Monthly Archives: June 2011

Difficult Radio Questions

I just looked in the rule book for writing blogs, and it said that in your third blog entry you are supposed to write about yourself “in a more personal way”. Whoo, good thing I looked. I was going to write about being invited to Mick Jagger’s house for lunch to discuss song writing. I guess that will have to wait.

Actually, in the appendix to the rule book for writing blogs, it said that in the third entry you must write about yourself, but if you are a writer and everything you say is a pack of lies anyway, there is somewhat more flexibility.

Thus. I was born in the same state as Ray Charles, who I had the good fortune to see once (onstage, I mean, we didn’t hang out together in our home state, or anything). For this reason I might be perceived as a southern writer, among those rare people who perceive me as a writer at all. It’s not like I don’t tell people I’m a writer. I do, but then I figure they’re thinking “yeah, yeah, but do you have a job?” Well…no.

I do not see myself as a “southern” writer because I hate that kind of categorization. I think writers have more in common with one another than they do with their category. So I also hate it when people talk about “women writers” or “black writers” or any kind of group. I know that one can make logical, sometimes even reasonable, arguments for such categorization. I don’t care. I hate it anyway. As writers, we are people who are compelled by language, both its complexity and its beauty, and we stare hopefully and anxiously at blankness, trying to fill it with language that will make some sense of human existence. That’s more important than where I was born or anything else about me.

Writers who have influenced me have probably been every writer I ever read, including bad ones. Every book I read now, if I happen to like it, I begin to feel that I should do something like that, that style, those ideas, that boldness of approach. And I always think “why are all those writers so much better than me?” The writer who I can most vividly cite as an influence is Shakespeare for breadth of subject matter and amazing range and depth of characters, and for his scintillating use of language like a bolt of lightning. I have also been greatly influenced to write humor by Mark Twain and a Russian writer from the 1920s named Zoshchenko. I am also in love with Dostoyevsky, in spite of his faults.

If anyone were ever to ask me on Terry Gross’ program Fresh Air whether I have some basic idea that unifies my writing, I have an answer. I am trying to capture what it means to be human. And then Terry of course will be obligated to say, “Well, um, that’s kind of dumb, don’t you think? Because nobody can do that.”

Man, she’s a tough one, that Terry Gross.

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Filed under Writing While Living

What I Would Tell the Queen

I am writing something. Because I claim to be a writer and even started this blog, that ought to be no news worth waking the King for. Maybe I would wake the Queen, but definitely leave the King alone with news like this.

What I would tell the Queen, though, once we reach the conversation stage, is that I have not seriously written for almost a year, since I finished a novel last summer and have been blowing kisses and washing windshields for literary agents ever since, in a very futile attempt to have one of them care. I think the only thing I’ve written since last summer in fact is a couple of really short pieces that I hoped were funny. I still hope they’re funny.

But now I’m writing something longer. Maybe. Maybe not. I’m wondering if it could turn into a novel, but jeeeeez that’s a lot of work. And unlike my normal method of working on a novel, I just started writing, pushing out words, the way I used to when I started writing seriously around the age of 20, with no idea where this is going. I just finally needed to write, something, maybe anything, but words need to get out or the container would be harmed.

In the novel so far, our hero is a scalawag (I’m conceiving of him as a scalawag) named Benedict. Maybe I’m imagining him like myself, except without the bad personality traits, plus his life is interesting. He’s kind of lazy, he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to break rules, he just doesn’t comprehend why they exist, and he’s a bit of a sensualist. He also finds himself transported into the past early in the book, and I know, I know, it’s been done already, but so has everything. I included a unique touch. He has a joint in his pocket.

Or maybe that’s been done too, and I don’t care. At least I’m writing. What are you doing?

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming)

Looking for Vacation

The fact that I have a 15-year-old car that makes odd noises and has an unnerving smell of gasoline was not going to stop me from having a day pretending to be on vacation. As a writer who has never had much money, mostly my “vacation” consists of a few hours at the lake, paddling around for a while in a kayak, bobbing across the wake of jetskiers, or sitting for a couple of hours at the bookstore, drinking coffee and reading a book I didn’t pay for. I paid for the coffee, though.

Since I am currently unemployed—an unemployed writer, wouldn’t you just know it?— I have plenty of time to contemplate sitting in my apartment looking for work, or not looking for work, or wondering how to look for work, and wondering if I’ve done those things long enough to justify a nap.

Today I decided to take the day off, to actually go somewhere, any goddamned where, just to get Out Of The Apartment. From among the plethora of vacation hotspots that do not actually require travel or money, I chose the small towns of St. Marys and Ridgway (correctly spelled), not far from me in Pennsylvania.

Before starting my big day out, I had Vacation Goals for the day, but now that the day is over, I can apply my highly developed skills as a writer and revise the past to make meaning of it. So the revised goals for today were: (1) to visit the Straubs brewery in St. Marys, too late to take a tour, but providing an opportunity to learn how shockingly cheap the beer is at the brewery, provoking me into buying two cases, and (2) to visit the Elk County History Museum in Ridgway, to look at many old pictures of buildings on fire.

I can play with words and describe the day in various ways. I might be humorous and point out the impression from the museum that all of Elk County must have gradually burned down over the years. Or I might be profound and talk about driving home astonished by the beauty of clouds above a ridge, just as I passed a dead deer and could smell the corpse, so that death and sublimity mixed in that moment.

Either way, or another way, I’m choosing how to present it. I got the impression on Tuesday over lunch that someone suspected me of not having proper reverence for the mystical process of writing. We didn’t talk about it much, but it seemed to me the idea of consciously applying craft was being denied. Given that I have been a writer for half a century, and my interlocutor claimed not to be a writer at all, I had a minute of thinking Well which one of us actually knows about this?

Truly things do sometimes appear in our art, and we may not know where they came from. That may be more true for other forms of art that don’t use language, where the expression can be more purely emotional. But I believe very strongly in the craft of art, that good artists work hard to learn it. Letting a poem or a story just “flow out of you” and then you’re done—that’s for children, a technique that mostly produces rivers of drivel. Serious writers work at what they are doing.

So should I, as a writer, be the conduit through which art mysteriously appears? On a good day, I am. But on a bad day (which is mostly when I try to get some writing done), I’m still trying to turn something out, and I rely on skills that I’ve learned over the years.

Ya want profundity? I got yer profundity right here. Today I found cheap beer. Get out of here.

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