A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking

Doctor Atomic: “Batter My Heart”

John Adams

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerald Finley & Edward Gardner

Rave on John Donne

Van Morrison

A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking

AnthonisvanDyckSelfPortrait.jpg

Self Portrait

Anthony Van Dyck

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Anthonis_van_Dyck_008.jpg

In the Guardian recently were the first two in a series of articles on the poet John Donne, “John Donne, priest and poet, part 1: love, conscience and martyrdom” and “John Donne, priest and poet, part 2: theologian who played with poetic form.” The articles focus on the intensity of his thought and how seriously he pursued life and the choices life placed in his way. The second of the articles addresses Ben Jonson’s criticism of Donne, that “for not keeping of accent, (he) deserved hanging.” Roz Kaveney, the author of the articles, thinks there is a purpose to this failure, that Donne demonstrated the ability to keep accent very well when he wanted to, but that some things were so serious that the subject had to take precedence over the mechanics and that there is a very deliberate message in this. This message may not have been appreciated as much in his own time as it is in ours and in the time immediately preceding ours, the time of Eliot and the moderns. His poetry was largely ignored for a very long time, but fortunately it was not lost. I remembered finding, shortly after finishing graduate school, a copy of the Grierson edition of Donne’s poetry that preserved the spelling and orthography. I had used this edition when writing my masters thesis on Donne, and I loved the blue bindings and the thick pages of the Oxford edition. Packaging is important.

The music suggests that Donne’s influence is still felt. It blends together two songs, one from an Opera, Dr. Atomic, By John Adams and a folk-rock song by Van Morrison. The Morrison song is not just about Donne, but about poetry, poets, and their influence on the world and how the world changes. Still, these songs suggest the depth and breadth of Donne’s influence. The opera is about the making of the atomic bomb and Adam’s puts the words of Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV into the mouth of Oppenheimer, who oversaw the bomb’s creation. It is a kind of plea for forgiveness. The Morrison song connects Donne to the nuclear age as well, suggesting that, even if he did not foresee this awesomely destructive weapon, he understood what it was in the human heart that could imagine its creation and bring it into the world. The Guardian published another article recently about poetry and contemporary music, “I will show you Arcade Fire in a handful of dust: why pop music loves T. S. Eliot.” This article, too, addresses popular culture and the influence of poetry, T. S. Eliot’s poetry specifically, on contemporary music. For all that is said about the waning influences of “high” culture on “popular” culture there is evidence that the two have more than a passing acquaintance.

The painting above was painted by a contemporary of John Donne’s, Anthony Van Dyck. What intrigues me about the painting is that it almost suggests a style that will not come into fashion for a couple of more centuries. This may just be because it is an early painting by a young artist who has not yet found his true “style.” But when I look at it, the painting, for reason that may not be entirely clear, reminds me of Augustus John’s painting below of Dylan Thomas. There is something in the eyes and hair and, perhaps, the look that seem similar to me. But what I like about it is what I like about Augustus John’s painting, it is not entirely realistic, it is an impression. The painters are treating their subjects in much the same way poets treat theirs. They remind me of the lines from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Man with the Blue Guitar:”

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

This suggest to me that artists, poets, painters, or whatever the case may be, use the “tools” of their craft to present “reality” in ways that are unique to their vision. Stevens seems to suggest it is not his fault but the fault of “the blue guitar,” the typewriter, pencil, whatever the implement used to shape the work of art may be. Who knows where inspiration comes from, how the words, or the colors, or the shapes find their way from the artists imagination to the canvas, the page, whatever the medium may be. Stevens seems to suggest that he certainly does not understand where it comes from and that the audience will just have to take it, the poem, the song, the painting, on its own terms.

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Dylan Thomas

Augustus John

http://www.englishwordplay.com/poetry.html

I think that poets are like painters in that they are not bound to reality, to things as they appear. They both present impressions, abstractions, expressions that capture more than the things themselves. A professor of mine once aid that a lyric poem, unlike a story, does not progress, but circles its object and looks at it from many different angles. Where a story must move on a poem can linger. Often it is with a poem, as with a painting, its ability to capture the common place and imbue with something unusual, something very uncommon, that makes it so appealing. D. H. Lawrence wrote a short poem “The Third Thing:”

Water is H20, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,

But there is also a third thing, that makes it water

And nobody knows what that is.

The atom locks up two energies

But it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.

There is in most things no matter how common a “third thing” that makes it what it is and that thing is magical, it is mysterious, and it is this third thing that poetry often captures.

HansHofmannTheGate.jpg

The Gate

Hans Hofmann

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Hofmann%27s_painting_%27The_Gate%27,_1959–60.jpg

There was a talk given by Will Self, “A Point of View: In Defense of Obscure Words,” about how modern culture is being oversimplified, that we, as a culture, pursue what is quick, what is easy, we are “risk averse” whether that risk is a physical or a mental risk. Stories, poems, paintings, music, any of the arts that reward often require time and energy spent learning how to understand them. The painting is called The Gate but it is not a painting of a gate that we are familiar with, though once we see title we sort of understand the picture a little better. But we have to spend time with it. It may reward this investment of time, it may not, part of this depends on taste, but the meaning is not explicit and it must, like a Wallace Stevens poem, be considered and thought about. Self is concerned because he sees a society that thinks that because something is difficult to understand we need not try to understand it. He tells the story of a teacher who gives away the ending to the novel Great Expectations because knowing the summary of the story is enough and there is no need to bother with the whole of this “indigestible” novel. When I look at where I am asked to go, as a teacher of English, in order to comply with new state standards, it seems that this trivialization of literature and of art has now been legislated.

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Road with Cypress and Star

Vincent Van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Country_road_in_Provence_by_night.jpg

When I look at a painting like the one above I wonder what people see in it. I see something that is very moving, that touches my emotions in a very real and physical way, it is almost a pain, but a pleasant pain. But is this experience common to all viewers, or many viewers? The colors that are used are “pretty” colors. The people and the landscape have a “cartoonish” quality to them. Is this all that resonates, is this all that people see? I think there is something inherent in the beautiful that is true, that runs deep and that affects people in ways they may not understand. But the truth of the art is real and that even if it is trivialized to sell insurance (I remember an ad put out by Pacific Life where a painted whale morphs through the styles of Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat, Calder, and Picasso, it was an effective ad, but it was selling insurance not art) its truth cannot be suppressed. I think that no matter what is done to marginalize art as long as it is present it will speak to those that experience it. I do not think it is always necessary for my students to enjoy Dickens, Austen, Chaucer, Baldwin, add whatever name works for you, it is only necessary for them to be exposed to these books. The stories will haunt them, they will “not go gentle into that good night” they will “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” They will live and they will resonate in the unconscious if they are put there. For some the response will be immediate, but for others, the response will come much later. Maybe for some, the art will remain forever silent, but I would like to think that is not so. I do not think it is my job to make others see the light, only to keep the light lit so that when the time comes it can be seen.

AugustMackeStMarys.jpg

St. Mary’s with Houses and Chimney (Bonn)

August Macke

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:August_Macke_030.jpg

In this painting we see the modern, chimneys and apartment buildings living side by side with the ancient, the church steeples. The old is forever with us, it does not go away. It is there to remind us that every generation leaves its mark and those that come after have to make their mark in a way that acknowledges what came before. Notice the decorative carving at the top of the chimney that in some ways mirror details in the church spires. Art can remind us that objects can be beautiful and functional at the same time, that there is no reason why the tools we make, the buildings we live in, the cars we drive, cannot do their very necessary jobs and be esthetically pleasing at the same time. If you ever visit Edward Gorey’s house, you will notice he was intrigued with different kinds of pliers and they are sprinkled throughout the house like little alligators watching over things. There was something about their form that was beautiful to Gorey. We are not better people because we develop artistic sensibilities, because we appreciate what is beautiful and desire to fill our world with beauty, but as Kaveney says of Donne, whether we share his beliefs, his faith, it is important to wrestle with the issues he wrestles with, and that something beautiful can come from this engagement. Whatever else may or may not be true, people in ugly surroundings are often depressed and people in beautiful surroundings, though they may not be made happy by these surroundings, find solace in them.

Metaphorically Speaking

James Geary

TED Talk

The film clip discusses the importance of metaphor in our lives. At their heart metaphors are basically poetic, they are impressionist paintings that do not show what something is but what something is like. Often a thing’s name does not tell us much. A hammer is a tool that can be useful or cause harm, depending on how it is used. When the hammer is used metaphorically it is used to reveal something that is true about something else that we cannot see when we look at that something else. Romeo calls Juliet “the sun” because, in the words of a popular song she “lights up” Romeo’s life. But one thing that is often true of metaphors is that the object used for comparison has many facets and often they are not always positive or always negative. The same literal sun that lights up Romeo’s life can burn if he stays to long in its presence, it can be dangerous. So also can love and the beloved. In the play it kills him and her. Often when we think metaphorically we focus on a particular connotation. Romeo is oblivious to the dangers of love; he only sees its light, its beauty (even though he has had recent experience with its unpleasant side). But though Romeo is unaware of the dark side of his metaphor, the audience, perhaps is not, and almost certainly Shakespeare was not.

The value of metaphorical, poetic thought is that it is complex, that it does make demands on our emotions, our thoughts, and our imaginations. That is why we develop our metaphor making skills. All allusions have a metaphoric side to them. When Adams places Donne’s sonnet in his opera he is expecting the audience to recognize the source of the aria, and to, perhaps, be reminded of other sonnets in this cycle, like, perhaps, “Death be not proud.” The audience may also be familiar with other things Donne wrote that the quoted passage may evoke, like “No man is an island” and “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” from Donne’s “Meditation 17” which is all about how we are all involved in the lives of our neighbors. To think metaphorically is a skill, a skill that must be trained and developed. It is a skill that enables us to see beneath the surface of things. They require an educated mind; a curious mind. In the jargon of the day, they require “critical thinking skills.” And nothing brings about the death of something important more quickly than by making it into a “catch phrase” used unthoughtfully day by day.

As a literature teacher it is important to me that students experience the exasperation, frustration, and trauma that comes from trying to make sense of complex and layered language; language that does not say explicitly what it has to say, but requires us to explore the caverns that lie beneath its surface. Like many things that are unpleasant, that are frustrating, that are confusing when we first encounter them, literature, poetry, stories, essays, that begin by tormenting us end by healing us, by revealing ourselves to ourselves if we will only mine their depths.

AugustusJohnYeats.jpg

W. B. yeats

Augustus John

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Augustus_John_-_Yeats.jpg

Where Dreams are Found

Sonny’s Blues

Jean Redpath

Where Dreams are Found

HenriRousseauACarnivalEvening.jpg

A Carnival Evening

Henri Rousseau

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Henri_Rousseau_-_A_Carnival_Evening.jpg

The song is about a young man who becomes an old man who never pursues his dreams because his mother needs him at home, sort of like Luke Skywalker’s uncle needs Luke about the farm. Later in the song we are told:


Sonny’s dreams can’t be real, they’re just stories he’s read

They’re just stars in his eyes, they’re just dreams in his head

And he’s hungry inside for the wide world outside

And I know I can’t hold him though I’ve tried and I’ve tried


The lyric tells us that Sonny’s dreams can’t be real because they are just stories, stories from books, stories he’s been told, or stories from films, television, and songs that are just made up. The school where I teach is reconsidering its curriculum. We are told on the one hand that the new standards require students to do more with non-fiction and real life type “stuff.” Fiction, of course, is all made up and therefore it can’t be real and cannot really tell us much about life and how it is lived, or so some would suggest to us. Of course it should be remembered that there is a great deal of non-fiction that, if read correctly, is going to be read for more than just the information it provides, that is a body of literature as worthy of study as any important work of fiction, but I fear non-fiction of this variety is seen to be as irrelevant to the school curriculum as the fiction that is being replaced.

They tell us that for the study of literature to have value it must provide students the opportunity to search and to find information. There is no point, for example, to studying Macbeth (or perhaps Edmund Burke or John Locke) if this study does not result in students learning facts they did not previously know; facts that will be useful to them in the future. The future, it seems, is all about gathering information and finding proper uses for it. I think Macbeth has much to teach us, but I do not know if there are many useful facts to be found.

The painting is of a clown and a woman standing under a cloudy, starlit sky. The title tells us it is a painting of a “carnival evening.” I am not sure what an evening must possess in order for it to be a carnival, but the painting captures whatever that something is. There was an article in the New York Times, “The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules”, about Maurice Sendak and other writers of children’s stories that did not play by the rules, whatever the rules are. There is much that is dreamlike, especially in Sendak, in the stories that these and other writers of children’s books tell. C. S. Lewis said of his Narnia books that they began with a dream he had of a faun standing by a lamppost in the middle of a snowy wood. On one level there is, of course, nothing real in a dream. On another, though, the stuff of dreams is immensely important and it silhouettes some of the deeper realities of our lives, realities that are perhaps too difficult to face in a more realistic setting.

Even if we do not believe what the likes of Jung and Freud tell us about dreams, the literature of the world, both sacred and profane, gives great significance to dreams. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is packed with allegorical dreams. I particularly enjoy all the dreams that the various knights seeking the Holy Grail have. They are dreams that contain important information, life and death information, and there is always someone, usually a monk or hermit of some kind, who can tell the knight what the dream means. On at least one occasion the interpreter of the dream is a fraud whose interpretation of the dream is also a fraud. Dreams being what they are, it is not difficult to spin them in a number of different ways, not all of which are enlightening. There is a message here as well; that it is not enough to dream, but it is also important to understand our dreams correctly.

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Nightfall down the Thames

John Atkinson Grimshaw

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Grimshaw-NightfallThames.jpg

But what has all this to do with curriculum standards and the usefulness of fiction? Aristotle thought that poetry, and by poetry we soon realize he means story telling, has value because, unlike history, it does not tell us what has happened, but what might be. Aristotle also thought that stories show us how a philosophy of life might be lived out. They answer (or suggest answers) to questions like: What are the implications of our philosophy for our futures? How do our beliefs guide our choices? What does our philosophy teach us? The problem with non-fiction, or much of it and certainly the kind of non-fiction the proponents of the new standards seem to have in mind, is that it just presents information that we can accumulate, it does not make us wise, it does not teach us what to do with the information once we acquire it. The paintings above and below are of seaports, one on the River Thames and one on the River Clyde. This is suggestive because these seaports are not on the sea but on rivers that lead to the sea. What is important is not where we are, but where we can get to from where we are. What is important in what we read is not the information that is conveyed, but where that information can take us. A manual that shows us how to properly set up and configure our computers tells us nothing about why we would want or need to set up and configure that computer in the first place.

ShippingontheClyde.jpg

Shipping on the Clyde

John Atkinson Grimshaw

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shipping_on_the_Clyde.jpg

Both of the seaports are shrouded in mist. This mist limits our vision, we cannot see as far in a fog as we can when the horizons are clear and sunlit. To read for information only, without a clear idea as to what the value of the information is, or to even care if it has value, is to read in a fog and at the end of the day all we will have is information without an imagination adequate enough to put that information to good use, or to pass judgment on it and discard it when it has no use or is, worse yet, deceptive or unhealthy. I was told when I was in school that medieval scholars believed everything they read in books, even when what they read in different books was contradictory. This was both a strength and a weakness; a strength because it prodded them to seek synthesis, to find a way to bring these contradictory ideas together to reveal a hopefully deeper truth. A weakness because it produced a kind of naiveté that gave greater value to some of what they read than was warranted or even wise. There is something of this medieval view in the attitude we are being encouraged to take towards non-fiction. It is what justifies the teaching of informational texts in place of literature. But reading for information only is not reading critically, it is premised on the belief that what is written in books must be true and therefore can be trusted.

I am sure that I am oversimplifying the new curriculum standard and the way it is being presented, but one of the things that reading literature does, if we read deeply and well, is to make judgments about characters and ideas and the implications of the actions of the characters in the stories. When we read books like The Catcher in the Rye or The Turn of the Screw we must evaluate the narrators and the validity of the stories they are telling us. For even if these narrators truly believe the stories that they tell and believe they are telling us what happened as it truly happened, we see throughout their narratives that they are not reliable witnesses. In many ways they are the most convincing witnesses against the truth of the story they tell. We in our lives will encounter every day people who will tell us stories that cannot be true, even though on occasion the people telling the stories may honestly believe in the truth of the tale they tell.

When we read fiction well we are learning from experience, from experiences we are having with other people who, even if they are fictional, are forcing us to make judgments about what they say and do and we avoid these judgments to our peril. If we read the books mentioned above for information alone all we know at the end of the story is that Holden Caulfield had a harrowing few days in New York City and a child died in a governess’ arms. What we do not know is whether the most harrowing events are taking place in the city or in the mind of the young narrator or if the governess is the child’s protector or his killer.

PaulCezanneChateauNoir.jpg

Château Noir

Paul Cezanne

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Cézanne_026.jpg

There is another value to reading fiction and that relates to Aristotle’s first point about the value of stories; that they show us what might be. They stimulate the imagination. Neal Stephenson in an article in the World Policy Journal, “Innovation Starvation”, suggests that many of the advancements in science and technology that took place in the 1950’s and 1960’s had their origins in science fiction novels that speculated about the future. And even where the predictions in these novels did not come to pass, they still stimulated the imagination. Stephenson talks about waking up early to watch the old Gemini mission launches. I remember waking up to watch not only the Gemini launches, but the Mercury launches as well and like Stephenson I followed the space program from its glorious beginnings to its more mundane ending. It seems to me that as our cultural imagination went into decline so did our cultural ambitions. We exchanged a dream of visiting other planets and solar systems for a fleet of celestial cargo ships. When the imagination necessary to pursue the dream declined and vanished, the dream died. It is not necessary that the new dreams that replace the old involve space travel, but they do need to involve something large, something that inspires and rekindles our enthusiasm for accomplishing the sublime.

 

What We Learned from 5 Million Books

TED Talks

The video is not just about collecting books digitally so that they will always be with us, but about the power of language and the value of preserving that language. Aiden and Michel in their presentation point out that much has been lost and is unrecoverable from antiquity. It may be that much, even most, of what has been lost has been lost for good reason. But we cannot know that for sure. There was a review of a new book by Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve, in the Guardian, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt – review”. The book tells the story of the re-discovery of Lucretius’ book On the Nature of Things, a book that had been lost for many centuries and existed only as oblique references in the work of other ancient authors. The name of Lucretius was known as was the name of the book, but the book itself was lost. This book that was lost and was found went on to inspire many Renaissance writers, thinkers, and scientists. The Guardian is of the opinion that Greenblatt’s claims may be a bit exaggerated, but it recognizes the value of the book itself.

In another review in the New York Times, The Almost-Lost Poem That Changed the World” (which you must be a subscriber to the New York Times to read) Greenblatt is quoted saying, “I am constantly struck,” Greenblatt told The Harvard Gazette in 2000, when he was named a university professor, “by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago.” And this is at the heart of why we read literature. Books are letters of a sort, a kind of correspondence where we communicate with those long dead because the content of the conversation will always have relevance if we take the time to understand what is being said to us. Maimonides, St. Paul, Confucius, Homer, Scheherazade, and all the other writers long dead who continue to inspire the living and, if given the opportunity, many generations to come, desire to chat (and I use this word not to be flippant but to suggest the intensely personal nature of the conversation) with us. Like Socrates in the Agora they engage us with questions about life and how it is lived and what gives it meaning.

And even if we do not agree with their conclusions there is value in letting them help us shape our own conclusions, if only by accepting the challenge to think as deeply about things as they have thought, so that our conclusions, though different, will be as acutely considered. Or as Sarah Bakewell, quoting Petrarch, pointed out later in her New York Times review of the Greenblatt book, “Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.” I wonder if a book can have an impact this profound if it is read solely for information, or what is worse, if the only books we read are those that provide information to be gleaned without inspiring the reader to do much of substance with what’s been found.

 

MondrianRedTree.jpg

 

Red Tree

Piet Mondrian

http://www.artchive.com/artchive/M/mondrian/mondrian_red_tree.jpg.html

 

 


 

A Good Word, A Fine Phrase, A Printed Page


Paperback Writer
The Beatles

A Good Word, A Fine Phrase, A Printed Page

Artist in His Studio

Rembrandt
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_Artiest_in_zijn_studio,_1629..jpg

“So, I want to be a paperback writer.” The song is about someone who will do anything to get a book deal. It’s not about the money, it’s not about art, it’s about a place on the shelf at the local bookstore. If all goes well, the money and the art may follow. This is the dream of the writer, or at least the writer at the center of the song. But what is it a writer does and how do you teach someone to be a writer? The painting is by Rembrandt and it is of him in his studio trying to make a painting. When we think of the painter making his art we have a picture, we know what a painter at work looks like. Of course we do not really know what the work is the painter is doing, we only know what the painter looks like when he is working. When someone is trying to master the art of putting paint on canvas, we know what that looks like too. The work of course is in the mind and the imagination but we kid ourselves into believing we know what the artist at work and the artist in training look like and what it is they do.

The writer may be at a desk with pad and paper or a typewriter, but the pad may be blank, the typewriter silent. The work is entirely invisible. Even if the pen is moving and the typewriter is putting letters on a page the work is somehow separate from the movement of the pen or the keys. Perhaps the same is true of the painter and the bits of color and the fragments of an image are not much different from the ink on the page. But it seems that a painting in process looks more like “something” than a text in process, though both the painter and the writer begin by confronting an empty space.

Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo
Lloyd Arnold
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ErnestHemingway.jpg

The photograph of Hemingway was taken for the dust jacket of one of his books. It was intended to show the writer at work. It is a staged picture and it looks a bit staged. Anyone who has read A Moveable Feast knows how Hemingway presented his approach to the writing process and it wasn’t sitting at a typewriter banging away at keys. It was working and reworking sentences until they were “true.” Critics can argue over how true those sentences were in fact but he labored over them until they were true to him, or so he tells us. There is also a romance to this image of the writer punching keys. Hemingway is alleged to have said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” I think he thought these “sports” because they involved personal risk and the one engaged in the sport was risking her or his life in way a football player or baseball player does not. Perhaps by this definition writing is a sport as well. It certainly proved deadly for Hemingway.

As an English teacher I struggle with teaching writing. I do not believe anyone can be taught an art but they can be taught the craft that the individual can transform into art and proceed from craftsman to artist. I do not expect that many of my students will attempt this transformation, though I know some will. Most just want to know what they need to know to write a college paper so they can go on and get a college degree, in other words they need to become craftsmen with words. I do not know of any other way to become a good writer than by writing. This makes for a lot of repetition and drill in the classroom. My experience is that the more students write the better they write. They must spend some time building vocabulary, looking at what good writing looks like, and thinking about what they want to say. But to write well they must write regularly, But in the class much of this is monotonous and dull. Each day of each school year I wrestle with how to make this interesting. But writing is a solitary business and writers must bring their own excitement to the process. This is difficult to do when all the student aspires to is competency or something less than competency. For most of them this is not a sport.

Plot Chart for Harlot’s Ghost
Norman Mailer
http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2008/11/images-from-the.html

This paragraph is sandwiched between two images of two different writers’ process (or at least a part of their process) for constructing a novel. The image above is Norman Mailer’s plot chart for one of his novels, Harlot’s Ghost. It demonstrates that he had a plan when he wrote, someplace he wanted to get to. The book is a long book and the chart looks complicated. I do not know how closely he followed this chart but it is evidence that though inspiration may be a part of the process, it is certainly not the whole of the process; in fact it may be a very small part of the process. The other image is of Julian Barnes’ “completion scheme” for one of his books, Flaubert’s Parrot. I am not sure how to read the chart but it looks like he is trying to bring loose ends together, but that may be just my take on what I see. But it shows that careful thought and planning goes into the making of a book. It goes into the making of any piece of writing of consequence, from the term paper to the Great American Novel.

Completion Scheme Flaubert’s Parrot

Julian Barnes

http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2008/11/images-from-the.html

But what is equally important to notice is that Barnes and Mailer do not approach their compositional problems in the same way and there is a lesson in this as well. As writers, whether we write as craftsmen or as artists, we have to have a method that works for us, that can help us put words on a piece paper when the words will not put themselves there, that will help us when the inspiration does not come, or after the inspiration has come and gone and the real work of writing begins. It is my experience with the writing process that the words that come most directly from inspiration are usually the worst words I write and the hardest words to part with. There is an emotional investment in words that flow from inspiration. It felt good getting these words and writing them was a thrilling exercise, it was form of ecstasy, a kind of “speaking in tongues.”

These words are important because they begin the process and wonderful things can follow from them, but they are words about which it is difficult to be objective and when the emotions clear and objective thought returns they are often embarrassing. But the words in which I take some pride would probably not have come if those that embarrass had not come first. This is part of the work of writing. This is what it means to be truthful. If we are not truthful with ourselves about what we have written our words cannot be true for others.

There was an article in The Guardian this weekend about Australian writers and their use of language. It was called “Australian Authors Defend Language.” There are many countries in the world that have English as their national language. But none of these English speaking nations speak entirely the same language. They have all evolved differently. For example, when the first Harry Potter book was published in England it was called Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. The stone that Nicholas Flamel in fact created was the philosopher’s stone that was sought by all the medieval alchemists. For American audiences, though, the title was changed. Perhaps Americans had less experience with alchemy and with philosopher’s stones but the publishers obviously thought that “The Sorcerer’s Stone” would play better with American readers than “Philosopher’s Stone.”

The problem for Australian writers though goes deeper than this. When a book that began in Australia does well in America it is often in part because the American publishers Americanize the text. This wouldn’t normally be a problem for Australian books in Australia but the Australian government wants to change import laws so that the American editions can be sold in Australia. The end result is that the Australian vernacular is purged from successful Australian literature. For Australian writers this must be terribly frustrating because part of what a writer does is capture a reality that is real for the writer.

When foreign publishers can do what they want to a writer’s work what happens to that work? Is it really the author’s work any more but the work of an anonymous editor someplace? What does it say about a nation when it is willing to sacrifice the purity of its literary tradition for a few dollars more in profits? Mark Twain said, “The Difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightening bug.” What happens to a literary tradition when non-literary folks are able to change the “right word” into “almost the right word” and transform a writers lightning into the lightning bug?

Finding Forrester – “You’re the Man Now Dog”
Columbia Pictures

This clip from the film Finding Forrester makes a point about an aspect of the writing process. Forrester tells his young student to sit at the typewriter and type. Don’t think just type. He is trying to get the student to see that the writer has to have something to work with and words on a page are the writer’s tools. I think this is good advice. I try to encourage students to do a first draft of any essay they do for me as a free write. That trying to make a first draft the finished draft is often an invitation to writer’s block. But what Forrester does not address, and perhaps he did not need to address, is where do the ideas come from. For a writer of fiction the ideas, or at least the initial idea, often comes from inspiration.

Research can be done for a story, but research rarely produces a story. But for the student writing an essay for class the research often comes first, there is a topic that was assigned or selected. That topic is then researched and the paper is written. To do the first draft students must fill their minds with the information that can feed that draft. But I think it is best to write quickly and freely and then edit and revise later. But it is often the editing and the revising that the students are trying to avoid. Anthony Trollope once said, “There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily.” But for most who see writing as a means to something else and not as an end in itself, writing quickly and easily is the goal.

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt

Claude Monet
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_River_Scene_at_Bennecourt,_Seine.jpg

I like this painting because it illustrates for me how sub-text works in a piece of writing. There is a house behind the trees under which the young lady is sitting. We cannot see the house because it is hidden behind the trees. But we know the house is there because we can see its reflection on the surface of the river. This is how sub-text works in writing, it is not said explicitly anywhere but it is reflected on the surface of the language from which the text is constructed. This for me is where the true interest in writing lies. It is in what the imagination of the reader must bring to the reading. The writer has put it there but the reader must find it. The reader must look at more than words on a page they must look for all that lives between the words and between the lines. It is in part here that the voice of the writer lives.