Old Moon

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Who is Your Muse?

Recently I read one writer's views on muses. Her contention is that love and longing make poor muses because something as tough and enduring as art can't arise from anything as fragile and fleeting as love. I think I beg to differ. It's hard to imagine (at least for me) anything more stimulating to the metaphorical impulse than loss. And loss is as great as its opposite: love.

The way human beings deal with loss has been an ongoing theme in my writing since I began trying to put ideas on paper. My first published short story was about loss, so was my third. It is the stimulus for the poetry I try to produce now.

If there is an artistic problem with this it is probably the danger of bathos. When I read some contemporary poets, and the best prose, however, it becomes clear that a good many fine writers know how to escape that snare. I need not refer to the Victorians or the 17th Century greats--there are so many who have taken off from the emotional fall into bereavement--from persons or ideals or places, especially from innocence--to produce iconic works of art. Even the contemplation of losses still to come have been spurs to send out a writer's talent at full gallop.

I might as well admit that I'm disagreeing with one of the best writers in English: Francine Prose. I would like very much to hear what you think!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Is Everybody a Writer?

I suppose in a literal sense, everybody is a writer who can handle a writing implement, read, and has been taught how to make meaningful marks on paper. Have you noticed how many contests show up daily inviting all readers to submit their own personal stories? Sometimes there's a contest with monetary reward, sometimes the story had better prove the desirability of a product, sometimes the payoff is merely "publication," which might be on line or in print.

The problem I have with this is that I don't understand the attraction for the average computer user. We all have blogs, Facebook and other "social networking" sites available at all times. If we just want to make words public, they should be enough, shouldn't they? Is everyone equipped to provide free advertising copy, free publicity, free testimonials to people and firms whose interest has little or nothing to do with real writing, and less with literature? Even some publishers who solicit material from anyone willing to submit annoy me. I've given in to the hope of finding my work between hard covers myself, but on reflection, I wonder if these enterprises can provide the exposure serious writers are hoping for.

Is the large number of open submissions devaluing authorship?
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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bucket List and Teaching

There is probably a list for everyone, and they aren't all the same. Sometimes I suspect we don't know all of the entries. I think I may have checked off one of mine yesterday. Years ago when I first got serious about writing, I longed to go to a full-fledged writers' conference. As it happened, I was close enough to one of the most well-known if I could gather the necessary funds. My ever supportive husband agreed to hold the home fort if I could manage. Thanks to a scholarship on the strength of a short story I submitted, I got to go. The experience is another story. Yesterday, nearly 25 years later, I went to a poetry workshop.

What does one expect of a poetry workshop? After a lifetime of writing the occasional poem, teaching the usual (well, maybe not so usual) poetry units to high school students, my concentration until recently has been on prose--nice, carefully worded, it is to be hoped grammatical and clear prose. Poetry, however, has captured my attention since I have needed its therapeutic effects so much more than ever before, so I decided to try this out.

It's only fair to add that one reason I wanted to do this was that one of the presenters (?) leaders(?) (teachers?) was to be the editor who has been such a help and support on my novel-in-progress. I wanted to meet him.

As this was my first acquaintance with such an activity, I cannot compare with anything else. The time allotted was short, less than an hour. By using one basic technique (new to me) and  a wonderfully layered poem as an example, he taught us would-be poets a lesson that is doubly useful: one way to evaluate another poet's work, and a means of testing our own. If the price had been double its modest $10, it would have been worth it.

Talented teachers are among my biggest heroes. It doesn't really matter how they arrived or where they got their inspirations or their own lessons.  My first big conference had Joyce Carol Oates as the keynote speaker. She taught us that all art (in her opinion) derives from play. Now I can recall much of the argument she offered in support of that idea. One of the lecturers on fiction was Madison Smartt Bell, who first used in my hearing the wonderful term "architecture of fiction." These brief catch phrases serve to remind me of the points being made in those inspiring lectures, and now the "end words" of poetic lines highlighted by Richard Krawiec are added to my by-words as a writer.

These teachers are as rare as black tulips and blue roses. So herewith advice to aspirants in any field:  if you can find one of these special people, take anything they have to offer.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Cry of Anguish

A friend has just passed on to me some work by a fifteen-year-old girl with a request for comments. It consists of part of a "story" (unfinished, according to its author) and two poems. Whatever an older generation may think when faced with extreme psychological pain and general teen angst, it seems to me that we shouldn't ignore what are so often cries in the wilderness.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the role of self-expression on paper as therapy. What becomes less clear to me rather than more, is how much of such material is worthy of dissemination. I have never had the money or privilege of psychiatry to help in difficulties, and my sense is that some of our most emotionally charged and passionate utterances most likely belong in the offices of practitioners. What I'm not mentioning is the legion of artists whose productions have become part of the literary, musical, and artistic canon. The point seems to be that to be an artist of whatever medium and still be able to evaluate these outpourings for their intrinsic value is perhaps the greatest talent of all.

What can I say to this young person (or should I say anything at all) that is honest without being yet another layer of misery to pile on what she has already revealed? Not only is the material "dark," it has no appeal to an outsider. The characters are two-dimensional: the author is a victim with no other revealed characteristics; her teacher and classmates are cruel bullies. There is no context or back-story to illuminate the positions assigned to the characters, yet the reader can't escape the pain of the writer who seems to have no outlet and no hope.

I'm no longer a teacher, but there may be a reader of this blog who is, and who might have a comment on this kind of "creative writing." Is it best to read, use a platitude for response, and duck the issue? Should a reader assume the writer is honestly interested in comment on literary value? I know better than to correct the grammar and punctuation and spelling, but what should my position be?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day

Almost every hour of almost every day I am reminded--and today is another example. My husband always put our flag up on patriotic occasions. We have a socket for the pole affixed to the side of the house. No flag has graced it for more than a year now because I can't reach the socket, and perhaps couldn't heft the flag on its pole up there anyway.

Personal remarks like these seem trivial when we look at the big picture, of course, so herewith apologies. I have put the word "writer" in the subtitle of this blog. As such, I'd better grasp opportunities to prove I'm entitled to that moniker by exploiting any material for this space. At a late stage of life, I find more material than I have time to commit to paper, even if I'm willing to put ruminations out there where someone else can judge them. Then I think of those offerings from others that have been instructive or supportive or encouraging to me, and so here I go again.

First, anyone interested in memoir should have a look at the recent posting on Cool Plums Weblog. I may just be ready to declare a sort of independence day myself.

A problem with memoir, as I see it is that unless there is an extraordinary and/or exotic background (like Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) for the story, the autobiographer is in danger of sounding merely self-absorbed. Perhaps the author is. But I think in the best cases, as in a classroom, it's the obiter dicta--the throw-away remarks, the tone of voice (implied in the diction for a written piece, of course), the opinions that slip out that provide the fascination and usually, the instruction. The blog post mentioned above may give a good many people the courage to try the form once they get a feel for how to go about it while maintaining not only dignity, but credibility.

Enjoy your families, the grill, the fireworks, the pops concerts, and remember the occasion for the celebration today!