way that Oliver and I are (getting story ideas, etc.), it also influenced how he told the stories.

Kerouac’s spontaneous prose theories – the improvisational styling, the lack of editing, the ‘flow’ of words instead of musical notes – were a writerly interpretation of this musical style. Bop is fast, like Kerouac’s flow of writing. Bop riffs on melody lines, like Kerouac’s story lines – On the Road’s central idea was moving from one place to the other, each place was different, but the road/being on the move acted as a melodic line.

I’ve never written a story or novel based on a musical form. Partly because I’ve never had the training to understand how music forms worked. I can’t tell you the difference between a symphony or a concerto. (If there is one?) I understand bits and pieces of jazz and Beatle’s era rock-n-roll. Mostly, I can tell you what a bridge is…but after that…if it doesn’t repeat in the study of poetry…well, I couldn’t write an entire novel on any of my bits of knowledge. Still, I find the concept an interesting one.

What about looking into a song structure and expanding it into a longer piece, like a short story? Would you get the classic story ‘structure’? The rising action, climax, denouement, etc.? As Kerouac illustrates, when you play around with structure, some not-regular things happen.

And now, some Bop music to 'type' to...here's some Dizzy Gillespie

Friday, August 19, 2011

Don’t Make It Too Hard On Your Reader

Okay, writing a book in three days and three nights is a feat. It probably requires amphetemines of some kind. Or copious amounts of Vivarin. It also requires keyboarding skills that most secretaries would envy.

I think most of us would agree that some editing would be involved.

Kerouac did not think as most of us.

He banged out The Subterraneans in the aforementioned three day—three night psycho writing frenzy. And he didn’t edit it too much either, according to popular record. While this has certain interesting advantages (Ah, the satisfaction of being done)…and while there are interesting linguistic stylings that occur (as shown on Monday)…it sure is hard to read.

He wrote the book a lot faster than I’m reading it, that’s for sure.

I’m still pushing through it. It still has interesting bits, fascinating bits even. But I find that I read a sentence over and over and over again and I’m still not 100% sure what’s going on some of the time. Since his sentences are paragraph-length with minimal or creative punctuation, that’s a lot of rereading only to get the overview, ya know?

What’s the last book that you struggled through? Was it worth it in the end?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Mini-Scenes and Track Changes

Welcome to Tuesday! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

What I accomplished this week (08/09/2011-08/16/2011) :

1. First and foremost -- I got the oldest kid to school starting last Thursday (where did the summer go?). Youngest kid and I are renegotiating the terms of staying at home alone together. "No, you can't watch television all day just because older brother is away and can't play with you."

2. Am halfway through next chapter of work in progress. After reading The Help, I have been aware of what I'm calling 'mini-scenes' that last a few paragraphs, fill in some gaps in the story and then continue along their way. Say what you will about the racial aspects of that novel (read this, I think it's a pretty good review), Stockett is a very good 'mini-scener.'

Now, the thing to understand with mini-scenes, as I'm learning, is that you can really set them anywhere. Mainly you just have to ask "What's the character thinking about?" and then think about what setting would trigger it. Since the focus is just on a mini-epiphany, or a mini-struggle in the character's life, the field is wide-open. Which is both freeing and frustrating at the same time because you wonder "Where would be best?"

The chapter that I'm working on now is a sort-of series of mini-scenes -- it has information that needs to be covered in order to move forward, but didn't quite serve a large, cohesive scene. Plus, I want to show a little bit of time passage, so again, the mini-scene is coming in to do some heavier lifting.

Until I caught on to the concept of a mini-scene, I was completely floored on how to write this chapter. So, if you find yourself stuck...you may wanna try them too. Don't be afraid of writing a section that's just a few paragraphs long. Throw in some white space and call it good.

3. I also created a Track Changes version of all the critiques I received last month. As I was stuck on the above-mentioned chapter, I decided that reviewing people's notes and typing it all in to one document would let me see problem areas.

Luckily, all of the problem areas boil down to one chapter. So at least I know where to hit when I do the big revisions. For now, I'm plunging through and trying to finish a rough draft by the end of October, so no time for MAJOR revisions unless it absolutely changes the outcome of the story (as it is, the critiques mainly wanted more POP and some clarifying details, which doesn't change the overall information presented in the problematic chapter...so I don't have to tear it up this second).

And by the way, I hate Track Changes. I did that so when I'm all finished I will have to retype everything in a clean draft. That's the easiest way to catch all the glitches anyway, may as well force myself to do it the right way instead of the easy way, ya know?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Spontaneous Prose: What it Looks Like

There’s a list Kerouac jotted down that is often copied. Called “Belief &Technique for Modern Prose,” it is thirty pieces of advice for writers who want to write spontaneously and Beat-like.

A couple of my favorites tidbits:

#1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy (because I love the idea of writing for your own joy)


# 29. You’re a Genius all the time (which is just a nice thought, ya know?)

The items that concern me today are: #13 Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition and #15 Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog.

It’s hard to define these kinds of terms – what does Kerouac mean? How do you know if you’re grammatically inhibited? Does interior monolog mean no dialogue? How can any story be written in such a manner?

Mostly the answer to all of these questions is: write FAST. Don’t THINK. Kerouac wrote very quickly, inspiring the famous quote from Truman Capote regarding Kerouac’s writing style: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” And a big part of me sides with Capote. (Most of me, actually.)

That’s not to say that, as writers, we shouldn’t experiment.

Writing fast, keeping to internal thoughts, and removing English-teacher-inspired inhibitions has an interesting effect. There’s a blurring of lines. There’s an additional layering of meaning – because an adjective or an adverb can apply to multiple things. It reads more poetically, and has a lot in common with stream-of-conscience writing.

Here’s an example from Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, which I’m reading right now and, to me, comes across as the most free of Kerouac’s prose I’ve read yet (just be forewarned, this excerpt is a little long so you can get the feel of it):

Out of the bar were pouring interesting people, the night making a great impression on me, some kind of Truman-Capote-haired dark Marlon Brando with a beautiful thin birl or girl in boy slacks with stars in her eyes and hips that seemed so soft when she put her hands in her slacks I could see the change – and dark thin slackpant legs dropping down to little feet, and that face, and with them a guy with another beautiful doll, the guy’s name Rob and he’s some kind of adventurous Israeli soldier with a British accent whom I suppose you might find in some Riviera bar at 5 AM drinking everything in sight alphabetically with a bunch of interesting crazy international-set friends on a spree – Larry O’Hara introducing me to Roger Beloit (I did not believe that this young man with ordinary face in front of me was that great poet I’d revered in my youth, my youth, my youth, that is, 1948, I keep saying my youth) – ‘This is Roger Beloit? – I’m Bennett Fitzpatrick’ (Walt’s father) which brought a smile to Roger Beloit’s face – Adam Moorad by now having emerged from the night was also there and the night would open –

I never said it was easy to read. The whole book is like this. No commas = no breathing.

But let’s take a look at a couple of the effects….

Without the pesky commas, a line like “with stars in her eyes and hips that seemed so soft when she put her hands in her slacks I could see the change” gains multiple levels of meaning. Since the stars refer to her eyes and then syntactically continues on with no break to her hips, it reads like there are stars in her hips. That’s an interesting image.

By putting her hand in her slacks, Kerouac adds a sexual image with ‘change’…even though it also refers to coin change in her pocket.

And ‘night’ in the last sentence gets multiple uses as well. The reader hears “emerged from the night” “the night was also there” and “the night would open” all in one fragment – and the first two ‘nights’ are in the same position in the sentence, so you also get the longer image of “emerged from the night was also there” when it’s all smashed together…and it all refers to the character of Adam Moorad still.


Fun, huh?

I didn’t even go into Kerouac making up new words (‘birl’ for a girl who wears pants or ‘slackpant’ to describe the clothing).

Or his use of repetition of “my youth, my youth, my youth”…and then his flat out, kinda spaced-out “I keep saying my youth” as if the reader didn’t notice.

Thank God this is a rather simple boy-meets-girl-they-break-up story. Otherwise my head would be spinning more than it already is with this book.

Should you like to hear all of Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose” here ya go:

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ben Hecht's Interview of Jack Kerouac

I seem to have talked a lot this week, so now I'm gonna let Kerouac talk, scabs and all.

This is the second portion of an interview held just before/immediately after the release of The Dharma Bums, which we've been talking about this week. In this interview Ben Hecht and Kerouac talk about Buddhism vs. Christianity, a brief mention of The Dharma Bums as the new book out, the "happiness of Negroes" (full disclosure: I have to say that I'm embarassed for both of them - white 1950s guys that they are, I cringed at the generalizations made), and world peace.

The interview is interesting both for the interviewee and the style of the interview. It's not quite McCarthy-esque...but it certainly has the flavor of the time period....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Thursday Reviews!: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

The Dharma BumsThe Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I'd read this alone on a mountaintop, or while camping, or just out in nature somewhere I'd probably've given this four stars. The descriptions of nature, the out-and-out enthusiasm for the outdoors, and the romanticizing of living out of a backpack (which, for an indoor girl like me, is a hard sell) were the most engaging sections for me.

That and the descriptions of food were somehow entrancing. Who knew pork and beans could be so effective as a literary presentation? And I'm not being sarcastic either. After Kerouac describes the cold during the mountain climbs, or the extensive traveling without rest, the descriptions of food seem to rejuvenate the reader as well as the lead characters. It's a strange thing and I can't think of a book that comes close to describing food in such a satsifactory way. (Odd praise, I know, but it worked for me.)

Had the nature and backpacking and food been the center stage for this novel, it would've been just fine for me.

My issue comes with the pop-Buddhism. It really felt like Ray (the main character/Kerouac doppelganger) was an enthusiastic guy trying to understand something that he wasn't quite getting. He knew the terminology, knew some Buddhist practices and tried to apply it in his life...but there's a section where Japhy (the Ultimate Dharma Bum) calls him out and says that Ray is just putting everything into words. And that is exactly right -- I practically cheered when I got to that point. Ray is just describing and describing being "enlightened" but he never actually is, and doesn't see it, and it gets annoying.

Really, it's Ray's childlike enthusiasm and joie de vivre that make the pop-philosophy forgiveable.

Side note -- I found it hilarious that Alvah Goldbook, Allen Ginsberg's doppelganger, was the poet to protest the Buddhism the most. Funny, because Ginsberg was the most faithful of Buddhists after Kerouac introduced him to the religion...his funeral was in a Buddhist temple. There's just no predicting....

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Haiku is defined in Jack Myers’s The Portable Poetry Workshop as: “A Japanese lyric form composed of three lines totaling 17 syllables: 5, 7, 5 respectively.”
Well, if you ever want to understand the terminology of poetry, you can’t do much better than this book. If you want to know the definitions for anything from “enjambment” (“A line ending whose syntax carries over to the next line”) to homolochos (“A classic, stock physical-comedy character of the buffoon type”) Myers has the literary and poetical definitions for ya. But – and no offense to Mr. Myers, who is a former Texas Poet Laureate and two time NEA fellowship recipient – the definitions didn’t quite cover enough for me as I worked through one particular section in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.

In the scene, Ray is mountain climbing with his buddies Japhy and Morley. As they climb along they are inspired to compose haikus on the spot. Stuff like: “Talking about the literary life – the yellow aspens” – from Japhy. My first thought as I read was That’s terrible. And I’d tolerated plenty of sorta-Buddha babble from these guys up to that point.

Still, while I may have disliked “Rocks on the side of the cliff…why don’t they tumble down?” – from Ray – I appreciated Japhy’s explanation of what a haiku is: “A real haiku’s gotta be simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing.” That definition makes a heck of a lot more sense to me than a breakdown of syllables-per-line.

And the way the characters composed these haikus is very telling about the Beat generation of writers as well.

In his 1974 essay “On the Road: Notes on Artists and Poets 1950-1965” poet Robert Creely describes his experiences as a poet during the Beat time period and it’s surprising similar to Kerouac’s life experience: “I had gone through a usual education in the East, had witnessed in shock the terrifying conclusion of humans killing one another, had wobbled back to college, married (mistakenly) in the hope of securing myself emotionally, had wandered into the woods…and I was returned without relief again and again to the initial need: a means of making articulate the world in which I and all like me did truly live.

Being able to articulate the world sounds like a pretty tall order to me – but I think, as Japhy points out in his haiku definition, that articulation doesn’t need to be complicated. Haiku is not complicated. It’s as “plain as porridge” but it is articulate. It says a lot with very little.

Japhy quotes a haiku by Shiki: “The sparrow hops along the veranda with wet feet.” He goes on to explain why that’s a great haiku: “You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet inthose few words you also see all the rain that’s been falling that day and almost smell the pine needles.” What Japhy describes is the articulation of the haiku.

Turns out, this is one of my favorite scenes in The Dharma Bums, partly because it got me thinking about poetry, which I enjoy – dry terminology and all – and partly because of the statement it makes about the Beat writers. The scene functions articulately.

The Beats didn’t worry about haiku syllabics (Kerouac doesn’t even break the haikus into lines). These guys were just experiencing the world and playing with words at the same time. Creely says in his essay: “any form, any ordering of reality so implied, had somehow to come from the very condition of the experience demanding it.” The scene articulates the idea of spontaneous, experimental composition. The haiku form within the scene is Kerouac’s example.

It’s great, layered, which I dig.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Reading Should Count As Writing

It's Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

And now we get to why a consistent accountability post is necessary:

I did not write a word this week. (Except for blog posts...)

Sad faces all around.

However, I did do a LOAD of reading. I finished Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and am halfway through Kerouac's The Subterraneans and Erasmus's Praise of Folly. And guys, I hafta tell you, these are not the easiest books I've ever read.

However, we all know reading is very important to writing!

For example: Two of the books I've read this week, of course, have to do with this month's mentor. I look at technique, tone, or whatever else I can pull from it for my own work...but it's not necessarily related to the WIP. This kind of reading is more like buying tools for the toolbox, if you catch my drift.

The other two books (Atwood and Erasmus) have more to do with my WIP. I've determined, since The Line is all dystopian future that I should (duh!) read more dystopian novels. (Plus I have to read Atwood for the September/October mentoring session - two for one!)

Erasmus isn't dystopian but I think his work speaks to the social consciences in my novel. (Whoa. That sounds high-fallutin'...no worries, I'm more about entertainment.)

Plus this week we've been getting everyone prepped for the start of school. Yippee skippee.

Please tell me you guys were more successful on the word count bit.

Oh, and a big shout out to Deniz, who finished her round of editing!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pop Buddhism

This weekend, I finished reading The Dharma Bums – the book that apparently started the Backpack Revolution.

First, My Problem:

As the title implies, there are a plethora of Eastern-religion references throughout Dharma Bums. My problem was, and remains, that I had the toughest time believing Ray Smith, the main character, really understood the tenets of Buddhism. Sure, he meditated. Sure, he could list the Four Noble Truths. Sure, he bought into the idea of Enlightenment.

But he seemed to use all these things as an excuse to sit on his butt and do nothing. It’s not an attractive characteristic.

He used Buddhism to excuse his life rather than to live his life – does that make sense? This kind of pop-philosophy annoys me.

Second, Pop-Philosophy is Exactly What I’m About to Do:

After all, Kerouac’s my mentor this month, right? Gotta learn from the man. So, without further ado, I give you:

The Three Temptations of the Buddha as They Relate to Writing

1. Desire: It’s actually referred to as 'lust' in the story…but I’m adjusting things to make my point.

What on earth can desire have to do with writing? Well, it speaks to motivation, as do the other two temptations that I’m gonna talk about. I don’t know about you guys, but every now and then J.K. Rowling’s paycheck pops into my head. (As do Stephen King’s , James Patterson’s, and Nora Roberts’s). This seems harmless on the surface – after all, my logical brain knows the odds of getting the dough these writers bring in is astronomically low.

But my family is a single income family – and that single income is a public school teacher. (I know it’s forboden to discuss money, politics, and religion…but apparently I don’t follow rules very well.)

My husband and I cut a deal, known in the writing-type world as the Dean Koontz Deal. Meaning: my husband will bring home the bacon for a few years while I focus exclusively on my writing. I noticed, at the beginning of the summer, that a certain desperation had crept into my writing. It made me sit down religiously. I wrote word after word after word (and don’t get me wrong, they were pretty good words, if I do say so myself). But I panicked that I wasn’t moving fast enough. I didn’t need to be a millionaire, but I needed to have some income. I really, really, really wanted this to work and I wanted it to work FAST.

That’s desire. Sure, an income would be nice. But that kind of pressure...that kind of Want, the kind that feels like Need, is very, very unpleasant to write with.

2. Fear: Pretty straightforward this one, isn’t it? My desire could certainly be construed as fear – how to feed the kids? How many cars does a family need? Think of everything I lose in this game!

Fear can certainly be used as a motivator – fear of missing a deadline, fear of not hitting a word count, fear of being stuck. I think, a lot of times, writers just write because they fear the silence of a blank page. What if I never write again? Must put down WORDS! Must EDIT NOW! Because if I stop writing for even a second it means I’m Not A Writer.

Then, what if what you put down isn’t good enough? That’s one that stops writers. It stops me often enough. I’m not even comparing myself to anyone. Speaking of comparing…

3. Others: You can’t do it for Them. You can’t do it for your writer’s group…can’t try to impress them. You can’t do it to impress your mom, or to show your high school ex-boyfriend how you’re better off without him. In other words: You can’t do it for other people – not to beat them down with your bad-ass-ness or to bask in the glow of their love.

This one hasn’t been as much of a problem for me…maybe because my mother has hated all of my stories (she’s one of those very specific like/dislike kinda readers) and I only ever had to do it because I enjoyed writing. Though, I won’t lie: I sure do look forward to praise.

Now, How to Avoid Temptation?: The Middle Road

The middle road for all writers, in my-own-self’s opinion, is that you should always write for your own enjoyment. Maybe this is desire, but I don’t think so. This is a concept that has to be internalized, and accepted whenever a writer is ready. It’s an easy thing to say: “Just write because you like to write and don’t think about all that other shit.” But harder to put into practice.

One thing I thought of to help internalize this idea is a play on the concept of the Under The Bed Book. The idea is that Bad Books go under the bed, never to see the light of day. These are the books you never show anyone, you accept the lesson and move on.

I’m gonna shift that around a little and say: Put a Good Book under your bed. Put away a book that you’re proud of. Put away a book you think could be saleable. Just let it go. You created it, now keep it for you. You keep the lessons learned, and you don’t have to hear anyone ever say a bad thing about that book, and you never have to care if you would’ve made millions on it.

“Oh, yeah, Jenny," you say. "You putting your money where your mouth is?”

I am actually. I’m currently working on a project that I’m going to keep to myself. I'm working on it right along with a project that I’m going to let out when it’s ready. I’ve had to do this for myself, to give myself permission to not feel that crazed desperation looming over me. I had to remind myself to write for myself.

If you can do that without doing all the work of writing a not-to-be seen novel, kudos to you! Keep doing what you’re doing.

I’m still working on it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Where to Put the Good Blonde?

In Good Blonde and Others, the opening selection is about Kerouac, hitchhiking back from Mexico, catching a ride in a brand-new Lincoln Mercury driven by a beautiful blonde in a bathing suit. Throughout the section, Kerouac wonders who on Earth would ever believe that he’s so lucky?

Apparently, he didn’t think anyone really would, or he thought the section too lengthy, or he thought some other kind of editorial thing about it…because it remains as a fragment. He mentions the blonde in the second chapter of The Dharma Bums (imagine my interest when it suddenly appeared as I was reading along), but she is a brief, flitting literary construction to get him from point A to point B:

“hitchhiking the rest of the way from Santa Barbara in one long zipping ride given me, as though anybody’ll believe this, by a beautiful darling young blonde in a snow-white strapless bathing suit and barefooted with a gold bracelet on her ankle, driving a next-year’s cinnamon-red Lincoln Mercury, who wanted Benzedrine so she could drive all the way to the City”

An almost-paragraph is all that’s left of some twenty odd pages of writing.

So, why not put in everything and make it a longer chapter?

This has something to do with the tone of the book The Dharma Bums. The main guy, Ray Smith (another Kerouac doppelganger), is all about enlightenment…and sex doesn’t enter into it. Now, I’m not psychic, but I bet Kerouac had that figured out. Rule of thumb: don’t put in lengthy sections that have nothing to do with your theme/point/story. Episodic as it is, The Dharma Bums, like On the Road, is a focused presentation of a period in Kerouac’s life – not everything is gonna make it in.

A lot of good writers do this: write way more than they would ever need. I read somewhere that Amy Tan wrote almost a thousand pages for The Joy Luck Club. The end product is around three hundred pages. That’s seven hundred pages of material that didn’t get in there. Same with Kerouac. "Good Blonde" is a twenty page episode cut down to about a paragraph.

How do you know what material is extraneous material? How do you know where to put the Good Blonde? Or do you even utilize your Good Blonde section at all?

A few things that I’ve thought of to help in the decision making process:

1. Finish your story…all thousands of pages of it…and take a real hard look to see what it’s really about. If it is about a mother’s love, do you really need the main character to be married five times and to focus so much on husband number three? Probably not. Stuff like that can be pared down. Throw it on a scrap pile to be cannibalized later into a short story or something.

2. Is the extra material all front-loaded? If it’s taking your forever to get to the real story – like a hundred pages or so – you may be doing what they call ‘a running start’. Most of the material you think of as character-building, or background, is extra. The Good Blonde portion of The Dharma Bums is up front. If Kerouac had spent twenty pages telling us about this unbelievably lucky pick-up he would have taken an extra twenty pages to get Ray (main character) and Japhy together – and that’s the central relationship in the story, so the Blonde is just a run-up. You can cut those. Scrap pile 'em.

3. Conversely, does the denouement of your story go on forever, like Lord of the Rings? Similar principles to #2 apply.

4. Can characters be combined? Do you really need enlightenment scenes with three different characters? Why not smush it all down to one scene and one character? If you find yourself repeating insights or details, remember: the reader will get it the first time! You’re not adding in new or essential information at that point and the scene, as well as the characters that go with it, can probably go.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Thursday Reviews!: Good Blonde and Others by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

Good BlondeGood Blonde by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Best part about this book:

The sections where Kerouac talks his writing style. There are two selection/chapters that cover this "spontaneous prose": "The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" and "Belief & Technique for Modern Prose." Both are kind of checklists; but how-to lists might be more accurate. Interesting, downright fascinating...though I'm not 100% sure what to do with stuff like #14 in "Belief": "Like Proust, be an old teahead of time." But I can certainly get behind #29: "You're a Genius all the time." (I tell myself this everyday. Heehee.)

And speaking of genius -- the essay "Are Writers Made or Born?" is AWESOME. Basically he separates the idea of great talents (what he refers to as interpreters...like a great violinist is not Mozart, for example, even though he/she plays well) and geniuses -- the Mozarts -- are people who create something new that hasn't been seen before. Worth reading even if you read nothing else in this collection.

Other stuff that was pretty good:

His arguments for Beat and what it is. His definitions are meant to clarify a lot of the philosophy of the Beat movement. I don't know if they clarify too much...but I think I caught a few details that I didn't know before. Probably one of his most interesting observations in "On the Beats" is "The dope thing will die out. That was a fad, like bathtub gin."

The stuff you have to wade through:

Sports. While he makes some really great arguments for why baseball strategy (walking the best hitters, etc.) makes for dull games and players who don't know how to swing for the fences...for the most part the sports sections are dull. The games and seasons he writes about are long gone, and the immediacy of a sports article doesn't reverberate through the ages like we would like. Even for a writer like Kerouac.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Getting Stuff Nailed Down

It's Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I have accomplished this last week:

1. Not much as far as word counts. There was a large societal-world-building conversation on Saturday night between my brother, the spouse, and myself. They asked really important questions and I was proud to say that I had the answers to a lot of them. But then Shane hammered away at something that's a fairly large problem. (I'm not sure whether marrying someone smarter than yourself is a good thing yet....) Luckily, he voiced his issue early on and I can easily, easily fix it moving forward.

Also got UGWP critiques back. For the most part I was super-happy about the questions that were asked, and only had one brief moment where I felt myself resisting an idea...but then I thought to myself: Aren't they just pointing out a section that you were worried about yourself? And I had to talk myself down from being defensive. (I always need a day or two after a critique to digest and Stop Being Defensive.)

Though the critiques of my work, and a couple of my fellow members' work as well left me with the question: How much do you trust that the writer is doing what they mean to do? This is a bigger question in a novel chapter critique, since as a reader/critiquer you often don't have the whole thing in front of you. With a short story you have the end, know the arc, and can adjust accordingly, with novel chunks you have no such luxury unless the writer tells you what's gonna happen. I realized that some of my critiques of others' work was based in the idea that I wasn't trusting the author to do what he/she was doing. For example, last session I gave one of my writer buddies a critique that switched the opening structure of the story around...and while I think a great deal of it can still work, now that I've read more of it, some of that critique isn't in line with what he's doing...so I don't feel as useful as I could've been.

2. Read quite a bit. Finished Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and made a good dent in The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Something good that I know about my process: I have to just shut down and read sometimes, and I try not to beat myself about that. Especially when I'm reading things that give good inspiration to continue my own work.

How're you guys doing?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Writing the Windblown, Schizophrenic World

I came across this fascinating book called Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954 -- which covers the period of time when he wrote his first novel The Town and the City and his second On the Road.

Basically, it's a log of his word counts, which are insanely high (but we talked before about how much he writes) and his emotions as he writes. Check this out:

"This thought, concerning the change in my writing which now seems so important, came --: that it was not lack of creation that stopped me before, but an excess of it, a thickening of the narrative stream so that it could not flow. Yet tonight I'm really worried about my work. First is it good now? -- and will the world recognize it as such. The world isn't so dumb after all; I realize that from reading some of my unfinished or unsold novels: they are just no good. I will eventually arrive at a simplicity and a beauty that won't be denied -- simplicity; morality; and a beauty, a real lyricism. But the now, the now. It's getting serious. How do I know if I'm reaching mastery?"~Kerouac, entry dated November 10

I know, right? If he writes this way in his journal, obsessing about the beauty of words and worrying about mastery...well, he was probably gonna accomplish something, right? There are pages of this stuff in this book. Kerouac goes through the writerly schizophrenia that's in all of us writers.

I'm a master!
I suck.
I'm the greatest that's ever lived!
How will I ever measure up to Dostoyevski?

At this very moment I'm trying to keep my schizophrenic self from wondering if I'll ever be any good because Kerouac wrote gorgeous stuff in his journals and mine read more like this (back in March, during P.G. Wodehouse's mentorship):

"Speaking of...the thought process for these last two weeks was to fill the old bean with stories and movies (visual stories) but I'm avoiding writing I think. Spending way too much time online and not enough on The Line. I think I'm scared. No. I am scared. This is a big deal idea that I'm super-proud to have come up with. But instead of being excited to drive forward, I am stressed about whether I'll make it work. I'm worried that I'm not good enough. yeah, it's not success I'm worried about. I'm worried that I finish this book and it'll have something so wrong in its make-up that I'll have to totally re-do it all. I'm going to try to revise every 100 pages or so to try to set the writing stronger. I'd really like to do some short stories too. Yi." ~Me, undated entry

Yes, I'm comparing my journaling to Kerouac's and worrying about whether or not it's good enough. Talk about schizo.

I think the fear comes, no matter how hard we working, because we wonder if we're good enough, if anyone will ever notice, and whether the work is worth noticing at all. It's something we all have to work through, even Kerouac.

(Or maybe that's just my fear and you guys are all fine and dandy.)

The answer is the same regardless of whether your fearful or not: write and find out what happens.