Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reading Raymond Chandler

People like me who have a Ph.D. in literature, who are professors of English, are thought in some quarters to have read nearly every well-known author's works. It comes as a surprise to many that every day I continue to discover all the things I don't know and all the books I never read.

So it is with Raymond Chandler, whose style and art were praised by W. H. Auden among many others as the best of the hard-boiled crime novelists, surpassing even Dashiell Hammett, from whom he learned a great deal. Yet until now I never thought of either crime writer as worthy of my time.

A basic academic question, interestingly posed in last week's New Yorker, is whether the wall that divides serious literary figures, the big guns, from the popular writers is still solid. In the case of writers like Chandler, whose style is wonderful, the question is moot.

Chandler was among those "escapist" pulp writers, as they are often called, who had a great respect for his sentences. He re-wrote huge blocks of his stories rather than edit them, thus spending a lot of time that the publishing world might call wasted. I would call this time well spent. He only produced seven novels, but his dialogue and descriptive detail provide models for any aspiring writer.

I am reading the 1939 classic The Big Sleep, where the weaknesses in plot (two stories sort of welded together) are more than compensated for by the ironic narrative of Philip Marlowe, the private eye in L.A. Or I should say by the master stylist who created Marlowe.

Chandler, raised and educated in England, well read in the classics and foreign languages, was part of the sizeable British colony in Hollywood in the thirties and thus something of an outsider to American society. This alone is remarkable, for the tone of the cynical detective who has seen it all is something Chandler had to learn, mostly by reading, also by interviewing cops and steeping himself in the seamy side of L.A.

Consider the opening descriptions in which Marlowe is summoned by a dying oil tycoon, who "dragged his voice up from the bottom of a well." The old man "spoke slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last pair of stockings." We then meet the two lascivious daughters of the tycoon, one whose teeth "glittered like knives."

This is the kind of writing that makes me turn the pages despite the sordid details, the sensationalism and the shaky plot structure. Some of the imagery is strained, but each scene is so well done, with lively descriptive details, that I can see why Chandler is so highly regarded; and I can see that the line separating highbrow lit from popular fiction often disappears.

He is a writer who takes his time with each sentence, each paragraph, while moving the story along at a decent pace. I am sorry it has taken me so long to discover him.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

What Writers Need

When I sent a recently-completed story, one of my rare pieces of fiction, to two friends to read, I received two totally different kinds of responses.

One friend apparently read it hurriedly, and out of a sense of obligation, because his comments were a bit off the mark, as if he had read a different story from the one I sent him. His suggestions were not helpful. I felt I had wasted his time.

My other friend read it carefully, several times, and met with me to go over specific things he liked and those he thought needed improvement. He made some good suggestions about the way some of my dialogue needed to be updated, to suit a 40-year-old man today. Nearly everything he said and wrote in the margins ended up being helpful in my revision. He was concerned about not offending me by his comments, and I was grateful for everything he said.

I learned, again, that asking people to read anything I have written is, for a writer, like a land-mine. Unless carefully handled, it might explode.

Of course, every reader wants and deserves to hear something positive, some appreciation of (at least) one aspect of the story or essay. And it's important for me as the writer to ask, upfront, for a general comment: what did you like and what did not work for you? In that way, I am more likely to get a balanced reaction. I know how easy it is for those who critique to be negative; after all, they have received a lot of negative criticism from teachers and others.

A writer wants, craves, needs, yearns for acceptance and can easily be hurt when he or she feels rejected or ignored.

If my characters are not believeable, if the setting is vaguely described, I should be told this in a context of support and general appreciation, with the encouragement that, with some revision, the piece will be stronger. This is what I tried to do with my university students, few of whom aimed for publication, and what I do now, as I work with older adults aiming for publication.

So it's up to me, the writer, to set forth the guidelines of what I expect in a critique; otherwise, there might be unpleasant surprises, such as a generalization ("good job") or, as in the case of my first friend, rambling comments irrelevant to me as a writer since they focus more on him than on my work.

So I have to choose readers who know something about the creative process, preferably what it means to write something for a reader. My second critic met this criterion; the first did not.

My wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, a poet and writer of fiction for young readers, has often been disappointed, even hurt, by the lack of response she gets from people she expects will appreciate her work: are these readers too busy to pay attention? Are they so far removed from what a writer does that they can't take in what a writer needs to hear about her own work? Probably.

But in the case of editors and fellow writers at literary conferences who fail to notice a comic tone or an original idea in Lynn's work because it does not fit their pre-conceived idea of what a good story should have (action, for example), the issue is deeper than being busy or being self-absorbed. They may be "professionals," but they are not good listeners, I suspect, in conversations because they lack patience, empathy, and open-mindedness. They may work for publishers, but they are not good readers.

I believe many people who agree to critique a work lack the patience of my ideal (second) reader, who was willing to devote considerable time to appreciate what I had done, and to appreciate me. He paid me the great compliment of attention.

Writers need readers, but often finding good ones isn't as easy as it might seem. It's a challenge to write well; it is also a challenge to be a good reader.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Life After Death: What is Heaven?

A number of movies have been made, usually comic, about spouses whose dead partners return to the land of the living. "Ghost" comes to mind and the 1940 classic "My Favorite Wife," not to mention "Blithe Spirit" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."

The best of the bunch has to be "Truly, Madly, Deeply," by writer-director Anthony Minghella, who died prematurely in 2008 after creating several sensitive, award-winning films, including this 1990 movie, which is moving, hilarious, and serious at the same time. Like so many other movies, it makes the possibility of life hereafter believable.

Juliet Stevenson is memorable as the grieving partner of a man (Alan Rickman) who returns to the London flat they shared, but he brings along a collection of other dead people who watch videos and take over the poor woman's life until she realizes she must let go of the past and start a new life.

This barebones summary sounds trite, but the movie, which begins on a somber note of deep grief, moves with sensitivity and intelligence toward delicious humor, without the usual crudity of language heard in most of today's movies. This is a couple in a totally credible relationship in which the living partner sees that she must learn to live in the present.

The implication here is that the afterlife is real, as it was to me growing up in my parochial school. There I learned about saints and angels and enjoyed serving at funeral Masses because I could ride in the limo with the priest (and get a tip from the undertaker). So I think I grew up with a sense that death is part of life and that the dead are present all around us. And I have always believed in some sort of existence with God when my earthly live ends.

Whether I should call this heaven is unknown. The Gospels speak of the kingdom of heaven being within us, and Thomas Merton wrote that the door to the heaven is everywhere. I have written of the timeless present (found in contemplation of various kinds) as the presence of God.

I was intrigued by what Jon Meacham of Time magazine wrote last month about heaven being God's love entering the present. That is, heaven is less an ethereal region beyond us than what happens on earth when "love and light achieve dominion over darkness and envy." For Christians, this will not be fully realized until the Second Coming of Christ.

For Meacham, heaven is the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved and oppressed. We may imagine and anticipate a fuller experience of God, of course, in the "undiscovered country" beyond death (as Shakespeare called it), but I like Meacham's idea that acts of love and selflessness bring God's grace to a broken world and so bring heaven to earth.

This is a far cry from seeing our life here as merely a prelude to a heavenly existence beyond our world. And it suggests that living fully in the here and now, as Juliet Stevenson's character gradually learns to do, has nothing to do with "eat, drink and be merry" but with seeing earthly life as full of sacred potential.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Art and the Voice of Silence

It was, fittingly, while waiting for my vision to be tested this past week, that I found a magazine called (I think) Art and Antiquities, with an article about the work of Helen Wilson, a New York painter who has been working for more than forty years painting clouds and skies. Included were some fine reproductions of her paintings.

Her style is aptly called abstract impressionism. Wilson's canvases show her experiments with varying shades of color as she tries to find the "color within the color," as she puts it, as she tries to capture the subtleties of time as it alters nature. It's as if each color has an infinite number of nuances, as if her brush were a string producing an endless series of notes or a pen creating words with such refinement as to suggest the timeless within time.

This reminded me of my own explorations, in a 2010 article in Cithara, of the relation of silence and the arts. Paintings, in particular, often speak in the timeless voice of silence when time tends to stand still.

I always think of Vermeer's "View of Delft," in which the 17th century Dutch master captured the present moment as it was becoming past, with darkening clouds suggesting an imminent storm that will never come. The viewer of such a work, like that of Helen Wilson, is suspended, the eye so totally absorbed in reflection that our consciousness surrenders its usual sense of self-preoccupation.

So we stand before such art in the timeless present, as it is evoked in silent meditation. It's no wonder Proust, with his preoccupation with time, found "View of Delft" the greatest of paintings. He would appreciate these subtle experiments with clouds and color by Helen Wilson.

Looking at this article, which I could not, unfortunately, rip out and bring home with me, I was amazed at all it evoked: reflections on light and seeing, on time and nature, on clouds and the soul of the sky (as the article was called), on stillness and the timeless present, and on reflection itself, in more than one sense.

Who knows what would happen if I stood in front of an original by Helen Wilson? Even with these illustrations to gaze at, my eyes were opened to the richness of much abstract art as well as to the ability of painting to express what Andre Malraux long ago called voices of silence.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage: Who is Threatened?

Although I have had reservations about the use of "marriage" to refer to the legal union of two people of the same sex who love one another and might wish to be legally joined, I have never felt that these civil unions, or marriages, if that is the legal term, threaten my marriage or anyone else's. Many of these same-sex couples adopt children and apparently raise them successfully.

Gay marriage, which the Cardinal Archbishop of New York recently called "the defining issue of our time," concerns about one percent of the population. He and most of the others on the right insist that it undermines marriage. But are they right?

As Eugene Cullen Kennedy, the Loyola University psychologist, writes in National Catholic Reporter, the bishops might be better advised to look at the facts, which are often inconvenient: co-habitation and illegitmate births have been soaring in recent decades. Since 1970, marriage has been declining in this country quite apart from the divorce rate. Kennedy gives the full statistical picture, which is not pretty.

The conclusion: if we want to focus on a threat to marriage, let us focus on the social conditions that lead so many, especially in the lower socioeconomic class, into relationships that produce off-spring but little stability. The family unit is indeed under threat, but it is not coming, in my view, from those gays and lesbians who wish to be treated as equals.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Color-Blind Society?

A good friend of mine recently shared with me an amazing (to me) insight: that his 12-year-old son and his friends don't focus on color. These white kids have been playing with African-American friends for years and can't understand all the fuss about race. They are shocked to learn the facts about segregation in school.

His dad, growing up in the South in the 1960s, and I, growing up in the Midwest in the 50s, are surprised and pleased by this since race was the Big Issue of the times during our growing up. There were two Negro boys, as we called them then, in my senior high school class of 200, and my friendship with one of them was kept quiet from my parents. I could never invite him over.

Today I again noticed that, in our mainly all-white neighborhood, an African-American boy is the regular playmate of the 10-year-old next door, and the parents are obviously friendly.

The question is, are we moving toward a more color-blind society in this country? To ask this question seems counterintuitive at a time when race is so often the undercurrent of so much political discourse, when our president is attacked or criticized by many because he is the first black to hold this high office.

Most of the people I know in their eighties are less comfortable with mixed dating and racial mingling of any kind. The seeds of racial fear--of the black-as-outsider--and segregation were so deeply planted in the American collective psyche that it hardly seems like racism to this older white generation, who tend to see African-Americans as inherently inferior.

So, while I am reminded of racial differences almost daily, I am heartened by my friend's observation that the youngest among us have not acquired this bias. I wonder if, like so many of my university students in the recent past, will develop more sense of difference as they move from high school to college: less racism, more toleration, but still not the full, open acceptance of each other as social equals, the way today's kids tend to be.

Sadly, I am reminded of that song from "South Pacific": "You have to be carefully taught to hate and fear...."

Still, it's possible that America, with its growing Hispanic and other ethnic populations, will one day be closer to becoming color-blind. If this is the case, important beginnings are being made now during what has been called the transformational presidency of Barack Obama. Of course, these types of change take place very slowly, it seems.

I would welcome comments on this topic from readers at (subject line: race). Thank you!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Limited Understanding

Why do so many people have a limited understanding of human nature? This question often arises when I expect a certain human reaction to a personal or social problem and come away disappointed.

Last week, a man on his way home from our church joined us in the elevator at the parking garage nearby. He complained about the homeless man who's been occupying one of the upper floors of this city garage. "We can't allow that sort of thing around here," he sniffed, expecting the rest of us to agree.

"Certainly not so near the church," I wanted to say. I waited, stunned. Then I did say, "But our church reaches out to the homeless on a regular basis." He ignored this and went his way. So much for Christian compassion. Why does he bother going to church? Does he ever listen to the Gospels?

The next day, one of our neighbors, a woman in her early eighties, who has raised four children and seen something of life and its pain, complained to me about the homeless people (whom she never sees except in the news); it's all because of immigrants, she insisted. When I explained that, from my experience at the Coalition for the Homeless and other contacts, immigration has little to do with the people in central Florida dispossed of their homes by the mortgage meltdown, by abusive men, by drug-related problems, by mental illness. She remained unconvinced.
It was easier for her to blame immigration (foreigners, people not like us).

These two church-going people probably think they're goood in the way one of Flannery O'Connor's characters--Ruby Turpin in "Revelation,"--thinks she's good until she's hit in the head with a book and forced to examine her racism and selfishness. For such people, thinking plays a very small part in their lives. They're the type of people who are probably comfortable with Mitt Romney leading this country.

The meaning of compassion is beyond them. Yet they are not stupid or unfeeling people, just limited in their ability to take in the world around them.

Consider those who say, If only these homosexuals would cure themselves and be changed into "normal people." Or those who say, If only introverted people would just speak up and be more assertive socially, they would be more successful and popular. This example comes from an article by Nara Schoenberg (Tribune Newspapers 5-11-12) about the misunderstood minority of introverted people who have been shamed into thinking of themselves as weird instead of valuing the benefits of the inner life.

I think, too, of a personal trainer I once hired who was totally impersonal, in the way medical personnel often are. I mean doctors who fail to call me by name, who look at my chart rather than me, who fail to listen to what I say if I go beyond the scope of their questions, and who exit the room quickly, without a word of sympathetic understanding or encouragement. I am entitled to three minutes of their time, in most cases--if I'm lucky. I am a number, one of the many numbered patients they see every day in a mechanical way that has little to do with genuine healing.

What's missing in so many people's education is not classroom learning but a feeling-based, compassionate understanding of other people, a willingness to be open to more insight than TV viewing provides, a spirituality not always related to religious practice.

What I have in mind is reading widely as well as listening patiently to others, especially to those who suffer, because we have responsibilities beyond our immediate families and individual lives to the community of which we are an essential part.

The homeless man in the garage may make us uncomfortable, but he is our brother.

At issue are attention, empathy, real listening, and patience--qualities that are hard to acquire but need to be learned if we are to become a better society.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Meaningless Language

"I don't understand what anyone is saying anymore," writes Dan Pallotta in the Harvard Business Review. He describes business conversations in which he has very little idea of what people are saying to him.

Is he hard of hearing? No. Stupid? No. The people who talk to him in generalities and cliches are the ones he calls stupid. He is tired of meaningless cliches like "think outside the box" as well as filling sentences with buzz words, acronyms, and abstractions that make no logical sense.

Another writer in the same journal, psychologist Art Markam of the University of Texas (May 3), talks about corporate board members talking on and on about streamlining without anybody having a clear idea of what it means. Yet those at the table nod in agreement, even when the speaker cannot define exactly how to streamline the company in question.

We don't know as much as we think, writes Markam. It's what psychologists call "the illustion of explanatory depth." We think we understand how something works when we don't and cover up our ignorance with jargon and buzz words.

Is it any wonder that the AIG crisis and what followed took place? Language is consciously used to mislead or confuse, as it sometimes is in politics. No one has analyzed this issue more astutely than George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language," a 1946 essay that seems dated now in its examples drawn from the era of fascism. But his central point is important.

When writers and speakers fail to think clearly and choose words that reflect their thought and instead rely on ready-made phrases, Orwell wrote, they end up deceiving not only their readers but themselves. Their reliance on cliches obscures the very purpose of writing.

With this in mind, I was surprised to read in the New York Times last month a piece by John McWhorter, a noted linguist, asserting that both text messages and emails are equally valid forms of written conversation as opposed to the old, more formal writing, which he strangely illustates with 18th and 19th century examples. I was surprised that McWhorter does not consider emails in business and in other contexts in which concise information is conveyed that is often important--a far cry from the semi-coherent babble of much texting.

Overhearing a cell phone conversation recently, I heard a string of half-sentences strung together with "like" and "you know" and "mmm," saying nothing much, making the ramblings of Sarah Palin sound almost articulate. If this is the essence of the brave new world of written conversation and if this--the democratic innovation of our times--is one of the two types of writing now available to us, as McWhorter seems to suggest, I say we should re-read what Orwell has to say on the subject.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Cats and Silliness

Having watched a number of screwball comedies from the thirties, as well as the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and other old movies recently, I have more and more come to value silliness. Anything that promotes laughter and relieves tension must be celebrated.

In a sense, my interest in cats is related to my love of silliness. I find cats inherently amusing. So today I am writing about news from the world of cats, thanks to Pauline Dewberry, who celebrates her 10th year of writing and editing the Mewsletter from Kent, England ( She has a world-wide audience for her unique, award-winning mixture of health news, quizzes, stories, book reviews and helpful links. She has maintained this even while undergoing a series of harrowing chemotherapy treatments that have proved successful.

The current issue, while informative and enjoyable, ranks high on my Silliness List because Pauline has included the following news items:

1. May 13, which is around the corner, is the date--if you happen to be in Ypres, Belgium--of the Kattenstaat. The WHAT? It's a parade of huge cats, made of papier-mache at the annual Cat Festival. Check it out: (You don't have to speak Flemish or French to go!)

2. You'd rather see people dressed up as cats? So would I. Last year, 800 folks, mostly Welsh, I would imagine, showed up in various costumes in the metropolis of Bridgend, Wales, which boasts of having the largest gathering of people dressed as cats in the world.

3. We all know that cats inspire writers, something I point out in my book (still available on Amazon): Writing with Cats. But they also inspire painters. Did you know there was a Society of Feline Artists and that they are having their annual exhibition late this summer? Could it be that the paintings are produced by cats? To find out, go to

As you may know, I occasionally comment on the amazing number of specialized organizations out there, like the Cloud Appreciation Society and the Cat Writers Association, of which I was a proud member; and I save news items about offbeat or eccentric things that occur not only in the UK but in the USA as well. (Send them to me at

If "there are no ordinary cats," as the writer Colette said, there are no ordinary people: each of us has our own idiosyncrasies that deserve to be celebrated. And I am happy to celebrate the work of Pauline and her Mewsletter. If you are a cat person, write to her (it's free!) and enjoy this e-mailed newsletter.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Where does good writing come from?

Listening to four short plays performed last night, the work of a friend, Lenny Roland, led to a brief discussion with the playwright.

Where do your ideas come from? she was asked. It was obvious that they come from having a good ear for the off-beat and interesting potential of everyday life. Driving to the airport, dealing with the frustrations of telephones, or trying to cope with hospital bureaucracy can provide a writer with material. As Lenny said after the performance, "There is material everywhere."

She meant her family, with its various crises, which she turns into comedy; or her friends, which are also the stuff of close observation, notetaking, and writing. There is a popular myth about writers waiting for the muse of inspiration to strike them--and being frustrated when it doesn't. All we have to do is look and listen to the world around us and write.

And rewrite. Like every writer, Lenny emphasizes what the audience could not guess: that each line of each play was altered, moved, and recast as it was read aloud and performed.

Why write plays, I wonder--the most difficult of literary genres? Fiction allows the writer to explain and describe characters, setting, and action that the playwright must convey solely in dialogue. Having written in various genres over the years, Lenny, a great lover of Broadway shows, wanted the challenge, I suppose, of bringing her characters to life through speech. This requires a discerning ear and a wide exposure to various types of people and speech patterns.

Every writer has his or her own reasons for writing, his own method and approach, yet we all share the need to be read or heard. I am glad that Lenny Roland, whose plays were performed by professionals from the Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando, had an appreciative audience as well as skilled readers.

For the rest of us, who work alone with little recognition, often for years, the best reward can be satisfying ourselves that we are enjoying the process of creating something new. And there is always the possibility that a friend or two will comment on the pleasure our work has afforded them. This, not publication, is all that matters. Well, most of the time.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Annual Writing Workshop June 21

This will be of interest mainly to readers in central Florida:

My 5th annual Workshop on Prose Style will begin on June 21 and continue for the next five Thursday evenings at 7:00 at the Winter Park Public Library.

To register (there is a fee that benefits only the library) call 407-623-3279.

This six-week course will focus on crafting various types of sentences since the sentence is at the heart of prose style. I urge my students to expand their options in creating expressive sentences, especially in descriptive and narrative writing. Past students have been both fiction and non-fiction writers as well as poets and beginners of all ages. I always havae fun preparing for and teaching this course.

Contact me at with further questions.