Notes: The Sun Also Rises

Longing. Throughout the pages, even the epigraph, we’re reminded of what’s been lost. We see in in the expatriate Jake Barnes, who’s told by his friend Bill:

You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You have around cafes.

Jake is cut off from his home. He’s cut off, too, from being a man in the traditional sense. We don’t know his exact injury, but we are told a war wound has caused his impotence. So, he becomes a man in the expatriate sense, spending his time talking and not working, obsessed by sex though without any means of release. He passes from cafe to cafe, lost.

It’s pain that drives him back to a memory, a fragment of longing. After he’s punched in the head he walks back to the hotel:

“Walking across the square to the hotel everything looked new and changed. I had never seen trees before. I had never seen the flagpoles before, nor the front of the theatre. It was all different. I felt as I felt once coming home from an out-of-town football game. I was carrying a suitcase with my football things in it, and I walked up the street from the station in the town I had lived in all my life and it was all new. They were raking the lawns and burning leaves in the road, and I stopped for a long time and watched. It was all strange. Then I went on, and my feet seemed to be a long way off, and everything seemed to come from a long way off, and I could hear my feet walking a great distance away. I had been kicked in the head early in the game. It was like that crossing the square.”

Pain does not simply remind him of his past; it pulls him into the presence to see things anew.

Hemingway’s great restraint is never to name the longing, the lostness, never to go into soliloquies about the pain of Jake, but to narrate. He gives us dialogue and action, and the prose itself is lean and athletic. There is no navel gazing, only the rush of events, and the longing for that which has been lost.

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Conflict…

In the best stories, the conflict is clear. I think of a writing teacher’s admonition: “Clarify the conflict, but complicate the motivations.”

Many of the self-help books and podcasts, and the ideas you see in early January about setting resolutions (and limiting goals) leading to short-lived goals, are about this one idea. Clarify the conflict.

#writing #conflict

The idea of someone

I find it much easier to love the idea of someone than the disciplined work of loving and listening, of caring for someone when they have the audacity to contradict, or disappoint, or bore me.

The writers who attend to this foible of human nature, whose characters are a bundle of paradoxes comprising a whole, are the writers I want to emulate.

#writing, #human nature

A line will take us hours…

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
“Adam’s Curse,” 1st Stanza, W.B. Yeats
#writing #readings

What I’m Reading 2.12.16

A writer reads in order to learn. The novelist reads novels to see what’s working and what isn’t, to learn his or her own likes and dislikes. One eye is on the story and one eye is on the craft: pulling apart the story to see how it works, like a mechanic would with an engine.

The fuel of Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is the backdrop: seven people who are in Seattle during the World Trade Organization riots in 1999. We see how their lives intersect, and Sunil Yapa gives their backstories—how Victor, a nineteen-year-old, thinks about his travels throughout Latin America and around the world while tear gas descends. The prose is vigorous. It reminded me, a bit, of Junot Diaz: conversational and robust.

The prose is both a strength and a weakness. From the first pages, there is an energy to it:

“Victor—curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor, with his hair natural in two thick braids, a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor—with his dark eyes and this thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, wearing a pair of classic Air Jordans, the leather so white it glowed—imagine him how you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.”

The energy sparkles when it’s in the action, in the present. It pulls you in as Yapa details the atrocities of the five-day riots:

“Victor’s eyes exploded. His whole face attacked by a wall of head. He was on his hands and knees, blinded, hands reaching out for something, anything, and there seemed to be a pile of bodies. Everything was arms and clothes and legs. He eyes like hot coals in the cave of his sockets. He wanted to tear them out.”

But, in telling the backstory, too often the author falls into purple prose—overwriting the scene. This comes in tandem with a tendency to advance the story only at the end of each chapter. As we move, chapter by chapter, into different character’s points of view, we are removed from the present action. As Victor thinks about joining the protest, he goes back in a reverie to his deceased mother, and the books she let him read. At the very end of the chapter, he decides to join, despite coming to the protests simply to sell his weed.

The problem this reader feels with relying on so much backstory is that it seems an artifice. For one, during moments of great emotion—tear gas falling at you, for example—you’re not taken away to what you were doing three years ago and ruminating on how all the intervening time has led you to this point. You’re focused on the gas, man. Second, a character’s past is always known to her or him. There’s nothing ostensible that triggers Victor’s memory of his mother and his subsequent change. Memories must be triggered by something if they are to produce change. But even better than memory is something someone says—a challenge for the character we’ve come to know that stretches him.

And that ties to my third point: tell the story. The backstory is relevant—we see how characters are acting out of their fear and pain—but it can be hinted at, or told to raise the stakes in breaks in the action. But it distracts from the action, pulling me into backstory when riots are happening all around. Tell me the story.

Then, once the story is told, the energetic prose doesn’t distract from the story—it adds to it. I found a scene toward the end of the book, when violence explodes, to lose its significance because the prose wasn’t able to take a step up, encompass more energy: it was at a fever pitch throughout.

In the end, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist tells about a forgotten event in America’s recent history. It’s ambitious. It’s interesting. The prose and the vision of redemptive suffering, of offering sympathy to almost every character, is enough to keep me reading the author (this is his debut novel). But, I hope he focuses more on telling the story itself, not the myriad backstories that lead to the story. Fiction writers are constantly told to be careful of backstory, because it doesn’t advance anything. This was my main frustration in Yapa’s writing (and, often, my feeling when rereading my own writing), and a good reminder: tell the story, tell the story, tell the story.

On Writing 2.5.2016

Every two weeks, I sit down on Wednesday nights and Skype with a friend from Bellingham, Washington. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing this—a few years. We met on Skype, actually, if that is such a thing. But our relationship formed because he is a writer, and I am a writer, and we writers need all the relationships we can get to tell us that we’re okay.

Really, his dad knows my brother, and through that relationship we came to find each other, 1,000 miles away. His dad connected him with my brother, who in turn connected R with me.

I don’t recall the first few Skype conversations. I know we met each other there, although we’ve since met in person. We began to figure out what this writing relationship would look like. He sent me stuff he was working on, and, since I was older, I gave my feedback. I realized that this routine of reading and giving feedback was life-giving to me. As I searched his writing for plot or character issues, it reminded me of what I needed to fix in my own writing. It kept me sharp.

As writers, it’s enough, sometimes, to jot down a draft. It’s plenty, in fact. Staying sharp, having what Hemingway called a built-in, bulletproof bullshit meter, is crucial to moving beyond the first draft. My bullshit meter gets stronger the more I use it—both on my own work and on others’.

Critiquing others—helping others—is a way to help ourselves as writers. The same has happened as I have taught public speaking: all this thinking and critiquing has made my own talks stronger.

Beyond this, R and I naturally began to exchange writing: he gave me his, and I gave him mine. We spoke on Wednesday, and he gave feedback on a short story I had written. I liked the story, and where it was going. He had already given me some feedback in email form (which is always tougher—what’s the tone?), but he gave more detailed thoughts. It was a moment where I wanted to slap my forehead. Why hadn’t I seen what he was saying?

Perhaps because he was saying the short story might work better as a novel, for which I both wanted to nod readily and hit him (why don’t men ever want to throw a drink in someone’s face—we go straight to fists?). He was, of course, right.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do with the story. It’s like painting a room only to see that you need to remodel the house as a result.

But I’m grateful. And encouraged. And energized in my confusion.

Creative endeavors are often necessarily solitary. I’m reminded of the second chapter of Genesis: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” These opening chapters are called a myth because the emphasis is less on what actually happened, and more on what happens. Their truths echo through the millennia. It is not good to be alone.

Especially at the center of your creative work, where you are pouring yourself onto the page, or into the business, or even into your children.

It is not good to be alone.

How to Write When You’re Taking a Break

Last Tuesday, my book entered the beta stage. I sent it out to half a dozen trusted readers to see what they think. This has come after a first draft (which produced an unreadable, poorly-paced, plot maze) and a second draft (confusing, better paced, and plotted), and a third, clean-up draft (as good as I could make it by myself; finally able to show it to others without crippling humiliation). I’ve asked my readers to go through the novel over the next month, and then they can give me feedback in exchange for beer.

What this means, of course, is that I’m not actively writing a novel right now. Since it’s been a week, I’ve properly let myself decompress (decompose?) after a push toward the finish, but I’m now feeling that void: I have nothing to do first thing in the morning, and there’s only so much sports news in the middle of the summer.

I have fully imbibed the writer’s adage: “I must write. It is my purpose. It is what I can give to the world.” (We do this, of course, to trick ourselves into actually writing.) The problem is that, for the next month, I have no purpose.

It seems my options, then are: a) spend the next month drinking and growing my beard as long as possible, plus wearing sweatpants in the middle of the day, or b) find a new way forward–fulfilling my purpose without working on my novel.

If I choose b, however, the problem is compounded by the fact that after the draft of a novel, it’s like I’ve finished a marathon: I’m tired, spent, and need a break to let the paralyzing soreness subside.

So, like a marathon runner, how do I hit the pavement again in a way the brings energy and sustenance, rather than beginning another long race without a break? For this month, here are my top three. Why three? One wasn’t quite enough (although I’ll boil it all down to one in the end), and any more than three really won’t happen. I won’t do all four or five.

1. Write outside my genre. After working a long time on a literary novel, I think a little cross-training is appropriate. I could go the short story route, but novel to short story doesn’t seem to be enough of a genre-buster, despite the differences in the forms. Instead, I’m going to start a screenplay that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while. I may never finish it, but I’m really excited to tackle the dialogue and conflict that’s necessary in a screenplay. In this last novel, I worked hard to break it into beats and scenes, searching for the conflict between characters at each moment. A screenplay will demand that I get stronger at this, and look more deeply at story structure. Plus, I’m always hoping to grow with dialogue–especially how it can raise conflict without always devolving into a shouting match.

Poetry, too, is a favorite of mine. I love writing poetry. But I don’t think it’s what I need right now. That is, I don’t need to work on rhythm and the attractiveness of my prose as much as I need to work on making things happen.

2. Take notes. I’m not a strict note-taker by nature, though I’ve come to realize that I don’t hold on to ideas unless I write them down. But this is simpler. Throughout the month, I’m going to spend some time each day taking notes: notes on what I see and felt and heard during a walk, notes on how I felt at a party, notes on how the evening sun shines through my daughter’s hair. I’ll note story ideas, should any come (and they usually do if I pay attention to them). I’ll record some dialogue (see no. 1 above). It’s a chance to refocus–and perhaps begin a new practice that aids in my writing.

3. Reach out. It’s not uncommon for me to think how I ought to call/text/email someone, and maybe even put this person’s name on my daily “To do” list, only to fail at reaching out. But writing is a lonely, lonely hobby, and my writer friends, I’m sure, would appreciate a note as much as I would appreciate one from them. Beyond my beta readers, it’s always helpful to talk with others struggling through their work, to offer encouragement and find some of my own. Especially as I take a break, it’s like I’m at the raft before treading water for another hour: my friends are out there in the water. I may as well encourage them before going back out, too.

All of this, of course, adds up to the idea of refilling my well. This is the mindset I need after a novel. Not stop and rest, but refill. Rest, too often, degrades into the aforementioned sweatpants. But refilling it a conscious effort. It’s doing new things to ensure I’m fresh for the next revision. It’s also celebrating what I’ve accomplished.

As a sports fan, I think of this whenever a team cuts down the nets, wins the Super Bowl, and confetti comes flying down. It’s a real moment of accomplishment, of stopping. They go to Disney World and talk shows; they rest. And, for a month or two, they refill their wells before beginning the process again.

We need more confetti parties for finished novels (though it would be a quiet, depressing party). Absent that, we need to make it a practice to refill our wells after the championship game: to rest, to do things that energize and prepare you for the next push.

On Dropbox and Running

runningI was supposed to take this evening to write, but my antiquated computer couldn’t make heads nor tails of Dropbox, so I’m doing a different type of writing than fiction. I’ve been wanting to keep my fiction muscles fresh for my morning writing sessions, so perhaps my Dropbox snafu is some type of divine intervention.

Staying fresh, I’ve realized, is the way that I’m able to write–and write productively–every day. Most days I’ll write for half an hour (I find time to be more helpful than word counts at this stage of my development); though on some I’ll push ahead for twice that. Never, by rule, should I write more than an hour a day.

On one hand, this rule could translate to mere slothfulness: a refusal to push myself too hard. This, doubtless, is the focus of a great many Americans, or those of us who heard about Kerouac’s benzedrine-fueled first draft of On the Road, pumped out in three weeks (at least, that’s how the story was passed down to me). But, since my stimulant of choice is a dark roast of coffee, three weeks is far too short for me to produce anything of substance. Rather, I piddle away for half an hour or so each day, eating the whale of my novel in small nibbles.

I’m also a runner, at a rather slow and plodding level. I’ve been on a running fast this spring, with the load of working on a second draft of my novel and teaching two classes on top of my regular job. Something had to give, and I’ve tried to wiggle workouts into the beginning or ending of my days, with varied success. But as a runner, I can simply go so hard for so long. If I exhaust myself on Tuesday (generally a hard hour’s run at my athletic level) I find my legs don’t have much pick up on Wednesday.

This, I suppose, is fine for running: I’m not running competitively, and I know there’s always tomorrow. But for writing, there is little more frustrating than realizing that I don’t have anything to write: I used all my inspiration and creativity yesterday. My writing muscles are accustomed to half an hour or hour-long bouts. If I push much past that, my writing becomes forced, wooden, mandatory. I squeeze words out of the rock that is my brain, leaving a trail of broken pebbles, void of magic and wonder. Void of life.

On one hand, I’m reminded that, as physical beings contingent upon time, we have what C.S. Lewis terms the law of undulation: “As long as he lives on earth,” Lewis writes as Screwtape, “periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty.” We experience peaks and troughs, often from one day to the next, or one hour to the next.

Lewis’ adage is true, of course, because on some Wednesdays–even when I haven’t exhausted myself on Tuesday–I find no spring in my legs. (I found the same tonight but attributed that to a second brownie after dinner). But I’m sure to find it so if I push myself to the limits the day before.

Writing, or thinking, or creating, or whatever it is we do for our vocations (even if it is not our day job), is a muscle. If we exhaust it without growing it, we will find it strained and weak the next day. This can throw off the writer seeking to form a habit, the pastor or musician or designer seeking to bring fresh energy to a project after an arduous day. We must protect those muscles, even if Dropbox sometimes must step in for us.

I’m reminded of the quote, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” which I originally read attributed to Vince Lombardi, but the internet seems to think anyone from Shakespeare to General Patton first said it. The nebulous origins do not make it less true. If I do not rest, if I do not allow margin and space, if I do not put myself in a pattern of exerting and ceasing, I rob myself of the vital energy to let my words crackle and spark. You rob yourself of the energy you need to speak truth and goodness and beauty into your world.

May we be people who refuse to be fatigued, not out of some dogged call to machismo, but out of a deeper wisdom to ensure that we have the energy to engage our strongest loves.

How can a writer train himself?

Hemingway, again, in a dialogue with new writers (Mice, he calls them; he refers to himself as “Your Correspondent”). I can’t help but think that his advice isn’t simple good for writers, or artists, but everyone who wants to live deeply and live well. Especially the third paragraph.

Mice: How can a writer train himself?

Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.

* From Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips

On Lunch and Ritual

I had lunch with a friend this afternoon, and after the usual pleasantries, after the how-are-yous and relating significant events since we last met, our conversation turned to ideas and things we like to think about when we have the time and space: philosophy, language, culture.

I found myself, this morning, before I had lunch, thinking about rituals. As someone who strives to be creative, I have rituals that I perform to set myself in such a creative mindset. My rituals have to do with making coffee, opening up my draft, then walking around a bit–moving–so my mind engages on whatever my problem was yesterday when I stopped. And, I always stop at a problem.

I have the same ritual as I drive to work: I leave the radio off until I get to the highway, winding the few side streets, frozen at a stoplight. Since I consider myself part of the Christian tradition I recite the Lord’s prayer, silently, at the stoplight. Before that I showered and ate breakfast, reading while my girls watched television or played, another ritual. And even at lunch we entered into an old ritual, asking about each other’s lives in the span since we’d last talked, preparing the conversation for wherever it would go.

Later, at lunch, we talked about religion and ritual. People in our circle talk about how religion is relationship, and I know this has been helpful for many people. Religion, of course, has been a terribly destructive force at times, and continues to be in some people’s lives today. But, religion, at its best, is an embrace of rituals: corporate rituals that center and focus the participants, that remind us of our broken humanity and our need for something beyond ourselves. We all need this, whether we’re atheist or fundamentalist: we need rituals to prepare ourselves for connection. The individualism and assumed free-form of relationships does not focus us in the same way. It does not connect us so tightly with the suffering, wandering, hopeful people around us, and it negates the rituals inherent in any relationship. This is why thousands of conversations across our culture had the same arc as mine today. We performed the ritual of relating events as a springboard for connection.

The ritual was connection, and it provided for more.

It’s crucial that we note these rituals. As someone who longs to speak and write meaning into the world, I enter into ritual in order to enhance my creativity, not to stifle it. I make coffee and pay attention to its smell and earthiness to awake my senses; I move, oddly enough, to awake my mind and let it wander. This is why walking or showering or pulling weeds have always been a creator’s friend: we need mindless movement to see what’s really in our minds. These are rituals that, rightly viewed, connect us with what is around us, within us.

I call these rituals because it wraps these mundane events with meaning, because to the creator no event is meaningless. Perhaps–perhaps–to the human no event is meaningless, even if it is an event that signifies the absurdity of life. “The writer should never be ashamed of staring,” writes Flannery O’Connor. “There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

We could say the same about the well-lived life: all requires our attention. And our rituals, if performed rightly, increase and stir that all-important attention.