Archive for January, 2012
I think there is a certain amount of ego or arrogance involved in writing. Somewhere, in the dusty catacombs that are a writer’s mind, there is a glimmer of a sliver of hope that something that we writer might stand the test of time, or may still be a topic of conversation, or something that might be rediscovered long after our bodies are dust… I know that, personally, there’s at least of sliver of that in the hopes that I can leave something behind that future generations of my family might be able to look at and enjoy, and maybe get a sense of my oddities and interests.
But it’s a system built on faults, as Scalzi happens to hint at yesterday.
If you’re a writer, this might depress you. If the best-selling books of 1912 are largely forgotten, what chance do your books have in 2012, especially if they don’t scale the heights of sales these books have? Surprise! Probably little. I mean, it’s certainly possible they will survive: Neither Theodore Dreiser nor Sherwood Anderson got near the year-end bestseller lists between 1910 and 1919, but they are still taught and discussed, and in their way influence literature today. But, yeah. Don’t count on it.
While I think it’s something that has always nagged at me, but nothing I had really given too much thought about. And I’m a guy with a *ahem* English degree. But I am also a guy who, on the way to said English degree, had to retake one of the required British Literature survey courses (the memory of which horrible tests are designed to assess). Pride and Prejudice was a horrible experience for me when it was required reading in my 9th grade English class. “Classics” and I never really got along, likely because it was so old. Not that the value of works diminish with age, not hardly, but the longer they are around than the better stories they are likely to be. Like fairy tales. But the lack of connection I think had to do with how much the cultures have shifted, so that the dialogue constructs and social roles and manners, things that were the social norms for the times the original works were written don’t match up with the way the world works now.
Sometimes, it takes some aging to usher in the chance for appreciation. For example, I’ve always been a minor Sherlock Holmes fan. I had a paperback copy that was a collection of six or seven Holmes stories (one of those Scholastic book sale editions from elementary school) when I was younger – it’s probably still on one of my shelves. In late middle to early high school, though, I endeavored to begin exploring the Holmes cannon – we’ll stick it around 1990, for perspective. I checked out the ginormous omnibus edition from the local library – red cover, pages split in double columns like a newspaper, and periodic artistic renderings. It may have even been a collection designed to imitate the appearance of the original stories, come to think about it. At the end of the few weeks, it went back to the library with barely a dozen pages read. Today, I am working my way through a copy of the same basic material (split into two volumes instead of one) and am over 300 pages through the first volume (out of about 800 and change).
But I am reading it as a writer looking, under the hood, as it were, at how the stories were built, and the characters portrayed. All of the ephemera that is invalid now (period social context, police procedures, etc.) I can partially dismiss because they are details that have changed with time. Readers back in the day would have the inherent social understanding based on a few details that are hinted at – or, if they were living in London, may have known exactly where Doyle was writing about. I am looking at it from a different culture, several generations removed.
It’s the culture that shifts, and tries to reapply meaning to older works, not the works inherent merit or the author efforts to keep a work alive. People get huffy over Huckleberry Finn due to one particular word that is used aplenty – but they are looking at it through the lens of today’s culture instead of seeing it as a work that is set pre-Civil War. The use of that one word wasn’t what made it a controversial book when it was published – it’s the fact that Huck Finn “would rather risk eternal damnation by helping a runaway slave intend of turning him in.” Which gets to the other nail Scalzi hammers home.
If you must aim for relevance, try for being relevant now; it’s a context you understand. We can still read (and do read) Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dickinson, and I think it’s worth noting Shakespeare was busy trying to pack in the groundlings today, Cervantes was writing in no small part to criticize a then-currently popular form of fiction, and Dickinson was barely even publishing at all, i.e., not really caring about future readers. In other words, they were focused on their now. It’s not a bad focus for anyone.
Continuing the Finn example, the book was originally out 1884, only twenty years out of the Civil War, and only a few years removed from Reconstruction. Sherlock Holmes is largely considered Victorian (debut in 1887), and was an experiment to fill the time while waiting for his medical practice business to pick up.
Which goes back to the regular question of, “Why do you write?” Inevitably, the unspoken truth may come down to writing for the thrill of the story – if it connects with others, or people want to give me money for it, great! – but we write because there is a story there that excites us, that pulls us along, begging to be put down on a page.
And if the story outlasts us, even better, otherwise we get to enjoy the flash and heat of the moment, one more thing to look back and be happy we have done before calling it a life.
I mentioned on Friday about how nice the future is, and I referenced being listening to music from Australia… an Australian band to be specific. At least, to discover them. Years ago, when the whole “Rockstar” concept show was running (I liked the first “season” when it was used to find a new lead singer for INXS, and actually got the album), I tuned in to the second “season” when they were trying to form a band “Supernova.” One of the singers that I picked up on was an Aussie guy, Toby Rand, especially in the week where the singers had to do an original song. Soon after that episode, I was able to find a version on the Internet, and have had it as a staple in my library ever since.
When Toby didn’t make the cut for Supernova, he went back to Australia and his band Juke Kartel (if you follow the link, a word of caution: the page has an audio player embedded so check the sound level on your speakers). Definitely one to check out, and a group I wouldn’t object to seeing live.
For this week, though, here’s two versions of the song – the Rockstar performance (complete with judge responses), and a JK version recorded last year.
Scalzi posted this last night, and I read it while eating dinner, and it got me thinking…
The (distilled) questions that were posed are:
When may you call yourself a writer? When may you call yourself a professional writer? When may you say you are a good writer?
The spirit of the questions, I think, hints towards prose writing (and Scalzi’s answers lends themselves more towards his fiction writing), but there are lots of “professional writers” in various media sources besides prose fiction. The distinction ultimately falls on the line of what the desired results are: thoughtful, coherent communication of ideas and events (reporting), or the thoughtful, coherent communication of a fictional narrative experience, aka: storytelling. The distinction between the two can be very fuzzy (hence we now have Creative Nonfiction), and while the core structural abilities are the same, the produced outcomes aren’t. One can be a good writer (technically) but a not-so-good storyteller.
The highlights, though, in case you decide not to follow the link above (for shame)…
(Question 1): A writer, on the other hand, chooses written words, and chooses them not just for mechanical and practical reasons, but for (or also for) esthetic and artistic purposes. Writerswant to write, rather than have to write. In presenting an idea, the medium they intend for it to be in is the written word.
(Question 3): When you are in control of your instrument. In the case of fiction in particular, this means having the ability to make your reader have the emotional response you intended for them to have, when you set down to write. To put it another way, when a competent writer tells you a story, you know what happened. When a good writer tells you a story, you feel it happen to you.
You’ll know when you’re a good writer when your craft is good enough that you don’t worry about whether you can do what you want to do with your writing, and instead you wonder about how you’re going to do it. You probably won’t notice the first time this happens. When you do notice it, it probably won’t be a big deal. You’ll be more focused on the writing.
At which point comes the self-assessment, and why it got me thinking last night. I am a good writer (in the technical sense) – my sentences are fine. Even with a few punctuation issues (darned commas!) my grammar makes sense. I know how to proof for spellings and complete thoughts. I’ve been told by instructors that when I’ve turned stories in they know the mechanics are something they won’t need to worry about. For me, it’s all about the storytelling. I think I am an okay storyteller (on paper) – definitely “competent with flashes of good” – but it is definitely my weaker skill of the two. I think the ideas are there, but have yet to be coaxed into being, something that should come with a lot more time spent spilling thoughts onto the page. But through getting the Masters – by the stories I chose to write – I’ve found myself moving more from the “Can I…?” to “How will I…?” state of mind.
I say this as someone who has only began begun focusing on wanting to be a prose writer (storyteller) in the past four years. To channel Heinlein, I’m still working on my first million words of prose. Hopefully I’ll be a better storyteller by the time I get there, and maybe I can have “flashes of great.”
Still working on the “Honey-Do” list, but I do have some things I want to reference later.
How have you been spending your weekend?
Yeap… they all involve working on projects around the house, both on self-inflicted and “spouse suggested” honey-do items, so I may pop on later today, but right now… I’ve got work to do.
Allow me a moment to pull a Wheaton, and do something I’ve been meaning to for a while: agree with him on how much I like and appreciate living in the future. And I make the reference because I have seen him post more than once on his blog about it, so there.
Because here, in the future (with a free, accessible internet!) it is possible to be in touch with friends that you may not have seen in years (due to geographical requirements – jobs can take you some of the darnedest places), in the matter of minutes, even by video chat if post parties are so inclined.
Because, here in the future, we can take virtual tours of (some) places, and see street level pictures of locations we may be thinking of traveling to (so we can get our bearings quicker upon arrival).
Because here, in the future, it is possible to carry hundreds of books, hundreds of songs and hours of video on something that weighs as much as a paperback.
Because, in the future, it is possible for me to drive on American roads in my British built car (that uses German parts), cranking out music from artists from parts of the world much farther than the US South (such locations as Britain, Scotland, Canada, and Australia spring to mind), and I can discover more if I only flick a switch, jiggle a mouse and type a few words.
Because, frankly, the future is awesome.
Scalzi mentioned them the other day in a post, which got me thinking… it’s that time of year already?
I’ve not got any significant input or reflections on any of the selections, since my film intake from 2011 is woefully underprepared for any such endeavor. I will, however, be perfectly frank about some of the ones that I wanted to see that did make the cut.
My (again, uniformed) choice for best picture would go to Moneyball… it’s the one movie on the list that I really would have liked to have seen in the theater. War Horse would be a second (for theater viewing) tied with The Help just to see the adaptation. Interesting, though, to see The Help get a Best Picture nod but no Adapted Screenplay. On the outside, The Artist looks interesting simply from the aesthetic angle.
Skipping the Actors and Actresses, simply from the wealth of talent (and previous nominations), my thoughts and partiality are based on an existing cannon (hence my preference for Branagh or Plummer for supporting actor). And skipping most of the technical categories, I’ll drop down to the writing.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I noticed as a book before realizing there was a movie coming out (maybe it was due to tie-in publicity, couldn’t tell you other than I had recognition for the trailers from seeing the book), and Moneyball I saw was based on a true story, but didn’t realize it was based on a 2003 book. While I haven’t seen it, the over the top nature that I think is in Bridesmaids makes it a possible underdog that I can see sneaking up on the party… or just waiting for the after parties to get started.
I’ve found that, while I can appreciate many of the past Best Picture winners, it’s much more interesting to look at the Best Screenplay nominees (both Adapted and Original) as a writer. Those are the stories that have made it to one of the writing mountaintops – an Oscar nod. And they can be such interesting stories…