For some time I’ve been fascinated by what attracts people to write. For starters, who on earth could spend so much time living with themselves? Staring in a mirror is hard enough; staring at last night’s scribblings is the just retribution for disappointing my mother.
I can’t say what the overarching goal is, except that I’ve been at it since a youth. It’s a perpetual itch I’ve scratched from long practice. Putting off raking pine straw from our yard in Carolina might have been an early excuse, except it didn’t work. I needed a more clever one; my mother, or her mother–in absentia–would have scoffed at such a lame excuse. Writing what? As a fallback position, I read. A lot. Then was chased outside to rake anyway.
In my mother’s house she demonstrated stories were important by example. In her own life, my mother missed out on college. Her sister recalled they accepted her at Columbia, though she couldn’t afford to attend; needing to work for the family as it fell into the Depression. You would never have guessed from her self-possessed way of thinking, particularly when it came to reading. Being who she was, she saved my sorry butt . A poor student in school, I might have passed into a poorer adulthood had it not been for reading. Once hooked onto that clue, it was a short hop to wanting to emulate the skill. What vocabulary I have I was gifted by my mother and reading. It was not deliberate or planned, but writing became central to who I am.
Writing is a peculiar occupation, a solitary craft one pursues with waning confidence others will want to read your ‘stuff.’ Something I’ve learned is that wives won’t read more than two drafts of the same novel. Writing is a one-way communication launched from a felt tip pen in a virgin flight to an uncertain audience; kinda long form graffiti. But when I’ve read a piece that stirs me, or makes me smile, I’d like to think a glimmer of my own reaction becomes redirected to the writer, even if it’s only a Karmic nod.
This is so not Facebook. The grand literary tradition is based on the physical distance created by the printed word; that distance between word and reader creates its primary form. Facebook comes from the world of cell phones and Twitter; no need to run spell check, nor delve too far past emoji. Whereas interesting fiction writing is based on dreams, the imagination and a cracking good plot.
It’s a cliché to say writers are compulsive in the sense they are driven to writing. I recognize a personal truth in the saying. It is not for weekend entertainment or a retirement hobby. If you need a hobby, take up golf; it requires less time. This is driven work, or it wouldn’t be worth the pursuit. Having said that, small devils are falling out of the trees holding their sides in laughter.
And by way of segue, I’d like to mention the late Philip Johnson.
Honest to god, he was more dilettante than architect, (it’s one mother of an art). Someone who would erect a giant Chippendale breakfront in Manhattan and a black, all-glass castle for Darth Vader in Pittsburgh can’t be serious. Johnson dabbled in styles like fashion, even though the world is left putting up with his puns (surely no more than a few more decades, lord). From International Style to Post Modernism, blithely skipping most of what underpinned those movements, that was Phil. It’s possible I’m missing the cleverness of winking at one’s self, but my takeaway is that he’s still laughing at PPG for paying for his foolishness.
If not sweating to produce your best, why not settle for staying stoned and reading comics? Style is everything in the Western world. One can go insane pursuing art like Van Gogh, or dig the theatrical like Andy Warhol, and both be recognized in their field. And earnestness isn’t a popular stance, but I admit which side of the divide I’m on, and yes, that’s an ending preposition so I’ve added this last bit. Listening to my Siberian Husky howl her most earnest song, watching her eyes as she sings her version of the blues, it’s a similar need. It is also possible I’ve been hanging out with dogs too long. I howl therefore I am.
The first book I read by Gabriel García Márquez was his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale or in present parlance, his memoir. After reading the NY Times book review, I bought the hardback which gently led me to Love in the Time of Cholera. OK, I wandered in by the back door. One could argue I was cheating not tackling his novels first and the back story later, but it wasn’t the first time the strategy had given me good stuff to read. I read Harold Bloom’s take on Proust before attempting In Search of Lost Time. Ditto, Cervantes. Other times I’ve grown to dislike an author through self-absorbed writing. Saul Bellow’s fiction falls into that category, which will offend a few, though not so many as it once did. Seeking to divorce writer from the writing is a waste of time. Said another way, for a writer to hold back personality from her work, her disguise is a waste of print. Words go from the personal to a larger world, but one assumes the personal is what kick starts any writer.
But can one’s interior monologue resonate beyond a personal interest? My mother would sometimes read passages out loud from The New Yorker she wanted to expound upon. This was her means to praise an author’s abilities at observation, wordsmithing or the importance of a subject. In late hours now what is daunting is not knowing what I can deliver, notwithstanding brave declarations. Would she have read something like this blog out loud?
One writes fiction to paint imaginary landscapes; one paints to sing of the mountains and sings to a silent field.
In a recollection of Love in the Time of Cholera, my later response was a despairing poem, “Florentino’s Dance,” comparing Florentino’s lifelong yearning for sexual passion to my son Ryan’s. In the novel, Florentino’s passion consumed the character’s long life. In Ryan’s it killed him. First reading the novel, I sensed darkness in Garcia Marquez’s creating such a crippling desire, and later I saw the same darkness–what in part pushed Ryan to suicide. The closing stanza of the poem goes:
Under an open he laid with her on pinioned ground then no matter what or how it followed, desolation tracked him by his heat. [i]
Life is hard, and often very sad. It is also beautifully mysterious. How to weigh one against the other, or draw conclusions that don’t exclude some part of it, or contradict what is clear enough, or miss the point entirely? Writing is like sanding woodwork, rereading and reworking until one can’t remember the start of it or when one will be finished. Not burying the idea under the pile of words takes work.
Writing joins life between the generations. It has other attributes, but the creation of a continuum is central to why it’s important. When I read C.S. Forester as a boy, I learned something of life on an eighteenth century ship of the line. Shaded with praise for the British navy and the Empire, yet reading how shipboard life in those days was, what square rigging meant, or sea anchors, stories from history developed a taste for more. From reading Proust I caught a dream of rural France, then Paris at the turn of the century. Ursula Le Guin wrote of believable fictional worlds, amplifying the one we do inhabit. Reading these authors has always made me want to write.
A recent blog by Frank McKinley in Publishous states the key to writing a blog is finding what readers seek. “The [readers’] journey may be hard. In fact, the real path is too hard. Show them the turns they missed… understand that they’ve faced barriers along the way. Critics and friends have told them their problem is impossible. They’ve told them they’re not worthy or smart enough to find their way out.” Interesting point of view, even if it it’s a bit grander than this blog could ever be. My own goal is to entertain. It’s at least an aspiration.
James Stirling, the British architect[ii] was a studio head at Yale during a period when he wasn’t too greatly esteemed by our cousins across the water. The man had an enormous impact on my architectural education as well as my writing. His juries[iii] were comprised of invited guest critics and students gathered in a bullpen space in the architecture school, graciously conducted with beer, wine and cheese. What struck me was that Jim listened closely as we students stumbled through our presentations. More crucially, we received the pithiest observations during his crits of our work. He understood better than we the work of understanding architecture was a lifetime commitment. His generous acknowledgement that we nascent designers might count as peers was a highlight of my time in school.
Stirling’s own work showed me how to make buildings form larger spaces than themselves. His dorm building at St. Andrews in Scotland is a prime example of space formed by buildings. james stirling@st andrews
In the luncheon that closed the studio, Jim and about five or so students sat in the local basement rathskeller exchanging pleasantries. When I declared that I wanted to be an architect and simultaneously a writer, his response was “I find it hard enough to do just one thing well.” He was right, of course, something that still sobers me. Stirling was a gentle soul with English reserve who never imposed himself on his students, a generosity more artists might practice.
It will be interesting in a year or two to look for patterns in these blogs. Foolish consistency is buggy, er, a bugbear, hobgoblin, or some such expression. Fiction isn’t something one can plot out start to finish, and I for one would be bored if I tried. “One does want a hint of color,” as Nathan Lane’s character says in Birdcage. Besides, if characters are meant to emulate real people, they can’t possibly be consistent. An art professor one Saturday at Clemson candidly described his art as making the first stroke on a canvas, then spending the rest of his efforts correcting it. I can’t tell you how that one statement influenced me, except to write of it. Billy Collins, the poet, said if he knew how a poem was going to conclude he wouldn’t bother starting it. Even poets can have big brass ones.
The plan for this blog is to shoot arrows random fashion into the ether, inviting comments and curiosity. With dollops of humor, I hope. Time to time sardonic expressions, because it’s good to sit up and focus.
So I write in Jim Stirling’s honor and strive to make sense of this second life. May Jim rest in peace, with short, square stogie and wine in hand.
The blurb on an electric hand dryer read “This dryer saves trees, eliminates trash, and is good for the environment,” without punctuation. Assuming this is the high end hand dryer, would the mid-price model’s blurb declare “Saves trees and trash,” and the base model’s blurb cut to the chase with “Saves small bushes”? Evidently just saying it’s good for the environment is too far an abstraction for the consuming public. Marketeers and lawyers must always be declarative; concise not so much.
[ii] Sir James Frazer Stirling, RA (22 April 1926 - 25 June 1992) received the Pritzker Prize for architecture. The Britain’s Royal Institute of British Architecture’s Stirling Prize is named in his honor. The Brits were late to the party regarding Jim Stirling.
[iii] In the Beaux Arts tradition of an architectural education, student projects are reviewed, read juried, at their conclusion by invited architects. Jim Stirling’s juries were always social affairs as much pedagogy. Father Fisher, the Jesuit chaplain at Clemson used to say “Don’t let the course work interfere with your college education,” as he sat to play a hand of poker in the dorm. Somehow the two are logically fused in my mind.