Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Phrase-Envy: Linguistic Ability and the Genetic Code

It seems the normal state of being for an aspiring writer is one of abject fear and trepidation. I am referring most particularly to literary intimidation of the most paralyzing kind: the golden halo that envelops the perfect phrase. The linguistic equivalent of the sweet spot on the tennis racket. We encounter this kind of exquisite expression on a daily basis within the pages of eloquent authors both ancient and modern. So how do we overcome our own self-doubt, resist the rasping wheeze of our resident Golum, and muster the courage to create?

I have lately been musing on studies by behavioral geneticists and the rather clichéd debate between nature versus nurture. Our genetic assemblage provides a certain disposition to words, a facility with language; however, much of this can be instilled by a nurturing book-centered environment. Parents prioritize literature when their children are very young, read to them constantly, demonstrate their own inclination for books, are actively engaged in promoting an environment where reading and writing are greatly esteemed. This, in turn, encourages a child to make the best of their genetic predispositions - enabling them to reach the highest potential as prescribed by their genetic code. The nature versus nurture debate, I believe, is a rather tired old-fashioned diametric. Molecular interactions are exquisitely complicated, and while the presence of a 'depression gene' for example might trigger a depressive episode in the individual carrying it, it might only do so in conjunction with early childhood trauma. So, sans childhood trauma, that 'depression gene' carrier might be no more or less prone to depression than another for whom that particular genetic combination is different. While our genes determine an available spectrum, it is our own particular environment and choices we make in regard to it, that influence where on the spectrum we fall at any given time.

So my point here, albeit much belabored, is that regardless of whether we have an intuitive, instinctive facility for language, I believe that the ability to learn, to study, to acquire that literary ease, is a possibility for us all. To read these eloquent authors with a thoughtful studied perspective, to deliberately break apart their sentence structure, to examine the rhythm and flow of their syntax; to ponder deeply the particular combination of words that evokes such dramatic response in us the reader. We can enhance and improve our own linguistic expression, and that when assailed by phrase-envy, console ourselves with the understanding that producing a powerful phrase is also within our reach.

Each of us is a unique product of hereditary predispositions infused with specific cultural, parental and economic influences; our perspective is utterly distinct. For the creative writer this produces a voice, a style, an exclusive literary vision. So the imperative is to find that voice, trust in it, and then engage in a deliberate exercise to refine it as much as we are able. And your creative output will be unlike any other - and is it not that distinct, thought-provoking perspective that is most revitalizing in the literary endeavor? It is doubtful that any other than Thomas Hardy himself could have penned Mayor of Casterbridge, or Dostoyevsky The Idiot. These writers are a particular product of their own cultural and chronological milieu, as are we of ours. So for all of us rendered mute by phrase-inferiority fears we must remember that our voice too is a distinct one imbued with literary possibilities.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Word Choice and the Plasticity of Language

There are those novels that one always comes back to: the ones that sit snugly on your shelf, time-mellowed, like a particularly fine wine: bindings worn, the pages softened and thinned with repeated readings, their edges yellowed. I have lately pulled an old copy of The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad from my bookshelf.

 I have always adored Conrad's haunting prose: his paragraphs have a reverberating resonance that linger in your mind like subsiding ripples in a pool. T.E Lawrence said of Conrad: his writings are not formulated with the usual rhythm, but "on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can't say or do or think." Perhaps Conrad's unique style stems from his linguistic diversity: he spoke both his native Polish language as well as French fluently from childhood, and only acquired English in his twenties. When asked why it was as an 'Englishman' that he wanted to be a great writer, Conrad responded: "Ah… to write French you have to know it. English is so plastic — if you haven't got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist like Anatole France." English, Conrad wrote, was "the speech of my secret choice, of my future, of long friendships, of the deepest affections, of hours of toil and hours of ease, and of solitary hours, too, of books read, of thoughts pursued, of remembered emotions—of my very dreams!" Conrad, however, did not write merely to entertain, like so many great novelists he raised critical questions about loyalty, about the barriers we erect against nothingness, against corruption and his perception of evil.

Conrad's exquisite rendering of the English language (even more profound given it was not his native tongue) and his comments regarding the plasticity of English in particular made me think of Orwell and 1984 where language is systematically minimized via severe censorship in order to ideologically align thought and action with the political principals of the 'Party'. Insofar as Orwell was concerned it was the obliteration of words that would subsequently result in the loss of associated ideas: if the word 'revolution' and 'rebellion' are excised from the linguistic corpus, those individuals prone to political protest will have difficulty understanding and communicating those ideas if the words traditionally associated with them no longer exist. My question, however, is that given the plasticity of language that Conrad refers to above, given humanity's propensity for invention (writing itself having developed out of economic expediency in ancient Sumeria) and our constant linguistic evolution (from Shakespeare who contributed 1700 new words to the English language by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original to Dr. Suess' wonderful wordplay) do we not just invent new words when old ones don't quite meet muster? And don't we all infer meaning not only from the words themselves but also from the linguistic context in which they are found?

Words are carefully chosen by the writer for maximum effect, and are, ultimately the product of our particular intention: evoking a dynamic emotional response in our readers, examining the nature and pathos of humanity within the framework of our particular society. Orwell said that political prose was formed "to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." A thought-provoking perspective in the midst of an election campaign in America. Joseph Conrad, like Orwell, was disillusioned with the practice of politics, and The Secret Agent depicts a corrupt society where there is less of a diametric moral opposition between 'police' and 'people' than one might suppose, or indeed, wish for. And isn't that the role of great literature: to raise the fundamental questions, to critically examine our ideological selves in the mirror? These best-loved books that sit on your bookshelves will similarly inhabit your children's and their children after that. Because they are timeless in their exquisitely unique examination of the human condition; unique because of the way a particular writer chooses their words and strings them together.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rusurrecting Yorick: The Bones of the Book

"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio." Shakespeare's Yorick, a fellow of infinite jest and merriment has been reduced to the grim visage of a hollow-eyed skull. 'Tis the season of the macabre, and my thoughts turn to bones.

The bones of my book that is: the skeletal framework on which the muscular content will hang. An outline. The analogy that has presented itself is a grim hunt of sorts, a hunt for bones that can subsequently be pieced together to form a full-fledged skeleton. I am assisted in this endeavor by a residual archaeological propensity for an appreciation of moldering bones, but also by the literal process of attempting to fit a scarcity of remains together in some coherent fashion, in a way that suggests a logical overall picture of things.  My olfactory apparatus is in overdrive sniffing out the dramatic potential of the various historical personages and incidents that I come across during the course of the research.

I am currently examining personal memoirs left by the earliest settlers of San Fransisco, and specific individuals or their archetypes leap off the page, imbued with a brilliant halo of dramatic possibility; and of course there is the quotidian dust of the time (of the gold variety to a novelist) which provides the almost passed over details such as the cost of beef, the scarcity of vegetables, the wild cattle that would, at times, race, eyes-rolling and panicked, through the streets of the township. The prefabricated iron houses that were shipped from New York to address escalating rental costs; they were assumed to better withstand the raging fires that periodically consumed the town, but in fact were not only suffocatingly hot and piercingly cold as the weather dictated, but had an overriding tendency to collapse under flames burying its tenants in sheets of scalding iron. These are all little phalanges (I need 206 after all!) that will comprise a hand or two...although archaeological training suggests (a furtive whisper in one ear to which I most reluctantly pay heed) that I may indeed have more than one skeleton on my hands (and thusly more than one novel) and some bones may need to be left in the mud for a subsequent story.

I have recovered only a few bones, a tibia here, a vertebra or two almost completely obscured in the surrounding narrative; the little nuggets of gold that were literally swept from the mud-caked streets of San Francisco in 1849. So at present my outline resembles a rather poor partial skeleton with major features still absent; I am still seeking primary components, the pelvis, the skull, the more robust bones. But beyond the bony scaffold, beyond the gaping deficiencies there is the suggestion of the lively Yorik, a hint of the potential of a full-fleshed narrative in all its vibrancy. Closing my eyes I cannot quite see the jovial jester who hath born Hamlet on his back a thousand times, but if I strain sufficiently I would swear I could make out the childish laughter of the young Prince as they gambol and play.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Addiction of the Bean - Coffee and the Writer

There are writers who do it - who thrive without the java-crutch; how they manage genuinely perplexes me. The libretto for Johann Sebastian Bach's Coffee Cantata expresses my perspective perfectly: "If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment, I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat." It is one of those bizarre maxims that despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe most fervently to be true. I have as yet, retained an unshriveled human form but I have also been utterly paranoid about keeping the bean jar at maximum capacity...

Ancient chroniclers award the discoverer of the coffee bean with sainthood, an addition to the canonized pantheon who, in my humble opinion, is utterly deserving of top tier accolades. As depicted in the Abd-Al-Kadir manuscript  (penned in 1415)  Sheik Omar, exiled to a desert cave and beyond ravenous, chewed berries from a nearby shrub but found them unpalatably bitter; roasting rendered them hard, but boiling yielded a fragrant brown liquid -which subsequently revitalized and sustained him for days. Upon broadcasting his discovery, Omar was not only redeemed but rewarded for eternity.

Coffeehouses have been in existence for over 500 years. Paris' first, the Café Procope, still exists today and was a major meeting place of the French Enlightenment; Voltaire, Rosseau, and Diderot frequented it, and it is arguably the birthplace of the Encyclopédie. The Green Dragon in Boston was one of America's first coffeehouse/tavern combinations and provided clandestine opportunity for John Adams, James Otis and Paul Revere to plan rebellion. Coffeehouses today fulfill a less-revolutionary purpose (at least insofar as we humble literati are aware) but have, curiously, been known to stimulate creative output in a resident bean-imbiber. The Journal of Consumer Research has recently concluded that the moderate level of ambient noise in the average coffeehouse "induces processing disfluency, which leads to abstract cognition and consequently enhances creativity."

Ernest Hemmingway availed himself of this opportunity: "It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write." In a Farewell to Arms: "A wine shop was open and I went in for some coffee. It smelled of early morning, of swept dust, spoons in coffee-glasses and the wet circles left by wine glasses." Naturally enough the Journal of Consumer Research notes that this increase in stimulatory output is most evident in those already classified as highly creative. A designation for which Hemmingway is indeed an obvious candidate. 

For the rest of us perspiring scribes without regular access to the bustling coffeehouse, the morning espresso pot must suffice. For I shudder to imagine a morning without it, and am quite certain that upon that dreaded day the neurons will lack the  necessary lubricant for effective firing, my physical aspect will shrivel to disturbingly resemble that of a dessicated goat, and any associated literary endeavor will similarly dry up. For I have found that my diet of necessity is increasingly a liquid one: coffee to get through the day and wine to recover from it. So for all those similarly addicted to the bean in the writing profession, I raise my second coffee of the day in tribute: may your bean jar be always overflowing.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Through a Glass Darkly: Is You or Is You Ain't my Baby?

Okay so I have muddied the literary waters here - an uncomfortable juxtaposition between Lewis Carroll and old jazz, but I cannot completely eschew my archaeological origins where one was encouraged to consort with all manner of strange bedfellows with conspicuous consumption being the rule of the day - a multi-disciplinary approach (collaboration with botanists, historians, geographers etc) always produced a more coherent  view of the past than a purely archaeological interpretation.

Lately I have been pondering manuscript disassociation. Writers labor, often for years, over a particular literary work, and upon completion it feels much as a child to whom they have given birth. After a long arduous labor I have a five-hundred page tome. But as I examine its countenance with a narrowed eye I find myself unexpectedly dubious. The book can more accurately be represented by the teenage years - willful and determined to branch out in all kinds of independent directions despite your best efforts to tame and constrain. My Gollum moments. The novel has grown with me over the years, and I know it intimately, from the hair-growing-warts that I hope will be obscured in the dark, to the bright beauty of a moment perfectly captured. But now that my novel has reached maturity I am not sure I know it anymore. I see it through a glass darkly, a lens  that warps and magnifies much as those fun house mirrors at carnivals where your reflection is elongated and compressed beyond all recognition.

I read through the paragraphs and they are so familiar to me that I skip and waltz ahead, my mind filling in the rapidly scanned in-between. As I fuss and hover, readying my teenager for life on their own, I am plagued with doubts and fears. Will this piece of work stand up under scrutiny? Will it rise fearlessly to the occasion, or does it droop and wither in places a love-blinded parent cannot see? Regardless a child must eventually leave home, and you can only prepare it to the best of your ability, and then with courage and conviction (feigned if not felt!) open the doors and send it on its way.

Perhaps it is just a question of time. Perhaps a benumbed, bleary-eyed parent, chronically sleep-deprived, and over-zinged on the java, just needs a respite. A weeks vacation from a rebellious teenager whose merits temporarily elude you. Perhaps this lovely child is easier discerned and appreciated after a week of mutual vacation. Absence making the heart grow fonder, that sort of thing. Perhaps it is a close-acquaintance issue, inevitably individuals living closely together will have their combative moments, those battles over insignificant trivialities that are subsequently and rapidly forgotten.

So in a week or so I might eye my offspring again with a less-critical eye, and perhaps see it more clearly, and ultimately acknowledge that yes indeed, 'tis my baby. Warts and all - and how can I condemn those hair-growing warts when they all came from my side of the family?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Sins of the Father: Historical Influence in Characterization

To create a historical character of memorable depth, I am increasingly of the opinion that it is not just their own particular place and time that needs to be researched and incorporated, but the cultural, political and social baggage that accompany them.

In my recently completed novel The Goodwin Agenda, the Parisian characters are scarred by a decade of warmongering, the dizzying change of governmental bodies (many of whom executed their opponents via Madame la Guillotine or otherwise), the terrors of the Counter-Revolution, road-side killings and massacres in the Vendee; famine and plague follow hard upon the heels of political turbulence and dark mutterings of discontent begin to be heard again in the faubourgs that served as points of ignition during the Revolution. My Parisian characters came to the first chapter with their nerves already stretched to the breaking point - the glorious republic that had been promised them (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!) had eroded into some semblance of a militarized imperial aristocracy where Napoleon begins to drape himself in all the excesses he had professed to despise.  This réalité was a whole other thing altogether. 

The situation in London is also viewed through the lens of past transgressions - particularly the oppression of the Irish and how this sets up the initial conflict between William Pitt and the Irish rebel Wolfe Trant. The latter is released from Newgate Prison, a formidable mass of ferocious anger directed with laser-intensity towards the English; it is a fury born hundreds of years previous and nourished and nurtured throughout succeeding generations. 

So while I am feverishly eager to begin writing my next novel (San Francisco 1850), I attempt self-constraint, recollecting how the understanding of the historical period that preceded my characters in The Goodwin Agenda, a feeling of social and political trends and developments that influenced their attitudes and actions, deepened their aspect and improved the resultant depth of the novel itself. 

So I return to a comparative historical analysis of the Spanish and British colonial experience (Empires of the Atlantic World by J.H Elliott) looking for those political and cultural seeds that will give root to my next literary work. Elliott's history is beautifully written and offers intriguing insight into the start of things in colonial America. The attitudes that are being developed in late seventeenth-century New England and Virginia, further refined and transformed through the gristle-mill of the Revolution and the Civil War, will filter through my characters of mid-nineteenth century San Francisco: religious pluralism, emphasis on representative government, and a willful independence of spirit; a society of cultural diversity where each jostle for opportunity, to forge their way in a brand new world, each impelled and constrained by the prejudices and politics of those who came before. 

As writers formulate the characters of their literary landscape, there is always that question: what came before? What psychological scars do they carry? Scars that were communicated by their parents or by political winds that left them embittered and hostile? There is a depth in the beginning, in the introduction of a character, when one understands the sins of the father and how that influenced the son, when the past intertwines with the present to produce the complexity of an emotional response. Historical milieu renders an existing bias or attitude meaningful; a context, however, that cannot be applied with too heavy a hand, this is fiction after all and the primary imperative is to keep our readers actively engaged. The historical context for each character is nuanced, a delicate wisp here and there, the faint suggestion of an angst born beyond themselves: the anger of a previous generation that is passed down like a cherished heirloom, political sidelining that resulted in familial misfortune that continues to sit on the protagonists shoulder like a dark-whispering malefactor.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mortality, Fear & the Poignancy of Action

When constructing characters I attempt to illustrate their fundamental motivations, their particular imperatives as defined not only by the narrow confines of the book plot, but also within the broader construct of their fictional lifespans. It is our awareness of our own mortality that lends a poignant urgency to the decisions made not only within a context where life is directly threatened, but also in regard to establishing a sense of meaningfulness from more quotidian events.

Humans, as well as our fictional counterparts, benefit, I believe, from this self-reflective search for meaning when set against our shuffled mortal coil. One of the most poignant contrasts that comes to mind is that between Homer's portrayal of the immortal gods and the warriors struggling in bloody battle below. The Olympian gods depicted in the Iliad are quarrelsome and furiously self-absorbed; Zeus is an all-powerful, philandering father with a watchful, jealous wife; their sons and daughters vying for parental attention and favor as they pursue individual aims. They are subject to neither time nor change, and being unable to age they are unable to grow. The gods never question or examine the nature of their own existence, they move ferociously onwards in blind self-affirmation. It is only the mortals that are endowed with a truly great courage: Hector who does his duty and fights for his people even though he knows they are doomed; the Trojan warriors exulting at the beauty of the plains before launching into battle at dawn: "And so their spirits soared..stars in the night sky glittering  round the moon's brilliant blaze in all their glory..." There is a crisp yearning beauty that the gods can never comprehend: as all who have waited to go into battle know, how clear and memorable and lovely is every detail of the landscape that the soldier fears he may be seeing for the last time. Once in battle, the frivolous antics of the gods highlight the dignity of man, the former are exempt from the consequences of the action - they cannot die; while the latter risk and suffer not only pain and mutilation but the prospect, if the war goes on long enough, of death, of the total extinction of the individual personality.

While the human characters of the Iliad are literally engaged in gruesome bloody battle, these qualities of endurance, suffering and heroic sacrifice can be extrapolated to a smaller, less monumental stage. Small acts of courage are evident throughout literature - when Tess of the d'Urbervilles refuses to marry Alec despite the social advantage and economic ease the match would provide: her integrity and defiance make her heroic; To Kill a Mockingbird : "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what." Reminiscent of Hector? Courage, as Mark Twain defines it, is "resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear."

Perhaps it is more precisely the fear then that lends dramatic poignancy to action and ultimately to characters themselves. For what are they, and we, afraid of? The loss of what matters most. This, of course differs from one character to another - for Ethan Hawley in Steinbeck's Winter of our Discontent, it is his commitment to honesty and integrity amidst corruption, a world famously articulated by Gordon Gecko in the 1987 film Wall Street where "greed is good"; external pressures, as well as his own inner turmoil, set Ethan on a dangerous path to reclaim the trappings of success. Even if the character is not engaged in gladiatorial combat, they are still drawing upon courage reserves, struggling to overcome fear, to move forward in a meaningful way. So it behooves the writer to ask, when formulating a character: What are they afraid of?

The loss of honor galvanized Homeric warriors into battle, the lack of love (or her own idealized version of it) prompted Anna Karenina to throw herself beneath a train - because we always have that option: Ernest Hemingway addressed suicide in his novels, Shakespeare ended many of his characters' lives that way. For, after all, isn't the ultimate loss one of life itself? The mortality of man is a necessary precondition of courage, for the gods of the Iliad can never really be brave - not in the way it really matters.

Sooner or later, in suffering, in disaster, in loss, fictional characters come to realize their limits, accept mortality and establish or reestablish a human relationship with their fellow men. It is this dynamic struggle to overcome fear, to gather courage, and to persevere with an individualized quest for meaning within a brief flicker of a lifetime that defines the human condition; for the writer it also offers unlimited potential to animate fictional characters with a true breath of life, instilled, paradoxically, within a fear of death.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

To Give the Gollum his Due

In a previous blog I lamented the insidious influence of my Gollum, pronounced him a repugnant squatter in the dark recesses of my  mind, condemned him as a sly negator of the slightest of creative attempts. I have not been entirely fair.

My Gollum can be a propagator of self-doubt and a mouthpiece for shrill denunciation, but he is also an agent of dark unexpected musings. At times when I write I give myself over to him, I let his mutterings take precedence, and sometimes, in that rare unforeseen moment, he has flashes of something -  a distillation of instinct and intuition that draws upon dark undercurrents of which I have no conscious recognition. I discover to my chagrin that my characters obstinately refuse to follow the preordained plot line; they veer off in sometimes alarming ways, articulating thoughts and concepts that were never supposed to be theirs, forming alliances and creating havoc in a most disobedient fashion. I blame the Gollum. However, sometimes after this rather unsettling frenzy of darkly-inspired prose, I re-read (with no little trepidation!) these pieces and often find that perhaps the Gollum, at times, knows better than I.

So when do you dutifully follow your much-belabored outline, and when do you let the Gollum speak? I have found my Gollum is not particularly concerned with logical flow or tidy plot resolution, he is contemptuous of pre-planning and organizational methodologies. He is intrinsically a creature of the moment, swayed by the emotional and physical needs of his gluttonous appetite, seeking, above all else, an immediate and visceral gratification.

So what do we do with him? Tame him, leash him, bind him, and harness whatever dark muse he offers to our own convenience. But there's the rub - the Gollum is, by nature, fiercely ungovernable. He is crafty and cunning, sly and shrewd, and above all frustratingly elusive. If we are appropriately deferential, if we empty our mind of logical progressions and free ourselves from the constraints of preformulated expectations, then he might condescend to visit us just briefly. And amongst all the spiteful criticisms and derisive doubts, he might have a gleaming precious scene or two to offer. I have one of this kind, written in a feverish haste during an initial draft that has never since been revised; and I think not coincidentally, it was a violent emotional scene of confrontation and angst.

Perhaps that is when we best let the Gollum out - for those times of conflict and desperation, where the characters themselves are at a pinnacle of emotional torment. Perhaps we can then allow ourselves to lend an ear to the brutish little beast who is, perchance, better acquainted with primal instinctive undercurrents than we. Of course once his dark inspiration has petered out we need to transition back to the concise plot progression, adhering to developed structural trends that will enable a tight resolution of characters, plot and ultimately novel itself.

There is, however, in my writing world, an indubitable place for my Gollum and I hereby offer apologies for unintended slights I may have inflicted in a previous post. He is not, after all, the easiest of guests, and his deviously furtive ways take some getting used to. One can don heavy armor in an attempt to deflect his malicious jabs, but at times, dodging the blows, one also needs to listen - for there is a power in his dark acquaintance with the most primal of passions.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Dark Side, The Light Side & the Case for Gray

Darth Vader's iconic status has made the character a synonym for evil in popular culture: the quintessential bad guy and the ruthless henchman to the Emperor. I found his character to be most engaging, however, when we understand the process by which he was turned and the temptations to which he finally succumbed. It is at that point that we can empathize with him, all of us being susceptible to unsavory temptations on the road of life. Ultimately, Darth Vader sacrifices himself to save his son and is reunited in the pantheon of Good Guys in Return of the Jedi.

 Incidentally, there is a species of slime-mold beetle of the genus Agathidium named after Darth Vader (A. vaderi), there are also species of this same beetle  designated for the last Republican administration, with George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (A. bushi, A. cheneyi, A. rumsfeldi) being so singled out. According to the entomologists in question this was done in homage, but it is not exactly pristine company they are keeping, and slime-mold, at least from the perspective of democrats, seems an appropriate descriptive attribute.

The good versus evil plot is essentially a simplistic one, and one that only gets intriguing when the good knight's armor is a little tarnished, where he is led astray and tempted, where he is struggling with repercussions of past misdeeds. A dark past. Or even better: negative aspects of his character that he strives to contain - overly prone to the mead perhaps, which directly affects his ability to complete his quest, and fills him with a self-loathing that impedes social engagement with his peers. Already a little more interesting because he is more human. He is encumbered by the frailties to which we are all susceptible, and perpetuates a dynamic struggle for the moral mastery of himself.

Villains are in no less need of humanizing. The theme of good and evil in Shakespeare's MacBeth is brilliantly done - the hero, encapsulating elements of villainy (or the potential for evil) actually becomes the miscreant. A lack of clear polarity insofar as the moral high-ground is concerned is indicated at the very beginning where the witches proclaim that: fair is foul and foul is fair. Good and evil not only exist side by side but are interweaved and intermingled within the person of MacBeth himself.  The fair face may hide the foul heart. As Duncan says of the first Thane of Cawdor: ‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.’ This is part of the theme of equivocation, of ambiguity, of false words and false appearances, which runs through Macbeth.

Tolstoy says that all good marriages are alike but each bad marriage is unique; it is precisely the blend of dark, light and intermingling shades of gray that are compelling, evocative and quintessentially human. The hero alone, in all his brilliant perfection (reminds me of Tony Curtis in The Great Race, pristine in white with impossibly gleaming teeth) is quite frankly not only dull and tedious but essentially two-dimensional; as is his black-clad antagonist, depicted as utterly and completely evil without any traces of gray.

Like MacBeth himself, the characters I love the most are those that encapsulate both good and evil, that have overriding tendencies toward one or another but are invariably streaked with black, white, and intermingling gray. When one examines the fictional characters that are successful, like Darth Vader, they invariably have complicated histories that place them not necessarily on the Dark Side so much as darting across the line of the Force, from Dark to Light and Gray in-between.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Brevity & the Soul of Wit...a Lesson from Polonius

The aspiration: to write concisely, sparingly; where every single word fulfills a specific purpose; where the literary scalpel has been deployed to great effect, cutting out the fat and leaving only the lean meat of the novel. There are, of course, many writers who do this naturally (Hemmingway springing most immediately to mind), and others of us that labor at the task.

 Polonius (from Shakespeare's Hamlet) is depicted as a garrulous old windbag who, upon informing the King of Hamlet's madness,  pronounces the well-known adage that brevity is the soul of wit. The irony being, of course, that Polonius himself is hardly brief and without much wit to recommend himself.

I find among the pages of my best-loved books, the phrases that stay with me (and the ones that have become iconic for millions of others) are often the succinct ones; a few words coupled together that pack a punch far more powerful than might be expected: Call me Ishmael. In Melville's masterpiece of 630-odd pages, the opening line of three words is often the most famously cited and one that all remember. Not that verbal economy is always superior, but I think there is a place for it. Often these verbals clips are incredibly effective subsequent or previous to a longer phrase, perhaps it is the resultant rhythm that is created,  perhaps the dramatic effect is heightened by contrast.

I have also found myself returning again and again to poetry in quest of that sometimes elusive conciseness (as these blogs might testify I tend towards verbosity!) I have been re-reading haiku, that quintessential distillation of image and thought:

Like a ravaged sea
this bed.
Were I to smooth it,
the sleeve I  pressed to it
would float back moist with foam 

This particular haiku is by Lady Ise, one of Emperor Uda's favorites in the tenth-century Japanese court.

I think that is what I enjoy most about Shakespeare also is that while lengthy soliloquies are part and parcel of his tour-de-force, these marvelous passages are each comprised of succinctly gorgeous metaphors and analogies that are utilized to tremendous effect; Richard III Now is the winter of our discontent. What utterly enthralls me is how Shakespeare conveys so much in so few words - we lay the groundwork for Richard's brooding malevolence, his dissatisfaction with a world where he is little loved. And later in the play: A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! Where Richard is prepared to relinquish all that he has schemed and plotted to obtain, in return for an exit strategy.

Anyway to bring this increasingly lengthy treatise to a conclusion (alas like Polonius I fear I must forfit wit) I think that the emphasis remains on the carefully-chosen word: regardless of sentence length, each word fulfills a powerful and useful function. These short phrases are like fireworks in the night, they illuminate the dark recesses of our mind in an explosion of color and light and are just as quickly extinguished, but their echo remains with us, their words continue to resonate precisely because they are expressed so concisely. They are more readily remembered. True to Shakespeare's consummate skill it is Polonius who serves as the ironic vehicle for such a message: brevity being the soul of wit.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Creative Fear & My Resident Gollum

How do we do it? How do we master the necessary courage to pick up a pen, or start that new word document while the cursor blinks accusingly, and a sly whisper forms in the dark recesses of your mind: Who do you think you're kidding? Or perhaps this doubting demon emerges halfway through a novel, as mine did, when struggling to write the last third when all plot strings required resolution, when all characters needed to be appropriately disposed of. What if you can't do it? My demon has a sibilant wheeze like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, and tends to make his appearance in the last quarter of the writing process and loiter like a profoundly unwelcome guest through to the queries and submissions. Unlike Ben Franklin's visitors who reek of fish after three days, my Gollum is so well-camouflaged that I am unable to evict him. He is so well-settled into the clustered nuerons of my mind that he even able to prompt cascading fear effects that have me poised to rewrite massive chunks of my novel based on a single inevitable rejection letter.

A small consolation remains that all of us writers have our own resident doubter, even the established, supremely talented ones: Katherine Anne Porter called courage "the first essential" for a writer. "I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence," agreed Cynthia Ozick, "sometimes every syllable." E. B. White said he admired anyone who "has the guts to write anything at all." A marginal comfort? It does seem to imply that the Gollum can be wrested from his nefarious purpose, does it not? That he can be overcome, or utilized to spur us onwards and upwards? Hope springs eternal after all.

Curiously, I find this performance-fear manifesting in other creative mediums; I am also a painter of ambitious proportions; I mean this literally - I stretch my own canvases to impossibly large sizes and then spend several years meticulously painting every square inch. And on every occasion before attempting a particularly challenging portion (lately the fur of a tiger) my Gollum raises his brutish head and his cunning hiss echoes through my mind: you call yourself an artist? You are really going to attempt to do that?

So to roll it all to the overwhelming question: How do we evict our Gollum? Honestly, I don't know that we can. I think we need to recognize his destructive intent and perhaps utilize it as a galvanizing force to mitigate his influence. At the very least we ignore him and push on and push on. The key, I believe is to keep writing. Then when we come to the end, when we insert that final period of that final sentence - at least, then, it is done warts and all. And of course the subsequent editing (visions and revisions that a minute will reverse! - sorry still have Prufrock on my mind!) refines the product still further. I think in the end we all have the power to surprise our inner Gollum, to render him quietly muttering to his own dark corner in reluctant acknowledgement that perhaps his landlord has some small modicum of ability after all. As many many writers have urged previous to me: just keep writing and it will come - in fits and starts maybe, some days more easily than others...but the potential for completion is there inside - the golden ring jealously guarded by the Gollum - We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.

So in search of the golden nugget for my next book, and endeavoring most valiantly to studiously ignore the internal wheeze : you will never find it!  I charge onwards, musing on dramatic plot potentials, possible character combinations, and a lurking Gollum of a guest.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

For the Love of Prufrock: My Debt to Eliot

I came across this image a few days ago - posted to commemorate T.S Eliot's birthday on the 28th September. Since then I have had Prufrock on my mind, not least due to the fact that sleep has been elusive and the stovetop espresso pot is perpetually bubbling...and if, like this morning, you find yourself reluctantly alert at quarter past four in the morning, what better to ponder than Eliot's magnificent poem: the Love Song of J. Prufrock?

This poem has long been a favorite of mine - perhaps because like Prufrock I have yearned for a deep and meaningful life, perhaps because certain phrases become imprinted indelibly upon our consciousness: I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, perhaps because, Prufrock himself is so utterly stricken with inertia and self-doubt (a state no doubt with which many writers can relate!)  Do I dare disturb the universe? Isn't that a question that we have all, at some point or another, asked ourselves? To gather the courage to put oneself out there, to stand up and move forth ( an 'I am Spartacus!' moment!) to defy convention or fear of societal disapproval, to openly express oneself, to force the moment to its crisis. It seems that Prufrock's excruciating angst is derived not only from his inability to live a life of consequence, but also demonstrates an eloquent testimonial to thwarted desires and modern disillusionment.

Many critics believe that the poem is a criticism of Edwardian society. It is hard to imagine how fractured and dislocated Eliot and his peers must have felt - Europe lost an entire generation of young men to the horrors of trench warfare in World War 1, resulting in a general crisis of masculinity as survivors struggled to find their place in a radically altered society with a new emphasis on excess and forthrightness (one also thinks of Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby and his similar indictment of societal superficialities at the dawn of the twentieth century). The total number of civilian and military casualties in the Great War was over 37 million. How can the hundred decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse before the taking of a toast and tea not seem unbearably meaningless after such unimaginable trauma? While we have not experienced the near obliteration of a generation, our world seems to be rapidly reinventing itself in a different kind of way: the dizzying transformation of information technology and the emergence of a digital economy.

Eliot's Love Song of J Prufrock was greeted with disdainful disparagement when it was published in 1917: the Times Literary Supplement Review noted: "The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry." I, and doubtless millions of appreciative readers today, would palpably disagree. This desire for meaningful self-expression is a defining element of what it is to be human, and Eliot is, in my humble opinion, unsurpassed in his depiction of Prufrock's agonizing yearning for a life of significance.

So to leave you with the genius of Eliot's own sublimely immortal words:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,       
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,       
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

Now as dawn starts to edge over the darkened horizon, I must measure out my life with coffee spoons - a little of the bean to help me through a day with little rest behind it; but with a profound appreciation of the fact that immeasurably talented poets are a part of it.