Posts Tagged ‘literature’
Bartending, which, for better or worse, consumes a great deal of my time, is a subject that evidently intrigues people to no end — judging, at least, from the sheer number of questions I get on the matter — and often I’m asked: Ray, why bartending?
The answer is my love of literature, which I felt bartending would best facilitate.
Years ago, when I resolved to be a writer, I very consciously chose bartending as my occupation. There have been other jobs, of course, many, many other jobs, but bartending is the one I’ve always come back to — in part because the money is good, in part also because bartending does, I think, lend itself to the literary lifestyle.
Still, many people out there, who only know me through my books, apparently don’t believe that I actually am a bartender. This question, in fact, refuses to die, I’m not sure why.
Here’s some real-life footage (taken by Levi Thornton) of me at the jazz lounge where I work (music actual, amateur video-editing my own, thanks for watching):
Words have a definite meaning. That is the first point every writer must address (though of course not every writer answers that question as I just have).
In fact, it’s become fashionable to say that language is arbitrary, and definitions are, at best, approximations. Indeed, many writers accept these tenets without even realizing that they’ve accepted them and without any regard for the fact that it’s not actually possible to write clearly unless you know the meaning of the words you’re using.
If you don’t know the meaning of the words you’re using, your writing will be unclear, and readers will not grasp your intent.
Clarity is the number one priority in all issues of writing style.
It is certainly true that language evolves, and that words develop new nuances and new meanings. This is natural and it is good.
This natural process does not, however, negate objectivity, but just the opposite: the evolutionary process of language is gradual, so that at any given period, the words you’re using do possess a definite meaning.
If a word does not possess a definite meaning, it’s a non-word (and there are examples of these: “postmodernism” being one of them).
What I’ve just described is the place from which every writer must proceed: Words possess a definite meaning. That is the beginning. This point is critical to note, because it’s the foundation upon which the rest of all literary knowledge is built.
But to fully understand the nature of words, we must ask ourselves next: what are words, exactly?
Words are what philosophers call abstractions. Abstractions are the human method of grasping things in nature. Our brains work by means of abstractions — i.e. concepts — which are, in essence, words.
For instance, when as a child you first discovered the meaning of the word “pencil,” you had to at some point be shown what in actuality a pencil is — i.e. this object. Once you learned that that’s what the word “pencil” referred to, the word was absorbed and retained by your brain, so that thereafter when you heard or saw the word “pencil,” you knew automatically what a pencil was. You grasped the actual thing in reality that is a pencil, and that knowledge paved the way for you to differentiate it from, for example, a pen, or a crayon.
That, in a nutshell, is the uniquely human method of learning, which language empowers us with.
Thus you yourself learned to use the word pencil in a meaningful way: The sentence “I write with a pencil” became for your mind not an unintelligible string of words, but denoted an act that you understood.
That very process which I’ve just described is, in abbreviated form, the process we all must go through in learning every single word we know.
The art of writing is this same process in more intensive form.
Why, though, is this important?
Art by definition is communication — communication between the artist and the audience. If it’s not communicable, it’s not art.
If in your literature you reject the notion that language is definite, you will not only confuse and frustrate your readers, but worse: you will confuse and frustrate yourself, because you won’t know the meaning of the things you’re trying to communicate.
And that is why intelligibility is the hallmark of quality art.
Poetry is a subset of literature, the art form of language, but it also legitimately belongs to another art: music.
Poetry is rhyme and rhythm, cadence and count, meter and metric. Poetry is prosody. It is scansion. It is versification. Those are the elements of poetry that make it a part of the musical.
But poetry is primarily a branch of literature, and the two main elements of poetry are style and theme. (Note: There is such a thing as narrative poetry, which is poetry that tells a story, but those two elements — storytelling and verse — combine poorly.)
It’s important to point out that the word “poetry” is not synonymous with the word “poem.”
Poetry is general; poems are specific.
All poems are in theory poetic, but not all poetry is a poem.
Novels, essays, memoirs, chronicles, short stories, and virtually every other form of prose can be poetic. For example, “The multitudinous seas incarnadine” is poetic, but it’s not a poem.
A poem, by definition, is a self-contained piece, of varying length, with a certain meter, rhythm, and style, all of which combine to convey a theme. A poem can rhyme or not.
The definition of poetry, on the other hand, has confounded writers and philosophers for centuries. Leo Tolstoy captured this well when he wrote:
Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.
But even “business documents and school books” could — at least, in theory — be poetic.
So what is poetry?
Poetry is style: stylized language.
Poetry is concentrated speech. It is density of expression.
Poetry is language at its best.
Poetry is writer’s writing.
Poetry is not, contrary to popular belief, pretentious or flowery language — or, at any rate, good poetry is not.
Poetry is technique. Poetry is skill. Poetry is metaphor.
Poetry is the beauty of language.
Characterization is a presentation of the personality of the people who populate a story.
Characterization is primarily a depiction of motivation and motive. The reader must understand what makes the characters act in the way that those characters do.
It’s been said that one of the truest tests of good literature is when you can discuss the characters as if those characters are actual people: when you can psychologize over them, talk about their strengths, their gifts, their shortcomings, their personalities, their deeds, all as if these people are real.
To create such a character — which is to say, to create a truly convincing character — the writer must first understand what motivates the people he or she is creating. By that I mean, the writer must have a fully formed idea of what the character’s premises and personality are. After which, by means of the plot (i.e. the action, which includes each passage of dialogue), you proceed to present the character’s motives and (in turn) their personalities.
Know what motivates your characters.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest living admirers (and arguably the world’s best-read human being), the critic Harold Bloom (not to be confused, as he so often is, with that hack Howard Bloom), honestly believes that in creating so many convincing characters, Shakespeare went far in creating our modern-day conception of humanity itself. It is an incredible statement, and yet I, for one, won’t argue it. In Harold Bloom’s own words:
“Shakespeare, who at the least changed our ways of presenting human nature, if not human nature itself, does not portray himself anywhere in his plays.”
Even more interestingly, perhaps, Mr. Bloom goes on to say this:
If I could question any dead author, it would be Shakespeare, and I would not waste my seconds by asking the identity of the Dark Lady or the precisely nuanced elements of homoeroticism in the relationship with Southhampton (or another). Naively, I would blurt out: did it comfort you to have fashioned woman and men more real than living men and women? (Harold Bloom, Genius, p. 18).
Stories are important because human beings are conceptual.
This among other things means that humans survive by use of their reasoning brains.
Humans evolved neither the balls of bulls, nor the trunks of elephants, nor the claws of bears, nor the necks of giraffes, but the brains of Homo sapiens, with a capacity to think.
And we think by means of abstractions.
Thus, stories (as with all other proper forms of art) concretize our abstractions.
“The function of art is to recreate, from the rough material of actual existence, a new world that will be more marvelous, more enduring, and more true than the world that common eyes look upon.”
Said Oscar Wilde.
Art starts with an abstraction, such as jealousy, and, in an artistic work like Othello, shows us how in human life jealousy manifests.
Jealousy is the abstraction. How Shakespeare dramatized it is his play is the concrete.
The degree to which a story (or any other artistic creation) persuades or seems plausible is the degree to which it is good or bad.
Painting and drawing perform the same function as Othello but in a purely visual manner.
Sculpture does so by visual-tactile means.
Music — which is unique among the arts — captures emotional abstractions, via sound, so that when you hear music, you feel yourself perhaps excited, or melancholic, or thoughtful, or sexy.
To qualify as a legitimate art form, the medium must have the power to convey ideas (i.e. abstractions) in a perceptual form — which is to say immediately.
This is why culinary art is not, in the true sense, an actual art but a skill: the best foie gras in the world cannot convey even the simplest human abstraction, let alone something as complex as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And the same thing is true of sewing, gem-cutting, carpentry, and many, many other difficult skills and trades as well. They don’t qualify as actual art, valuable and important as they may be, simply because they don’t have the power to capture or convey a wide range of abstract meaning. They cannot, in other words, objectify reality through their medium.
That is what art does. It objectifies the human experience. That is why art is a necessity.
To truly qualify as art, the medium must be able to reproduce nature and then infuse that data with conceptual content.
Abstractions, as previously stated, are thoughts — or, to put that more precisely, abstractions are the human way of grasping reality. We do this by means of thought. And we think by means of words.
Art assists in this. Which is why, philosophically speaking, esthetics is a sub-branch of epistemology: the science of thought.
Stories recast reality and show us our abstractions made solid. In this way, stories enhance reality, as all art does.
It is, paradoxically, artists themselves who are among the most inarticulate when it comes to explaining the nature and function of their art, and so to get beyond their artsy mumbo-jumbo so that we can see at last what gives rise to art, we needn’t listen to the artists and the critics but instead observe how the artistic drive develops in children.
Observe the stories that children write. Observe what the child with that big stick of sidewalk-chalk draws upon the concrete:
A large yellow crescent with blue stars around it.
A white house in a green field.
A blazing sun over black mountains.
Ask yourself: what drives the child to make those drawings. What drives the child to tell those stories? What is that child thinking about that makes her want to set it down in concrete form? What dictates her subject-matter? Why did she choose this and not that?
What, in short, is the child doing? And what is that process doing for her?
Why did prehistoric humans paint animals and hunting scenes upon cave walls? What drove that urge? Why did they tell stories? Why did these men and women choose the subjects they chose? And what did those stories and paintings fulfill within them?
Why have humans always invented stories?
Why have humans always enjoyed listening to those stories, or seeing them played out?
Why the human invention of musical instruments?
Why did David “dance with all his might before the lord”?
What need is being fulfilled in all this?
The answer to these questions is the same:
Each one of those things, through whichever medium, captures the abstract and makes it real and immediate.
Humans — the rational animal — need this because our rational mind operates in the opposite manner: it is thoughtful, it is inductive, it is long-range. Art brings the entirety of the universe into our immediate perceptual ken.
Art makes the conceptual perceptual.
That is why stories are important.
There is no mood or passion that art cannot give us…. Art is mind expressing itself under the conditions of matter, and thus, even in the lowliest of her manifestations, she speaks to both sense and soul alike…. It is through art, and only through art, that we can realize our perfection; through art, and through art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence…. Like Aristotle, like Goethe after he had read Kant, we desire the concrete, and nothing but the concrete can satisfy us.
– Oscar Wilde
This issue, which is very closely associated with plot, is called suspense.
Suspense is when your eyes are nailed to the screen. It’s when you’re coming out of your seat. It’s when you cannot stop turning pages, and you’re grinding your teeth without knowing it.
To create suspense, you first of all must create characters who are convincing, and you must do so by means of a convincing situation.
The Situation is the essence of your story’s conflict:
He loves her who loves another, but she must marry him nevertheless in order to save the man she truly loves.
That is a situation.
If you have convincing characters and a sufficiently complex situation, suspense can be built by then letting readers glimpse your overall purpose.
I emphasize glimpse here because you mustn’t ever completely give away your whole purpose, which is like giving away an ending, and yet also you must not hold back too much, or your story will seem like (or perhaps actually be) a haphazard collection of random events.
A storyteller must strike a balance: too much information will kill suspense. Too little information will create boredom.
Little by little, let your readers in (a little) on what you’re doing. If your characters are good and if your storyline is interesting, you’ll then — and only then — have those readers hooked.
Parcel out your information piece-by-piece, in such a way that your readers will feel a sense of anticipation over what happens next.
Think of the last time a book or movie had you riveted. Analyze how that came about. You’ll see that the reason you felt this way is that through capable plotting — which is to say, a complicated situation — the storyteller created characters whom you cared about and that storyteller let you in little-by-little on her purpose.
The storyteller fed you information at just the right pace to keep you eating out the palm of her hand.
A professional writer I once knew told me that every story he writes, he begins not with a plot-line (too vague, he said) but with what he called “a line of anticipation.” By that he meant he came up with a line of events that would make people nervous.
Reader, make your readers nervous.
If you can make readers nervous, you can write a successful story.
Plot is a vehicle. It is the method by which you present your story.
Plot is a purposeful sequence of events. In a well-plotted story, those events will connect logically, culminating in a specific goal, or climax.
“Life is an unceasing sequence of individual actions.”
Said Ludwig von Mises.
That is true. Plot is similar, but plot is selective in the actions presented. And the author is the selector.
Plot is purpose, and for this reason plot requires adversity and obstruction — it requires struggles and obstacles of some sort. And why does plot require this? Because it is only by means of such things that characters can be presented and developed interestingly.
Plot is drama, and drama is what holds the reader’s interest. It is in turn only by means of such things as characters that a theme — which is the essence of a story’s meaning — can be portrayed.
As the late Kurt Vonnegut said:
“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.”
Plot is not action alone. It is not random events. Neither is it a series of conversations (even if those conversations are in and of themselves interesting), and it is not a catalog of day-to-day or minute-by-minute activities.
Novels are by definition about human action. If, therefore, the subject of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, it is not a successful story.
Within this framework, there are degrees of plot-versus-plotlessness. Thus, of a story that has a sequence of actions that aren’t motivated by purposeful action but rather by accidents, it is appropriate to call this a plotless story. But of a story that has a sequence of events which does progress purposely, or even semi-purposely, and yet which is resolved by pure chance — or if there are actions unrelated to the storyline — it is likewise appropriate to call this a plotted but poorly plotted story.
To dismiss plot because it is invented, or to describe plot as an unnecessary contrivance, as many do, is like dismissing chess rules as an unnecessary contrivance and yet trying to play chess without them.
Plots are invented because humans need to see human life in compendiated, encapsulated form. That, incidentally, is the function of art — all art — and that is why plots are the indispensable device of storytelling: because they encapsulate, via the writer’s selection of events, the human experience.