Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Is it good to be bored?

The internet is full of tips on what  to do to avoid boredom. This assumes that boredom, which some link to depression, is bad and to be avoided

Yet an article (by Maria Ebling of the IBM Watson Research Center) given to me by a friend indicates that it's important to be bored; in fact, it's good to be bored!

A study in the U.K. shows what neuroscientists have been investigating: that there is an evolutionary reason for boredom.  The mind-wandering, daydreaming that comes when we have run out of things to do can be the source of creativity since it moves us beyond the conscious mind to the subconscious, where the imagination is most active.

Those who seem addicted to their smartphones and texting, says this author, may be cheating themselves.  Presumably, they never have to be bored since they have an endless supply of entertainment and information at their fingertips. But they miss a lot: the chance to do critically important work that mainly happens in "down time."

So, according to this research, it's good for writers and other creative people to be bored a bit. To those who turn to their pervasive computing, the advice must be: Put the phone away and think. Dream. Create something new and beautiful.

And it's quite possible that the electronic devices that are supposed to remedy boredom produce, in time, more boredom and, one hopes, more chances for the imagination to wander or for the artist to observe what's in front of him, turning the object of his or her attention into something worth sharing.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Time and the Writer

No one ever has enough time, it seems, especially writers. Yet having too much time in my literary experience is more of a problem than being forced to follow a set schedule. It's so easy to procrastinate if you have an entire summer free, with no deadlines. The result can be the dreaded writer's block.

Most writers, certainly most successful authors, follow a schedule and find that they can do the daily tasks of living, along with a day job, while being committed to their craft in the mornings or evenings or in half-hour segments whenever they become available.  Writing, after all, can occur anywhere, at any time.

Some beginning writers assume that, to write, they must stay at home or at their desk full time since successful authors are, presumably, full-time writers.  Yet many authors have worked only part-time at their craft, but they have done so regularly.

I think of Anthony Trollope, who produced 47 vast Victorian novels while working full time as a postal inspector in Dublin--a job that he came to enjoy because of the people he came to observe; their gossip and scheming gave him material to build on. Setting a goal of 2,500 words a day, Trollope worked faithfully each morning from 5:30 to 8:30, then went to work.

The type of writing produced may not always have been inspired, but it was a draft that could be revised.  Writing doesn't have to be great the first time around; it isn't like brain surgery.

I was reminded the many writers who have other full-time commitments while reading an excellent article online (via the Literary Hub) by a novelist who's also an oncologist, Ray Barfield, M.D. He is one of many  people who manage to write as part of an active professional life--because they see that the two worlds are related. It's not a matter of  multi-tasking.

Barfield makes some valuable comments about the importance of observation, something he finds that writers and doctors have in common. He says the world of medicine is not made of drugs, equipment, labs, and white coats but of "stories that situate the person, account for the past, impact the future, and offer a sense of what to do next."  The good doctor listens and gets to know the patient. He or she is immersed in the drama of human life.

He asks the reader to imagine being in an ER where a man on a gurney is wheeled in, followed by woman carrying a red rose and a sombrero.  Whether you are there as a medical professional or visitor, you will inevitably, says Barfield, pay attention to the woman with the rose and sombrero. That's why he says being a writer and being a doctor are so similar: they involve paying attention.

He quotes William Osler: "It's much more important to know what sort of patient has a disease than to know which disease the patient has."  Interns need to be trained to be curious about the lives of the people they treat; so too writers begin by paying attention to details and end up telling stories about what they see and hear around them.

Writing, then, is not a matter of genius or great talent; it demands many things, including a love of language and certainly an interest in people.  And whatever time we can find in our busy lives to record the often amusing, shocking, ironic, or disturbing details of ordinary life might be enough--if we stay committed to the task.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Inspiration is Overrated

I am not a great believer in artistic inspiration, that is, in writers waiting for the muse to stir them into creative action. I believe in plunging in and getting started.

In addressing writer's block, a topic on my mind this week as I prepare to teach my annual writing workshop, I usually refer to my own experience and the comments of successful authors who value the importance of reading and observing as key ways to develop ideas for fiction or non-fiction.  And I value the work of Julia Cameron, William Zinsser, and many others who advise beginning writers not to sit and wait but write: anything you jot down can become the beginning of something to develop.

Sometimes just paying attention to the people around you will be enough to provide an amusing or revealing incident that might figure into a piece of writing.  Everyday, it seems, I hear something that I file away for possible use.

Today, a 94-year-old friend nearby, shuffling along toward her church with her walker, came to a low fence around a parking lot that impeded her progress, so she threw her walker over the barrier and then climbed across.  It might have been only mildly amusing, if I had seen it instead of hearing it recounted. But knowing the lady involved, and what a determined Irishwoman she is, I suspect many stories could be told about her adventures in living.

So a valuable piece of advice for writers is: observe what's in  front of you. Observe it closely.  Make note of it. Maybe you can use it in some future writing. If not, the act of writing it out in your journal is itself a breaking down of a fear barrier.

Observing what's in front of us is one of those "centering devices" that keep us grounded in the present moment; the result is that our busy minds are less likely to be scattered and full of the tension that inhibits creativity. Being relaxed, and having no interruptions, is important.

Of course, a certain amount of "stage fright" is inevitable as we compose--and probably healthy as the unconscious mind thinks about potential readers. Getting started, even for an experienced author, can be a challenge. I think of how Hemingway worked: he wrote "one true sentence," then another; and soon he had a paragraph.  Some days, that was enough.  Even just one thoughtfully composed sentence was enough to build confidence.

I quote John McPhee:  "If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer."

(This is an excellent example, by the way, of those right-handed or periodic sentences in which the main idea is held until the end. We don't use them a lot, but they have a unique emphasis Concern with style is part of the revising process, once the initial draft has been done.)

A writer needs many things, patience and a good sense of humor topping the list; he or she should not expect divine inspiration.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

At least be interesting

"If you can't be funny," Harold Ross used to tell his writers at the New Yorker years ago, "at least be interesting."  He was the founding editor of that magazine, which continues to maintain high editorial standards in everything from comedy to commas.

His advice is not bad for such a publication and for the kind of non-fiction books I especially savor, the latest being at 2010 book by Dianne Hales, Bella Lingua, which succeeds in being informative and entertaining at the same time.

Being a sometime student of Italian, who taught Dante and longs for a third trip to Italy, I have long appreciated most things Italian: the food, the music, the culture, and, of course, the musical, playful language.  This is what Hales manages to capture in her book.

It's remarkable that an American with no knowledge of the language or country managed to immerse herself in the Italian language with such enthusiasm and good humor that she makes the reader--or at least me--want to read on, beyond the opening chapters.

What is the secret of her success? The main one is that she provides a bounty of examples of what Italians say, and don't say: they don't have a word for "lonely," she points out, or for "spelling."  There is no need for either, for reasons she explains.  And some words, like brio and gusto and inamorata, are untranslatable.  So is Bravo!

Hales gives the earthy and colorful details of Italian speech so that the reader gets a sense of the country and its people: the emotional pull is there.  And so is wit and a lively writing style and a feel as I'm reading that I am there on that beautiful peninsula.

The reason, as she makes clear, is that a love of a people's language opens the door to their soul.  And Italian, the most musical of tongues, is also the most emotionally expressive.  The words are mostly easy to pronounce and play with, and Hales clearly enjoys her subject and knows how to make it interesting--the hallmark of good writing.

Any topic can be rendered dull or interesting, depending on the way an author approaches his or her subject. Mere knowledge of the subject is never enough.
It takes an effortless ease and grace that the Italians call (in another untranslatable word) "sprezzatura," in which what is challenging is made to look easy.

This book has made me eager to return to the study of Italiano, so to its skillful author I say, Bravo!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Parenting and Writing

I've been reading about the 4th volume of a series of books by a writer from Norway, Karl Knausgaard, called The Struggle.  His struggle is to find time, as a stay-at-home dad busy with three young children, to get writing done amid the endless chores that make up parenting.

His solution: after some frustration at having no time to write, along with a desire to get as close as possible to life in his writing, he decided to capture the daily flow of life as it happens, in all its details. The result, so far, is an autobiography of 3,600 pages.

He says in an interview that the children might take time from his writing, but they also open up time for him, allowing him a new sense of time as felt by kids.  Children live in a moment-to-moment kind of ordinary, uneventful time basic to family intimacy. Adults who write rarely tap into this.

And so, he has discovered the material, often tedious perhaps to recount and read, provided by describing cooking meals, cleaning up, reading stories, and all the rest. In the process he says he re-examines his own childhood memories, which are so limited in comparison with the immense amount of time he now spends with his children. And this leads to questions about memory:  how can I know that the particular events from childhood I remember now were decisive in making me who I am and not all the others of which I remember nothing?

How does a writer sort out the noteworthy from the ordinary in everyday life?  That is always a question for the writer of fiction, memoir and autobiography: what to include, what to exclude. And, of course, how to find time to think and write, apart from the busy-ness of duties. Knausgaard seems to have found a solution to such questions that works for him.

Although he may end up boring the reader, Knausgaard keeps himself faithful to the child's perspective, in which every little event is of great interest and the focus of attention. Yet, in what I have read of his books and the interview, I see no reference to his concern about the reader.  Is he not concerned about conveying something interesting to readers, something they will want to learn more about, or does he just assume that realistic/naturalistic fiction is, like certain documentary films that unfold in real time, interesting merely because of its ordinary details?

I brought up this topic of the role of the reader in my post of April 7: "Why Write?" At issue was the author of a diary turned into a journal that seemed to avoid the key issue of communication. Any topic can be made interesting by its style and selection of details, yet I worry about anything written to be published that doesn't concern itself about being interesting to someone other than the author. 

If Knausgaard raises issues of childhood time and memory, as he did in the interview I read, if he goes beyond the mundane details of cooking dinner, his 3,600-page opus may prove to be worth the reader's time.

My source for this post is the article by Elaine Blair in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. I found the review-article fascinating, but I doubt if I'll ever be motivated to read any of the four volumes of Mr. Knausgaard's experiment with real-time narrative.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What makes good historical fiction

I have never been a great fan of historical fiction. It seems that most of the novels that I tried reading, often involving the Tudor period in England, seemed contrived, with  artificial dialogue resembling furniture that's been antiqued.  Lately, I have encountered some fiction rooted in the 20th century, where I feel more at home or, I should say, where the author and I feel more comfortable.

One of the very best in this genre is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, recommended to me by someone in the audience at my talk on Hemingway last month at the University Club in Winter Park.  Hearing what I had to say about Hadley Richardson and the Paris years of Ernest Hemingway, she said, "you must read this book."

I find McLain's novel a template of what makes historical fiction function well. First, the author is clearly immersed in her subject, having read probably everything, including the letters, of the people involved; as a result, she captures the rhythm of their sentences in her own elegant style. It helps that McLain is a published poet since her language is original without being showy, and her sentences sparkle: "we wore navy-blue skirts," she writes, "with knife-sharp points."  Ernest at 21 is "white hot with life."

As a result, the reader--at least I--can feel the energy of the man, which is easily reduced to a cliché, as in Woody Allen's otherwise charming movie, Midnight in Paris. Her style brings the characters to life in a way that rings true for someone like me who had read a lot about and by Hemingway over many years.

The result of reading the novel is the true litmus test of historical fiction: I forget at times I am reading fiction. It all seems real! This is made possible by something recommended by Wendell Berry in his poem "How to be a Poet": "you must depend upon affection."

Reading and knowledge are important for a writer, along with narrative skill and the careful revision of every sentence, but McLain's success begins with her obvious love of her material. Her enthusiasm draws me in so I have an immediate affection for Hadley and even the young Hemingway. She is able to convey the tragic family background of her narrator, Hadley, whose father committed suicide, with subtle feeling but no sentimentality.

She has also organized the narrative crisply, with clear transitions when flashbacks occur; and the novel is concise. No doubt I came to this book with a bias in its favor, having just spent a lot of time on Hemingway's life and the women in it, but I never expected a female novelist to bring alive the man's charisma:  "He grinned a grin that began in his eyes and went everywhere at once. . .  .He moved like light. He never stopped moving--or thinking or dreaming apparently."

(I say "female" novelist because Hemingway has been famously unpopular with many women readers; of course, McLain's real subject is his first wife.)

I have no formula for good historical fiction, and I doubt if I would ever attempt a historical novel since I can see the great challenge involved: making real, well-known people into fictional characters who have an imaginative life, apart from the facts of history; and not letting the facts dominate. Letting, rather, the affection dominate, as McLain admirably does.