Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Writer's Block

Fear of the blank page is very common, even among experienced writers. The best-selling author often freezes at the thought of following his or her blockbuster with a second book that won't disappoint. Rather like stage fright, which can afflict even the greats (Laurence Olivier and Judi Dench among them).

The poet William Stafford once said that as soon as he felt writer's block coming on, he simply lowered his expectations and so never really experienced the fear. This sounds flippant, but it suggests to me something of value: that we should worry more about revising, developing and improving a first draft than obsessing over the first draft, making that "perfect" and making ourselves tense in the process.

I often asked my university composition students to make a rough outline, and so when they began to worry that they didn't know how to get started with an essay, I would remind them, "But you already have a beginning: build on that." Writing a few sentences--or even one--is a beginning, even if you end up changing those sentences: you have broken through the initial barrier. Many writers start their day by warming up on the keyboard by doing e-mail for 20 minutes; Julia Cameron is one. Her book, The Right to Write, is valuable. But my advice to writers is generally to write, not to read about writing.

Advice to beginning writers is plentiful. Colette, the French author of "Gigi" and many other works, advised a young writer to "look for a long time at what pleases you." Simple observation, then describing what you see, can be a basic tool in getting started. So, too, you can use past e-mails and journal entries as prompts. I typically begin with scribbled notes, then compose on the computer, revising as I go.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says that "good writing is often about letting go of fear." What is it that we fear? That no one will care or bother to read what we write, or they will criticize it. Or we tell ourselves, "I don't know enough to be a writer, never having pleased my English teachers since, deep down, I am not good enough."

Writing is often a daily struggle to prove to ourselves that, since we can speak, we can write. We know the basic grammar of English since we use it every day (I don't mean the names of the 'rules.') And we have read a lot, absorbing at an unconscious level the ways sentences work. Above all, we have something to say that must be said, that others must read.

Consider, too, the famous writers who persisted despite bad reviews and rejections: "Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott, you'll never be a writer." This is what a publisher told Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, the most popular book for young people in the 19th cent. A 1925 review of Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby called it "an absurd story." Joseph Heller, who had tried 21 publishers before he found one for Catch-22 (hence that number), which was called "an emotional hodge-podge" by one myopic editor before the novel found immediate fans in the early 1960s. And so it goes.

These and other authors moved beyond the rejection and the fear of future criticism because they believed in themselves and in what they were doing as writers. Something to ponder for those who find themselves staring at a blank screen or paper instead of writing.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Semicolons and Masculinity

Teaching, as I am this summer, a workshop on prose style that focuses on sentences, preferably long ones like this promises to be, I have been giving my students all types of sample sentences, including those with two sharply contrasting independent clauses, or what rhetoricians call antithesis, as in "Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it." This classic put-down by Moses Hadas, from a list of memorable insults, illustrates the main use of the semicolon.

As a life-long advocate of the semicolon in my writing, teaching, and editing, I was surprised to read not long ago of an anti-semicolon movement, hopefully small, based on the dubious premise that these valuable marks of punctuation are unmanly. (When the fork was introduced into European dining in the 15th century, it, too, was dismissed, as many things are, as unmanly.) When Michael Kinsley was editor of the New Republic, he hated semicolons so intensely that he would re-write any sentence using one, replacing it with a period; this necessitated a new sentence following the period, of course, possibly breaking the rhythm and flow of the sentence.

Kurt Vonnegut was among the semicolon haters, claiming that real men don't use them. Male writers have always been a bit sensitive about their profession, Hemingway promiment among them, fearing that a literary life is not quite the masculine thing: too much time alone reflecting, I guess, not enough time hunting or bullfighting or drinking or whatever it is "real" men do. So I suppose this insecurity, which now seems out of date, is behind whatever anti-semicolon crusade there is.

Here's an example from my textbook, co-authored with Donald Pharr, Grammar, Etc.: "What is called 'adult entertainment' is rarely adult; it is at best adolescent." (The semicolon is essential in preventing a run-on sentence, here technically called a comma splice.)

I know more about grammar and punctuation than about masculinity, even though ten years ago I created at course at the Univ. of Central Florida on the topic of masculinity and literature. Even after teaching it three or four times, I find the meaning of masculinity elusive, slightly mysterious, and overlaid with more fear than grammar and writing. And that is saying a lot.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Whipped Cats??

For reasons known only to God and my wife, Lynn, she keeps a little French-English phrase book of idiomatic expressions in the car, where I recently unearthed it from a pile of larger books, part of our mobile library.

This little book of idioms and proverbs, rarely used, shows the difference between an English saying, such as "I have other fish to fry," with the French equivalent, which is "J'ai d'autres chats a fouetter," which, as you know, means: I have other cats to whip. Mon Dieu! Whipping cats??

As an amateur feline historian who did extensive research on cats in past centuries for my book, Writing with Cats, I at once knew that I had uncovered one of the many deplorable pejorative references to cats in earlier times. (The French also say, in translation, "I have a cat [not frog] in my throat," perhaps because of the French habit of eating frogs' legs?)

The topic of our ambivalent human relationship with felines interests me: they are considered mysterious, elegant, intelligent, but also lazy, sneaky, and aloof, among other things. Adored by the ancient Egyptians, they were often demonized in the late Middle Ages in Europe, from which comes the expression, "let the cat out of the bag," presumably in reference to the deplorable habit of putting cats in leather bags for target practice--as was the practice in Jacobean England--and trusting that some good soul would come along and release the creature from its fate.

Today, they are enormously popular as pets and widely cherished. For all the millions of cat lovers--Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Earnest Hemingway, among them--there have been some cat haters, too, people whose names aren't worth mentioning, whose fears of the feline have led to many awful superstitions.

Because the cat is quiet, a solitary who looks at you with knowing eyes, and is much too intelligent to be ordered around, I can see why it makes some people uncomfortable. But those who live with cats, as we do, know the truth: that they are ideal companions--quiet, affectionate, and playful. As I show in the book, they are deeply spiritual, spending most of their waking hours in prayer-like contemplation and as such contribute great peace to any home.

Maybe the ambivalence of cats is part of their eternal mystery and great charm.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sensuality Italian-style

Although I Am Love touches on the absurd, its camera work being a bit bizarre and its musical score more than a bit jarring--especially given the interludes of silence with which the initial scenes of Milanese elegance slowly unfold-- this Italian film, which I saw yesterday and can't quite forget, is visually stunning, especially in its portrayal of a grief-stricken family. Their faces haunt me. This is especially true of Tilda Swinton, the star and co-producer of this ambitious, highly-charged study of sensuousness and sensuality that could only come out of Italy.

(This is my contribution to this week's assignment for my prose style workshop in which I asked students to create an elaborate sentence. I thought I should do one, too.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Secret Lives

The discovery of someone's secret life, a second existence hidden from the world, is always of interest. It reminds me of Dr. Jekyll's second self, Hyde, allowed to act out the forbidden desires of the respectable Victorian doctor in Stevenson's novella. It suggests the possibility that each of us has, at least potentially, a double, a dark side, or a desired "other."

Reading recently about Robert Sterling Clark, who amassed the great collection of art on view in the Clark Institute at Williamstown, MA, I learned about the existence of his other life. It was not, like his father's, a gay lifestyle in Paris while simultaneously supporting his family in America: that would be almost predictable, even a hundred years ago.

Rather, Sterling Clark (1877-1956), who looks properly stern in his formal portrait in the Clark, had a secret desire to be an auto mechanic, and, unknown to nearly everyone, he fulfilled this fantasy role. His chauffeur would drop him off certain mornings at the corner near a garage, where he was known as Joe. There, free from family squabbles over money, which came from the Singer sewing machine fortune, "Joe" could happily work on cars, change clothes, and return, as Sterling, to the family mansion at the end of the day, like a successful Walter Mitty.

Leading one life is usually enough for most us; managing two, as some men do with mistresses in various locales, would seem impossible. Yet I suspect it's more common than we think.

If I were a novelist, I would be tempted to borrow the story of Clark's other life for a book about the secret lives many people live--or would like to live. Writers are lucky: they can live multiple lives imaginatively, without the bother and expense.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Living with the Dead

I have finally figured out, I think, why my wife, Lynn, loves old cemeteries.

On a recent trip, we found ourselves making repeated trips to the churchyard where Robert Frost and many Revolutionary-era folk are buried. It's in Bennington, Vt., next to the Old First Church. One visit would have been enough for me; Lynn insisted on multiple visits.

The stones there, as in similar churchyards we saw in Charleston and Lenox, MA, tell many stories, often with weeping willows and angel faces carved into the headstones, some of which are slowly being defaced by time and the weather, thus obliterating the very people being memorialized.

But then I realize that such cemeteries are for the living. They are testaments to the devotion of those who erected the stones. Often in the dates and inscriptions, we can see a life story outlined: Mrs. Mindwell Hopkins, "amiable consort" of Maj. Wait Hopkins, was buried in Bennington in 1785. (These names alone are worth reading.) Often there are family members remembered along with the "relics" (widows) of notable men of the time.

"Sacred to the Memory of Ebeneezer Fitch" sounds fictional, Dickensian; yet this stone gives the highlights of a life bravely lived long ago, when life tended to be short and harsh.

There is nothing morbid or depressing in such a place since old cemeteries are full of beauty, even if the stones are moss-covered and nearly illegible.

I think this is what Lynn has taught me about the joy of visiting cemeteries. It has something to do with the variety of the tributes, the style of grieving, the love that prompted the memorials in the first place.

Our utlimate cemetery trip was to Pere Lachaise in Paris, which is in a class by itself, with tombs of Chopin and other composers, of Oscar Wilde, even Heloise and Abelard (and rocker Jim Morrison). You have to be famous to get in there. It's like a city of the dead for the emulation of the living.

One of my perks as an altar boy years ago in St. Louis was to ride in a limousine to the cemetery after a funeral Mass; not only was I excused from class but the undertaker gave us boys a tip ($10--a lot in 1952). These trips introduced me (without my knowing it until later) to the cemetery as a place where the cycle of life comes full circle. Since a graveyard is a natural part of life, it was never for me a site of Halloween-style fear.

Since I have spent so much of my life communing with the dead in reading and teaching about events long before the modern era, it's only natural that I would see a visit to old cemeteries (where plastic flowers are mercifully absent) as an opportunity to step into the past--or rather into a timeless zone where life and death coexist with love.