Monthly Archives: September 2013

Why We Hate Writing

man firing pencils from a bazookaSuppose someone brought a bazooka over to your house, and at bazooka-point told you to sit down and write something. Would that make it easier to write? Or would you be thinking, “Hmm, a bazooka is a quick way to go.”

What is the most difficult thing about writing? The hardest part for me—and I don’t mean to sound glib—is writing. It’s all hard. Or I’ll qualify that a bit. If you’re trying to do the best job you can, it’s really difficult. Always. If you don’t care about quality, then not so much.

I write a lot, by this point in my life about a kazillion words, including two, maybe three hundred good ones, some with multiple syllables. I’ve also written and even published in very diverse genres: short stories, essays, medical encyclopedia articles, newspaper feature articles, a newspaper health column, academic journal articles, poems, blog entries for a dental device manufacturer. Etcetera. So I’ve got a little experience here, and when I say that writing is difficult, I mean “God damn it, why does this never get easier?”

Really, why is writing so hard? Here’s my summarized answer: because writing is basically an act of magic, and as Harry Potter teaches us, magic is not easy.

The essence of writing is, in fact, as mysterious as magic. You start with thoughts in your head, and let’s don’t even get started on what exactly thoughts are. Now, take some physical objects, a clump of clay maybe, or sticks, banana leaves, grass stems, soot, whatever you like, and use those things to put your ideas in the head of someone who won’t be born for a thousand years. If that doesn’t seem like magic, you’re just not thinking about it. The invention of writing was so miraculous that some religions claim it as a gift from the gods.

There is a man in my new writing group, in charming Decatur, Georgia, who said yesterday that he and a friend make bets with one another on getting something written, and the loser has to actually pay something. This method, the man said, is the only way he can write. We might logically ask why he is writing at all, if he has to use such a trick, but I’ve known plenty of people who say they want to write, yet they don’t do it. In the end it’s too much trouble.

I’ve also read quotes from writers who were successful enough to be quoted, talking about the struggle. I may not quote these exactly, but you can sue me if you wish (hint to the wise: I’m really rich, so it’s worth your effort). One writer said, “I don’t like writing, but I like having written.” Oh, that is so true. Maybe it’s a bit like giving birth to a child. When the screaming and cursing God are over, you look at what you’ve done and say “Heeey, aren’t you adorable?”

When I first had the idea for this blog entry I actually had an answer to what is most difficult for me about writing. I was going to say transitions, by which I mean movement through time and space. It’s not really hard to do it, you just say “then” a lot, or with a little more sophistication—but not much—you say things like “the next day” or “he walked out of the room”. What makes transitions so hard is doing them with the full skill of a competent writer, the kind of transition that makes the shift seem so natural the reader doesn’t even know you’re doing it. I’ve sometimes spent a couple of hours or more on one paragraph trying to come up with a satisfying transition.

But as I thought about writing this, I began to wonder whether transitions are more difficult than creating a realistic character. Are they more difficult than coming up with a strong plot? Sometimes I think I could rob a bank, use the money to buy drugs, sell the drugs to finance a small war, and jump off the Empire State Building for the sake of the woman I love, and I still wouldn’t have a plot. So that’s hard, too.

One of the problems I have with writing is that when I do it I can think of so many other things that maybe ought to be done right now instead. Maybe the clothes in the dryer are done. One of my fingernails starts to look too long and needs cutting. And I should really make a note about going by the bank. Blah blah blah. Or I just get sleepy and think “Ah, man, a nap would be so nice.” Thus the name of this blog site. In fact, I’m going to go take a nap right now. Then he stood up and walked out of the room.


Filed under How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

This Club’s Too Small for You

Japanese children“She pulled back the shade and looked out into the black Nevada night and saw a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the desert. The sky was lit up by the moon and the dark bodies of the horses were drifting and turning in the moonlight and wherever they went they left behind great billowing clouds of dust as proof of their passage. The girl lifted the shade and pulled her brother closer to the window…”

With possible strange exceptions, everyone wants to belong, to feel part of a group. But here’s an epically destructive paradox—it seems to be human nature that we don’t properly feel like we belong unless we can point to people who don’t belong. To properly feel like part of a group, we must be aware that there are outsiders.

This psychological need is so strong that we even use our imagination to invent separate groups. An obvious and easy way to create groups is based on physical appearance. I’m a pretty girl and you’re not. I’m white and you’re not. Once we’ve placed people in another group, they are (as academics like to say) the “Other”. Since they aren’t like us, we don’t need to treat them the same.

Every one of us could this moment make a list of historic horrors based on the groups humans have created. All countries on earth—even your favorites—are guilty of abuse at some point. One of the shameful moments in American history happened in 1942, when Japanese Americans living in the west were rounded up and moved to concentration camps (called “internment” camps). The daughter of one of the internees, Julie Otsuka, has used her short novel When the Emperor Was Divine to tell a story of a small family, showing their removal to concentration camps and then their return. In some ways it seems like a simple novel.

The style of the book does not call attention to itself, but quietly narrates events with an attention to detail that is sometimes a minute description of daily life, such as the mother in their kitchen before they go: “The Radio City Symphony was performing the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Cymbals were crashing. Cannons boomed. She set the plate down in front of the boy. ‘Eat,’ she said. He reached for a slice of apple just as the audience burst into applause.”

There are few scenes of great drama in this book. Most of life does not consist of such drama, but of the little details that take us through the day, and these details are much of what Otsuka uses to tell her story. The author mostly wants to show the people in the book as human beings, to let us see their humanity. We learn that the girl “was ten years old and she knew what she liked. Boys and black licorice and Dorothy Lamour.” We learn that while in the camp the boy “lay awake in the darkness worrying about the bicycle he’d left behind, chained to the trunk of the persimmon tree. Had the tires gone flat yet?” When they first get out of the train in the desert, the mother says, “It is unbearably bright.”

There is also very little plot in this book, in contradiction to what some people insist a novel must have. The family is removed from their home, they spend time in the camps, and at last they come home. The purpose of the book is not so much to relate the broad story of American history, but rather to let us briefly feel the lives of the people who must bear up under history. We already know what happened in the United States during World War II. We read this book to see how the boy feels about horses, to learn what the emotional reactions of the family are to the father being gone.internment poster

One thing Otsuka does which indicates this is a modern novel is that the five parts of the book are all written from a different point of view: the mother, the girl, the boy, an unnamed narrator (the only section in first person, and we know it must be either the girl or boy, but don’t know which), and the father. The very end of the book, the last four pages, show anger and sarcasm, which I would have told the author to change, as they are in such contrast with the generally quiet and even lyrical tone of the rest of the book. But maybe she wanted it that way.

When the Imperor Was Divine is a tiny book, a fast read, and if you don’t want to simply connect with the characters trying to live under the fist of history, then it’s probably not for you. But if you can appreciate a lovely description of people who seem real as they are mistreated by fate, then lift the shade, lean closer to the window, and watch the horses gallop across the desert.

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The Soul Without Clothes

Since you have nothing better to do at the moment (you’re on the internet, after all), consider three scenarios of people. If you will, truly consider them for a moment, project your mind into each and try to imagine being that person. If all you do is try, it will be good for your soul.

Construction workers(1) A man is riding down the interstate at 6:30 in the morning. He’s not driving, so he dozes, but occasionally he lifts his eyelids and looks out, as the center of the city gets closer. He came to this city four years ago from Guatemala to look for a job, and now he works on a construction site. Back in Guatemala, while helping build houses, he worked in the evenings as a dance instructor, the thing he really loves. As he rides in to his construction job this morning, he remembers that feeling of standing in front of a class, showing them what to do, placing their hands differently, standing next to them to demonstrate how the feet should move. Then he thinks about last night, lying next to his girlfriend, making love with her, how sweet that was. He would never tell his fellow workers how soft and tender he felt with her, or feels now when he thinks about her. He opens his eyes again and sees a billboard for cellphones, and he recalls his grandmother, who never knew how to use a cellphone before she died.

young girl cooking(2) A young girl sits looking at a cookbook. She’s thinking vaguely of foods she really likes, such as the noodle dish her mother makes with the creamy sauce, or the fruit salad her grandmother makes for holidays with oranges and nuts, or the cookies with coconut and chocolate that her friend’s mother makes. The girl reads a recipe, wondering if she can do it, proud of herself that she knows something about cooking, and wondering if she could surprise her mother. It would be such a treat to see her mother surprised and suddenly happy, to have her mother praise her as a smart girl. While she is reading, the girl remembers an argument with a boy at school that day about his calling her best friend a hippo. She wanted to hit him, but she’s proud of herself that she didn’t. But she really wanted to.

(3) It has been a cold night, and a man has slept on cardboard near a building where a certain amount of heat radiates. He wakes up remembering his dream of being in an airport, coming through a gate to hug his wife as he came home from a business trip to Belgium. Lying on the sidewalk, homeless, he also thinks that even back on that trip to Belgium, he was already drinking too much. Now that he’s awake, he continues to lie there, hearing more cars go by, listening to the footsteps of people walking past. Finally he sits up, and what bothers him the most isn’t the degradation on sitting on the sidewalk, it’s the fact that he knows he is dirty and ragged with long hair. All his life he took so much care of his appearance. homeless manOne time he and his brother appeared at a party wearing the same beautiful silk shirt, and they just started laughing about it. He looks around now wondering when he will get some food. Yesterday someone gave him a sandwich, and he begins to fantasize about it, feeling a clutching in his stomach from hunger.

What I’m trying to do with these scenarios is imagine what it is like to be another human being. Such imagining can be philosophical, or religious, or political (if you actually start to care about other people, that has HUGE political implications). Think of yourself in a car, driving down the interstate. All around you are other drivers, each of them merely a part of the other vehicle. They are stupid for cutting you off, or an idiot for going too slow, or too dull for you to even look at. You barely notice them as human beings.

But every one of them, however dull, stupid, or uninteresting, is feeling the desire to be somewhere. Every one of them has a favorite food that gives them great pleasure when they eat it. Every one has loved someone or loves someone now, thinks about that person with fondness, affection, longing. Every one of those drivers has anticipated a special day, waited impatiently for that day to come, knowing how good it would be.

Beyond the road you are driving on, the buildings are filled with people who have fears and dreams, who remember games they played as children. Through the country, across the earth, each person who seems so distant, meaningless, nonexistent, in fact, has at some point stood watching something happen and smiled to see it, feeling happy. What makes them human? Their language, their fairy tales, their recipes, their grandmothers?

If you can really understand this truth about the seven billion people on the earth, it can be a bit terrifying, as if for a split second we can see what God sees, the vast extent of humanity and the rich full personality of each person. Even a second of that knowledge can overwhelm the mind. Maybe that’s part of why we don’t do it. A child died of hunger in Niger? Where is that? So what? A man fell off a bridge in China and was killed? What do I care?

But I care. This enormous, overwhelming reality, our common humanness, is what I write about.

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Churping Crickets

Chinese painting of cricket[This weekend in the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, in Stillwater, some of my friends along with normal people are gathering for the Stillwater Poetry Festival. Hello to all of them, and I sip my wine in your honor.]

Spelling 1: A couple of weeks ago I was at the huge VA hospital in Atlanta, doing air quality testing on the psych ward (making sure I carefully closed all doors behind me until they clicked shut). In a room used by the nurses were paper bags on the floor holding stored belongings. One of the bags had a piece of paper attached, with a message neatly printed on a printer, all in capital letters, “CONTRABAND DO NOT GIVE TO PATIENT INTILL PATIENT IS RELEASED”.

Spelling 2: This week I was driving through Georgia backroads on my way to Brunswick, down on the coast, for a brief vacation in a place where seafood is widely available and the live oak trees just drop your jaw with wonder. Since this is the end of summer, farm stands along the way were selling produce. One stand, out in the country, held a sign with letters two feet high proclaiming “Peches”.

Spelling 3: On that same drive, I stopped for gas at a station that was pleasant enough to have enormous planters with blooming flowers next to the gas pumps. In the restroom I found about 20 notices lining the walls, including one on the paper towel dispenser informing me that God loves me, and I was glad to hear it. There was also a notice for fishermen that began with “GOI’N FISH’N?” at the top and went on to name several types of live bait, including “Churping crickets”.

I’m sure I must have written about spelling before on this blog, but I’ll tell you what, I don’t care. I’m doing it again. It’s a big topic, and requires lots of whining. I’m not necessarily whining that nearly every English speaker on earth spells as if they don’t quite get this “alphabet” concept. As a writer and editor, I admit that the ubiquitous ignorance irritates me, and yet I understand why it’s a problem. English spelling is impossible and stupid.

The basic problem is that some of the letters can have multiple pronunciations, and in combinations inside words, they have even more, so that the sounds of the letters can begin to seem rather random. Alphabet? We have an alphabet? There’s a famous example to illustrate how ridiculous English spelling is, which I heard attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but my friend Uncle Wikipedia tells me the example came earlier. The spelling “ghoti” to represent the word “fish” comes by taking the gh from tough, o from women, and ti from nation. Using the pronunciation of those letters in those words, “ghoti” would thus be pronounced “fish”.

There are multiple reasons why English spelling is like an egg truck turned over on the interstate. Part of the problem is that over a period of a few hundred years, all the vowels of English slowly changed. Who the hell knows why? I can’t imagine how a thing like that could happen, but we know it did, and as it was getting started, printing was invented. Maybe in the early days of printing, words were spelled more or less they way they were pronounced. Then as the sounds of words changed, the spelling was already locked in and didn’t change, because things in print look official.

Native speakers of English must have a feeling that the rules aren’t very solid and don’t apply much anyway, because we frequently adopt words from other languages, without changing their spelling but keeping the original pronunciation. Is there a time in English when double “l” is pronounced like “y” other than in words from Spanish (tortilla)? Or is “et” pronounced as “ey” other than in French words (ballet)?

Naturally there have been many suggestions that we correct the spelling and spell words the way they’re pronounced. If we could do that, other than rendering hundreds of years of English literature instantly unreadable, there’s another problem. In America the word spelled “lieutenant” is pronounced (if you’ll allow me a phonetic spelling) “lootenant”. In England it’s pronounced “leftenant”.

Whose pronunciation would be used if we went to phonetic spelling? I only gave one example of a great many. Do you pronounce the famous Georgia nut PEE-kan (like the “a” in hat, the way you should) or puh-KAHN? Which phonetic spelling should we use? Even if we tried to implement phonetic spelling, it wouldn’t work, because for anyone outside the chosen dialect, it still wouldn’t be phonetic.

So all I can say, if you have particular trouble with spelling, is to hire a professional editor. Call me. I do editing on the side while I’m not collecting air samples. And stop using so-called phonetic spelling. Stop it right now. Don’t ever again for the rest of your life use the spelling “lite”. It’s an abomination, just like the beer that it names.

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Read Like the Wind

Decatur square sculpture of children on globe

Wild about books

Picture a four-year-old girl holding her mother’s hand, and in the other hand clutching a brightly colored book half as large as she is. Or picture a man with a gray goatee, wearing a fedora hat with a brim one inch wide, closing his eyes in pleasure listening to a poem. Imagine children with popsicles to ward off heat and to assuage the primal longing for sugar.

Summer is the time for festivals, to get out in the streets, drink some beer, paint your face, and … look at books? As we say here in Georgia—hell yes, let’s read! This weekend in Decatur, a town that abuts Atlanta like a tugboat up against an ocean liner, the Decatur Book Festival is going on. According to their website, it is the fifth largest book festival in the country.

I went down this afternoon, where I found the festival centered on the lawn in front of the old Decatur courthouse, in the middle of town. Surrounding the lawn there are now quite a few nice restaurants (one of which, the Iberian Pig, my daughter did the interior design for). Underneath the lawn is a train station, for the metro train to Atlanta.

Girl doing handstand on lawn

Flipping over a good novel

The air of the book festival was that of a typical street fair, with a beaucoup crowd having fun, booths in white tents running down several streets, a string of food booths with the requisite Polish sausages and funnel cakes, layered in powdered sugar, and children playing with foam blocks made to look like concrete. Actually, that part was new to me. In addition to the exhibits in the tents (some book related: publishers, an agent, book sellers), some sort of bookish if you stretch it (universities and colleges), and some huh? (someone selling windows for houses—I guess writers need windows to stare out of while thinking).

There were also many booths of cultural organizations: dance troups (gloATL), theater companies (Synchronicity), the Atlanta Opera, writers organizations (Georgia Writers Association, Atlanta Writers Club), and museums of several sorts (Atlanta High Museum, the Georgia Museum). I also learned that the National Museum of Decorative Painting is in Atlanta. My list here is only for the few that I picked up materials from, or that I made note of.

Man telling stories

It rained for three weeks

In addition to booths, there were various “stages”, all of which were packed with spectators. When I first arrived I passed the teen stage, and a small crowd was gathering in the folding chairs to hear the presentation. In the central gazebo on the square, in front of the old courthouse, was the children’s stage, where a very enthusiastic young man was telling a story to at least 20 children, some sitting and watching and some standing with him to help act things out. The story teller used many broad gestures with the children imitating him.

I also went to two other stages for adults. In the new courthouse, a photographer was talking about photos as he showed them on a screen, taken while traveling around photographing old southern churches. In addition, he had found a strange cult compound in north Georgia (since closed down and the leader in prison), and in this compound everything had been built to imitate ancient Egypt. When one photo came on the screen, the photographer said that the people who lived there had “mobile homes that they accessorized to look like ancient Egypt”.

Another stage was in the beautiful old courthouse, upstairs in an elegant room with marble decoration on one end, where I joined a rather large group to hear two poets read: Maurice Manning and Adrian Matejka. Banner with "thou shalt read"I liked them both, and I particular I enjoyed the Kentucky poems of Manning, with his allusions to eccentric country people. I guess he’s met my family.

Before I left the festival I found a booth from a local literary agency, and one of the agents asked whether I wanted to make a pitch. I felt uneasy to suddenly be called on to convince someone that my book is worth reading, but I said yes. I told her about the novel Benedict and Miramar. Oddly, however, she did not light up with enthusiasm. She seemed to imply that the book should either be for young adults, since Miramar is the age of the heroes in those books, or else my book is for men, since Benedict is a man. I guess that makes Les Misérables a book for ex-convicts. But the agent was pleasant, and she said that I might send her a synopsis, so that she can reject it a second time.

Beer booth

Proof that writers attend the festival

In contemplating going to this festival, I wondered whether this is a phenomenon that will eventually die like bookstores, but from what I saw today, I’d say no. Writers can always read from their work, people can always browse booths, and corn dogs will always be crunchy.

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