Writing

Mourning Lost Characters with Jean Alica Elster

A wonderful Detroit writer who I have had the pleasure to meet at a number of local author events is Jean Alica Elster. As a Kresge Arts fellow, she was featured in a video discussing her work. I thought I would share it here, not only because she’s someone you should know about, but also because she brings up a topic that I’ve mentioned here a number of times: the mourning that follows the completion of a literary work.

 

Advertisements

Futility and Freedom

AngelLargeSquare A few days ago I stumbled upon a review of my first novel, Angel, which I had not seen before.

I hadn’t re-read Angel in a while, and I decided to listen to Shea Taylor’s audio version while I took my daily walks.

Since then I have been feeling the same sense of wistful loneliness that I did when the book was initially finished; the characters’ stories were complete, and my relationship with them was finished. I fell in love with those characters in a rare way, and the sense of a beautiful, fleeting moment that the book conveys also applies to its author.

This wistfulness leads to some other moods. I wish that the story could have been shared with more people, not for the ego driven reasons that you might expect (although they are there, certainly), but because the more people who read and review the book, the more they are kept alive.

This musing leads, inevitably, into another thought: a sense of futility about writing. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and eventually that sense of anticipation that “this will be the one” that gets attention, sells well, makes money– whatever– gets muted. All the advice about establishing a social media platform and going out there to promote, promote, promote, well, it can only do so much.  There are still a limited number of readers in the world, and a seemingly unlimited number of books. A few weeks ago I posted the Facebook status “There are few things harder to do in the world than sell a book,” and most of my writer friends posted some variant on “Amen.”

Eventually you just lower your expectations about your work making a splash. Understanding, as in that well-worn phrase, the insanity of doing the same thing and expecting a different result, it can be hard to find motivation to write another word. It can even seem downright masochistic and unhealthy to push that boulder up the hill again. I was musing on this, as all writers do from time to time. It wasn’t long, however, before I found liberation in the futility.

I have been working on a new novel, and worrying over whether the structure of the story as I saw it would be the kind of thing that would appeal to publishers. Every writer is constrained to be who she is. I have come to realize that my sensibilities about what makes a compelling story, how it should go, where it should end, are not always what is expected. So, I thought, if you can assume that it will be an uphill climb to get it published, that after that it will be an uphill battle to persuade anyone to read it, then why worry? It’s going to be hard no matter what you do, so why not write what you write? It’s a happy thought. A good one for breaking writer’s block.

That said, if you did want to buy one of my books, I wouldn’t object either.

 

Straight Authors, Gay Characters. The Case of “Call Me By Your Name.”

The other day I watched the film Call Me By Your Name.  Whenever I see a film based on a novel, I am curious to know more about the book, which brought me to this clip in which The Advocate interviews author André Aciman.

I was interested to learn that like my own novel Angel, which is also the story of a consequential love between two men, the setting came first. Aciman was inspired to write about Italy. The setting must have been romantic to him, and it brought to mind the tentativeness of early love. He initially imagined a boy/girl couple, but quickly changed because, he felt he wanted to write about overcoming inhibition and that there would be more inhibition with a gay couple.

Angel was inspired by the Pacific Northwest. In particular, Mt. Rainier. I started writing to answer the question of what might cause a minister, who was burned out on the ministry, to become a mountain tour guide. The story I wanted to tell had to have undercurrents of nature. He had to be seeking something in the mountain that he had also been seeking in his ministry, and whatever it was that he was seeking should also be the cause of his separation from the church. The thematic link that came to me was that the minister, Paul, was drawn to beauty, beauty of a particular, transient kind. Rainier is a volcano and will one day erupt. So the beauty he found in the form of Ian was something that had an awesome power.

The question of appropriation comes up in this clip. Aciman believes that artists should not be constrained to write only about their own selves and that with empathy and imagination you can put yourself in the shoes of another person. There is a joke that I believe I have quoted here before that if writers only write what they know there would be nothing but books about English professors contemplating having extramarital affairs.

I found in my own writing that I wasn’t really able to write fiction worth reading until I got beyond myself. I thank God on a regular basis that there was not much self-publishing when I wrote my first self-indulgent autobiographical novel.  The publishers who rejected it did me a great service. I don’t think that old saw “write what you know” should be taken too literally. There are multiple ways of “knowing” and that one way is to use empathy and imagination.

What Aciman knows is the hesitation of first love, and how he felt he could best illustrate it was with these two characters. In Angel what I “knew” had something to do with what it feels like to experience beauty, beautiful moments, beautiful relationships and how valuable and fleeting those glimpses of beauty can be. For whatever reason Paul and Ian came to me as the best way for me to illustrate that concept.  I don’t think a writer should shy away from writing a story in the form it comes to her, because those sparks of inspiration that are compelling enough to propel you through an entire project are too rare to brush aside.

Appropriation is tricky, though. The real problem is not that an individual artist might feel called to tell a story across various identity lines. The problem comes when a dominant group, because they are seen as having more authority or access to an audience, drowns out the voices of people from other groups telling their own stories. I wrote about this a few years ago. I had read an interview with a white writer who said she’d written a dark skinned protagonist because the world needs more books with African-American heroes.  My reaction was:

If I were to say, “There are not enough stories with African-American protagonists, and I think I should write one,” the results would be clunky. Not because I am incapable of imagining the internal life of a Black woman but because I would be approaching her as a representative of a social identity rather than as a person in her own right. The only reason I would make the choice to write from that perspective is if a story came to me that I could not imagine any other way.

I would like to think that readers, and viewers in the case of film, get a feel for what the creator was trying to express and to do. It will come across in the writing if the story is properly told, if the author was empathetic or exploitative, if the story wouldn’t be the same in any other form. From the reviews I’ve seen of the film and novel, Aciman did write characters who both straight and gay people respond to as real.

 

 

P.S. After seeing the film I can’t get that Bach piece out of my head. I suppose there are worse songs to be stuck in a continuous loop but…

 

 

Quote of the Day: Eccentric Bohemian Journalists

The old, narrow Strand was always teeming with bohemian journalists, most of whom–very unlike heir counterparts of today–were eccentrics. Practically all were freelances, staunch individualists, highly independent and pugnacious. An editor inquired from George Augustus Sala if he might “boil down” his article.

“Yes,” wrote back the great journalist. “Boil it, fry it, stew it–cook it in any way it pleases you, but send me the seven guineas!”

From Paradise in the Strand: The Story of Romano’s by Guy Deghy

 

 

Rupert Croft-Cooke’s Bosie Biography

The sun is shining through my office window this morning. The spring has brought light snow as it happens. But I spent the chilly evening reading Rupert Croft-Cooke’s “The Caves of Hercules,” a memoir of the author’s time in Tangier.


I ordered the book through Melcat inter-library loan as part of my continuing search for Schwabe– the mysterious member of the Wilde circle who went on to be a card sharp and possibly a spy. Croft-Cooke was the first to suggest that Maurice Schwabe was significant to the Wilde story, although he didn’t say a great deal about him. He included, in one of his books on Wilde, a description of Schwabe he got from “a barkeep” who had known Schwabe in 1910 in Tangier.


When I learned about Croft-Cooke’s “Smiling Damned Villain” an account of the life of a swindler named Paul Lund who he met as a bartender in Tangier, I thought perhaps he was the source. But looking back at Croft-Cooke’s description of what he learned of Schwabe, I found that he described the bartender who knew Schwabe as West Indian, which Lund was not, and I also realized that Lund was the wrong age to have known Schwabe in 1910. But Croft-Cooke did write a whole series of memoirs about his travels. This eventually (I checked out the wrong volume first) led me to “The Caves of Hercules,” which covered his time in Tangier.


I didn’t learn anything about Maurice Schwabe, except for an understanding of how the subject of him came up. Croft-Cooke was working on his biography of Lord Alfred Douglas at the time. He described him as a man who had given him “his ageing friendship and thus a faraway link with Oscar Wilde.”


The reason Croft-Cooke wrote his biography, he said, was that he realized “that there were intelligent people who still saw Bosie Douglas as the man Robert Ross and his followers depicted him.”


His biggest challenges, he said were persuading Douglas’s literary executor, Edward Colman, that he was going to do right by his subject. “Fortunately at the time he accepted my honesty of purpose and allowed me, on payment, the freedom of the Douglas copyright.” His second challenge was obtaining the books he needed in Tangier. He obtained some through a friend who opened an account for him with a specialist book seller, and others were lent and posted by the London Library. (Why won’t the libraries in London mail books to me?)


Croft-Cooke estimated that he spent less than six months writing his Bosie, “but I knew when I came to the end of it that it was the best book I could write.”


I feel a certain kinship with Croft-Cooke when he laments that “it met the fate of every book I had written up til then…No book of mine…has ever reached five figures in hardback editions, and Bosie was no exception.”


“But,” he wrote, “I loved writing it and to some degree I know that– in a useful modern phrase– I had set the record straight. There were people, my late dear friend and literary godfather Sir Crompton Mackenzie among them, who still thought Ross a hero and refused to realize that in his treatment of Bosie he had been a despicable little wretch, and there were still people who labelled Bosie with the epithet used by a miserable scissors-and-paste scribbler whom I know, named Percy Colson, ‘the Black Douglas’; but here and there light dawned and Sir Rupert-Hart Davis wrote me a promise (not, unfortunately, fulfilled) that in the next impression of The Letters of Oscar Wilde he would correct one of the most unjust passages by re-writing a footnote to read– ‘According to Ross’, instead of letting it be supposed that he had accepted the Ross version of what had been done about the ‘De Profundis’ letter after Wilde came out of prison. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago, but they seemed desperately important while I was writing ‘Bosie’…”


His follow-up book was “Feasting With Panthers” in which he wrote that “it is scarcely yet realized what a large part [Maurice Schwabe] played in Wilde’s ruin…” The book brought Croft-Cooke nothing but the initial payment, “which was a modest one.”


“I do not complain,” he wrote, “that I am, and am likely to remain, an extremely poor man; so far from feeling self-pity, I realize, as I have said, that I have the utmost good fortune in being able to earn an unskilled railwayman’s wages by doing what I like best in the world, and during the fourteen years of which I am writing, doing it in cheerful surroundings and among people who interested me. Sometimes I am plaintive enough to say, as the King told the Queen and the Queen told the Dairymaid, ‘I would like a little bit of butter with my bread,’ but the mood soon passes as I start another book.”


And that is a fairly good depiction of this author as well, as I tune out the sounds of crickets chirping over Oscar’s Ghost and dive into the investigation of that intriguing panther. If only I could call Rupert Croft-Cooke on the phone and ask him what else he knew.

What Does a Writer Look Like?

Today GQ posted a feature on “How to Dress Like a Writer.” My answer: stay in your pajamas all day. You are an introvert with a home office. GQ took a more dapper approach. Now, GQ is a men’s fashion magazine. So it would be unfair of me to point out the well-dressed writers they featured were all men. I came to the story through a side door and so I was struck by the absence of women before I realized what the publication was.  But this led me to wonder: when the average person hears the word “writer” what comes to mind?

I have written about gender and trends in publishing here in the past, so I won’t look up and link all the articles again, but research has shown that women read more than men, women make up the vast majority of publishing professionals, and this has been true for ages. In the Victorian era, female writers outsold their male counterparts by a comfortable margin.

Given all of this, you might expect the image that comes to mind when you say “writer” to be a woman. I’m guessing, however, that it is not. Your picture was probably more Ernest Hemmingway or Stephen King than Jane Austen or J.K. Rowling.

For even though women do more reading, and undoubtedly more writing, research shows books by male writers find a clearer path to publication, books that are seen as appealing to male readers are more likely to be published, to be taken seriously as literature and to get reviews. And even though female writers were more popular than male writers in the Victorian era, we have little historical memory of them. The serious writers studied in literature courses have overwhelmingly been male.

I did a little unscientific test to see what images the word “writer” evokes when not in the pages of a men’s fashion magazine. I typed “writer” into Google image search. Pictures of typewriters and fountain pens are the most common images associated with the term. More often than not, if there is a person in the picture, it is a man who is using the tool.

Writer at work

But the male images are not as overwhelmingly dominant as you might expect. At a quick glance my impression is that it is perhaps a 60/40 split of men to women. There was also one dog:

Boxer dog making note

What struck me more than the number of male images vs. female was the way male and female writers seem to be depicted. Here are three of the first images of women writers that came up in my search:

The women are in pastoral settings, getting inspiration from nature. Men are more likely to be shown in a professional setting, struggling over words at a typewriter in a book-filled office.

The overall impression I get from looking at these pictures is that writing is serious business for men, they labor and struggle over their text, whereas women write for pleasure and self-expression.

How does a writer dress? If he is a man, he dresses for the office and is correspondingly taken seriously as a professional. If she is a woman, she dresses for the beach or the forest, and probably carries a diary.

 

For more on initial assumptions about identity categories see my 2015 post What is an Identity?

Creativity from Constraints: The Dr. Seuss Edition

People tend to think of creativity as complete freedom, but often it is not freedom but playing within constraints that creates art. This example, about children’s author Dr. Seuss, comes from Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt.

Besides made-up words and rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s biggest trademark is the simplicity of his writing. Even compared to other children’s authors, Dr. Seuss pushed the limits. We can partly thank his Houghton Mifflin editor, William Spaulding, who after a string of successes presented Seuss with a list of just a few hundred simple words in the mid-1950s. Seuss had already published Horton Hears a Who!, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo. But, as detailed in the New Yorker article “Cat People,” Spaulding wanted Seuss to go after an even younger audience: “Write me a story that first graders can’t put down!” Seuss would later describe how he struggled with Spaulding’s challenge: He sent me a list of about three hundred words and told me to make a book out of them. At first I thought it was impossible and ridiculous, and I was about to get out of the whole thing; then decided to look at the list one more time and to use the first two words that rhymed as the title of the book— cat and hat were the ones my eyes lighted on. I worked on the book for nine months— throwing it across the room and letting it hang for a while— but I finally got it done. The result was The Cat in the Hat. It clocks in at 220 unique words, and to this day ranks as the second-most-selling book of Seuss’s career. The one book ahead of it? It’s Green Eggs and Ham, which uses just fifty words. All but one, anywhere, are one syllable. Seuss’s two most popular books are those in which he restricted himself the most: Simplicity brought success.