Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Sardonic Smile Slowly Spreads

Lonely woman with drinkIf you think about American writers, does Dorothy Parker come to mind? She’s known for being an almost supernaturally brilliant smartass, as in the line “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” And of course there is deep truth to that. One of her most famous lines was based on using the word “horticulture” in a sentence, with “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

This kind of cleverness-in-brief rather summed up my own knowledge of Dorothy Parker, and while I admired and was entertained by that ability, I had no idea what she was like as a writer. Then I read her Complete Stories, and with increasing amazement I felt as if I had opened a door that should have been flung wide years ago. Her talent is awe inspiring.

For psychological insight, Parker is equal to Dostoyevsky, or better. Unlike Dostoyevsky, she did not write vast epic novels full of angst and snow, but rather short pieces set in Manhattan apartments, full of anguish and woe. From my previous belief that Dorothy Parker was the clever creator of witty lines (true enough), it was a shock to discover just how dark her stories are. Many of them, in fact, feel so hopelessly bleak that it clutches at the soul to read them.

It’s difficult—well no, impossible, really—with short quotes to fully convey both the dark pessimism of these stories, as well as the jaw-dropping brilliance of such a writer. But here is a small sample from the story Big Blonde, in which a woman, in despair at the emptiness of her life, tries to kill herself:

He admired her completely. Her softness and size delighted him. And he thought she was great, he often told her, because she kept gay and lively when she was drunk.

“Once I had a gal,” he said, “used to try and throw herself out of the window every time she got a can on. Jee-zuss,” he added, feelingly.

Given Parker’s focus on Manhattan, and given that so many of her stories involve people, almost always women, who are either unhappy now, or soon will be, she is reminiscent of Edith Wharton. While Wharton, however, writes about the polished savages of upper-class New York, Parker writes about social classes who sometimes aim at those elites, but who only fool themselves.

The darkness of the writing is sometimes alleviated by the pleasure of how astonishingly well it is crafted. Most writers who walk this earth can only aspire to such a skill. Parker writes in styles that can vary sharply from one story to another, but always with a vivid awareness of language, sometimes with an echo of Shakespeare, sometimes in the literary language of her time, and sometimes using contemporary street slang.

Let’s take a few lines at random from different stories, just for a feeling of Parker’s writing:

  • And then, of course, there is all her shopping to do. Mrs. Legion’s shopping has never yet reached a stage even approaching completion.
  • Decent people didn’t just go away and leave their wives and families that way. All right, suppose you weren’t decent; what of it?
  • “Mme. Marah,” his mother said, “may I present my son?” “Christ, he’s a big bastard, isn’t he?” the true friend said.
  • Rinse, now, is less the intellectual type and more the fluffy.

There is also humor sprinkled through this collection of stories, mostly the sort of humor we might expect from Dorothy Parker, satire like a surgical knife, as in this bit: “…she inspected her finger nails of so thick and glistening a red that it seemed as if she but recently had completed tearing an ox apart with her naked hands.”

In this collection of stories it’s possible to see Parker change over the years, beginning with very short pieces, many of them done in the voice (or from the point of view) of a single character, so that the reader is intensely immersed in those thoughts. By the late 1930s, the stories had grown longer, and there was more narrative, as Parker pulled back to observe the characters more. There is even one very unusual story, set in Spain during the Civil War. Such a setting naturally makes me think of Hemingway, but typical of Parker’s style, that story also concentrates on the psychology of the characters.

Having read this book, I now have a new regret in life, that I did not know Dorothy Parker. Life supplies endless new reasons for regret, one of its petulant little tricks. I think Parker would have agreed with that, and maybe made a joke out of it.

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Independent Temples of Literature

Folly Beach

Folly Beach, where I drove for no apparent reason and took photographs

Outside my third-floor hotel window is a live oak tree hung heavy with the gray streamers of Spanish moss, hanging down two to four feet long. And during breakfast this morning, I was looking out the restaurant window at traffic rising up onto the Ravenel Bridge that surges into the sky like a mountain over the Cooper River in Charleston, South Carolina. My description, however, makes it sound more exotic than it really is to stay at a Days Inn and have breakfast at the attached Huddle House. When I looked at the menu this morning, I thought, “My God, you could be turned down for health insurance just for walking in the door here.”

I’m in Charleston to promote The Illusion of Being Here, though maybe I should write “promote” with the quotation marks indicating “well, sort of”. Because the novel takes place largely in Charleston, it seemed obvious to me that I should try to promote it here—the Charlestonians, admittedly, may have very different ideas about that. Another book set in Charleston…yawn! I don’t know. But here I am, to visit independent bookstores and give a copy of the book to the owner of the store.

I located one independent store in Charleston, three in outlying areas, and one in Columbia (the capital of South Carolina). I delivered books to three stores yesterday on the drive over, and today I spent pretty much the entire day driving out to two stores on the islands, quite a distance from Charleston, and through some heavy damn traffic at times, including a half hour sitting for a high-school home coming parade to go by. So now I’ve delivered my little book to five stores in South Carolina: Ed’s Editions (Columbia), Here Be Books (Summerville), Blue Bicycle Books (downtown Charleston), Edisto Bookstore (Edisto Island), and Indigo Books (Johns Island).

When you go into a bookstore to give someone a copy of a novel you’ve written, here is what does not happen: (1) their eyes do not light up, (2) they do not reach eagerly to receive it, and (3) they do not say “Oh, wow, another book!” If you’re lucky they say “thank you” and “good luck” (that did happen) as they lay the book on top of some of the other 100,000 books already in the store.

Well, OK. It’s a first novel by a completely unknown writer, so what could I expect? But I know this, too: if it takes years of great effort, sometimes with absolutely nothing to show for it, with frustration, with believing in spite of all rational evidence, and with publishing multiple books before I get a real audience—alright, then, that’s how I’ll do it. Because I can.

But you want to hear about the islands near Charleston, right? If you haven’t been to the eastern shore of America, at least in the south, you might be surprised. When you come to water, there is no ocean. There are great expanses of grassy marshes. To get to the ocean, you have to go to the far side of the islands that line the coast, beyond the marshes. The first place I went today was to Edisto Island, quite a long drive from Charleston. All of the houses at Edisto Beach, except for the stupid ones, are up on stilts, so that all the real houses begin on the second floor. This is to allow for hurricanes.

At Edisto Beach I had a fried oyster po-boy sandwich in a restaurant that had a small rowboat named “Miss Rosie” hanging by chains from the ceiling in the middle of the room. All around the walls were large paintings of local scenes, mostly beach/boat stuff. I also went to the beach and watched a few waves. I would like to sit in a chair in the evening as the sun went down, to listen to the shoom shoom shoom as the ocean tried to wash away the land, but to stand there in the sunlight, that’s not so appealing.

After lunch I drove across Johns Island toward Kiawah Island, and what a remarkable drive that turned out to be (after the home coming parade finally got out of the way). The road was lined almost the entire way with enormous live oaks, branching so broadly they put the road into shadow, with mottled late afternoon sunlight sparkling down through the leaves. The trees were also hung heavy with streamers of pale gray Spanish moss. The effect was like driving through a narrow temple that ran for miles and miles, a structure colored dark brown, light gray, green, and gold, a tunnel stretching out dappled with light into the far distance.

I’ll also mention that when I arrived in Charleston yesterday, I went into the downtown proper for dinner, where I ended up at a “communal” table in the restaurant. With a communal table, you sit with whoever also couldn’t get a real table. At first I was not thrilled about it, but then I had the very good and unexpected fortune (isn’t good fortune always unexpected?) to get into conversation with an interesting woman from Atlanta, and we also learned that we had lived in the same small town in Pennsylvania. Teeny tiny world, huh?

Yes, teeny tiny world. Maybe I’ll even run into you. Maybe you’ll tell me you read The Illusion of Being Here, that someone in an independent bookstore recommended it to you.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Uncategorized, Writing While Living

Writing With Nuts and Berries

nature book“If we were 100 percent in favor of writing, we would pick up a pen and do it despite the time factor.” For serious writers, there is a cold hard truth in that statement by Tina Welling, who has written a book called Writing Wild, which is offered as a self help guide to would-be writers. Recently I was asked to do a review of the book, which takes a very specialized approach to its subject.

Though presented as a book about writing (hence the word Writing in the title), the second half of the title, metaphorically speaking, carries more weight, as Welling draws most of the inspiration for the book from nature.

Practically any page provides philosophical statements about nature, as in this quote from chapter 10: “Along the way from childhood to adulthood, many of us lost our connection to the earth in our striving to become a part of our culture.” The basic technique of the book is to promote a heightened consciousness of nature, and of self, as a source of inspiration. That inspiration is used here as a kind of writing technique, as a way to approach the writing process.

There is far more emphasis, however, on this “connect with nature” aspect of the book than on writing. Writing Wild is 90% about connecting with nature and being in the world, or more specifically, about consciousness and awareness of the body.

Many people want to write, but aren’t sure how to approach it, or are afraid to begin. Writing Wild could be a book for them, if they connect with the nature theme (which can be appealing) as a source of inspiration. This is not a book for serious writers engaged with their craft, but for beginners looking for encouragement or for techniques to lead them into writing.

For wishful writers wanting practical help in addition to spiritual encouragement, one of the useful things in the book may be the occasional writing exercises, marked with the label “Try This”. Many of these exercises concern consciousness of the body, though some are directed at writing in a more general way, such as the suggestion to write an external description and then move the writing into describing an internal state relevant to that setting.

Welling also offers practical advice on ways to approach writing when she says to try the idea of creating a character by working with traits opposite to those of people the writer knows. Such a practice might be useful in stimulating the writer to consider psychology and what makes a character.

One of the drawbacks to Writing Wild is that at times the approach can seem artificial, as with the sentence “The ABCs of writing into our own truth are attention, belief, and courage.” It’s not difficult to imagine Welling pondering and trying various words before she came up with an acceptable combination beginning with those letters, which can hardly be called the ABCs of writing. It feels a little forced.

That tendency to artificiality is occasionally an issue with this book, but no doubt that would be true for any book (and there are many) that purports to offer a guide on how to do something as incredibly complicated as write clearly.

On the whole, this is as much a self-help book about getting to know oneself, and connecting with nature, as it is a book about writing. The basic attitude of the book might be captured with this sentence from the text: “More important than the immediate gratification of getting answers to things that puzzle us is feeling comfortable with not knowing, because that’s just life.”

So it is. Life is certainly about mystery, though what is a writer to do with that?

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Out of the Mouths of Dictators

umbrellas and policeMany thousands of people have been in the streets in Hong Kong this week, most of them young, because young people believe in hope. They are protesting the decision of the gray old men in Beijing to impose fake democracy on Hong Kong. The umbrella has become the symbol of these protests, beginning with the students’ practical idea of using umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray used by the police.

When the people of Hong Kong have the audacity to say they want control of their own lives, what does a government like China’s say to people around the world who are sympathetic? We always know it’s coming. Every authoritian government in the world says it. We’ve heard it from Arab dictatorships. It could be carved on the side of a mountain in Russia.

Don’t Interfere In Our Internal Affairs. As a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry phrased it, “We firmly oppose any country, by any means, interfering with China’s domestic affairs.” As he also added, “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong.”

This line about internal affairs is NEVER made by democratic governments of free people. In America we are not afraid of what news services in other countries say. We are not afraid that the government of another country will “influence” our otherwise peaceful, satisfied citizens into rebelling. Only the authoritarian governments—China, Russia, Bahrain, take your pick—are afraid of their own people.

As an indication of how much the Chinese government fears the people, consider the group Scholarism, formed three years ago in Hong Kong to protest being taught Chinese government propaganda in school. The group was started by Joshua Wong, who has been arrested as a danger to the government. Joshua Wong is 17 years old.protest sign in Hong Kong

Thus the totalitarian argument: “No matter how corrupt we are, no matter who we club, or jail, or torture, or kill, it is totally our businesss.” All dictators support one another on this essential point (remember Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad of Syria).

Since I’ve mentioned the butcher who rules Syria, a Chinese official statement this week said that like the Arab spring and the various “color” revolutions in Europe, the problem in Hong Kong was “instigated by western governments”. Is there anyone in the Chinese government who knows enough to be embarrassed for China to stand in front of the world and speak such words?

Oh yes, Beijing masters, you’re right, people living under brutal governments all over the world were perfectly content until we sneaky westerners went in there and made trouble with our beguiling talk of “free speech” and “elections”. Indeed, Beijing masters, how can we help but be filled with respect for you when you say such things?

For now the protests in Hong Kong have been mostly peaceful (though there have been some attacks by the police or lately by their secret thugs), but even the optimistic young people know they are up against a brutal, murderous regime in Beijing. There have even been signs in Hong Kong reading “They can’t kill us all.” The protesters have remained peaceful, but they are also well aware of the mass murder on Tiananmen Square by Chinese troops in 1989.

colored umbrellas

Stand with Hong Kong

It is painful that it takes so much time and so much blood to put an end to these evil governments, but in the end, they will all go. Someday there will be no vile governments, club in hand, snarling at the rest of the world not to “interfere”. I believe by the end of this century, most of the countries on earth will have real democratic governments, but we are still on the early end of the century. We seem to mostly see the struggle and the blood.

In end end, Hong Kong, you will win. I hope it can be now, but if not now, in the end you will win.

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