Thursday, August 14, 2008

Go ahead, just write it!

Do you know what a writer is, really? You might laugh, and you might not believe me, but a writer is just someone who writes. Now, you have a little more cache if you complete the things you're writing, and even more if other people read them, but at the end of the day it's all pretty much the same. The differences between (as far as writing goes) you and Hemingway, or Dickens, or your writing professor, or me, are far smaller than our similarities. It starts in the brain and it goes to the page, and you're a writer. That's that. And someone will like it (you at least, I hope) and others, few or many, will hate it, and still others won't care at all. You wouldn't believe how many people I hear say "I wish I could be a writer." as if there's some magic to it. Just write. Start it, finish it, rewrite it until you're satisfied with it, and be damned everyone else. Now, I'm leaving on vacation. Hopefully I'll score some surf, and when I come back I'm going to finish another short story and start on my second novel.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

100 Bullets day

It's that special day that I look forward to every month when the newest issue of 100 Bullets hits the stands. Yes, it's a comic, but it's also a hundred chapter novel (only six more issues to go till the end), a really fine crime/conspiracy/noir work of art. I love books and I love the written word, but I have to admit that there's a dynamic to graphic storytelling that the standard novel just can't achieve. And it's such a young medium that it's not even come close to reaching its full potential, while the written novel, by and large, seems to have settled in to a comfortable middle age. It's a very exciting time, watching a relatively new mode of storytelling starting to come into its own. From Black Hole to Watchmen, Blankets to Hellboy to We3, there is just an incredible synthesis of word and picture out there.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Genrefication, or I'll do what I want, thanks

I had originally intended to write this post on the absurdity of genre in fiction (including memoirs, but that's a subject for another day), the base meaninglessness of categorizing imaginary things and, by extension, imagination. But instead I'm going to tell you how Borges saved my creative soul. It was his Universal History of Iniquity, translated in the Collected Fictions by Andrew Hurley, read now over a decade ago, that did it. You see, Borges made up about half of the footnotes attached to those little biographies of villainous men and women. Just made 'em up. For fun. The people are real, the histories he recounts are mostly reliable, but the footnotes? Fab ree kate id. It was only when I found this out that I truly began to understand the power and the freedom of fiction. To learn that a writer of Borges stature could grant himself the pleasure of pure factual irresponsibility stripped away all the gravitas from the act of writing for me. Borges wrote his fiction for himself and no one else. Even now the memory of that revelation sparks my fire and makes me smile.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Making the pieces fit: A living city and a dog

I think I've written in a previous post that I'm the kind of writer who likes to bounce a story in my head for quite some time before I seriously tackle a first draft. I'm a big believer in symmetry; the mind responds to it unconsciously, and if it's provided in the natural progression of the work then hopefully the reader goes away feeling satisfied rather than manipulated. The problem with this approach is that knots often appear in the plot that have to be teased out before it will work. This usually means (and I'm speaking only for myself here) that a character is missing. If I were a cynical Word-God I could simply spin one up out of clay, give it a name, and blast it into life. But I don't have those divine powers. I'm more of a revealer, I think, than a creator. This often means I have to wait, and search, until I can discover who or what is missing from the constantly changing pages in my mind. They usually come to me when I'm not thinking about them too hard- sometimes I've merely misplaced them in another half finished story or half realized idea, and sometimes they're hidden within the contested piece itself, but when I finally find them and put them in their proper place it's like a fog lifting and a clear straight road for miles, no curves in sight.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Which comes first, the writer or the word?

I'm not trying to be cute, I'm serious. Is the writer more important, or is it the work itself? Or to make the question less abstract and more concrete, is Dickens more important than A Tale of Two Cities, Kafka more important than The Trial or The Castle? Do you have a favorite author whose every new release you wait for? I've noticed that a lot of bestselling genre writers (or their estates) seem to have franchised their names out, so that a lot of their new books have either co authors or approved torch bearers for their brand of fiction. It's a trend I personally find disturbing, but I suppose it's been going on as long as civilization. Look at Homer. Even if he was just one person (which I doubt) his versions of the Illiad and the Odyssey aren't the ones we have today. They're an accretion of the works of several, maybe several dozen different authors. But no one wants an Illiad by anonymous when they can have one by Homer, essentially the god of poets. Now look at Shakespeare and the debate that lingers over whether he wrote the plays attributed to him. As a person with a strong interest in history, I understand the desire for correct knowledge, but if it turned out that Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, and Richard III were each written by five different playwrights, what real difference would it make? I had a friend, a very well educated and well read friend, who hated Shakespeare, despised his plays. At the time I was shocked (I still like the Bard quite a lot) but now I feel a glow of admiration for that opinion, mainly because it cuts through the glamour of the name and goes straight for the work in question.
Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not saying it's wrong to admire a particular author. I have a signed first edition of Tim Obrien's The Things They Carried on my bookshelf, alongside a signed first of Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, a 1929 copy of Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, and a first edition paperback (Ecco) of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. But the stories they've written are what I truly love, and I must confess a certain fetish value in my desire for certain first editions. By owning them I hope to get as close in time as possible to the moment they were conceived, both to be inspired and to better focus on my own vision. Of the still living authors that I admire, I have absolutely no desire to meet any of them.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Milk and cookies are a delicious way to start anything

It's true, as I am proving to myself this very moment. Excuse me if I pause to savor the chocolaty toffee milkiness of my snack. I received the proofs for my book of poetry today (self published, not because it's bad but because it's poetry). There's a little work to be done on the cover, but other than that it's ready. It should be out a little beyond mid August. The title is Carnival of Vulgarities, and I modeled it, about seventy five percent consciously, as a verse homage to The Circus of Dr. Lao, a fantastic and fantastically strange novel by Charles Finney. Issue 2 of the Maple/Ash Review should be out sometime next week, with a story by Etgar Keret and a host of other unsung worthies such as . . . ahem. The book on lycanthropy that I am reading is panning out better than I hoped, providing me with both a useful quote and a variant on the spelling of werewolves (war-woolfes). But, as I have said, the story I'm preparing to begin has nothing to do with werewolves in any supernatural, or even medical (lycanthropy is a psychological disorder) sense. I generally stew on a story until my brain starts to steam a little; I usually don't begin to write a draft until I've worked out a good deal of it in my head. That sounds like a good recipe for procrastination, but it actually works for me most of the time. That said, I started feeling the heat from this embryonic story today, so it won't be long before I start writing it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Today is one of those, What do I write? days

I'm sure you know the kind. You've worked all day at whatever you do to pay the bills, or maybe you've slept half the day away and can't get two thoughts to occur sequentially for long enough to write them down. Or maybe you have a subject to write about, but it's just too slight to carry its own weight. That's my problem. You see, I am a huge fan of Robert Graves. He was a wonderful historical novelist, a great poet, a gifted classicist, and a bit of a nutjob, and I think he was the bees knees. During World War One, he served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers who, among other things, fought with distinction during the American Revolution and participated in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Graves, being British, spells it Guildford). I'm pretty sure I read that he visited the battlefield when he was living for a short time in the United States. Well, that battlefield is in the northwest part of Greensboro, NC, my hometown and it's one of the lynchpins of the city's history. Besides that, it was always one of my favorite parks to visit as a child, and it still is a wonderful place to visit. And now, to top it all, because of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, I'm only three degrees separated from R. Graves. It's trivial, I know, but in a certain strange way it inspires me to strive a little harder toward artistry. So I guess it's not so slight a subject after all.