Blog is a word midway in the dictionary between a blot and a flog.
This is the third of innumerable blogs—or perhaps only a handful more, depending on how distracted the Author becomes. This morning, having jacked himself on strong coffee, he’s greatly enthused, if not determined, however this sort of energy can wane with time and poor scheduling.
Three subjects will be attempted in these blogs: the arts of writing, architecture and photography. Other than periodic fits of staying healthy and spiritual cleansings–and chasing after his runaway Siberian Husky, these constitute the time of his life, lame as that may be. He will continue to write this present blog in the third person, aiming for fame as great as Henry Adams, even though Adams wrote his entire autobiography in the third person. [i]
The Author is envious—that Adams could grow such fulsome facial hair.
The Author writes to explain existence at least to his own satisfaction. Reflecting on Harold Bloom’s anxieties of influences, the Author hopes no one can find his to be judged by them. Montaigne invented the essay. A recent book on Montaigne [i] made him seem like a neighbor you’d invite to a dinner party, and more than just because the family property was a fine vineyard in Bordeaux. Perhaps instead of Bloom’s one-directional evolution from Shakespeare through Cervantes, the Romantics, et al., arriving at the current day, writers (like critics) forget more than retain, so reinvention is closer to the truth. Harold Cooledge, PhD., an architectural history professor at Clemson argued that the pointed arch (i. e. gothic arch) was only what medieval builders could keep standing, that building a Roman round arch was lost when the Roman Empire fell apart and all the Italians went home. The Author might borrow from Montaigne for his next blog. Nobody reads Montaigne like they once did.
If words can be put to the experience, they gather together the disparate, (or serve as an illusion). The Author’s fiction is scraped from his life and what he’s witnessed. Perhaps not fully understood, but proposed at least as possible. With fiction, it’s less embarrassing to be the omnipotent Author than to be the poor schlep of a character having to follow the script. The Author writes fiction to reflect the real world verses an off-kilter version. Not to say that his writing is always on target, since that remains a reader’s judgment.
Off-kilter is one of those interesting expressions that has no contrary form. Kilter, according to the Oxford English Dictionary means “A hand consisting only of cards of little or no value.” Who says English is a logical language? How did it get this way?
Storytelling is as old as the campfire. Humans first practiced language by exchanging stories before the coals died and night grew too chilly. “Stop me if you’re heard the one about the caveman and his stubby ax.” It’s possible that grunts and gestures weren’t making it, so the need to tell stories drove early humanoids to speak. It was either tell stories or go gather more firewood for those who could. Now with everybody staring at their cell phones, we’re back to grunts and gestures. These are the questions one ponders, particularly after several glasses of a good Bordeaux.
The story goes that the King of France defeated the Duke of Burgundy for the region’s wine, and that seems believable.
Anthologists have observed the similarity of the world’s creation stories. Joseph Campbell made a career studying these. One might argue that the original shaping of language lies at the heart of the creation stories, as in, were these the practice takes our ancestors tried while developing language skills? Before the gift of language, were we fully human? Did language create humanity along with the stories? Are a child’s most important firsts the words she utters, and not her stumbles at standing upright? We peripatetic creatures are storytellers before all else.
The gift of language suggests an intelligent being superior to ourselves, the theory being we couldn’t have done it on our own; it suggests but does not prove. If it were so, why so many takes on the same theme? Bad editing?
Not all writing is a gift; some is no better than chatter on the Internet. The Fountainhead is an example of the waste of printer’s ink, proof that vivid characters are foundational to fiction in a way that a forced philosophy isn’t. OK, two metaphors in one paragraph, but really, Howard Roark would be an officious bore at a dinner party, upstanding ass as his creator made him. The Author suggests that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Autobiography was Ayn Rand’s source material, only Franky never blew up his buildings.
Some gifts are given.
Mozart claimed his compositions came to him whole, “on a walk, or after a good meal,” and that he only had to write them out to be complete. You might read The Creating Brain by Dr. Nancy Coover Andreasen if you want the fuller quote. An Author’s friend and engineer, Mel Straus whenever the Author said Mozart grated on his ears, would argue vehemently “Oh man, you don’t know Mozart!”
“You think it’s easy?” was Mel’s query to the world at large.
Closer to home, a more modest claim is that the Author’s mother gave her children the gift of reading and gave her youngest, the recalcitrant Author a glimpse at what storytelling might be like.
The maxim being: you need to read before you pick a pen to write.
Read everything. Not a single genre, or the style one’s dying to emulate; quite the opposite. If you’re standing in one place for more than a minute and you haven’t found something to read, you’re just not looking. Useful ideas can hide in the strangest corners, uncomfortable ideas when encountered, or seem indisputable like blinding light. Maybe even like Castaneda found on peyote. All are important for how they can be absorbed, distilled and ultimately dipped into from the great barrel of stories. Best to leave the peyote to Carlos.
Fiction follows no formula, or it’s not worth reading. Writing well within a genre is a worthy calling, however the Author isn’t sure his best work lies there. Last fall, while searching for a good beach read, the Author picked up a popular lawyer-writer’s latest bestseller and was struck by much how it read like a movie development [i] rather than a fully fleshed out novel (pun intended). The popular lawyer-writer had a surfeit of characters, but forgot to wind them up before setting them in motion. Plot can carry a story only so far, like sailing with a failing wind. Characters are the reason we read fiction. Are they like us? Do we like them? Are their foibles and predicaments entertaining? Do we take pleasure in the villain’s downfall, like some bosses we’ve known?
Not to say a fiction writer doesn’t work to a mental pattern or with a story arc in mind, but clever writers make their readers complicit in the act. One can’t help but cheer on the writer who can tell a rich story. The Author is a fan of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy in this regard. According to the NY Times’ review of his lover’s memoir [ii] she confirms that Larsson wore his heart on his sleeve in these stories. He should be forgiven any repetition for the sake of listening to his story. The Author can forgive much in a work, provided a connection with the writer’s underlying essence is felt. And the opposite is true: no passion, no read.
When a story stirs feelings of personal risk-taking on the part of the reader, it’s done its job.
The Author had no TV to numb his brain growing up. The Sumter Carnegie Library became his first deep dive into the world of words. Simple biographies of heroes and historical fiction led somehow to Jack London’s work, C. S. Forester’s naval stories, then Bruce Catton’s Civil War histories. Jack London’s White Fang was the first story he tried emulating in short story form. Many years later, remembering the incident, the Author wrote a poem about the nun who claimed he was a plagiarizer. Being the larger person, he assumed she intended the poor grade as a backhanded compliment— right. Seriously, at 10 years old, Lady? Do nuns read romance novels tucked behind their missals?
A classmate in architecture school, Andrés Duany, [iii] advised that one should only borrow from the best. Gnawing the edges of the same subject, Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence proposed the question of predecessors’ influences on poets who follow. According to Bloom, only strong poets move out from the shadow influence of their predecessors.
What to do with the ancestors? Early Modernists insisted little of value preceded them. Corbu wanted to remake Paris in his likeness. Napoleon III had done that once before; he used G.E. Haussmann as his sword. Mon Dieu! Napoleon just wanted wide avenues to move troops and prevent street barricades, and Paris ended up becoming a place of lyrical landscapes. Lord knows what Corbu’s vision might have rendered of that town where novels still sprout.
These ideas came slowly to the Author, as he pursued designs he hoped hadn’t been seen before in the world. In school he’d strained his little brain to always find something new. Over time he became more disciplined in exploring the new, while reflecting on what had come before, opening doors in his mind. A place in history is a single scratch or notch on a continuum, the latter being the more encompassing entity. The continuum now seems more important than fame. Don Henley’s song about hearses and a lack of luggage racks comes to mind. [iv]
But Author digresses…
The Author remembers at sixteen cracking the paperback spine on Fellowship of the Rings, and falling into Tolkien’s world, his language and mythology. He hadn’t encountered the term, philologist before, and didn’t make the connection between studying ancient languages and wrapping a mythology around the language. The Author’s sister had mailed the trilogy to him from college, and it sat disguised behind his high school English Lit book for the too short time he spent in Tolkien‘s world.. It was that important. He’d been primed without having read a single fantasy story before Tolkien; he was hooked from leaving the Shire. And it is possible his English teacher, J Grady Locklear overlooked the digression.
Later, on his own, the Author found Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Philip K Dick, and Guy Gavriel Kay, but first he needed to read Tolkien. The Author did pick up one bad habit from reading the good Don’s work: slow production standards. Ten years to write Lord of the Rings! Tolkien’s agent must have been dying the while.
Much later the Author spent glorious hours reading Lord of the Rings to his son, Ryan at bedtime. By the time they’d reached The Silmarillion, Ryan was closing in on adolescence, but he still sat for the readings.
Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber stunned the Author when he came across it in college. It was a study in writing style and voice. It was the best course the Author never took in school. Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness forced him consider the implications of other sexual directions; it challenged his world view, but she did it so kindly. Reading Le Guin, the intelligence behind the writing was like a brilliant light.
One can love some writers by simply reading their work.
Philip K Dick, his biographer writes, was mentally unstable, and his stories were a direct outgrowth, yet Dick’s near-world paranoia made irrefutable sense in the late 60s, with RFK and King’s assassinations, Tricky Dick, and Vietnam in full swing. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is about the best story title ever. The Author wrote an end-of-days short story, now missing, based solely on an image from this title. And there’s that minor movie, Blade Runner. Philip K Dick died before the movie came out, and like Dick’s own work, the movie made only a mild splash on its release despite great visuals and music. The opening scene of LA as an oil refinery is stuck in the Author’s brain. Though only in his dreams could an android have such beautiful eyes.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of al-Rassan paid homage to the lost Moorish culture, a mostly overlooked subject in this Anglicized world. The novel turned the story of Spanish history on its head. The loss of that culture felt as great to the Author as any the world has seen. Still does.
The Author didn’t try interpreting the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. He read the books in starts and fits, discomfited by Peake’s brilliant depiction of loneliness. In an odd sort of way, the Gormenghast books prepared him for Proust.
He is still working his way through reading what Harold Bloom called The Western Cannon. Not that other cultures haven’t produced significant works, it’s just that the Author started too late. Conceding Bloom may have read it all, did he ever grow the facial hair that Henry Adams did?
The Author first stumbled on Moorish influences in architecture doing research for the Miami Biltmore Hotel, during his first professional project after graduate school. No doubt Dr. Cooledge had lectured on it, but the subject escaped his student’s interest, being so outside western history as he saw it then.
In 1974 the entire Miami Biltmore complex was an abandoned VA hospital from World War II. The US government’s “thank you for your service” gift was to donate it to the city of Coral Gables for $1.00.
When the Author first surveyed the enormous Biltmore swimming pool, wrapped between the hotel and the adjacent country club and buried to the hilt with dirt, first thought was “the VA didn’t think veterans might like to swim?” As he researched authentic tile patterns, the Author came on the Alhambra in Granada, which strongly influenced subsequent Spanish architecture, that of Spain’s colonies, and a good deal of the romantic architecture in the 1920s of Henry Flagler’s Florida. The swimming pool at the Miami Biltmore Hotel was a knockoff. The hotel lobby, and the two-story tower room known as The Library, were other knockoffs. The Library was known as a speak-easy during Prohibition; supposedly Al Capone had visited once or twice. Down the road, Vizcaya was another knockoff built by James Deering, a tractor baron. The Breakers in Palm Beach yet one more. This kind of ‘borrowing’ is closer to Disney kitsch than architectural history, an opinion the Author continues to hold. Walt Disney struck gold with some of these tropes, nonetheless.
A glyph is defined by Google as “a hieroglyphic character or symbol; a pictograph.” and in architecture as “an ornamental, carved groove or channel, as on a Doric frieze.” The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins uses a lonely dog with his head howling at the sky, borrowed from the painting on the cover–as a chapter break, or glyph. Is it a sly joke on the Knoff publishing company’s puppy? Hats off to the graphic artist! The Author sought to design his own glyph. This glyph is a geometrically precise ocean wave. An eagle-eyed editor said she thought the Author’s glyph looked like a shark fin. OK, that’s possible too.
The Author writes poetry when his prose isn’t getting the job done, seems too trivial a tool, or can’t be aimed at the heart of a subject. He has written poetry since a youth, and in recent times, it has been the main means of remaining on this blue rock.
A graphic beauty can exist in the printed lines of a poem, how poems align on a page in singular compositions, how the black is framed on a white field. Lines in perfect scans, or stubs that work to slow the sounding of vowels and consonants in that electric mixing of pronunciation, all this lies at the heart of poetry. Someone said the imagery of a poem is a gift offered first to the poet, then to the larger world. The work of writing poetry lies in stripping away the excess, like carving sculpture from a block of marble, leaving only an ephemeral image.
The Author is fond of quatrains, as they help long-form poems from looking like ungroomed landscapes. And tercets are lovely in their three-line symmetry. W.S. Merwin, a favorite poet, employed tercets, but Merwin studied poetry his entire life, and the Author happily admits he will never catch up. This year, W.S. Merwin retired from this life at age 91. W.S. Merwin in NY Times His obit says he was a Buddhist, which one senses in his poetry, laced through the poems are ocean-deep word pictures. The Author never found a legitimate excuse to visit Merwin in Hawaii, and now it’s too late.
That he can recall, the Author has never attempted a rhymed lyric, although he admires those who do. In the early 90s setting out to learn the craft somewhat under the influence of Robert Bly, it seemed to his inexperienced eye that Richard Wilbur was a dead end. Three decades later, he now appreciates the work it took Wilbur to write those lines. Maybe not the powerful lyrics of Y.B. Yeats, but then who’s are?
Yeats often used rhymes that only work if you know how the Irishman pronounced them. There’s confidence for you! Stephen Sondheim, in Finishing the Hat insists on ‘pure’ rhymes in his lyrics, pure as opposed to ‘close’ or ‘almost’ rhymes. Billy Joel’s lyrics often use ‘almost’ rhymes. All three are masters of their forms.
After several books of poetry, the Author’s poems have evolved from long lines to short, from short poems to long-form, and from free verse to blank verse. The changes evolved over the same time, which the Author finds curious. In the beginning his lines were formed around an eight-beat rhythm, sometimes with enjambment to keep it surprising. Story, memoir and sorrow run through his poems. Billy Collins says he works to exclude memoir from his poems; the Author needs to draw stories from the local and personal, aiming toward a broader view.
Yeats stands tall in the Author’s mind, not for his myth-making but for what he was working to write around. Yeats was a poet who worked hard to avoid facing his daemons, physical love and abandonment, yet he faced his daemons anyway, particularly as he got older. A man of masks as a youth, he grew into a true philosopher as he aged. Poets begin to focus when the end game draws near. Yeats’ book, The Tower, has a wonderful Art Nouveau cover published by his sister. Meditations in Time of Civil War is a poem from that book the Author has returned to many times.
James Merrill is another poet the Author admires. The Changing Light at Sandover rejected a number of poetic conventions, particularly avoiding the personal in his poems. YES! Unlike Yeats, whom he studied, Merrill did not wrap himself in mythic knots, which is ha-ha funny if you know Merrill’s The Book of Ephraim is an angel’s vision told through a Ouija board. What first caught the Author’s attention was an earlier poem describing Merrill’s love and affection for a Greek woman and a love of Grecian life in the time Merrill lived it. Passion in whatever form is still passion. Family, in whatever form… fill it in.
From Merrill’s Dilemma:
was a subset of the smallest
circle: wealthy, gay and erudite
a poet too, the last was who
he named himself, those others
Samuel Clemens should surely be the patron saint of American writers in this or any age. The protean energies the man applied to his craft! It would be interesting to see how he might practice his profession in the Internet age. The Author seriously doubts he would tweet–too sophomoric–and social media gossip could get such a clever polemist in trouble, taunter of fools that he was. But the ability to reach the corners of the known world with a single podcast–would have been a sore temptation to Clemens, saving all the wear and tear of lecture tours. In his day, the steamship shortened the crossing to Europe by weeks. Would the instantaneous leap of digital missives daunt him? Seems the question really is: how does one emulate Clemens’ work ethic in the present age and get any sleep?
The Author has been reading furiously about writing craft, on account of his late start at turning professional. But there’s an entire subset of writing about writing, writing about marketing writing, writing about self-publishing, etc. He’s eagerly awaiting Stephen Pressman’s The War of Art, winging its way via UPS. The Author espouses the physically printed entity, and not its ghostly e-book. He wants to be the first in his neighborhood to have War and Peace dropped on his head by drone though freely admits his spouse blows through more novels via iPad than he could ever read.
Introductions are always awkward for the Author. Readers should take the foregoing in this vein. Upcoming subject matter and length may differ, but good taste will prevail, manners being another of those skills first deployed by early humanoids to keep the skull splitting to a minimum. A person largely of Irish decent, the Author believes passionate discussions around language and writing are the reasons we Gaelic readers were first stuck on this rock.
[i] The Education of Henry Adams, 1907 by Henry Adams, won the Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography.
[ii] How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sara Blackwell https://www.amazon.com/How-Live-Montaigne-Question-Attempts/dp/1590514831
[iv] “Development: The first stage in which the ideas for the film are created, rights to books/plays are bought etc., and the screenplay is written.” From Filmmaking
[vi] Don Henley “The End of the Innocence” Gimme What You Got lyrics © Cass County Music / Wisteria Music / Privet Music, Wixen Music Publishing
[vii] Merrill’s Dilemma is included in Not to Touch, 2014, by William Edmund Evans.