Category Archives: How We Create Magic

Words That Wake and Walk Around

old train stationIt’s one thing to think about writing a book, picturing the characters vaguely in your head doing….something, and won’t it be great when they do? It’s another thing entirely to think seriously about the book, to take paper and make notes, to do research and make further notes, perhaps talk to people about what you’re working on.

But the actual thing itself, putting down a word and another and another until you are creating a place and time and people who were not there before, this process of writing is so different from thinking or planning or making notes. When writing, you not only use your tools (knowledge of grammar and punctuation, vocabulary, etc.), but now there must be coherent sentences that make sense, and each sentence should reasonably follow the one before it in a way to tell things.

Even if you have the ability to make all this work mechanically, such ability does not necessarily make the writing interesting, or beautiful, or meaningful. And yet, at some point, if you really are going to write, you have to sit down and do it. At that moment, you realize how profoundly different writing is from planning to write. All along you may have said, “Oh, I want to begin with the old woman in her garden remembering previous years working there,” but what exactly is that first sentence supposed to do? Describe the woman? Describe the garden? The sky? Should she start in the house and then walk outside?

In the past week I began working on some sections of the next novel, sections that will be inserted into the book at various points. They are all flashbacks in time, so they aren’t directly in the flow of the main narrative, which made me think I could go ahead and write them separately. They concern a character named Wanda who will become a temporary cook for President Franklin Roosevelt. I’ve made notes on Wanda, and I drove down to Roosevelt’s house in Warm Springs and made notes there, but how to actually write this? So far, here is the first sentence of the first section: “Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn.”

I decided to open the scene with Wanda traveling down to the town of Warm Springs, to show that she is not from there, and opening with a train also helps to create a feeling of a time when you could actually travel on a train in the United States. In that opening sentence, in addition, I tried to give some sense of the rural setting, which has a certain importance for the place, and I wanted to use a bit of evocative detail, so I mentioned the cotton and corn. And of course, the cotton goes along with a rural Georgia setting, particularly in 1937.

In the second sentence, I brought Wanda herself in, and I began doing the little things that you use to build a character, such as indicate her emotions, show a memory, give some of her background. By the end of the first paragraph, I brought her to the town of Warm Springs and implied further action with the man waiting. I might instead have spent longer on the train, given more description, used more of her memories, but this is what I’ve done.

I can’t say I won’t change things in revision, but for now I decided to go for a faster opening and jump into action more quickly, and thus I had the man waiting for her. Below I give the first paragraph and a few lines after that. I will also say that this process, the writing part of writing, as difficult as it is, is 10,000 times more fun for me that all the rest of it.

********************************

Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn. Wanda Reed watched the fields pass by, trying to draw calmness from them, to still her anxiety. Out the window she saw a man sitting in a wagon pulled by a horse down a dirt road. The sight reminded her of her own father, several hours earlier, who had taken her from their farm in Mule Camp Springs to the train station in Gainesville, riding in a similar wooden cart, though theirs had been pulled by a mule. When they had arrived at the station, a ticket had been arranged for her, to ride to Atlanta, change trains, and head further south. From stopping at so many stations, the trip had seemed slow to Wanda, but at last the train pulled into the small town of Warm Springs, where she got off. Standing on the platform nearby was a white man in a dark suit, who saw her and said,

“Miss Reed?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I’m Jack Brewer, of the Secret Service. I came down to the station to pick you up.”

She nodded, not sure what she should say to him. This kind of attention from anyone, much less from a white man, seemed strange to her.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), How We Create Magic

Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie

Recently I got an email from a friend now living in Israel, originally from Russia, and she was telling me about reading Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace (in Russian, obviously). About a year ago I read that book myself, so I was very interested in what my friend was saying. It was her opinion that Tolstoy was not the world’s master in creating characters who have distinctive voices. She made the argument that most of his characters, other than the soldiers, all sound rather alike—they sound like Tolstoy. I see her point.

The distinctiveness of characters for me is one of the most important aspects of a book. All readers are different, and well-developed characters may not be what you look for, but I’m interested in the human aspect of novels. For me a novel, whether I’m reading it or writing it, is an exploration of human existence. More than once I’ve laid a book down in irritation, thinking, “That person would not do that.”

Let’s say the author has created a character who never goes anywhere, never does anything, and appears to be content with this life. If that character suddenly agrees to accompany someone on a dangerous cross-country trip, I’m not buying it without a good explanation. It is not rare—for bad writers—to have a character do something only because the author wants it to happen. That action moves the plot, even when the character has been created as a person who would not do the thing the author wants.

Character development all about illusion, of course. There’s not really a person there, it’s just words the writer chose. And yet, if done right, the people in the book can seem to rise off the page, take a breath, and wink at us, saying Sure, I only exist here, but I’m REAL here. We think about those characters, carry them around in our heart, and our own lives seem touched, as though we had met a living person.

I understand how incredibly, almost freakishly, difficult it is to make real characters in a book. No blog entry could possibly get into much detail about this process, but I’ll talk about working on one character I intend to use in Moonapple Pie. At the moment I’m doing a little background work on character development for the four main characters of this book (at least that’s how the book is developing so far).

I’m using a technique I’ve used in the past, of writing down random potential facts about the characters, but as I’m working, I notice that it’s not entirely random, and I’ll illustrate this with a character named Elliott, one of two twin brothers. In what at first appears to be a random process, I gradually find myself making notes on three types of things: (1) information necessary to the plot, (2) information important to the mental development of the character, and (3) trivial bits and pieces. Here are examples for Elliott:

(1) In 2018, when the novel will take place, he is 43, born March 4, 1975. This kind of stuff I try to be careful with and use a calculator, so that someone thirty years from now doesn’t say “Oh, look what this dumbass writer did.” Also as plot information, Elliott graduated from Georgia Tech as a mechanical engineer and got a job in Wilmington, Delaware, where he met his future wife. She’s from Glassboro, New Jersey, which is very close by (which I know because I lived there). This type of information is what I need for the mechanics of the plot, but in fact I don’t have to tell the reader all of it. Maybe it will be things I know that will never be mentioned.

(2) The most difficult thing I’m trying to do is figure out who the character is and what motivates him. Some of the notes I’ve made in that regard are that while he was in Wilmington he made a trip to Ireland, as it’s part of his family background, and he wants to go back and take his sons. Also while he was living in the north, he was sometimes teased about being from the south. While the teasing wasn’t much, it made him slightly defensive about being southern and about things from the south. On a different point, Elliott and his twin brother took art classes in high school, and even though Elliott eventually followed his “tinkering” side to become an engineer, he is still interested in art.

(3) The third category of notes I’m making is for things that are actually unimportant in themselves, as they could be almost anything, but these are the kinds of details that make a human being. It doesn’t matter so much what they are, but you need to have them. Thus, Elliott loves dogs and has three named Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie (named after Allman Brothers songs: Midnight Rider, Stormy Monday, Hoochie Coochie Man). All three dogs are beagles, and he trains his dogs, is very disciplined with them.

I also know from extensive past experience, in novel after novel, that no matter how much I make these notes, no matter how detailed I decide to get with this process, no character ever opens their eyes and breathes until they are actually in the book. Only when I can see them move around and hear them speak do they start to become a real person for me.

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Breathe In and Be Human

woman breathingIn the Russian language, the word for “soul” (душа) is related to the word “breath” (дышать), perhaps because when the breath leaves, the soul is assumed to have left as well. Our English word soul doesn’t evoke breathing, but when we use the word “expire”, from Latin meaning “to breathe out”, the word means to die.

What about when we breathe in?

When we breathe in—inspiration—we’re not only filled with air, but with life, with something that is essential to being human. Human beings create. The oldest cave paintings go back 40,000 years (and we think 2,000 is old with the Roman empire). Aside from wall art, consider the people who decided they could take pieces of plants or rocks and put them together to create a place to live inside, blocking out animals and weather. A house is not an obvious thing to build if you’ve never seen one. It was a human creation.

I can understand why the Greeks came up with the idea (created it, that is) of Muses, goddesses who provided a supernatural source of inspiration. Because who can explain it? Where does inspiration come from? I’ll give a example that I experienced this week.

I was reading about a study called the Nurses’ Health Study, which looked at more than 120,000 female nurses in the United States for a variety of health conditions (the nurses were surveyed every two years beginning in 1976). The thing I was reading was concerned with women who got rheumatoid arthritis and continue to smoke.

As I read this very technical and abstract piece, I was wondering why someone would smoke in the first place, why someone working in the healthcare field would smoke, and why someone diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis would continue to smoke. Suddenly I had an impulse to write about a nurse who learned she had rheumatoid arthritis, to write about who she was and what happened to her.

That sudden moment . . . that was inspiration. The desire to describe this woman came to me suddenly, at an unexpected moment, almost unrelated to what I was doing, yet there it was. What if I pursued that inspiration? Suppose it’s 1980, the nurse is named Bettina, and she’s thirty-nine years old. For no apparent reason, let’s say she works at a hospital in Reno, Nevada. Her father from Connecticut was in the Air Force and her mother was half Shoshone Indian from Nevada, but Bettina’s mother died when Bettina was ten, and she grew up without knowing much about that part of her background.

Bettina began smoking when she was a teenager, as she went through a rough period with no mother. She was hanging out with other kids, which made her feel like she belonged, and they all smoked because—obviously—it was such a cool thing to do. Since she began smoking as a child, she became addicted to tobacco and continued to smoke as an adult (exactly how the tobacco companies hope it will happen). Smoking also gave her pleasure and helped her deal with stress, such as when her father died of pancreatic cancer ten years later, or when she was studying for exams in nursing school.

Twice Bettina has tried to quit smoking, just after she got married to Jack, an electrician who mostly works at the casinos, and again when her daughter, Tracy (now twelve years old), was born. One spring Bettina starts to notice that when she wakes up in the morning her shoulders and elbows are feeling stiff, more than she thinks they should at her age, and her hands seem a little swollen sometimes. By summer she’s feeling enough pain that she decides to go to the doctor, who does tests and tells her she has a disease no one knows the cause of and that there is little treatment for at that time.

Bettina goes home and cries with Jack. She’s still young! Isn’t this an old person’s disease? Nurses move around a lot, and they need free use of their hands, their arms, everything. What’s going to happen? Will she become incapacitated and not be able to work? This is not a time when Bettina is going to increase her stress by trying to give up smoking. The calming effect of a cigarette, in fact, helps her to deal with this awful news.

*****************

This is one of the places inspiration can go. A person appears out of nowhere, and from the inspiration, we can try to feel another human life.

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Start With This

The Master and Margarita book cover

The Master and Margarita

Being, as I be, in the bedeviled state of beginning to write a new novel, I must decide how to start the book. I heard on the radio that you should begin by commencing, though I’ve also heard contradictory advice on that. My long centuries of writing experience, which include many words splattered onto otherwise innocent sheets of paper, followed by the reactions of some readers and the occasional flicker of bemused interest from a literary agent, followed by the inevitable curled lip of negation, have given me much cause to ponder book openings.

From talking to literary agents and reading their blogs, advice, and appalled emails of rejection, I have come to realize that the ideal book opening contains these elements:

  • time travel
  • a car chase
  • oblique references to something godawful in the past
  • a mysterious young man with a pistol, looking for the meaning of life

The best books, of course, will contain these things in the first paragraph. If you’re a writer of secondary capacity, such as myself, it may take as long as two pages to mention all these things.

Of course the beginning of a novel should make the reader want to read more. That’s a basic fact of psychology and biology—we try things briefly to see if we’re interested, like tasting food, but we aren’t going to live for hundreds of years, damn it, so we need to pick and choose. What is the magical opening that will pull a reader in? There are people who will tell you how to write fiction, but usually such people do not say just who they are writing for, which makes all the difference in the world.

In pondering how a novel might begin, I went looking for some examples that I could quote here (without being sued). I’ll quote the opening sentences of three books, to give a feeling of the writing, and then I’ll summarize what happens in the first few pages of the book

Return of the Native

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.”

[Several pages of description of the landscape follow: by Thomas Hardy, published in 1878]

Alice in Wonderland

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversation?”

[Suddenly a white rabbit runs by and Alice follows it down a hole: by Lewis Carroll, published in 1865]

The Master and Margarita (I’m doing my own translation here from the Russian)

“On a hot spring evening at Patriarch’s Ponds two persons appeared. The first was around forty, dark-haired, chubby and balding, and he was dressed in a light summer outfit. In his hand he carried an elegant hat, while unnaturally large glasses in black horn frames graced his face.”

[Someone falls onto the tracks in front of a streetcar, and his head is cut off: by Mikhail Bulgakov, written between 1928 and 1940, but because he lived in the Soviet Union, writing about society under Stalin, the book was not published until the 60s]

What can we see from these openings? One thing we learn is that in 1878 you could write a book that began with landscape, then did more landscape, and was only getting warmed up in describing the landscape. Could you publish a book today that began that way? The literary agents would hurt their hands in the speed with which they would throw that back at you.

Alice in Wonderland was intended mostly for children, so of course it was going to do something more immediately entertaining than a novel by Hardy. It has almost no description, but goes immediately to action. It occurs to me as I sit here that since a requirement of modern novels is to immediately grab the reader’s attention with action, does that mean that modern readers are being addressed as children? A difference between the two books above is that Hardy was comfortable spending a long time setting the scene, while Lewis dropped the reader into the middle of the action.

Bulgakov’s novel opens with a famous scene that certainly grabs the reader’s attention. This 20th century novel seems to do the kind of thing that is demanded of novels here in the early 21st century, jump in there with something exciting. It doesn’t have a car chase, but later in the book, it does have a witch fly across Moscow.

For the book I’m starting to write (so far called Moonapple Pie, here are the first three sentences (until I change them sometime in the next few years):

The village of Mule Camp Springs sat silent below the lake. In the middle of the street, down in the dark waters, lay a boat that had tragically gone down one Fourth of July, drowning two brothers who were drinking beer and fishing. The sunken boat had come to rest next to the disintegrating remains of the Mule Camp Methodist church.

I’m still working on the obligatory car chase, which I guess will have to end up in the lake.

 

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Put Things in Piles

girl with pile of paperI have a horror story about a college writing class (I’ll pause while you recover from shock). At a college where I taught writing, we had a professor who would give his first-year students a page of detailed instructions on how to write, literally telling them sentence-by-sentence how to write an essay. Naturally, this wild incompetent also used the 5-paragraph essay format.

What that tenured professor did not teach his students was how to work their way through the complicated, sometimes sloppy, process of examining a topic, generating ideas about it, and figuring out how to organize those ideas (i.e., the way we actually write out here in the real world).

Now, if you’re not a prisoner in a college English class, but you’re writing something for a rational reason, such as needing to say something, no one will be sitting there telling you what each sentence is supposed to do, or how many paragraphs you need to have. You’ll have to figure it out, considering the audience you’re writing for, which is what college students should be doing, so as to develop that useful skill.

And if you are not an incompetent writing teacher, one of the things you can teach in a writing class is basic concepts, such as taking your ideas and grouping them in various ways, which makes it easier for the reader to follow the writer’s thoughts and thus understand what is being said. The most basic way to group ideas is in paragraphs, or to use a metaphor I like at this moment, put the ideas in separate piles.

The paragraph was a great invention, because it’s so useful in letting us show those different piles of ideas. But if we step back from the metaphor a moment, we recognize a difficulty. These ain’t colored shells. We’re talking about ideas here, so there’s no clear and easy way of knowing what goes in which pile (in spite of appallingly stupid practices like the “5-paragraph essay”—and if you ever had to do that, on behalf of the entire English profession, I want to apologize to you).

So what does make a proper paragraph? In part, it depends on what you want to say, but in part (we don’t tell students this), it depends on the context. For a news article, the paragraphs should all be fairly short. For a serious report, maybe in business, medicine, or engineering, the paragraphs may sometimes be rather long. And if a paragraph fills more than a page, no matter what the context, it’s too long, because then you’re not seriously using paragraphs.

In addition to understanding how to use paragraphs, there is the question of how to show the reader when a paragraph begins. I know of three ways, though I’ve only seen two of them ever used. One way would be to start every paragraph with a special symbol, which could be anything ♣, as long as everyone knows what it is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done, however.

The way a paragraph is normally indicated, of course, is with emptiness. On paper, we always begin a paragraph with a tiny bit of blank space at the beginning. On screen, that’s rarely done, and instead we use an entire blank line between paragraphs. I’ve also seen people on paper use indentation and a blank line at the same time. Using both is redundant and over time will be way more expensive, to add all those extra blank lines on paper.

Last week at work I was looking at a manuscript I was supposed to edit. If you are not one of the lucky people who read this blog regularly, I’m a copy editor on a medical journal. So I looked at the manuscript, and while the authors had used paragraphs, they had some that went on rather long, followed by others that consisted of one sentence. At one point, I even addressed the authors out loud: “Do you know what a goddamn paragraph is?” I also addressed the authors with some other pertinent words that were needed at the time.

Then I realized that the authors of the article had brutishly done nothing to indicate where paragraphs started. They were using paragraphs, but if you ran your eye down the left margin, it was solid text. I thought Where on the entire planet Earth have you seen this done? What makes you think this is OK? Though I think I did see it done once, I believe in a French magazine. But it’s still incredibly stupid.

From working at the journal where I labor so avidly, I’ve come to understand that while most of our writers are as good as nonprofessional writers generally get, some of them are about as bad as the students I used to have in college writing classes. This is why we need copy editors willing to curse and cry over the trash and then fix it.

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I, Like, Speak Like, You Know

criticism of young peopleAbout a year ago, and I am not making this up, I was in a shop somewhere and someone said to me, “Are you a writer? You look like one.” They didn’t mean someone famous, because honestly, how many writers would anyone recognize? They just meant in general sort of way, and I thought Hmm, could it be because I have a look of tantalizing sophistication and my eyes express a quiet wisdom? Then I realized it was probably because I forgot to brush my hair, my shirt had stains on it, and I was looking around like “where am I?”

I’ll take either one, however. I claim my identity as a wordsmith, which has been hard come by. Wordsmithery is not a skill I was born with, of course. No baby comes into the world knowing how to spell “abstemiousness” or how to punctuate a dependent clause. It has been a slow slog learning all that stuff, yet here we are, the quintessence of an audacious linguophile. According to myself.

Back when I was applying my love of well-crafted language in the most ironic fashion possible (teaching college writing), a few times I had a student who said, “I write like I speak.” I’m not sure now whether such a student wanted to justify their style as authenticated by the speech learned at dear mama’s knee, or whether they were trying to explain why they were so goddamn awful.

In any case, they were mistaken. No one writes like they speak. They may be heavily influenced by day-to-day speech, so that they think “I would have” is supposed to be “I would of” but once the letters appear on the page (or screen, these days), it’s another world. Other than for literary purposes, or when very drunk, most writers are at least trying to adhere to what they consider “proper” writing.

Writing is extremely different from speaking, and I’m not even addressing the point that writing is as artificial as a business suit, a social invention. Speech, on the other hand, is natural in the sense that every person is born with that capacity. So when we write, no matter what we write, we are riding on a different kind of donkey from the one that bounces us down the road during a nice chat.

To take one quick example of the difference, a written sentence, with rare exceptions, must always have a subject and a verb. If it does not, we have a term for that—sentence fragment, i.e. only part of a sentence. I guarantee you the concept of a sentence fragment did not exist before the invention of writing. In speech, we absolutely don’t think about that.

The sentence fragment is an example of the difference between speaking and writing, but there are bigger differences than just sentence construction. Because writing can be edited, it is more logical and has far less repetition than speaking. In addition to all these edited differences, no writing is ever truly like speech anyway, because real speech sometimes sounds like this:

  • “well she was— let me tell you about her, I mean, if you, or anybody was asking…”
  • “uh, well, I’m, don’t know, yeah I don’t know about that, since we’re going…”

Speech is often full of incoherent noise and starts and stops and thinking. Only some college freshman essays are like that.

When fiction writers create dialogue, the question arises, or should arise, as to how to make the writing sound like someone is really talking. Inexperienced writers may not do this well, making their characters always speak in perfect edited sentences, which is, um, not like how people talk, you know?

The trick in fiction is to create the illusion of speech. You can’t really write exactly like people talk, as that would often be gobbledygook, and you want the dialogue to be understandable as well as carry the story forward. So as a fiction writer you learn some tricks to make the dialogue sound occasionally broken, interrupted, or paused for thought, but you always pay attention to how well the basic message is coming through.

So we’re like, uh, you know, and stuff.

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The Two of Us

dog and orangutanWe’ve had lots of rain here lately, including monsoon crazy rain on Tuesday afternoon. Watching the water rise, I’ve been thinking about things in twos, and I don’t just mean giraffes, mountain goats, and naked mole-rats walking up the ramp onto the ark. I was thinking about other wild creatures, like artists and writers.

I know what you’re thinking. Wait a minute. Writers in pairs? Isn’t one enough to deal with? I’m compelled to go off topic for a moment to tell you something I experienced years ago in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was there with my wife (at the time) in a graveyard of famous people, when I saw the grave of the wife of Pushkin, who is by far the most well known poet in Russia. I pointed the grave out to my wife, who said (and I’m not making this up), “She was the wife of a writer. I feel sorry for her.” And I was like. . . what?

Regarding the idea of pairs, how much collaboration goes on in different art forms? With music, yes, there is lots of collaboration. Some forms of music have both words and music, so different skills may be involved, requiring two people. More importantly, a lot of music is made with several instruments, so you actually need more than one person. Collaboration would be natural.

What about painting? A few weeks ago, while I was in Charleston, one of the art galleries I went into had paintings in which two artists collaborated. One person painted an image, then the second artist added something to it, producing, in the cases I saw, fairly surrealistic art. But think about it. Have you ever heard of a painting that was done by two artists? It’s actually so uncommon as to practically not exist.

With writing, there are some types of writing where having more than one author is common. In science, a single author is so rare as to seem a little strange when it happens. At the medical journal where I’m an editor, in three years of working there, I have never seen an article by only one author. Most of our articles tend to average maybe seven or eight authors. I even asked Uncle Internet for an example of a science article with many authors, and I found that in 2015, the article announcing discovery of the Higgs boson (I’m not making this up) had 5,154 “authors”.

What the fuck? Didn’t the word “author” used to mean someone who “wrote” something? Not in science, apparently. And yet we get articles that someone wrote. Maybe just one person. At our journal, we are pretending to fight a battle in defense of the word “author” as a writer. We even require that the authors lie to us and submit a form swearing they all literally worked on the writing. We’re serious as a heart attack about it, and we save those forms for years.

But—ah! here we are at last—what about creative writers, the people who can make their spouses pity the dead? How many books can you name written by two writers? I don’t mean some drivel where a famous person hires a writer to actually do the work, and then they are both “authors”. I mean how many creative works have you seen with two writers?

In poetry, none. There may not be a single poem on the earth written by two poets. I don’t know it anyway.

In fiction, there are a few examples. The only one I actually know off-hand is two novels called The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf by early Soviet humor writers Ilf and Petrov (yeah, I know, “Soviet humor writer” sounds like an oxymoron). The books are fabulous, by the way, wonderful satire, and Mel Brooks even made a movie of the first one. I went looking for more examples and I found a play called “The Mule Bone” by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. According to what I read, that collaboration did not go well. There are a few other examples of collaborative creative writing if you look, but not many.

Why is collaboration so rare in creative writing? I think the answer is fairly easy. All art, at its heart, is an individual expression, from someone feeling the urge to do it. Human beings have created several complex forms of art that cannot be done by one person, and whose lend themselves to collaboration: music, theater, opera, film. Other art forms, however, like fiction, poetry, or painting, tend to be the vision and expression of a single person. Collaborating with a second person would probably change and ruin the first person’s vision. And so we write on alone.

I want to say, regarding this blog entry, that I wrote this all by myself, and I only needed two naps, a half gallon of ice cream, and a brief period of melancholy darkness to be able to do it.

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