Thursday, May 29, 2014

Savoring Great Style

I'm a sucker for lots of things—a well made martini, acceleration, Chopin's polonaises, wool socks, and courage in the face of humiliation, to name a few.

But my utmost passion is for great style in writing. Style, like quality, cannot come out of haste, and it can't come out of exploitation. (I think I'll write about exploitation next week.)

Great style comes from:
1) Brains;
2) Generosity; and
3) An unsentimentally artistic heart.

I've been rereading some favorite books in preparation for a workshop I'll be doing later this year (the Lambda retreat) and have been feeling just joyous while slowly devouring them, making notes and savoring the style.

Two such books are pictured,

along with some scribbles and a breakfast bowl of veggies and quinoa. (Yeah, I hold back on the martinis until Friday nights…) Plus a page-a-day calendar I use as a book prop and thus don't turn the pages as regularly as some tight-panted fanatic would. Plus I see a crumpled receipt and an outdoor thermometer that just got a new battery and needs to be stuck on the window again. Plus my old silver Parker ballpoint, fitted with a gel cartridge. (FYI: The ink in those is totally water-soluble. My massage therapist accidentally left a check I'd written her with that pen in her pants pocket, which went through the wash, and the check came out completely intact, and completely blank. I reused it the next time I saw her.)

How to define great style, how to communicate it? To me, great style defines itself as a passage that serves more than one purpose. That's a blunt definition, and imperfect, but here are a few examples from those books on the table in front of me.

From page 1 of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon:

She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said, "There's a girl wants to see you. Her name's Wonderly."

In general, Hammett's prose is pretty workmanlike, and some passages in this book are even pedestrian, but he knows what he's doing. That passage tells us three things:

1) Spade's secretary knows enough to keep a barrier between the stranger in the outer office and Spade in the inner;
2) Her diction is working-class, leading us to guess she's street-smart enough to serve her boss well—under a variety of conditions; and of course the obvious,
3) Spade has a possible new client.

That simple passage embodies economy and style in just about equal measure.

Still prettier is this one, the first sentence of Chapter 10:

Beginning day had reduced night to a thin smokiness when Spade sat up.

We learn that Spade is still in bed, and from the last sentence of the prior chapter we know exactly with whom, and we learn a new way to visualize dawn breaking over San Francisco.

If Patricia Highsmith's ghost were to enter this room, I would bow down before it.

From Chapter 1 of The Talented Mr. Ripley:

Maybe Richard was in some kind of jam. Maybe Mr. Greenleaf wanted help, or advice. Tom knew just what to say to a father like Mr. Greenleaf.

Very simple words, but the key is the last of the three sentences. We learn that Tom feels in control of the situation ('Tom knew just what to say'), and we learn that he's able—or feels capable of—sizing up a stranger based on a very few clues ('to a father like Mr. Greenleaf.'). Based on this, we might also conclude that Tom has a fairly high opinion of himself, and that he is perhaps a rather cunning young man.

One more, from Chapter 4:

Tom's friend Cleo, upon hearing that he's being dispatched to Europe to bring back Dickie Greenleaf, exclaims,

"How too, too marvellous! It's just like out of Shakespeare or something!"

That's just what Tom thought, too. That was just what he had needed someone to say.

We learn that Tom, in spite of all his inner bravado, is deeply insecure. And we see something of his shallowness. A subtle way to show us! Highsmith doesn't write, "Tom was an insecure, shallow young man." She lets the character reveal himself to us little by little.

This was going to be a super-short post, but I could write a whole book on just this one thing. Great style is something casual readers miss. To get the full experience of terrific fiction, you have to read with as much patience and trust as the author has invested in the writing. The rewards are infinite.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

5 Good Reasons to Make Up Stuff

The summer I was 15, I was fortunate to go to the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan, for intensive instruction and performance. (I played clarinet.) Because I knew no one there, I felt a sense of newness and freedom. I must have blossomed somehow and become more outgoing and interesting, because one night after lights out in my 12-girl cabin, one girl said, "Elizabeth, tell us the story of your life."

#1: It's fun.

On the spur of that moment, lying on my back and talking into the dark, I began telling my new friends about my early childhood in Iceland, including many convincing details such as the local species of ant that built large hills on the plains us children had to cross every day to get to school.

#2: It gets you into a creative state.

In winter, I recounted, the hills froze hard, and if you didn't watch out, you'd fall over them, which I frequently did. (That got a sympathetic laugh.)

['The view from my bedroom window in Iceland.' photo by ES]

#3: It entertains and challenges your listeners.

I don't remember a tenth of the stuff I made up that and subsequent nights, but it enchanted my camp-mates, at least until one of the faster girls started talking about sex. I never did reveal that I'd lived in Michigan my whole life; I wonder if any of those girls remember my crazy tales.

#4: It's good exercise for your storytelling muscles.

Since then I've done countless similar things, most recently explaining to a roomful of patients at the physical therapy office that my arm was in a sling because it had gotten torn off in a terrible car wreck, but the doctors had reattached it in a grueling 17-hour operation. (In reality I'd had outpatient arthroscopic shoulder surgery.)

#5: It's a test of guts.

The thing is, I never just volunteer such information; I wait until somebody asks or gives me a wide opening. In most cases I tell them I'm kidding after a while. But I get a charge out of my quickening heartbeat as I brazenly launch into some dramatic story. Makes my day a little spicier.

Have you told outlandish tales to strangers / friends / enemies?

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hunting for True Juice

Last week was my 52nd post on this blog, which means I've done it once a week for a year. I didn't make special note of it then, because I thought I might have to miss this week, due to the shoulder surgery I just had a couple of days ago. But hey, lookie! Blog post 53.

(The operation was a success, according to the doc. I'll be able to judge for myself after a bit more time & rehab. Am able to type this through the slight haze of post-op meds, so my poor Dragon is staying in his lonely lair for now…)

I launched this blog in honor of the release of You've Got a Book in You, wanting to focus on zestful writing and zestful living. Being somewhat reserved by nature, I haven't done a lot of gut-spilling, but have been more—clinical, I guess, in my postings. But it seems that bloggers who write in depth about personal things connect better with their readers. It also seems that bloggers who are willing to make enemies do well at connecting, because you can be provocative by being critical of someone else or someone else's ideas, you can start a little war, you can try to get your Twitter followers to gang up on their Twitter followers…

[These kids are zestfully blowing their own horns. Photo by ES.]

Because let's be honest: Conflict and negativity can really be fun, especially if you're looking on from the sidelines. "Let's you and him fight, OK?"

I don't think I can do that, but I do want to make this blog more personal. Because I've found when I'm talking in person to aspiring writers OR readers of my fiction, their eyes invariably light up and they enjoy it when I veer away from the script (where I talk about ideas and techniques) and get specific about my own experiences and opinions.

How do you feel when reading someone's blog, or writing your own blog? Do you find that juiciness results in more intimacy? How does it work for you?

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Dragon, an Arm, and a Hammer

I've received a few requests to bring you up to date on my attempts to use the voice-control software Dragon Naturally Speaking, which many authors write with whether able-bodied or not.

Last winter I bought a copy of Dragon when I was having trouble with my dominant arm, possibly facing shoulder surgery with a long period of immobility during recovery. Seemed like a prudent thing to do. I blogged about my orientation and early uses of it, and I felt good about having Dragon as an option to help me write with a bum wing. Doing the whole pre-use protocol, where you read sample passages into your microphone so the software can get a sense of your accent and cadences, was a big help in accuracy.

Moreover, though, I was very much into the possibility of using the software as a regular way to get words down on the page (or the screen). Think of the ease, think of the sheer volume you could achieve!

I feel like a crouton, but I just haven't taken to it. It's a great program, and I have a feeling I'll give it another concerted try soon, but I just feel more comfortable with my old system of writing longhand, then typing it into a Word document, editing and rewriting as I go. I get such pleasure from putting words on the page using real pen and paper. Good old tools.

As it turns out, all alternative therapies for the shoulder—physical therapy, acupuncture, deep-tissue massage, even herbal supplements and this new-agey thing called biopuncture—have failed to make any improvement. Instead, things have gotten worse, including, as I'm sure you can imagine, my bank balance.

I'm scheduled for arthroscopic surgery next Tuesday. The doc has a disconcertingly long list of stuff to do in there, but he's supposed to be the best at wielding those tiny hammers and tongs. (Among other creds, he's the doctor for a MLB team and has all these framed jerseys lining his walls with inscriptions like, "Thanks for giving me my arm back.")  If all goes well, I'll have a very quick recovery, with few restrictions on movement and effort.

So YES, I'll probably give Dragon another try next week.

Tell us what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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[Photo of good old tools by ES] 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Elusive, Vital Standards

When I was a student at Michigan State University I took a poetry-writing course from Diane Wakoski, who was considered one of the hot, avant-garde poets in America. I was impressed by her strong feminist philosophy, which is probably best summed up by the title of her collection from 1973, Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch.

The students wrote poetry and she did critiques, and in class we discussed both student poetry and professional poetry (that term sounds so weird). One of the students was a guy who tried to make his stanzas rhyme, but he wasn't very good at it. Besides, rhyming poetry was so nineteenth-century.

One day this student stood up and read a new poem, which indicated that he realized not everybody thought his poetry was good, but he thought it was good, and that's what mattered.

[This is a great portrait.]

Ms Wakoski was a quiet, tolerant woman, but evidently she had reached the end of her rope. She sighed, then quietly but clearly said, "This is what people who don't read poetry think poetry is like."

There was just like this thud in the room. The student had no reply, and I'm not sure he even realized the size of the cannonball that had just been fired into him.

I sat there stunned at Ms Wakoski's frankness, especially because the student was the only African-American in the class. I'd have expected her to go easy on him, in the spirit of affirmative action, or white-liberal guilt, or whatever you might call it.

That moment has stuck with me, as I'm frequently called on to critique the work of aspiring writers. Ms Wakoski's comment to that student was not constructive. It was dismissive. It was honest.
Telling the truth is important, but we can only tell the truth as we see it. And there, right there, we see the little shadow of relativism. If not everybody can agree on uniform standards of quality in art, does that mean all artistic products are equally good?

It does not.

While we can strive to give criticism constructively, all artists are, or should be, definers and defenders of standards. Admittedly it's an impossible task, and we can disagree on what those standards are, but by God we must know our own standards, and by double-God we must first and foremost hold ourselves firmly to them. Hopefully, as we grow and mature, our artistic standards get ever more refined.

In this dumbed-down world, is there anything more important?

[Image note: The Mona Lisa by ES]

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