Monthly Archives: April 2015

What If I Verb All the Nouns?

blue skySuppose you saw a sky so blue it left you a little speechless. Now suppose you were a writer and wanted to describe that amazing sky. You could compare it to other things, of course, or emphasize how you felt (an indirect method, but useful). Some writers might wonder whether they could do unusual things with the words and symbols on the page, such as “blue! blue! blue! sky arched over us” or “cobalt as indigo as cerulean as the eyes of a goddess”. Some writers would experiment with style.

In some ways, there have always been writers who were fascinated by this medium, who wanted to see what those words on the page could do. Greek and Roman writers were inventing new genres of poetry, history, and drama. In the early Renaissance, the Italian writer Dante wrote his most famous work, the Divine Comedy, not in Latin, as proper writers of the time would have done, but in a radical experiment, he used Italian as a literary work. That experiment worked. Some don’t.

As an example of an experiment that didn’t work, let’s compare two writing styles. For contrast, I’ll start with Ernest Hemingway, about as plain and down-to-earth a writer as you can find. This is from The Old Man and the Sea.
“The successful fishermen of that day were already in and had butchered their marlin out and carried them laid full length across two planks, with two men staggering at the end of each plank, to the fish house where they waited for the ice truck to carry them to the market in Havana.”

Now here’s James Joyce, with an excerpt from Finnegan’s Wake.
“He would of curse melissciously, by his fore feelhers, flexors, contractors, depressors and extensors, lamely, harry me, marry me, bury me, bind me, till she was puce for shame and allso fourmish her in Spinner’s housery at the earthsbest schoppinhour so summery as his cottage, which was cald fourmillierly Tingsomingenting, groped up.”

Personally, I think Joyce was insane when he wrote that. An entire book like that, Christ almighty. Some experiments fail, but I understand the impulse to try. There have been times in my own writing when I was in the mood to push hard, to stretch the medium until it almost breaks (maybe like Joyce, though I don’t want to be compared to him).

I only try the really radical things in short stories, because there’s less to lose when it doesn’t work. Over time I’ve decided that an experiment can be with either form or content, but in my own case, in any one story, I tend to push only one or the other. If the style is weird, the content of the story is fairly normal, or if I use a strange content, then the style is pretty straightforward.

I wrote, for instance, a modern telling of Judith and Holofernes, a very strange story in my version set in Camden, New Jersey, so I used a descriptive style that’s pretty plain. Here is Judith telling about going into the den of the gangsters: “I did notice when he said this that the other woman there was giving me the dagger eye. Everbody but me was talking, and they were laughing and joking about things, and it looked like they were all getting drunk, especially Cholo.” In the same vein, I’ve also done a modern version of “Gilgamesh” set here in Atlanta, also with a more or less realistic style.

In fairly stark contrast, I took a true story I was told about a woman who died of a heroin overdose, and when I wrote it, I tried so many different things experimenting with style that I can’t show them all here. Here are the opening lines of the story, when she is still a little girl: “yeah want something sweet, sweet is good, U know, make U feel happy • it don’t be scream stupid ugly, U can’t U can’t U can’t, why don’t U shut up right now • they got that pie at Shop Rite, Tina like pie, lemon meringue, don’t all little girls like pie”.

I’ve done lots of experimenting with short stories, trying different things, including one online that had the readers choosing which ending to read. The most radical thing I’ve probably done with style is telling a fairly simple story of a man and woman, but from the point of view of four animals (dog, cat, bird, cockroach). Here’s something from the dog’s point of view: “MeMeMe look at outofhouse, little dog walk by, MeMeMe say hello! hello! hello! two-legged-dog-with-deep-sounds yell at me, stop hello— MeMeMe smell little dog, hello! MeMeMe go to foodroom, look in bowl, smell delicious meat/corn/grass but no food”.

Yeah, it’s not for everybody. Or maybe it’s not for anybody. But sometimes you just want to take those words and fire a pistol at their feet and make them dance.

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We’re Baaaack!! Building a Better Tomorrow!!

zombie Uncle SamIs it 2016 yet? With the presidential election beginning to loom over us, like, say, a tsunami rising slowly from the sludge pond outside Hell’s backdoor, I was inclined to say that we’re approaching rhetorical season. With politics, though, when does that torrent of bullshit ever stop?

I’ll also say—and this is my academic training insisting on being heard—that while politicians use rhetoric, so do we all, every day. There’s a reason why we choose one word over another, to be persuasive (even if it’s just persuasion that we know what we’re talking about). That’s what rhetoric is.

Still. You know, politicians crave the rush of their own rhetoric the way meth addicts shove needles in their arms, waiting for the high to hit. And now we have several declared candidates for president, so woohoo! At the moment, there are four serious candidates who have declared (I think, I’ve already lost count), and with every declaration the tsunami waters rise. Let’s dip our hands into that murky water and see what we can take hold of. Since this is my blog, I’ll pick and choose randomly, so I might miss your favorite.

Marco Rubio
Even after decades of watching politics, it still amazes me to hear what falls out of the mouths of politicians. Take this excerpt from Rubio’s announcement that he is running: “Too many of our leaders and our ideas are stuck in the 20th century…” This comes from a man who is declaring his adamant support for the 55-year-old embargo on Cuba, because it’s… OK, it’s not actually working, and Castro has grown old and is dying and nothing has changed, but the embargo might work. Right? If we give it another 50 years? Otherwise, Rubio says, “Yesterday is over and we’re never going back.” Tell it, Marco. What else is brand new?

Hillary Clinton
Out of a population of 300 million people, America has found one who can run for president as a Democrat. From Clinton’s announcement: “Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion.” The word “champion” is used twice, so that’s a word to note, perhaps meaning she’ll fight for us (against, I don’t know, bad guys, she didn’t say). Also note the phrase “everyday Americans”—that’s me, by the way, and maybe you, but is it Bill Gates? Are rich people everyday Americans? I also found an interesting phrase from her economic platform: “Create the economy of tomorrow, not yesterday.” Uh, well, yeah.

Compare Clinton’s phrase “not yesterday” to Rubio’s “yesterday is over”. I think both of these candidates are basically agreed that time only moves in one direction. Bipartisan physics aside, the rhetoric of presidential politics makes frequent reference to the future, so in coming days, weeks, months, until we just want to kill ourselves, watch for talk about the future. The people who get hired by politicians might have been English majors at some point, because they seem to like a slightly poetic language. Thus we may see references to “tomorrow”.

Other than the future, here are several motifs that always seem popular, so let’s see what clever and imaginative things they do with them:

  • country (which can be better than it is, and it will be!)
  • change (only the bad things, and all the changes will involve technology)
  • da people (that’s us scratch-and-sniff trogs)
  • economy (whatever the hell that is)

Ted Cruz
Wait, didn’t we agree that if you’re born in another country, you can’t be president? Or was that only if you’re imaginarily born in an African country? I forget how it works. Now that we have a candidate who actually was born in another country, let’s watch how fast the racist birther loons shut their yap. Ted Cruz is not exactly a white guy, is he, but at least he’s not black. So maybe it’s OK for him to run.

Oh, and by the way, I think Ted Cruz actually is a zombie. I saw a photograph of him on the internet (so I know it’s true), killing and eating someone. I think it was an illegal immigrant.

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For My Next Exquisite Reading

dramatic man

As I dramatically read the poems

There must have been grand events happening somewhere on the earth this week—no doubt there were weddings where the bride wore gold coins, sudden epiphanies in biochemistry labs that brought tears to the eyes of researchers, art gallery openings where the artist felt his heart was beating on the canvas.

My own week was more modest, and yet… I read to a roomful of people who had come to hear poetry, who in fact had paid to hear poetry (true, it was only a $5 fee, but a person could buy an extremely cheap bottle of wine for that). Cultured, literate people as these were, however, rather than drink cheap wine, they came to hear the two featured poets read at Callanwolde Arts Center, an old mansion now converted to better things than sheltering rich people.

In addition to me, the other person reading poetry was Ricks Carson, who read after me and who had a lovely poem about blackberry bushes, in which a bush declares its readiness to let Jesus pick berries. I had never met Ricks before, and we chatted a bit before and after. We were the stars, after all, which people could tell because we both had on long red velvet capes and fine boots of embossed Spanish leather…

No, wait, that was something else I went to. Actually, I wore a red shirt with a red scarf draped around my neck. A scarf is part of my generic poet outfit. I think every performer should have an outfit, like Buddy Holly or the early Beatles.

The reading took place in the old library of the mansion, a building that’s rather striking visually, with both wood and stone carved into decorative patterns, and inside the large room where one first enters—the grand hall, as it were—there is a fairly impressive set of curving wooden stairs leading to the second floor. Of course now that the place is an arts center, little girls taking ballet classes will on occasion run up and down those stairs. The former library where the poetry readings happen looks out large windows to the front terrace.

When I first arrived on Wednesday, I was early, naturally, and even though it was my intention to get there before the audience, I walked into the empty room and thought, “Oh, shit, I hope people show up.” I decided to set my expectation low, to hope for fifteen people, but by the time I began to read, in my red poet outfit, the room was actually rather full, at least 30 people, perhaps. We’re not talking a rock concert here.

It was fun, just fun, to stand there and read poems to people who kindly created the illusion of being enthralled (which I define as “eyes not closed”). I do have enough poems that don’t embarrass me to read in public when I’m pretending to be a real poet (different from going to an open mic event—then any howl about lost love will do). I also feel very comfortable in front of a group of people, so that I can joke and play a bit, and I read well. With twenty years as a college professor, I have professed my way to this.

When the poetry reading was over, I was pleased—and you would be, too, I bet—that five or six people made a point of waiting to speak to me and tell me they enjoyed hearing something I read. One of my goals for this reading was simply to promote myself, to try to get people to know who I am, as more books are yet to come. In addition, I was trying to push the current novel, The Illusion of Being Here, so that I took books to sell, as well as the poster of the cover that I made a couple of months ago. I did sell two copies, so hey, I’m giving myself an award for success on that. Beer for everyone who lives in my house!

As a final small bit of coolness, the entrance fee was shared between the two poets and the arts center, so between that and book sales, I came home with an extra $43. I got paid for reading poetry. How rare is that? And I found a dragon’s tooth in the parking lot.

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I See Yon Distant Paragraph

Galileo_Looking_Through_A_TelescopeWhen we’re waiting and it seems like time will never pass (say, sitting in the car slowly moving around McDonald’s to get to the speakers), or back home when we have to get our subsequent fat asses off the couch and walk into another room for a beer, we might appreciate one of the more difficult aspects of writing—moving through time and space.

Actually, there are easy ways for a writer to do this. If you want to move a character to another town or room, you can just say “He drove to the next town” or “She walked into the bedroom”. And writers do this, sometimes because it’s just good enough, sometimes because the writer is lazy, and sometimes because that’s all the writer knows how to do. Similarly with time, sometimes we just write “the next day” or “later that evening”. The problem with these easy ways, however, is that they’re boring and don’t show much skill.

In well-crafted writing, the best transitions are brilliant, a bridge from one set of ideas (or paragraph) to another set of ideas (a second paragraph). When a transition is at its best, the reader hardly notices that they’re being led from one thing to another, because it seems so smooth and logical, as if it had to be that way. And when it seems that way, the writer probably spent an hour doing it.

Here’s a nice example from a book I mentioned last week, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. In the first paragraph, a woman walks up to a church to get out of the rain, and at the church, we read that she “tied the dogs up on the porch”. The paragraph then goes on with some discussion of people’s names.

To move the woman into the church, Atkinson might have written “She pulled open the door and went in.” Instead the following paragraph begins “She suspected there might be a special ecclesiastical word for ‘porch,’ but if there was she didn’t know it, although she knew there were all kinds of particular terms for the bones of the church…” This sentence leads on to words naming parts of the church, and in the process the woman is now inside looking at the things being named. We have moved from considering names outside on the porch to thinking about names inside.

As I was pondering the topic of transitions, I was in the middle of revising a chapter of the current novel. I came to a spot where I wanted to make the transition to a second paragraph less abrupt and jerky, so I saved several versions, to show them here.

Here’s the original, with the part I wanted to change in the second paragraph in italics:

“No,” he said. “My grandfather was a gambler.” He turned to her with a rueful smile and shook his head slightly. “So he gambled all the money away, and now it’s someone else’s house. But my mother has pictures of when she was a little girl living there.”

They rode another couple of kilometers, until Remigio turned them onto a dirt path where grasses brushed at their legs as they rode across a field.

Variation 1. I picked up the house reference from the previous paragraph, and this is the new beginning of the second paragraph:

From the pink house where a little girl once took an old wooden plank as a table to lay out a meal for birds… [I stopped this, because it seemed clumsy.]

Variation 2. I kept the house, but tried a different idea:

From the pink house where a little girl once held a funeral for a dead butterfly, holding a service making nonsense noises, which sounded the same to her as the Latin in church, Remigio and Carmen wheeled away… [Also clumsy, and it went on too long with the idea of the funeral.]

Variation 3. I still liked using the house, but I added a second topic from the previous paragraph, picking up the gambling. I also made a second reference to the butterfly farther on:

From the pink house where a little girl once held a funeral for a dead butterfly, where a broken man had come slowly down the road to that house, where his unsuspecting family now lived in someone else’s house, Remigio and Carmen wheeled away down that same road, under a sky as blue as glory. Remigio turned them onto a dirt path where grasses brushed at their legs and butterflies rose as they crossed a field.

I may very well end up changing it, but maybe you see the process I’m trying to illustrate. And now I need a transition out of this to…let’s see: He looked up from the computer and saw the glass of red wine sitting on the desk. Hitting the Send button he turned to reach for the glass.

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