Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category
I don’t always love his literature, but I love his individuality, his originality, his inexhaustible inventiveness, his arrant hatred of authoritarianism, his mad genius — Philip Kindred Dick (nom-de-guerres Richard Phillipps and Jack Dowland), philosophical novelist who bridged the science-fictional and the historical, drug-user, drug-abuser, paranoiac, self-described “acosmic panentheist,” twin brother to Jane Charlotte Dick, both born six weeks premature (December 16, 1928), Jane Charlotte Dick who died six weeks later and whom he would forever after in his stories call his “phantom twin,” Philip Kindred Dick, who twice won the coveted Hugo, who battled hallucinations and money all his life, and who, in his 1980 short-story collection The Golden Man, so touchingly said of fellow science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein:
Several years ago, when I was ill, Heinlein offered his help, anything he could do, and we had never met; he would phone me to cheer me up and see how I was doing. He wanted to buy me an electric typewriter, God bless him—one of the few true gentlemen in this world. I don’t agree with any ideas he puts forth in his writing, but that is neither here nor there. One time when I owed the IRS a lot of money and couldn’t raise it, Heinlein loaned the money to me. I think a great deal of him and his wife; I dedicated a book to them in appreciation. Robert Heinlein is a fine-looking man, very impressive and very military in stance; you can tell he has a military background, even to the haircut. He knows I’m a flipped-out freak and still he helped me and my wife when we were in trouble. That is the best in humanity, there; that is who and what I love.
Philip K. Dick — December 16, 1928 – March 2, 1982 — RIP.
Truman Streckfus Persons was Truman Capote’s real name.
The title Finnegans Wake contains no apostrophe in the word Finnegans. Thus Finnegans is a plural and Wake is a verb.
Issac Newtons’s father was illiterate.
Walt Whitman’s mother was illiterate.
Roald Dahl was an anti-semite.
Djuna Barnes had no formal education at all.
Edmund Wilson once proposed marriage to Djuna Barnes. Who declined.
Dostoevsky’s father was the resident physician at a hospital for the poor, but he treated his own serfs so abominably that they murdered him.
John Paul Sartre and Albert Schweitzer were cousins.
Christina Rossetti died a virgin.
“Keat’s piss-a-bed poetry,” Lord Byron called it.
H.G. Wells was an anti-semite.
Voltaire was illegitimate.
Evelyn Waugh was found dead on the bathroom floor.
Djuna Barnes was an anti-semite.
Three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide.
Tolstoy ranked Guy de Maupassant as second only to Victor Hugo as the greatest European writer of his day.
As an editor, T.S. Eliot rejected Animal Farm.Lionel Johnson died after falling off a barstool.
Tennyson was reading Cymbeline when he died. (His copy of the play was put into his coffin.)
Stephen Crane was the catcher on his Syracuse University baseball team.
Chekov was an anti-semite.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was bullied as child.
As was Percy Shelley. Who once went after his bullies with a pitchfork.
Ernest Hemingway was an anti-semite.
Mohammed was an anti-semite.
Immanuel Kant was an anti-semite.
W.B. Yeats was an anti-semite.
Being a successful reader of poetry on stage is not necessarily the same thing as being a writer of successful poetry. Said Anna Akhmatova.
Whose book of poems Requiem she memorized and did not write down for fear of the Russian Communist regime that would destroy her work.
“That man writes really too sloppily,” said James Joyce of D.H. Lawrence.
When Joseph Conrad was twenty-years-old, he tried to commit suicide over his gambling losses. In later life, he let people believe the bullet wound had come from a duel.
Zeno, famous for his paradoxes, hanged himself after breaking his toe. At age ninety.
“Rat-eyed” Virginia Woolf described Somerset Maugham as.
“No man ever put more of his heart and soul into the written word,” said Eudora Welty of William Faulkner.
“Curiously dull, furiously commonplace, and often meaningless,” Alfred Kazin said of William Faulkner.
“Hemingway never climbed out on a limb and never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary,” William Faulkner said of Ernest Hemingway.
In response to which Hemingway: “Does Faulkner really think big emotions come from big words?”“Dostoievsky’s profound, criminal, saintly face,” observed Thomas Mann, nicely.
“He wore a gray suit, black shoes, white shirt, tie and vest. His appearance never changed. He came down in the morning in his suit, and he would still be wearing it the last thing at night,” said John Huston of John Paul Sartre.
“Reedy and kind,” Truman Capote once described Albert Camus as.
“As a writer, he chews more than he bites off,” said Whistler of Henry James.
“An illiterate, underbred book,” Virginia Woolf called James Joyce’s Ulysses — which, however, she and her husband Leonard published nonetheless.
“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing,” said Oscar Wilde.
“An enormous dungheap,” Voltaire described the entire body of Shakespeare’s work as. And went on to call Shakespeare “An amiable barbarian.”
“You have written a good book,” Victor Hugo told Gustav Flaubert in a letter, regarding Madame Bovary.
“House of the Dead is Dostoievsky’s best book,” said Tolstoy.
“That’s not writing — it’s typing,” Truman Capote said of Kerouac’s On the Road.
“I find it impossible to take him seriously as a major writer and have never ceased to be amazed at the number of people who can,” said Edmund Wilson of Franz Kafka.
“A cursed, conceited, wily heathen,” said Martin Luther of Aristotle.
“He was a bum poet, of course, being a bum person,” Robert Graves said of D.H. Lawrence.
“I don’t understand them. To me, that’s not literature,” Cormac McCarthy said of Henry James and Marcel Proust.
“Like many of us he was rather disgusting, with his deliberate dirtiness, his myopia, his smell, his undying enmity for unfavorable reviewers, his stinginess, his coy greed for titles, money, and gowns,
his contempt for Cockneys and Americans, sallow, greasy, handsome …” said the poet Karl Shapiro of the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson.
“A damned good poet and a fair critic; but he can kiss my ass as a man,” Ernest Hemingway said of T.S. Eliot.
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, “and when there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
I confess I myself sometimes feel like that cuttlefish spurting out ink, but that’s perhaps beside the point. The quoted line is from a timeless essay George Orwell wrote in 1946 called “Politics and the English Language,” which essay, like George Orwell himself, influenced many writers, at least one of whom later went out of her way to deny any influence.
In his essay, George Orwell rather convincingly makes the surprising argument that there’s a direct and demonstrable link between politics and poor writing, between governments and the degeneration of language.
Because, says George Orwell, and I happen to agree, all issues are at root political issues, and “politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.”
His essay is a fascinating read — I can assure you not boring even to those uninterested in politics — and what one finds perhaps most striking about it is that it touches upon the profound connection that exists between thought and language, between the proper use of words and clarity in thinking.
Pretentious diction, dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, these are the cardinal sins he catalogs and condemns — “an accumulation of stale phrases chokes like tea leaves blocking a sink” — whereas, on the other hand, the scrupulous writer, in every sentence she or he writes, will ask four basic questions:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And then probably two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Generally I’m wary of the overly proscriptive, and this essay does have a little of that stench about it. Yet it’s so thoughtful and so well-written that it’s faults are easily overshadowed.
In 1948, after divorcing his second wife Gwyn, John Steinbeck fell into a funk during which he was able to write almost nothing, except a series of exceptional letters to his editor Pascal (“Pat”) Covici. Here’s a small sampling which I hope you find as life-affirming as I do:
September 19, 1948
You are right — I do get the horrors every now and then. Comes on like a cold wind. There it is, just a matter of weathering it. Alcohol doesn’t help that a bit. I usually go into the garden and work hard.
At that moment Ritch and Tal Lovejoy came in for a cup of coffee and then I watered the garden and here it is dusk. A very quiet Sunday and I’ve enjoyed it. My hands are literally tired from moving rocks. And it is a fine feeling.
It has been one of the dark days that I like very well — overcast and almost cold except that flowers like it and seem to be on fire in such a light. I think flowers’ colors are brighter here than any place on earth and I don’t know whether it is the light that makes them seem so or whether they really are.
I debated strongly about whether to dress and go out to dinner or whether to cook something and stay home in quiet and determined on the latter.
So I’ll close and send you more reports.
I got to reading Auden’s introduction to the Greek portable and it is very fine. He is such a good writer. Have you read Lady Godiva and Master Tom by Raoul Faure? A really blistering study of a woman.
I shall be going to Los Angeles with Kazan about the first of November and to Mexico soon after. Probably be gone for about a month. I have not worked on The Salinas Valley. I don’t want to now until everything is clear because I think I am about ready for it and I’m letting it stew. It would be bad if the whole conception turned out no good. But I’ll do it anyway. I am really looking forward to the doing of it, good or bad.
I miss Ed and I don’t all at the same time. It is a thing that is closed — that might possibly have been closing anyway. Who can tell? Great changes everywhere and every which way. I still get the panic aloneness but I can work that out by thinking of what it is. And it is simply the breaking of a habit which was painful in itself but we hold onto habits even when we don’t like them. A very senseless species. There is no future in us I’m afraid. I can hear the music beginning to turn in my head. And by the time the spring comes I hope I will be turning with it like a slow and sluggish dervish or some mushroom Simon Stylites, a fungus on a stone pillar.
The week I’ve put in planting — things I’ll probably never see flower – either because I won’t be here or I won’t be looking. I have no sense of permanence. This is way stopping-place, I think, as every other place is. I’ve made my tries at “places” and they don’t work. But this is a good way stopping-place and a good one to come back to — often.
I awakened the other night with a great sense of change happening somewhere. Could not sleep anymore and all night the sense of change, neither pleasant nor unpleasant but happening. It hung on for several days. Gradually my energy is coming back a little at a time. It is so strange that I could lose it so completely. One never knows what he will do ever.
Just now the rain started, very gentle and good. I hope it rains a long time. There has not been enough.
I’m sorry I was so closed in, in New York. But I realized more than any time in my whole life that there is nothing anyone can do. It’s something that has to be done alone. Even with women, and that’s good, there is largely no companionship except for a very little while.
This has been a long bleak day.
(Hat tip This Recording)
Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) wrote eighty-five novels in twenty years and made innumerable corrections and revisions in the proof sheets of each. This opus he called La Comedie Humaine — or The Human Comedy. Concerning his countless revisions, his first publisher — one Henri Latouche — said, none too politely:
“What the devil has gotten into you? Forget about the black mark under your mistress’s left tit, it’s only a beauty spot.”
Balzac made decent money from his literature but was extraordinarily extravagant, a chronic spender who because of his extravagance was hounded all his adult life by creditors. He never succeeded in divesting himself of debt — not even close — and it was largely for this reason that he wrote so much.
To hide from creditors, he registered under phony names and frequently changed his lodgings.
Bills still exist for Balzac’s order of fifty-eight pairs of gloves at one time, and there are extant bills of similar extravagance from his fashionable tailor and jeweler. Balzac was famous for his jeweled walking sticks, his red-leather upholstered study room, his busts of Napoleon (whom he loved), and many other things of a similarly luxurious nature.
In a letter from 1828, his publisher (and friend) Latouche also wrote:
You haven’t changed at all. You pick out the rue Cassini to live in and you are never there. Your heart clings to carpets, mahogany chests, sumptuously bound books, superfluous clothes and copper engravings. You chase through the whole of Paris in search of candelabra that will never shed their light on you, and yet you haven’t even got a few sous in your pockets that would enable you to visit a sick friend. Selling yourself to a carpet-maker for two years! You deserve to be put in Charenton lunatic asylum.
It is more than a little remarkable, then, to discover that in the midst of all this spending Balzac was still able to find time to write for sixteen hours per day.
Here is Balzac’s own fascinating description, penned in March of 1833, of his relentless writing routine:
I go to bed at six or seven in the evening, like the chickens; I’m waked at one o’clock in the morning, and I work until eight; at eight I sleep again for an hour and a half; then I take a little something, a cup of black coffee, and go back into my harness until four. I receive guests, I take a bath, and I go out, and after dinner I go to bed. I’ll have to lead this life for some months, not to let myself be snowed under by my debts.
He was, he said, “driven by the terrible demon of work, seeking words out of the silence, ideas out of the night,” and for this priest-like task he dressed accordingly in Moroccan slippers and a notorious white monkish robe with a belt of Venetian gold from which hung a pair of scissors and a golden penknife.
Honore de Balzac, perhaps not a great writer, but undoubtedly one of the world’s most prolific, RIP.
Under threat of arrest during the Reign of Terror, the French writer Nicolas Chamfort (1741 — 1794) shot himself in the head and slit his own throat. Then died of pneumonia while recovering in his bed.
Whereas Lavoisier was guillotined in the Reign of Terror.
“A good book is twice as good if it’s short.” Said Baltasar Gracian.
On August 24, 1847, Charlotte Bronte, writing under a pseudonym Currer Bell, mailed off her unsolicited manuscript Jane Eyre to a London publisher — and saw it in print seven weeks later.
Franz Kafka was a vegetarian.
Balzac, who was five-foot-one, wrote over 2000 characters into his Comedie Humaine.
Saul of Tarsus — AKA Saint Paul — probably participated in the stoning of Saint Stephen.
Tarsus is where Cleopatra arrives on her barge to meet Mark Antony, on the river Cydnus, in Turkey.
Thackery convinced himself that Desdemona did actually have an affair with Cassio.
T.S. Eliot’s first wife Vivian insisted upon washing her own bedsheets, even when staying at a hotel.
There is no description of Helen’s beauty anywhere in the Iliad.
“The Little Marcel” — Proust was called, all his life.
“Do you think up that material when you’re drunk?” asked William Faulkner’s cousin.
“No great talent has ever existed without a tinge of madness,” Seneca said Aristotle said.
One of Robert Frost’s daughters went insane. One of his son’s committed suicide.
“Life consists of what a [wo]man is thinking of all day,” said Emerson.
Salvardo Dali once gave a lecture in London while wearing a diving helmut. And nearly suffocated as a result.
“He alters and retouches the same phrases incessantly, and paces up and down like a madman,” reported a pupil of Chopin’s.
“Through the dim purple air of Dante fly those who have stained the world with the beauty of their sin,” wrote Oscar Wilde.
Captain Ahab is a Quaker.
Anton Chekhov answered that question this way:
You could write a story about this ashtray, and a man and a woman. The man and the woman are always the two poles of your story. The North Pole and the South. Every story has these two poles — a he and she.
The late Raymond Carver, who worshiped at the shrine of Anton Chekhov, undertook Chekhov’s challenge, and here’s what Ray Carver came up with:
They’re alone at the kitchen table in her friend’s
apartment. They’ll be alone for another hour, and then
her friend will be back. Outside, it’s raining -
the rain coming down like needles, melting last week’s
snow. They’re smoking and using the ashtray. . . Maybe
just one of them is smoking . . . He’s smoking! Never
mind. Anyway, the ashtray is filling up with
cigarettes and ashes.
She’s ready to break into tears at any minute.
To plead with him, in fact, though she’s proud
And has never asked for anything in her life.
He sees what’s coming, recognizes the signs -
a catch in her voice as she brings her fingers
to her locket, the one her mother left her.
He pushes back his chair, gets up, goes over to
the window . . . He wishes it were tomorrow and he
were at the races. He wishes he was out walking,
using his umbrella . . . He strokes his mustache
and wishes he were anywhere except here. But
he doesn’t have and choice in the matter. He’s got
to put a good face on this for everybody’s sake.
God knows, he never meant for things to come
to this. But it’s sink or swim now. A wrong
move and he stands to lose her friend, too.
Her breathing slows. She watches him but
doesn’t say anything. She knows, or thinks she
knows, where this is leading. She passes a hand
over her eyes, leans forward and puts her head
in her hands. She’s done this a few times
before, but has no idea it’s something
that drives him wild. He looks away and grinds
his teeth. He lights a cigarette, shakes out
the match, stands a minute longer at the window.
Then walks back to the table and sits
down with a sigh. He drops the match in the ashtray.
She reaches for his hand, and he lets her
take it. Why not? Where’s the harm?
Let her. His mind’s made up. She covers his
fingers with kisses, tears fall on to his wrist.
He draws on his cigarette and looks at her
as a man would look indifferently on
a cloud, a tree, or a field of oats at sunset.
He narrows his eyes against the smoke. From time
to time he uses the ashtray as he waits
for her to finish weeping.
The first thing you’ll no doubt have noticed about this piece is that it’s well written and poignant.
The second thing you’ll have noticed is that it’s not so much a story as it is a poem — specifically, a narrative poem. I chose it here, along with Chekhov’s semi-famous quote, because it illustrates an important point: namely, conflict is the crux of storytelling.
If you don’t have a sufficiently complicated conflict, you won’t have enough material for a story. That, I believe, is what happened here.
Chekhov’s suggestion — which is his version of what we call a Situation — isn’t complex enough to build a story upon. One would need more adversity — more obstacle — to launch a truly compelling story.
Plots derive from characters under adversity.
But it’s important to emphasize that adversity need not be expressed in terms of pure physical action. Adversity means conflict. That conflict can be psychological, emotional, physical, or all three.
Here is an example of how we might improve Chekhov’s situation:
You could write a story about this ashtray, which is heart-shaped and has a hairline crack down the center, and a man and a woman, who does not love the man, though she’s married to him, and though he loves her …
There’s a game that certain writers like to play, and it’s not called Hide-The-Salami (although that game is popular among certain writers as well, myself perhaps foremost among them). In the game I’m talking about, someone — anyone — comes up with a random list of words or components, and the writer is then asked to create a story using these words. For example:
A knife, a monk, an abandoned building, a beautiful woman, a strange light, a handwritten letter, a bloodstain.
For many writers — even experienced writers — the immediate temptation here is to cram all these elements into the very beginning, so that the mission is accomplished.
“In the abandoned building, illuminated by a strange light, a beautiful woman with a bloodstain on her blouse held a knife to a monk’s throat. The monk did not look at her but stared down at a handwritten letter, which the beautiful woman could not see.”
Almost invariably what ends up happening next is that the writer panics a little over where the story is going to go from there, and thus the writer begins to create more and ever more characters, and to add to the increasing complexity, until by the end of the game, the writer cannot keep everything she’s devised in her head. The new ideas, which in and of themselves may be perfectly sound, spin out of control, and the story loses cohesiveness.
The most edifying aspect of this game is streamlining.
What some writers who play this game have learned is that it’s best to sprinkle the elements all throughout the story.
A compelling story can be told with relatively few elements provided the writer creates a believable Situation, with a compelling conflict. Conflict is at the heart of storytelling, and plots, let us never forget, derive from characters under adversity.