Monthly Archives: May 2014

Whoa, Put That Hammer Down

boy and girl beatniks

So…you like poetry?

At the poetry reading venue I’ve been going to on Sunday evenings, always very well attended, I’ve seen people do something that I think is rather cute. If they happen to like a line or section of a poem, some audience members will hold both hands up in the air and snap their fingers. It’s like a faint echo of the Beatniks. Click click, cool, man.

There are two things in that exchange that interest me regarding human nature. Why are the poets (a term I’m using loosely) on the stage reciting what they’ve written? And why do people in the audience want to say they’ve liked it?

Both kinds of performance, reading and finger snapping, are expressions of thoughts or emotions. Nothing very profound about knowing that, though this is a topic I keep coming back to. It’s compelling when you ponder what this expression means at a deep level. Let’s say a person is sitting in a chair thinking of something that affects them powerfully. One option is to do nothing that reveals the feelings.

Not a very good option, of course. Human beings aren’t like that. It would be better for the person to express the emotions, which might be as simple as facial expressions or holding the body in a particular position. Or the person might get out of the chair and lie curled up on the floor behind it. Or write a poem about those feelings and stand on a stage to read it.

The options, in fact, are practically endless: write an essay, scream and throw the chair across the room, make a movie to symbolize the feelings, talk to a friend, take a hammer and knock out all the windows in the house…

Every one of these things, from the slightest lifting of an eyebrow, involves the use of muscles, which is to say, movement of the body. As a normal part of being human, in other words, we cannot sit motionless, thinking and feeling things. We must move our bodies to symbolically express what is inside the mind. Thoughts and feelings must literally come into the world through movement, and that movement must be directed into symbolic expression. (So if you feel sad, for instance, it’s not enough that you’re moving as you brush your teeth, as that isn’t symbolic expression.)

Why are we like this? This is one of the mysteries of a human being to me, this need for expression. I’ve thought about this many times, and I have absolutely no idea, not even a theory. I see this necessity rather vividly at times at the open mic poetry readings, which can involve a great deal of therapy poetry. Those poems can generally be summarized as “You can’t oppress me anymore, as I’ve learned to respect myself, and here are the details.” The “you” in that sentence might be ex-boyfriends, parents, white society, even life in general.

If we define good art as having qualities like a fresh point of view, an entertaining and surprising twist, a vivid imagination, or a well developed ability to work with the craft, then most of the therapy poetry is pretty dismal. And yet the human being standing there on that stage is so serious and earnest sometimes that I’ve seen people either choke up or cry in trying to present their poem. Or grow a little angry.

There are various theories as to why we invented language. Maybe it was to make us more effective at group hunting, or to tell the others in the tribe where the the food is. Or maybe we invented language to be able to say “I don’t think my parents ever really understood me.”

Part of the human mystery. I guess people could go to a therapist and talk instead, but that’s expensive, so they write poetry. And in response the audience sometimes want to say how they feel. Click click, cool, man.

Leave a comment

Filed under Language, Uncategorized

In An Elevator With Vampires

art-deco-elevator-doorsThis week I heard a review on NPR of a new novel by Michael Cunningham (The Snow Queen), in which the reviewer said of the book, “His writing is captivating, even if his plot isn’t.” Apparently a captivating plot did not matter in this case, as the book was published and being reviewed on a national radio program listened to by millions of people.

People sometimes refer to the elevator speech, a metaphor of riding in an elevator with someone for, let’s say, one minute, and clearly explaining your idea to them in that minute*. I admit I find this concept repellently trivial. I like to think about things and discuss them, which takes time. I may be wrong, but I feel this way.

Imagine how difficult it must be to guess what people in the future will want to read. Even if we define the future as starting today, so that we have a little knowledge, it still must be hard to do. We can know what people are reading at the moment, but what if tomorrow we all change our minds?

In large part, predicting the future is the job of literary agents and publishers, but how can they know? How indeed? In fact, of course, they can’t always know. Some books are accepted and published and then go nowhere. And once in a rare while, we hear a story of a book that was rejected 30 times, yet the book somehow survives and is published, and people love it.

But if agents can’t get it right at least a certain amount of time, eventually they quit being able to pay rent, and then they quit being agents. One way they might guess what will sell is to look for trends that, while temporary, may run for a while to come (say, kindly vampire nurses who only drink the blood of the terminally ill). Another approach to finding books that will sell is to look for things that seem universal and therefore always popular, like a strong story line, or “plot”.

A couple of weeks ago Gabriel Garcia-Márquez died, so at the moment we are occasionally hearing talk of his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. What is the plot of that book? I would maintain that there is no plot in the strict sense of the word. The novel moves from generation to generation, but it is really a book about ideas. Or in the novel If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, there is also no strong plot. The book is certainly about something, a book with depth, but the purpose is not to entertain with a catchy story.

Also within the last few weeks I’ve read two modern American novels that similarly do not display a strong plot. One was A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity by Whitney Otto (2002, Random House). This book is a series of unconnected chapters, or at best very slightly connected, with a changing cast of characters. There is not the slightest hint of a plot. The other book is White Noise by Don Delillo (1985, Viking Press). There is also no real plot here, either, though there is a chemical spill that occasionally (but only occasionally) affects the action. This book won the National Book Award for Fiction.

Does every novel need to have a strong, compelling plot? A detective novel, yeah. A romance novel, of course. But what about literary fiction? From what I have picked up in various ways—from blogs and interviews with literary agents, from conversations with people who have met agents, or from my own conversation with an agent two weeks ago, the idea of a compelling plot seems to be extremely important to agents.

In my conversation with the agent, I presented this book: A father and teenage daughter are traveling simultaneously east and west across the United States in two different time periods (they are moving back and forth through space and time), having a series of adventures. They are working toward a goal in the past, with quite a bit of struggle and danger to attain it.

I was told that it would be impossible to sell such a book. The characters are traveling because they want to do it, but the agent said that something must force them to make this trip. I don’t know that the agent is wrong about the book, but I do know that the book already has as much “plot” as any of the four books I named above, and far more than some of them.

Well, you might say, I’m not Garcia-Márquez. I’m not even Whitney Otto (who had a previous book made into a movie). No, I’m not. The question then arises as to whether a new writer would have been able to publish any of the books I named? Or would a literary agent have said, “What is your book about? Give me your elevator speech. No, no, no, I can’t sell something like that.”

Is there space in our culture for thoughtful novels that stretch the genre? There does seem to be. But do they only exist in spite of literary agents and publishers?


*Such as:

War and Peace—Napoleon invades Russia. Moscow burns down. He leaves.

Les Miserables—A poor man steals apples, and endless bad shit happens . Also Paris builds a complicated sewer system.

1 Comment

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

Or You Could Just Slap Yourself

baby gorilla resting

Write or take a nap?

You know those curiosity bits you see once in a while that give the odd names for different groupings of animals? Troop of apes, pod of whales, murder of crows. We could make up words like that for groups of humans: a pretension of professors, a slink of lawyers, a swearing of construction workers. And what about writers? How about a “fretting” of writers? I joined a fretting of writers last Saturday, to attend the Atlanta Writers Conference.

My reason for attending, and for laying out a nice pile of money that could have been spent on good wine for a change, was because I had a chance to sit down with a literary agent and make a pitch to sell a novel. Since I have several novels lying around unloved, in addition to the one I’m working to self publish, I’ve still been thinking of trying to sell another one through an agent.

You could tell this was a writers conference. For one thing, we were all really intelligent and articulate. Ha ha, just seeing if you were still awake there. Actually, you could tell because instead of paying for the entire conference, we were able to pay for only the bits and pieces we actually wanted to attend. Ah, people anxiously counting their money—that sounds like a fretting of writers.

Maybe because of the name of the conference, I had the idea that this was just a local Atlanta thing, although the five agents and five publishers all seemed to have come from New York. Or from somewhere, anyway. So I was surprised at lunch to meet another writer who had flown down from Cincinnati. Another came from Washington, DC, two more drove in from Nashville. Geez, and I felt like I was really making an effort in setting my alarm for 6:45 to get down to the hotel for early check-in.

The first conference event I went to was a question and answer session with the five literary agents. I took notes so that I could tell you things, so I’ll excerpt a few interesting bits:

  • If a book is self published, will a publisher still consider it? Yes, if it has proved itself by selling enough copies (the number 10,000 was commonly agreed on).
  • If an agent rejects you only from a query letter, it may be the letter itself that is the problem, or it may be the book. If an agent requests part of the book, then rejects it, the book itself is the problem.
  • All the agents agreed that a writer needs a “platform”—which may be defined in various ways (blog, Facebook page, conference presentations, radio show, expert knowledge), but it all comes down to being willing to put your ass out there in public and try to sell the book.
  • If you are not willing to get your ass out there and sell the book, don’t bother writing it.

I’m sure we could make an excellent argument that it is not reasonable to expect the sort of person who can write a very good book to also be cheerfully entertaining in front of crowds. Though you may have noticed two or three other things about life that are also not reasonable.

There was plenty more agent advice, of course, but I’ll just mention a website recommended by one of them, Absolute Write Water Cooler. It covers a lot of topics, including information about agents. I’ve used the site quite a bit in the past to find information on agents, and I always tried to pay attention to the date on the postings, as some of them can be years old, which may not be as helpful.

I said that my main reason for going to the conference was to sit down with an agent, and as instructed, I took a copy of my query letter for the agent to critique. Beforehand, a friend from my writing group, also at the conference, looked at my query letter, and from that conversation, I expected my letter to escape all praise, to put it mildly. In fact, I realize—now, damn it—that I was mixing up the idea of a query letter (short and about the concept of the book) with a synopsis (longer and more detailed about what happens in the book). Alright, I was an idiot. Even worse, I’m probably still an idiot.

When I saw the agent, my letter did indeed escape all praise. He received a copy of the letter ahead of time, to look it over before I entered the room. When I walked in to find him with a horrified expression, making the sign of the cross with two fingers over the page, I knew this was not going to go well.

In addition to my “look here, dumbass” session, the agent helpfully tried to tell me what is wrong with my my writing, but he only had 10 minutes, so I’m pretty sure he missed some things. In addition to the letter, he critiqued the book as unsellable, but his reason for saying so raised a question I have often considered, and I plan to address that point here on the blog next week.

The conference was actually a sobering experience. I can’t speak for every writer—or any writers, in fact—but it seems to me that in trying to become a published writer, you really need nerves of steel. After hearing no, no, no, no, no, no, you have to be willing to reply “yes” and mean it.

So yes. But in the meantime, I went Saturday evening and bought myself a consolation cannoli with pistachios.


Filed under Secret Agent

A Beautiful Ugliness

painting of Jane Grey's execution

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Did you ever hear of Lady Jane Grey? Possibly not, unless you’re a fairly serious student of history, or even specifically of English history. Jane Grey had the bad luck to be born into the ruling Tudor family of England. According to historical accounts, she was very intelligent and well educated, and she suddenly became Queen of England, to be deposed nine days later. Queen for nine days. In 1554, at the age of 16, she was then murdered by being beheaded, though since it was state-sponsored murder, of course we call that “execution”.

Is there any way we might connect this teenage girl with Aristotle (other than the fact that she read him, possibly in the original)? Aristotle said—as best I remember, don’t quote me—that things that would displease us in real life give us pleasure when rendered by a skillful artist. Almost 300 years after Jane’s death, in 1834, the French painter Paul Delaroche did a dramatic rendering of her death, pictured on this page. (Here is a larger version than the one I’ve used.)

Two weeks ago I had an email exchange about this picture with a friend who is a painter. My friend commented on the use of light, and I looked again at the painting, which I had seen for the first time in a museum in London. This picture affects me strongly, but for all the awfulness of the scene, as a piece of art, it’s simply beautiful. Jane glows in white, in contrast to darkness around her. In composition, the two collapsing mourners on the left contrast with the executioner standing tall on the right, dressed in…what color?…red. And look at her hand pathetically reaching forward blindly.

Though it evokes—for me, anyway—sickening emotions, there is also a gloriousness about the painting, a sublimity that defies words. Indeed, there is a strange phenomenon in which displeasing things are given a kind of beauty by artistic skill. This is certainly true in music. Aren’t there songs that make you happy to hear them, sung about things that you sure hope don’t happen to you?

We do this in writing as well. One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays is “Hamlet”, but my God, by the end, the bloody stage is covered with the bodies of people who were all miserable up until they died. Or consider the novel The Grapes of Wrath. The last few pages of that book feel as if civilization has ended, after so much grief to get there. We might also consider Anna Karenina, that sweet little package of wretchedness, suffering, and death. But it’s such a pleasure to read these books.

When I try to understand this phenomenon, I first think that we must feel some admiration for the artist who created the painting/song/book/etc. Even if artistic skill isn’t the main thing in our mind, we may notice it. We’ll say of a painting, “Look at the nice colors in that” or after a movie we might think, “That was cool how she came through the door with the light behind her.” We’re struck by artistic skill.

The more we think about it, the more we might realize how much talent and thought were involved in creating a work of art. But even if we don’t consciously think about the talent or imagination of the artist, we experience it, and that experience gives us a pleasure, an admiration for what a human being can accomplish. The pleasure seems to alleviate the displeasure of an awful topic.

I also want to suggest something else that happens with art. I’m using words to express my idea, because words are what I have here, but words are not very helpful. Picture an image of Shiva dancing in a circle of fire. That comes closer. When art is at its best, whatever that might mean for each person, it can pull our spirit into a place beyond this world. And whatever that mysterious place might be, it’s a place we reach out and try to touch.


Filed under How We Create Magic

Like Singing Amazing Grace

painted hands on cave wallHere’s a question to you personally: if you’re not driven to create (writer, painter, dress maker, etc.), how do you live? What I’m asking here, with my endearing clumsy stumbling, is the one basic question that underlies our existence: What the hell are we doing here on the earth?

You’ve wondered why we’re here, of course, perhaps in a less profane way. I have relatives who consider themselves religious and who think that I’m not. If we take religion to mean (as they do) a rigid set of rules that free you from having to think about things, then no, ma’am, I’m not religious, and thank God. But as to the basic questions that helped to create religion in the first place, I ponder those questions every day, multiple times a day.

The question as to what we’re doing here is always humming around there in the background, ready to pop its little existential head up. When I’m driving down the road, I may suddenly think “Why am I driving?” I’m going to see a friend. “Why go?” Because it’s good to see friends. “Why is that good?” Because connecting with other people makes life better.

I embrace the good things in the world—invite me out for a drink or go with me to a museum, you’ll see it—but how do the good things address that nagging question of being here? I can read books on Buddhism, or meditate, or just wallow in pleasure—huge cheeseburgers, then whiskey, then ice cream, then sex all night (I wish)—or I can sing “Amazing Grace” till it vibrates in the heart, but driving home, I’ll still think, “Why am I driving?”

One answer is always there as to why I’m here. Everything else comes and goes (goes, mostly). People I love leave. Or I leave. Things end. Things I want badly never even happened in the first place. But in the end, I’m always sitting in front of that blank whiteness, writing down word after word, until a sentence finally struts across the page, snapping down an unexpected phrase with its eyebrow raised, a slight smile on its lips, and an implied “What do you think of that?” The answer is always that I’m here to write.

It’s not as if writing gives me all I need. It doesn’t make me less lonely. Maybe just the opposite. It doesn’t give me friends to laugh and drink beers with and pretend that the evening we are having together is the sweet culmination of human existence. Or, to be a little darker, when I think of the fact that we die, decay, disappear and I wonder “What the fuck? Why does that happen?” writing does not assuage that perplexity. Being a writer gives me no answer you don’t have.

But writing does give me one thing. It gives me a comforting kind of obsession, a pretense that something I do matters. It may only matter to me, but there’s a kind of madness about it that at its best makes me happier than a bottle of whiskey. My success as a writer has been fairly small to this point, and yet I believe, believe down through my bones, in my dreams, as I go to bed, and when I wake up, that I’m doing something important. cave paintingAnd although writing is incredibly difficult, when I see a person appear on the page who has never existed before, when they open their eyes, take a breath, and begin to walk around and speak, I sometimes think, “My God, look at that.”

Thus I continue to tolerate washing dishes, paying bills, shaving, working, folding clothes—that whole tsunami of dreary details so necessary to our few seconds of existence. Because for a brief time each day I create, I touch a world I can’t explain or even understand. It’s how I live and it makes me want to.

But if you’re not a creative person, what does it for you? What helps you live?

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living