Novel-writing

My sister has this life-long friend who grew up on a farm. Raised cows, learned to drive a tractor at age 6, showed pigs at the county fair–the whole bit. She once described to us the process of delivering piglets, an ordeal my sister got to participate in. Third-grade arms deep inside the pig, little fetuses squirming to get out, blood and muck everywhere. When I saw Billy Crystal deliver a calf in City Slickers, I had some idea what it must have smelled like, thanks to my sister’s friend.

Birthing Revising my novel feels a little bit similar. I’m up to my elbows in the gory mess of my own words, and just when I think I’ve got hold of something, the walls constrict, grip my arm so I can’t move, and whatever I thought I had slips loose.

And everything stinks.

sigh

Labels

I’ve been contemplating my role in the classroom, and I decided — not as definition but as meditation — to explore the origins of all these labels we apply to ourselves. While I acknowledge that most of these etymologies have evolved to have entirely different connotations, I enjoy examining the beginnings of words as a way of unlocking or re-examining how we use them today. Some of these terms are more common than others (I, for instance, am a “lecturer,” but I am no longer a “tutor” in the conventional sense), but I’m including anything I can think of related to my role in education so as to better consider what exactly I’m doing. I’ve arranged them in three sections of “non-Sams,” “middlings,” and “Sams,” according to how I feel the etymologies reflect my views of education, but I don’t want to insist that my views are “correct” in any way — there are plenty of teachers whose preferred teaching styles fall into what I’m calling the “non-Sams”; I value their teaching and I’m glad there are different teaching styles to choose from.

Non-Sam:

  • Educator: From a Latin root for “to rear up” or “raise”; also related to a Latin word for “to lead.” To educate, then, is to raise up a younger student to a knowledgeable adult; also, it suggests that such knowledgeable adulthood is out there, somewhere, and the educator must “lead” the student to it.
  • Guru: Sanskrit for “weighty, grave, dignified.” While I revere gurus in general and while, if I had any formal gurus, I would revere them specifically, I have to include this in the non-Sams because it is the stereotype of the haughty professor who reviles students as pesky novices and who considers him- or herself as the all-knowing font of wisdom to which students must grovel for information.


Middling:

  • Instructor: From a Latin root meaning “to build, erect, or prepare.” To instruct someone is prepare someone for a life (see “educate”), but the structural uses of the root also suggest that there is in the student an innate foundation on which to “erect” the knowledgeable adult.
  • Lecturer: From a Latin root for “to read.” In essence, to lecture is read to our students, but there does not seem to be anything inherently instructive or interpretive about the act. We would simply be presenting information for the student to hear.
  • Tutor: From a Latin root for “to guard or watch”; a tutor, then, guards a student’s education. I like the protective aspects of this, as though we sincerely have our students’ best interests at heart, but I cringe at the implication that we are guarding not the student but the curriculum — that we are protecting the student against going down the “wrong” path in their education. Even this has its advantages, of course, because in protecting students against their own follies we are helping them effectively navigate their education, but I still worry about the judgmental aspect of “guardianship.”
  • Edifier: From Latin roots that, combined, mean “to make a dwelling.” To edify, then, is to build a house of knowledge, a kind of mental safe haven (see “tutor”). This is related to “instruct,” but by specifying the home as that which is being built, there is a simpler, less elite, and perhaps less imposing connotation here. If it were clearly collaborative, I’d list “edify” below in the “Sams”; since it is unclear who is doing the building, I’ll leave it here.
  • Faculty: From the Latin for “power, ability, opportunity” (see “guru”) and for “resources, wealth”; related to the latter definitions, it is also a form of the Latin for “easily” (see “school”). Much as I enjoy the adage that “knowledge is power,” I abhor the lordly suggestion those with knowledge should enjoy a power over others or over knowledge itself. I also dislike the reference to education’s early (or, okay, continuing) socio-economic elitism. But those are the only reasons this word rests here in the middle. I also like the acknowledgment of accomplishment and opportunity available in education, and I prefer to interpret “easily” as “in one’s own fashion” or “without undo outside pressure to conform.” It’s a loose interpretation, but I’m sticking to it.

Sam:

  • Teacher: From an old Teutonic root for “token,” meaning something shown; as a verb, it connotes showing or giving, but it is also linked to a conjugation akin to “taken,” as in something received. To teach, then, is both to give and to receive knowledge.
  • Professor: From Latin roots meaning “to put forth” and “to declare”; in this sense, to profess is to make a declaration, as though of the truth. However, in its early religious usages, it meant “to make a public confession,” a connotation I prefer, as it suggests I am admitting to my intellectual biases as well as stating my views.
  • School (the verb, as in “I schooled you”; archaic, but interesting, though I have resisted using the nominative “schooler”): In a very roundabout path through Latin, German, and various Scandinavian languages, from a Greek root meaning “leisure”; as a verb, then, it suggests taking one’s leisure through study, or to have enough leisure time to engage in study. Much as this might support the long-standing elitism of education (only those rich or powerful enough have time and means for study), I enjoy the verb origins of this as an excuse to give my students leisure enough to study in their own way or to explore their own ideas, and to let them enjoy their studies.
  • Mentor: The proper name of a Greek poet; etymologically, it contains references to words for “advise,” “counsel,” “remember,” and “think.” As a “guide” through my students’ education, I prefer this word above all but the next one.
  • Student: From the Latin for “zeal and affection” and the verb connotations of “to be zealous,” “to seek to be helpful,” and “to apply oneself.” I wish my students were in fact more zealous in the pursuit of their education, but I include this here because I consider my role as a student as essential to — perhaps indistinct from — my role as a teacher, and I adore that part of this definition that encourages us to “seek to be helpful.”

Writing vs. Writing

A friend of mine, a brilliant poet named Bri Pike, was writing in her blog about the distinction between writing as hobby and writing as serious craft, and I found her comments so interesting I felt compelled to respond. So did another writer-friend of mine, the essayist and memoirist Crystal Elerson. Our resulting three-way conversation, which spanned blog, e-mail, and chat, is so interesting that I want to share that conversation here–with the authors’ permissions–where my students can read it.

This is what Bri Pike wrote that started it all:

It is interesting to contrast writers who write for a living to writers who write for a hobby. [. . .] There is nothing wrong with this contrast but it got me thinking. During my education at Allegheny, UNT, and Murray I’ve been surrounded by people who have or are trying to make writing their life. They are knee deep in academia too, but they spend the majority of their time working on their writing and trying to get published. As a result, these people are very serious and almost obsessive about their craft. I love these people. I’m one of these people. However, I’m running into an increasing number of people who write as hobby and their attitudes are much different. For instance, during her talk on Saturday, [Joyce] Brinkman made the comment that “everyone in the room was a poet” and then she said “writing should always be fun.” I’m not going to lie. I shuddered a little (I know. I know). It isn’t so much that I disagree with her because I don’t. I do think that everyone should be encouraged to write, but I also think that there is something to be said for talent and craft and hard work and I know that a lot of people who “write” don’t want to put that time in. I also think writing should be fun but it’s also hard and gut wrenching and requires writers to develop a thick skin quickly, so simplifying it down to “fun” irks me a tad.

In response, I wrote the following:

While it trivializes the craft a bit, I have begun making a distinction between “writing” and “literature.” Seems like a pretty simple distinction, but I think it’s only now occurring to me because of the long-standing division in academia between creative writers and literary scholars (“composition” being that thing we all have to teach to freshman, which means very few people take it seriously). It took some effort and a lot of soul-searching to get past that snobbish barrier, but I’m convinced now that when I write, I’m not doing it (only) for “fun”; instead, I am trying to contribute to the literature those nose-in-the-air scholars spend all their time studying. “Writing” is something people do for fun: I do it for fun sometimes, just to unwind; and loads of other people do it for pure enjoyment, without regard for what it might contribute to the world; and when I talk about it to my students, I insist that it is easy, that anyone can write because writing is simply putting words on paper. And I’m right. But literature — whether it’s fiction, poetry, essays, treatises, memoirs, stage plays, screenplays, or something else — is extremely difficult, and part of me wishes we could invent a word that better reflects that struggle than the simple “write.” I am a writer, but I am more. What is that?

Today, I sat around after my 8 a.m. class discussing books with two of my students and a student who was early for the class following mine. They wondered if I’d read any Dan Brown, and I balked. “Really?” they all said, incredulous that someone who loves reading hadn’t read The DiVinci Code. “The story is so good!” I said, “I’m sure it is, but I can’t get past the writing. The language — the prose — is abysmal, it’s just awful, and there’s no excuse for that. I just wish these writers spent as much time crafting good sentences as they do complicated storylines.”

But that’s the difference, I guess, between writers and us.

Later, Crystal Elerson wrote a response to my comments:

I work with people on both sides on the line on this, and I often find that I admire what Sam terms as “writers” as much and sometimes more than I admire the writing of literature. And part of it comes from the reasons for the writing. I seriously don’t think Shakespeare was trying to contribute to the literature of his age. I think the man was trying to get paid, and I think many of the greats were the same way. Oh, many took the craft seriously, and they should have, but they were also trying to get paid, not necessarily be remembered for something greater. [. . .] I can’t just dismiss the writing of people like Dan Brown (who is admittedly awful) because he does manage to do what I see so little of in literature, and that’s be interesting. [. . .] Brown does it through a poorly written mystery-thriller, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t contributing to the social commentary that all literature is.

I do agree that there are different sensibilities pertaining to the drive for writing, but I don’t agree that one sensibility is better or more pure than another. That’s hard to accept given what we stake our work on in academia, but then, I think academics are too snobby by far and forget that most of those that have really contributed to literature were not academics — they were, instead, writers. Some were snobs in their own right (T.S. Eliot springs to mind), but others were just out to interpret their world, to communicate in some way, or to just tell a good story.

Amen. However, I decided to follow up by digging myself into a hole:

I see your point, and I should say what I didn’t say in the earlier post: that I don’t begrudge the “writers” their work or their joy in their work. Just because I loathe Dan Brown doesn’t mean I’m not glad he’s out there. He’s part of my whole “you learn as much from bad writing as you do from good writing” philosophy.

And I do think literary writers — myself included — are too snobbish for our own good sometimes. Still, I don’t know that Shakespeare was only trying to get paid. Or Dan Brown, for that matter. I think the writers who do write only for money are hacks — they actively harm the profession in some ways — and I’m (snobbishly) relieved that these days they’re mostly stuck writing porn or bad romance novels.

Anyone else — and this revises what I’d written earlier — seems to feel their work contributes something, however small, to literature. Else, why publish? Why engage in the literary discussion? Shakespeare, in particular, seems to have had a profound sense of his place in literature, or he wouldn’t have spent so much effort revising and re-revising his already money-making plays.

So I suppose my earlier distinction was one of purpose: “writers” in the generic sense are people who put words on paper; “writers” in the serious sense are those who hope to participate in, if not add to, literature. The rest — those who write purely for fun and with no other purpose but personal pleasure or financial gain — are at best diarists or masturbators, at worst Hallmark employees. Which is fine, too. So long as they don’t pretend to do easily what we do with great effort and seriousness.

Later, I also wrote that Dan Brown challenges a dogmatic view of literature held only by academics. And since academic, literary writers make so much less money and receive so much less public recognition, as opposed to the wealth and fame of “popular” writers, I might prefer to argue the opposite: that our snobbery and elitism is part of our constant struggle to challenge if not the dogma then at least the popular norm of Best-Sellerism.

Not to be outdone, Crystal responded with this well-reasoned treatise:

I have a theory that the reason academic and literary writers receive less recognition and less fame is because their works are often less interesting. Oh sure, they can craft a sentence that will knock your socks off, but 1,000 of those sentences with no sense of pacing, plot, or character interest makes for a boring book. The book might be gorgeous, but it isn’t interesting on anything but an academic level, and that’s just not going to reach and move a wide audience as much as a book that has all that plus the elements of interest.

We once had a brief discussion on plot where you felt plot was easy and that’s why our professors didn’t spend time on it. I didn’t say anything at the time because I had to many other things going on, but I disagree. I think our professors don’t talk about it because they don’t really understand the nuances and intricacies of plot. I don’t think they really know what it takes to weave stories together and make them one coherent piece on anything but a superficial level.

[. . .]

I do think we have different levels of seriousness, but I think those levels are evident in both literary and popular genres. The literary writers who don’t allow themselves to grow and use popular conventions aren’t as serious as the ones who do. And the popular writers who don’t take craft and character issues seriously are just as guilty of limiting themselves and their work through a different kind of snobbery.

So, of course, I responded:

I think I consider pace different than plot. Plot is the story — the outline of events, or the structure, into which pace is implicitly built — but explicit pacing is a separate craft. I don’t think plot as a bones-of-the-story issue is something than can or should be taught, except as understood through extensive reading (I wish grad school included a designated Reading as Writers course, rather than assuming it as part of all courses). But I do think we can teach pace, and I think we can best learn it from poets — their use of specific language in a specific order, the places and reasons they break their lines, and so on, that has more to do with pace than anything we might point to structurally. But then, I’m one of those people who finds the language of a story at least as interesting as the plot; in fact, some of my favorite stories/novels involve inanely mundane, eventless situations that are fascinating precisely because the language exposes their underlying beauty. If I can do this without denigrating comic books (I’m a big fan and used to be a collector), and if I can do this without being too tied to any hard definition of “better” as an absolute judgment, I think it’s something like the difference between a comic strip and a Van Gogh: the comic strip tells a better story, but the Van Gogh is better art.

All of which is to say, I think the literary writing is more interesting than the genre fiction, for the most part, but I also understand that this is my perspective, my preference, and I constantly have to remind myself — or let others remind me — not to expect the same reactions from other readers/writers.

Later, in a chat, Crystal and I engaged on a more point-by-point debate, teasing out the details of our perspectives: I wrote that one of my biggest hang-ups in writing is my obsession with adding something of value to literature. I set too high a standard for myself, and I sometimes forget to let the writing be and enjoy it.

Crystal said, “When I began writing, I had no notion of adding something to literature, but as I’ve moved through grad school, I’ve developed it, and I think that development has been detrimental to my overall writing because the idea that my writing must have value adds a pressure to the writing and takes away from the freedom of expression.”

To which I responded, Noun or verb? I believe the frustrating paradox is that such concerns do benefit our writing (the noun, as in the words on paper) even as it inhibits our writing (the verb). Or, for the shoirt version: our writing (noun) benefits while our writing (verb) suffers.

Crystal agreed, pointing out that “without the freedom in the writing process, I worry that the end product suffers. However, I see no reason not to let those concerns creep in during the revision process. But for our current consumer society, we have to make a story interesting enough to catch the attention of the readers, and more readers read genre works than literary works for a reason. [. . .] If they like romance, mystery, sci-fi, and fantasy, then the craft needs to embrace those conventions to draw the average reader in to the literary conversation.”

Funnily enough (I wrote back), I think she and I are up to similar missions, but from opposite ends. As I saw it, Crystal wants to bring some literary sense of craft to bear on popular, genre writing, and I want to import some popular genre elements into literary fiction. Crystal corrected me: “Actually, I want to do both, because I think both fields could benefit. And I’ve thought that for a long, long time.”

Conveniently enough — and I swear this wasn’t arranged — Bri rejoined the conversation at its end and somehow managed to neatly tie everything up. For me at least. Crystal may slip in a final word of her own. But for now, Bri has managed to say it all, and to do it better than I, at least, could manage:

What irks me about [Stephen] King, Dan Brown, and authors in that vein is that they don’t make me work for the plot they weave. Perhaps I’ve been in academia too long, but there is something about reading Faulkner and not only enjoying the beauty of the language (and if you want to talk intricate plots, he’s your man) but also working towards something larger, an enlightenment of sorts. I don’t get this from Stephen King very much nor do I get it from J.K Rowling (please do not hurl imaginary toads at me all you HP fans) and I think that’s why often I read those books once through, think ah, that was fun and never look at them again. Whereas I’ve read The Great Gatsby about ten times.

I think it is for this very reason that academic fiction and poetry is not read more. I don’t think it’s because it’s “boring” in the classic sense; I think it’s because quite frankly people don’t want to work for it. Hell, let’s be honest, a lot of people don’t want to read period, so picking up Faulkner or Steinbeck or James is not even something that’s on their radar. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading Harry Potter, but part of the reason I love it is because I don’t have to think about it.

With all this in mind, there are signs that people are willing to give academic literature a shot. Oprah (yes, I know) chose Steinbeck’s East of Eden for her book club and then last summer (I think) she put three Faulkner novels on her list, which opened a whole new literary world to women (men too) all over the country. I think through craft comes meaning and that is what a lot of popular fiction is lacking, which is why writers of academic literature haven’t thrown themselves off a cliff yet.

More metta to Maynmar

I’m sorry to say things have gotten worse in Burma (Myanmar).

UPDATE: Things have gone from worse to deadly. Reportedly, even monks have been killed. For more information, please visit the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Even more than before, I still fervently hope the Burmese people and the governments of the world can find a peaceful, nonviolent way to intervene and prevent more violence.

Metta to Myanmar

Thynn Thynn, the woman I consider my first formal teacher in Buddhism, is from Burma (technically, Myanmar, but she refers to herself as Burmese). I’ve since shifted my focus to Mahayana practices (and some studies in Vajrayana), but I continually return to Thynn Thynn’s teachings on mindfulness when I feel a need to sit, to settle into my roots. So I’ve been following with some concern the recent protests led by monks in Myanmar. So far the government has kept its response relatively peaceful–thanks, ironically, to pressure from China–but tensions are building.

I write this mostly as a means of supporting, however meekly, the monks in their actions. I know too little of the politics in Myanmar to comment on the reasons for protesting, but I admire the monks’ quiet but insistent resistance, and, like a good friend of mine (who phrased this better), I am amazed at their willingness to leave their internal contemplation to march on behalf of largely secular concerns, just to help better the lives of the laity. May the protections of my newly-hung lunga prayer flags speed on the wind to help the monks and the Burmese people.

UPDATE: Tensions are reaching the breaking point. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I’m rooting for China to hold back the Burmese government from acting against the monks.

Freewriting

The other day, I introduced my students to freewriting and its more structured cousin, looping. As I always do when making my students write in class, I brought my own notebook (a smooth black thing with a red-ribbon bookmark and a folding magnetic flap embossed with a Japanese kanji for “joy”), and I wrote with them. I thought it might be amusing, and maybe instructive, to share some of those wild entries–unedited–here:

Freewriting isn’t free–it costs words, lots of words, and effort, finger-cramping, backaching, mind-mushing effort. I don’t know why I’m writing in this way. Perhaps I’ll post it to my blog (I nearly wrote, Perhaps I’ll die, like the old lady who swallowed a fly). Arm-aching: It’s been too long since I’ve done this, despite writing w/ the teens this summer. My forearm aches, that little pinch of muscle just below my pinky is starting to cramp. This is not fun. I should be writing about my dissertation. I should be editing it, writing new scenes I meant to write the first time around.

And now my bicep hurts.

The pain of writing–the physical as much as the mental struggle of composition–is lost to us now. I wonder at those older scribes, the Marquis de Sade, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Cervantes, and I think of them with pens–quills, even–in hand, and I wonder if they had massive forearms, overdeveloped hands, the thick pad of their palm near the thumb bulging like a knotted oyster(?). Popeye was a writer, I’m sure of it.

I want a gong, or at least a gong tone–mechanical might be better, timed if possible, like a Zen clock, so I can meditate w/o thinking, so I can pretend these writing sessions–or hell, any writing session–is an act of meditation, which, from a certain perspective, it is. I have written a fairly long sentence. I wonder why. I like the long sentence as a reflection of stringy thoughts the way I like the short sentence as a punchline. So there. Have they written enough? No. Have I written anything productive today? No. Not immediately so. But we’ll get there.

“What about the deer being evil?” [a comment a student made between classes]

Why What about the deer being evil? What about the deer being evil? What about the deer being evil? Why is the deer evil? Dear Evil, what about you being? What about the deer is evil? What is it about the deer being evil? What is evil about the deer? Tartlets … and so on. It has lost all meaning. I mean: It has lost. Meaning I am lost. I miss LOST.

No one writing

On my Google homepage, I subscribe to a series of quotes that change day to day. One is a daily Thoreau quote, one is a general literary quote, one is a daily Jon Stewart quote, and so on. I also receive daily quotes from Buddhism (the service applies the term a bit liberally, often ascribing Buddhist ideas to Taoist writers or even modern psychologists, though I do enjoy the illustration of Jung’s “collective unconscious”).

Today’s Buddhism quote, allegedly from Wei Wu Wei’s The Tenth Man, is, “I have only one object in writing books: to demonstrate that there could not be anyone to do it.”

Today, I’m finishing (for now) the scholarly preface to my dissertation, a novel narrated from the afterlife–by a dead narrator. How weirdly appropriate, then, to find this quote awaiting me this morning.

Audience analysis

I’m listening to an audio recording of teachings on the Garland of Views that HH the Dalai Lama gave in Miami in 2004. About 45 minutes into the second recording, His Holiness talks about how to explain the diversity of teachings in Buddhism:

If we were to ask what is exactly the Buddha’s own final standpoint—why did Buddha teach such diversity and sometimes quite opposing, contradictory teachings in his scriptures—so the Buddha’s own final standpoint may, from the point of view of Madhyamaka, be that of the Middle Way philosophy, but it is also a fact that Buddha did teach [the foundations of many other schools of Buddhism]. So what we see here […] is recognition of how the Buddha’s teaching of the dharma really has to be understood in the context of its appropriateness to the given audience. So in a sense Buddha is not a case of an enlightened being who only wants to reveal one truth to everybody. It is a case of Buddha having to select what is most beneficial and what is most effective, what is most suitable in a given context and a given situation.

In other words, the Buddha taught a variety of lessons in a variety of contexts in order to reach a variety of audiences–each lesson, even if it seems to contradict an earlier lesson, is customized to meet the needs or expectations of a particular audience.

How wonderful to have discovered this example the day after I taught audience analysis in my freshman comp classes!

The art of revising

Tonight, while discussing the new film Becoming Jane with my wife, Jennifer, I was struck by a thought about writers in film in general. The past several years, I’ve been keeping an informal, mental list of films featuring writers (or, at least, the films I’ve enjoyed)–films like Finding Forrester or Wonderboys or Stranger Than Fiction–even, in a pinch, Under the Tuscan Sun. Becoming Jane is the newest film on my list, and it does a fair job of showing Jane Austen writing: The iconic scene is her sprawled across a small table, pages scattered everywhere; she’s dressed in her nightgown and leans on one hand, gazing softly at her elegant, romantic penmanship, a perfectly picturesque country scene shining through the wide picture window before her and illuminating her and her work in a milky cool light. But it’s not my favorite scene: for that, I much prefer her jumping from her chair to pace the room, biting her pen or wringing her gown in a frenzy of wordsmithing, then collapsing onto the piano bench to pound out a few notes and play away her creative fury until–eureka!–the ideal words spring to her mind and she rushes back to swirl them onto the page, dark ink soaking into the thick cotton paper in a weightless but serious script, and she smiles almost postcoitally. (My second favorite–and the most accurate in terms of writing craft, I think–is a brief scene in which Austen, just returned from a stroll and about to greet guests, suddenly and rudely slips to a nearby bench to scribble a phrase in her little notebook.)

Still, tonight I found the scenes frustrating, and what occurred to me was that films almost never portray the most important act of writing: revision. All we ever get are the long moments of deep concentration, writers waiting like saints for a vision from some Literature-God. If we don’t get that, we get frenzied dashes of quirky, frantic behavior, the chain smokers and binge drinkers, the writers who have to wear their socks inside-out or bang on pianos or count the cracks in a sidewalk just to get their ideas flowing.

These are, of course, acts of writing, at least for some. I certainly have done my share of staring wistfully out windows, the hard glow of a blank computer screen winning our staring contest; and I certainly have my quirks, writing best at 2 a.m. and spending hours compiling “soundtracks” for my stories and novels. But even with these brief scenes of pain–the furrowed brows and the self-destructive habits–the movies have made writing look easy. All we have to do, it seems, is gaze long enough, think hard enough, or be weird enough, and the writing will take care of itself. When a colleague (who doesn’t write) learned I was writing a novel this summer, she brushed aside my effort by saying, “Oh, well, that shouldn’t be too hard–all you have to do is write a few words each day and you’ll be done in no time.” If only it were that easy! I could–and sometimes did–simply “write a few words each day,” but what I want are the right words, and finding them takes a lot more effort than staring into space or drinking seventeen cups of coffee.

I have the front of an old birthday card stuck to my office door on campus; it shows Winne-the-Pooh tapping a pencil to his chin, a sheaf of papers tucked under one arm, and below him the card reads, “The hardest part about writing, thought Pooh, is finding the right words.” A long time before Pooh, Mark Twain commented that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–`tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” Too true. But I tend to view writing a bit like sculpting, except harder: In sculpting, you have a choice between adding on wet clay to build up a piece or chiseling away raw stone to reveal a piece. In writing you have to do both, adding on loads of wet, raw words, and then chiseling away at the excess to reveal the beauty within. That’s what it takes to find the right words. That’s what good writing is about. That’s called revision, and we almost never get to see it on film.

Jennifer (who, if she weren’t so much like her mother, could be the love child of Nancy Pearl and Robert Osborne) pointed out tonight that writing in general is a pretty lonely act, with the writer often sitting motionless in a chair, only the fingers pecking at a keyboard or a typewriter, and except for a few iconic seconds to get across the idea of writing–Angela Lansbury punching in the title words for Murder, She Wrote, for instance–we really don’t want to see the act of writing, because it’s pathetically uncinematic. There’s not any action to put on film, Jennifer said; everything is internal, the old wheels-turning-in-the-head gag. With revision, it’s usually just more of the same, with the occasional addition of a scratch-out or an erasure, a scribbled note in a margin, maybe a highlighter or a sticky-note once in a while. Not a very pretty picture. Certainly not cinematic.

Still, I yearn to see the meat (or, in my case, the soy beans) of writing portrayed realistically and seriously, just once, just to see what it’s like. I want more of the writing process on film, the way we get to see it for songwriting in Music and Lyrics or for screenwriting in Adaptation. Enough, really, with the old Hemingway-and-Faulkner routine: No more of the brooding craftsman who “would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame,” who “would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence.” (All you have to do, Hemingway? I wish it were that simple!) And no more of the flippant, alcoholic madman, toying drunkenly with language just for the sake of it and letting the unpolished rough draft relax in the glory of its originality instead of stand on the merits of its expert prose. (Faulkner once said in an interview that “all the trash must be eliminated in the short story, whereas one can get away with some of it in a novel.” It’s fine that you let yourself get away with “trash,” Faulkner, but did you have to dump all the garbage in my bookshelf? Couldn’t you have tried in all your novels to be as tidy as you were in As I Lay Dying?”)

Truman Capote said, “I believe more in the scissors than in the pencil.” There, ladies and gentlemen, was a true reviser. There have been two recent, highly acclaimed films made about Capote, Capote and Infamous, and I somehow have yet to see either of them. Now I’m thinking I must, and soon, because perhaps there, at last, I’ll get to see revising on film.

Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle has died.

When Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11 of this year, I kept silent most of the day and mourned the rest of the week. Vonnegut had a huge impact not only on my early fiction-writing but also on my early philosophical development: In both areas, he taught me not to take anything — especially myself — too seriously, but at the same time he always hinted at this wry but sublime sense of wonder and seriousness. I loved that man as much as it’s possible to love a stranger. Still, while I did have the splendid good fortune to have heard him speak, at Trinity University in San Antonio some dozen years ago, I had never actually met him.

I did meet Madeleine L’Engle. She autographed my copy of A Wrinkle in Time, and that same day, I was lucky enough to have interviewed her for my college newspaper.

Okay, to be honest, it wasn’t entirely luck, since I was managing editor of the paper and had arranged it so I would be the one to write the interview, because I understood even then what a huge opportunity it was to meet the woman, to speak with her face to face. But I blew the interview, I think. Standing on the auditorium stage after her lecture to the campus, I felt overwhelmed just by her presence, the profundity of her lecture and then, alone with her, the enormity of her fame. My memory of the interview is pretty thin — I remember stammering a few times, and my voice seemed uncharacteristically small, my questions too vague and too few — and the article we printed in the paper, while adequate, is no shining example of award-winning journalism.

But tonight, this is beside the point. I met the woman. I shook her hand. I spoke to her, and she spoke to me. She listened.

I’ve met dozens of authors since. It became a regular part of my graduate studies, and it remains a regular part of my professional life. I meet them, I drink with them, I talk about our craft and about their experiences, I coolly pretend I am on their level as I nod along with their ideas. It’s the game we writers play.

But sometimes I meet a writer worth fawning over, worth doting on, worth dropping pretense and unabashedly saying, “I think you’re brilliant, and I’d love to hear you talk about writing.” Of these, Madeleine L’Engle was the first for me. And now she has died.

In her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time, a trio of kids travel through space and time, across the universe, even. L’Engle calls it “tessering” in the book, as in, “They tessered across the universe.”

In our small paperback copy — my college girlfriend’s, if I remember right, but since I married her, the copy is ours — Madeleine L’Engle, aged already, wrote in her shaky hand, “for Sam & Jennifer tesser well” and signed her name. For all its obvious, self-referential simplicity, it remains one of my favorite autograph-epigraphs. And I’d like to offer it back:

Tesser well, Ms. L’Engle. “I’m sorry we don’t have time to say good-bye to you properly.”* I hope you get where you’re going quickly, and happily.

* This is one of the final lines in A Wrinkle in Time. I hope she doesn’t mind that I’ve borrowed it.

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