Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Five Tips to Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist
...from a Poor, Wretched Fool Who Had to Learn the Hard Way.
The problem with should advice is that it’s either something you already know, i.e. your diet should include more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis -- or it’s something really difficult (like consuming more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis). So, based on my own stumbling, fumbling experience, I offer the following list of things I would strongly advise aspiring and despairing writers not to do. I doubt that simply by avoiding these pitfalls you will be guaranteed international fame and fortune, but I’m confident that you will at least escape many unnecessary frustrations and defeats, so that you can be fresh for the really poignant failures and setbacks that will either make or break you -- and with any luck will do a bit of both.
First Tip. Do not spend years gathering interesting material -- odd quotations, overheard remarks, colorful phrases, bits of trivia, weird statistics and obscure facts in the hope that you will one day find a story to contain them. I ended up with a literal warehouse of such stuff and I can tell you now with considerable confidence that the larvae of the human botfly bore into the skin and gorge themselves, emerging as centimeter long maggots, while a Joshua Hendy nine-thousand horsepower steam turbine delivers a cruising speed of 16 knots at 78 rpm. There is nothing wrong in knowing that if left underwater for years brass gives off a bright verdigris stain or that the first Birds of Paradise shipped back to Europe had their legs chopped off to facilitate packing, but the collection of details is like any acquisitive habit -- potentially obsessive. You can end up with a novel that reads like the Gospel according to St. Matthew translated into the Duke of York Island language and a response from the publishing industry reminiscent of a deserted poolroom on the shore of Sheepshead Bay. Put bluntly, burn your notebooks and clear your head.
Tip #2. Do not spend years experimenting with different forms of writing and various intellectual follies such as cut-ups and verbal collages, intricate multiple person narratives, dream stories, recipe books, anatomies, imaginary academic theses and the like. Yes, it’s true that some of the world’s most interesting literature has elements of these forms -- but that was then and this is different. If you are serious about getting a work of fiction published today you need quick sharp answers to the following questions. In what section of a bookstore or retailer’s website will your book be found? Which authors can your work be likened to? In three sentences or less what’s your novel about?
Tip #3. The Puritans believed in covering the body for modesty’s sake. Yet they developed a sexualized fascination for the ears of women and the noses of men. My point? (See Tip #1) In apparent restriction there is unexpected release. Dickens created over 800 individual characters and laid down some of the most intense cultural satire in English -- but his writing really came into focus when Wilkie Collins hipped him to the detective story. I struggled for years trying to find a form for my writing, flitting around like a Ulysses butterfly. The moment I gave myself permission to write an action/adventure story, things started falling into place. Modern art has provided artists with unparalleled and some might argue paralyzing freedom. Don’t waste time trying to create a new form. It’s given to very few people in any medium to do that -- and many of their achievements end up looking like legless Birds of Paradise later. A seemingly simple repetitive musical style like the Blues has proven capable of expressing the full spectrum of human experience and has inspired countless variations and mutations. Give yourself over to an established structure and follow its guidelines, and suddenly interesting points will emerge to surprise you.
Tip #4. Read your work aloud, to some willing victim ideally, but at least to yourself. Storytelling began as an oral form and the ear (however erotically appealing) has a trueness to it that will reveal what’s working and what’s not in a more immediate and decisive way than simply scanning the page. This discipline will also slow you down psychologically and bring you into more intimate contact with your story. In the end, it will take no more time than reading back a page silently.
Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more importantly, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ‘em.”
Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself -- unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around) -- unless you are willing to get lost, confused and even terrified -- then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable.
Copyright © 2005 Kris Saknussemm
Kris Saknussemm [author of Zanesville: a novel] grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but has for a long time lived abroad, in the Pacific Islands and Australia. A painter and sculptor as well as a writer, his fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Boston Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters and ZYZZYA.
Sunday, August 14, 2005
House of Dreams...
Grey stone walls and darkened ceiling
Empty rooms, an eerie feeling
Roof now open to the sky
Sheltered me in days gone by
Now Ivy grips its every wall
Where once it stood so proud and tall
It stands neglected and alone
A crumbling heap of slate and stone
How long ago, yet close it seems
I lived my childhood, dreamed my dreams
Not knowing then what lay ahead
How time has flown, how years have sped
Now old and worn, the house and I
Hold memories of days gone by
That time can’t fade or take away
My house of dreams, my yesterday...
Evelyn Tilley © 2005.
Saturday, August 06, 2005
'Words to the wise'...
What do we do to feel good now
How bad do we feel before we entertain decadence
In a store that masquerades as a village
Larger than a town that’s shanty
Shake hands with your neighbour? Mmm?
Sit down in a glass walled box with food from far away lands
Next to a conduit of water facing real estate
What's real about that estate, belongs to the man
Why does one smile when an robot approves your wealth
Only to fool you into believing with its automated stealth
Attaching status to a multinational acceptance
Acquiring grandeur through a plethora of plastic
We buy, we buy, goodbye to the melancholy
Wake up to the loss that was there previously
Doesn’t go away, no, loss lives in the shadows
And it can’t be paid off by capital one, two or three !
So I suggest what an old man said
When he was barely alive in his bronchial asthmatic bed
"You can smile at the sun and dance in the rain
Woo a lady with fine wine in southern regions of Spain"
But one thing you cant get these days and one thing that’s mine
Is some polish on a cloth to make old shoes shine
Stephen Monaghan © 2005.
'It's like what Neil said ....'
The absolute helpless sense of love I want to keep
As she lies in pain between awakening and sleep
Facially unaware, and not trying to appear concerned
The lessons oh the lessons that I have learned
How to feel as a part of something that I desire
I focus on technology yet always a glance to protect
Something that I have been able to connect
Funny how when the least of my expectations
Come along and make me ignore the plight of nations
And make me forget that I ever had a friend
But I don¹t want to be forgiven
As I know this will go on until the end
The light that will come in 8 hours time
Will shine on the resplendent beauty divine
But ownership is not mine, it’s an agreement that suits
As I reminisce about nerds in black moon boots
And there it is again the feeling of protecting
That resurrects my will to advocate respect and take direction
The signs in my head that point me here there and everywhere
Confuse a man that's easily scared, but wants not to run
He wants to stay and he craves the invitation
To belong and experience the hitherto denied sensation
It seems that a chance has been given
And previous mistakes have been forgiven
It’s not so hard as to find your soul
Residing in the head of the one that makes you whole
So I look above with no religious attachment
And ask someone that this may have commitment
Something that requires no effort nor pain
As I don't want to be hurt again
It’s as simple as that and as simple as this that the feeling I crave
Can be given with a kiss
And a look from the eyes
That are the only ones that I care to stare at
And don't worry my dear I can see the discomfort as you embrace the slumber
But I’ll carry the weight like a woodsman carries his lumber
And when the light shines through in the morning I'll be smiling as I am yawning
Thank-you for the smile that does not fake nor takes effort break
As the fact remains if I did not have my vision of you
Then I fear my heart would break
Stephen Monaghan © 2005.
Friday, August 05, 2005
The Astonished Man - Reading Blaise Cendrars...
Everybody needs a place to hide, it’s a natural instinct. We all need solace, away from everything - anything. It just so happens that I’m like most of you and six years ago my particular place of sanctuary happened to be the French Literature aisle in the library at the University of Sussex. There’s something extraordinarily wraithlike in losing oneself down a darkened aisle in a rather large library. I know this because I have done it often. And no, I wasn’t studying there. I was meant to be working and I sometimes did, but the drudgery, the sheer mindless Sisyphean banality of each working day would often outweigh my better judgement and force me to seek shelter away from each buffoonish panjandrum I encountered. And libraries are my first love, always have been always will be; I was a broken man.
Now, this aisle wasn’t chosen because of the tomes it contained but because it was in the deepest, darkest underbelly of the library; the light wasn’t working (it hadn’t been repaired for months) and for some unknown reason this gloomy aisle had fallen into some considerable neglect - inexplicably Sussex students just didn’t seem to care about Camus, Celine, Duras et al. It was fine by me, in fact, it was perfect. With rows of books towering above my ears and eyes, forming a protective cocoon, I was untouchable; and the very smell of them alone was enough to make me want to scream. But I didn’t. With as much reading material as I could muster it was, quite simply, heaven.
I remember the day quite clearly, it was overcast and raining; which shed an altogether melancholic, yet pleasing, hue over the library. I remember squinting whilst running my finger along a shelf as I walked happily towards my favourite kick-stool dreaming of escape and slumber, then suddenly stopping as its title caught my peripheral vision, my brain slowly twitched into gear: The Astonished Man
. The Astonished Man? What a truly wonderful title. B-l-a-i-s-e C-e-n-d-r-a-r-s. Blaise Cendrars? What a name. What a glorious name. This human being is surely a literary genius with a name like that? Arguably, I turned out to be right.
Reading Blaise Cendrars for the first time is like stepping into another universe. It really is. But did Blaise Cendrars actually exist in the first place? Born Frederic Louis Sauser in the provincial city La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland of a Swiss father and Scottish mother he always felt at odds with the world from the very start. The name was invented after travelling extensively in his youth and devising a poetic voice that transcended the current trends in Paris. In fact, a direct translation of the name Blaise Cendrars can be read as the first name from braise (embers) and the last from cendres (ashes) and this meaning was wholly intended. With a gratuitous placement of ars (art) thrown into the mix his name was complete. Fire is an important symbol repeated throughout his work and this idea of dancing on the burnt ashes of outmoded styles was concomitant to Blaise Cendrars centrifugal philosophy: be different and create anew. We’re talking about a man who, after running away from home at fifteen and at various intervals in his life, kept bees and sold their honey for a living, made films in brazil, wrote influential poetry (enough to make his peers weep long tears good-bye to their turgid, staid and stalled stanzas forever), shovelled coal on Chinese trains, cooked in cafés for the rich, played piano in picture houses, became a watchmaker, witnessed the Russian revolution in St Petersburg, travelled with drunken gypsies, lost an arm whilst fighting for the Foreign Legion in WWI, become an art critic (championing, amongst others, Picasso, the Cubists and Surrealists), amassed and lost vast fortunes in wealth, sailed the seven seas, had a column in a Hollywood newspaper and much, much more besides. Or so he would have you told.
When you look at a picture of Blaise Cendrars you look at a man that has lived. You look at the man John Dos Passos called a “son of Homer” - the whole face a labyrinth of wrinkles and carbuncles that make Bukowski and Auden look like suave catalogue models. When people first see portraits of Picasso they immediately speak of the eyes - with Blaise Cendrars it’s the whole face.
So what did I find so fascinating about that first encounter with Blaise Cendrars all those years ago, sitting alone with his bedraggled book, nobody had read, in my hands? The voice, it just had to be the voice, it hit me immediately. Press-ganged into his world without a second thought. Think an elongated world of surreal humour, deadpan caricature, heartbreaking melancholy and a virtuoso prose style matched by few - after all, this is the man who, allegedly, changed Apollinaire’s way of thinking. So what is The Astonished Man? Firstly it’s part of a tetralogy (although I didn’t know this sitting on my kick-stool reading when I should have been working) including three other titles: Lice, Planus and Sky. This tetralogy encompasses almost 1,000 pages in length. The scope of these works is quite staggering, involving subjects such as war, travellers, shadowy figures of the night, wastrels and scoundrels, vagabonds, fictional pimps, different countries and conflicting cultures; the earth, its fruits and passions, women and the universe. Secondly, it’s a memoir with a difference - the simple difference being it was written by Blaise Cendrars. Bare with me here, I’m not being flippant. As a writers’ writer Blaise Cendrars knew many, he also mixed with actors, filmmakers, poets, artists and aristocrats; yet none are mentioned in this so called memoir. In The Astonished Man Cendrars litters his narrative, not with the artists of his generation but with the gypsies he met on his travels, the pimps, the prostitutes, the thieves; he takes the reader from the First World War trenches across vast continents in sprawling, complex, sonorous sentences that lift the reader out of the humdrum.
Blaise Cendrars wrote against the grain in a style that preceded boorish Gonzo luminaries such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe a good thirty years or so. His reportage was assiduous, garrulous and inimitable, but above all poetic. Taciturn in nature with an honest voice (well as honest as the mythologizing Blaise Cendrars can be) that, somehow, manages to shine through the vainglorious bombast and braggadocio. Admittedly, this rather boastful book is quite difficult to absorb on first encounter, but, as in most of his books, the unique structure and prose style lift you away from such thoughts; you’re snatched in the blink of an eye, hoodwinked and bundled back for the remainder of his journey - like it or not.
Just as The Astonished Man broke the long silence in me, that of not having read him before, it was this very book which broke Blaise Cendrars’ own, self-imposed, silence whilst living and refusing to write in occupied France. In breaking his silence the book is deliberately loud - written by a man who could no longer contain himself. Cendrars embellishes fact with relish, exploring every possibility within his whole range to grapple with any willing reader. Plagiarism plays a role and we see a genuine love andfascination of reworking and reinventing the imagery and narrative of those before him, always subtly and tastefully. But, oh no, hold your horses folks, this isn’t lazy writing by Cendrars, this is a celebration, the new from the old, a literary hoax formed from one imagination to another. In this Cendrars honoured the creation of literature, the written word, the voice; he devoured this creation and created a glorious pomposity to accompany it - but above all he moved the creation of modern writing onwards. There is no hypocrisy in Blaise Cendrars’s plagiarism, just a refreshing honesty. In a famous letter to Robert Delaunay circa 1917 Cendrars tellingly writes:
“I don’t want to be part of a gang. I am not behind, as you say, but ahead.It all belongs to yesterday, not today. I will be visible tomorrow. Today, I’m working.”
During the writing of The Astonished Man Blaise Cendrars was, indeed, at work. He created a style of writing jam-packed with topsy-turvy celebration of life that, when read today, can seem showy and brash. I can’t begin to think what people made of him then and, yet, maybe this is the crux of his now lowly profile. Maybe we just don’t get him? Maybe this audacious blurring of fact and fiction is just too much for our realist, face-value-prose climate? But most probably, and I hold this to my heart, maybe we just haven’t caught up with old Blaise Cendrars yet? I hope we do, because once he’s in your warm grasp, wherever you may find him, whether it be the darkened aisle of you local library, an old aged second-hand bookshop or a brash, bright coffee-book-and go-conglomerate, he’s hard to let go.
And so, I may not work in that library anymore, and so what? Something tells me with Blaise Cendrars on my side I’m going to be just fine. It’s funny, I often wonder, to this day, if that aging copy of The Astonished Man is still forlornly sitting there where I left it, all those years ago, just waiting for another bored Library Assistant to absentmindedly wander along and pick it up. I hope they do.
Lee Rourke © 2005. [this essay was first published in The Beat
Thursday, August 04, 2005
riding waves of mysterious language in the house of a heart
threading made string things through many secret eyes of nets
catching fish tasting like the knowledge of the quintessential truth
talking, what talking...putting a hand between two trees,
just the Buddha’s opinion, stones in the grass
kokoro scripture, holding in nature
oneself waiting for the sun in a deep temple
the sound of trees under the sky,
going in straight lines as far as walking eyes could see
into the rustic ascetic country where people appear to be called
and when they speak, this compassion
all mouth power sees five shining substances
migrating clusters enveloped in clouds
crossing days in a sky that is hollow
all the whole and everything illuminated to redeem misfortune
cutting pain and suffering
blood frequently in trouble delivers an empty blazing void
but not emptiness, un-different
stay for the benefit of a child like this
colour circle side interest advantage other
a stop relic
name other words immediately and consider them to have the correct
colour of the sun
in the sky of the approved colour of the sky
spoken sound of the best consciousness taken red from a woman’s mouth
go back knowing feelings, change sense, heart confectionery, tree
activities, eye thoughts
get perception acquaintance, conceptions of discrimination
have an idea
various methods here
phenomena things characteristic of emptiness laws
look speak dharma
rule of earth
a French phase
fill in an aspect form, man
not not not not not not
pure ruin, a fire is born - impure and noble
get hungry scum
wear down dirt
measure and destroy clean breeds proliferating and diminishing
raw gain multiplying
defiled increase decreases
subside and rise pure lessons
therefore the late origin cannot be found
zero colour, missing a centre
nothing all through the nil sky
absence of loss, free from gain
the church has gone, without a middle
do not have a lack of being without
go to the base of old straight lines
the physical question of the touch of a blade
body opening, meat reason crying songs of the mind
notes of ones heart cause noise to look and doubt the feelings of a
emotion grounds ear beginnings, taste constitution, thought flavour,
aroma gossip, tongue spirit, eye scent, sound odour. appreciate a
persons fragrant nose smell
this is a din pivot
thou world circles between sight and sphere
namely, dhatu consciousness
that is, up to, until
vision faculty realms
and so on
a bright light exhausted, discernment grown old
the sun and moon ending elderly
used up death ignorance and the obvious passes away
write insight and run out aged
no clear knowledge, only answers
craving truth, causing annihilation
accumulation of paths and concentration of roads
by extinction and suffering gather like the origin of a carved tree
a collection of ways remain
cessation comes and stays together
looking into and around places of attainment
sharp-witted and old
a spot of profit, using, having, knowing nothing by means of
realizations gains and benefits of the intelligent sun, late in the
these words in one's hands
bodice of wisdom
a supreme display of the earth
dwell and rely here
due to, based upon, because
the deepest dependence possible
a trap set for obstruction hangs suspended
caught in a net
disturbing existence and hampering the mind
obstacles prevented from view
hinder not hindrance
fall from fear, separate sacred dreams and perverted possessions
black with dirt
inverted fantasy judged far from getting pleasure upside-down at the
frightened and believing daydreams
the summit of a water surface with no waves
the washtub of illusion awakened to being afraid of the ultimate
believe, enjoy and part from imagined thinking having upheavals
contend, compete, consider
the third generation of public things
practices awake the past
the world wisdom
deep perfection depends wholly
the shore most unsurpassed
enlightenment attained shame
therefore know this practice perfected no knowledge ought
big identical great gods of charm,
equivalent to the illumination of the most vivid shining heart
supreme and large, a bright curse of natural phenomena
up spelled mysteriously
lies have ripened
now capable of real empty truth
faithful false fruits
cut and thoroughly removed from the void
the sincerity of mistakes
suffering seeds become vain vacant nuts of futile facts
so, set forth and say
fly, hoist, soar
abandon, give up and universally clarify
gone to the other shore
beyond the beyond
*A note on the word "transplaition" - this is a neologism designed to convey a sense somewhere between 'transplant' and 'translation'. This word has been invented to rectify a perceived poverty in methods of conveying religious experience across languages. Therefore this word describes the practice of attempting to interpret a religious text non-literally whilst being informed by the spirit of the tradition that the given text has been encountered within. The above is a transplaition of what is known in Sanskrit as the prajna paramita, in Japanese as the hannya shingyo and has commonly been translated into English as the heart sutra.
Neil Cantwell 2005.
Tuesday, August 02, 2005
Golden light does more.
Evolve Through every moving pore,
And I'll do that
When this mountain moves
There, In five million years
At a pinch.
Might be rushing it.
Let's sit back and see how it goes:
This evolutionary super show.
Will Hone © 2005