Sylvia Plath and Catching Up to Shakespeare

“I’m chock-full of ideas for new poems. I can’t wait to get time to write them down. I can’t let Shakespeare get too far ahead of me, you know.”

— Sylvia Plath

They say every writer who wants to improve their craft has to be a reader first. While I haven’t always followed the advice to a tee—I haven’t always been a writer, or a reader, or both at once—I have found that when I have, reading only makes me feel more worthless, impotent, and my efforts futile. And now these feelings seem to have come to a head, and I have come to my wit’s end, now that I have had my first taste of Shakespeare.

Growing up my teachers tried to get me to appreciate his rich wordplay, lively relatable characters, and imaginative plots, but I struggled with the language and never got very far or very much out of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. I gave him another try this month with Twelfth Night, and now I know I should never have tried to be a writer at all.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. I try to read and learn from many of the greats, but each one only highlighted my ignorance more and more. I’ll never have even half the talent of these authors. I will never write anything so moving, and I will never be known or remembered, so I should just give up, and sometimes I do.

Still, no matter how discouraged I get I still love writing and can’t seem to quit her entirely. So, I’m here again, lost and exhausted of my own faults but looking to try something new.

I’m far from being chock full of ideas though. I once was, and I hope to be again someday, but self-doubt is a hell of a drug, and I don’t know how to kick the nasty habit. Even when the words come slow, they still come, just never the ones I want. Never the ones I had always wanted to write. I gave up on all my dreams because I know I can never tell the story the way it appears to my mind’s eye and I can never teach the people what I know is right in my heart.

Where have all my ideas and ambitions gone? I have a feeling they are still there floating in the shadow of my self-consciousness. I suppose courage is what will get them back into the light. I suppose when you believe you can do things, or at least when you don’t know that the things you might do could be ugly, or stupid, or that you might one day lose interest or fail to finish things, there is no end to what you might do. But, it’s nearly impossible to unsee what is now painfully obvious.

And even if I was all wrong about my own ability and it was all just a matter of learning, of cracking the code and finding my voice and a good muse, I’m still far too far behind to ever catch up. I’m too old to learn new tricks. I’m too old to race the young, the strong, the flexible but maybe I’m looking at the race all wrong.

They say that practice makes perfect, but my practice rarely results in progress, let alone perfection. I’ve read that in order to get better you have to fail more and fail better, and that sounds a little more up my alley. That is how I can catch up to Plath, and Woolf, and Austen, and maybe even Shakespeare himself one day. I will embrace my fear and run by failure instead. I know I have enough failure in me to fuel a lifetime of work and more. I will stop trying to be as good as everyone else and fail the very best that I can instead.

And once you have set your heart on spectacular failure suddenly the ideas come by the dozen, and the words flow free as rivers. If I’m going to fail anyway, I can at least make it look good. If I am going to fail anyway, I might as well express myself, and tell the absolute truth. If I am going to fail anyway I might as well fail every single day and make it big, and bold, and bright! If I am going to fail anyway, I might as well make it my own and share every catastrophe with you.

I might as well be a proud failure considering failing is better than never trying at all and if I am so sure I’ll never be successful I should work to collect the same weight in flops and defeats, yes?

So, I have a new mission it seems, to fail more and better than anyone else. To earn even the possibility of my name among those greats by a paying in rejections, criticisms, and loss.

I’ll need a list, notebooks long with no two items the same, of ways I want to fail is what I want to work on now. I want each line to be a bigger and more impressive way to fail than then the last, and I have to start with them straight away!

It won’t be a hard task I’m sure. There are infinite ways to write failures out of short stories, essays, poems, hell, there are whole books I feel floating around inside my head I can fail at too. No, Shakespeare won’t get too far ahead of me now, nor Plath, nor Woolf, nor Austen or any of the rest.

I have them in my sights now as none of them could dream to fail like me!

***

U1889231Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer.

Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith College who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New York. The plot parallels Plath’s experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt.

Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry initiated by Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass. Despite her remarkable artistic, academic, and social success at Smith, Plath suffered from severe depression and underwent a period of psychiatric hospitalization. She graduated from Smith with highest honors in 1955 and went on to Newnham College, Cambridge, in England, on a Fulbright fellowship. Here she met and married the English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. For the following two years she was an instructor in English at Smith College.

In 1960, shortly after Plath and Hughes returned to England from America, her first collection of poems appeared as The Colossus. She also gave birth to a daughter, Frieda Rebecca. Hughes’ and Plath’s son, Nicholas Farrar, was born in 1962.

Plath took her own life on the morning of February 11, 1963. Leaving out bread and milk, she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with “wet towels and cloths.” Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on.

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Margaret Atwood on Existing in Two Places

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the Canadian poet and novelist, Margaret Atwood.

mg_5527Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Because of her father’s work and research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was eight years old.

Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally by the time she was 16.

In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in philosophy and French.

She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.

She has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood is also the inventor, and developer, of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

She is a noted humanist, and, in 1987, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

“I exist in two places,
here and where you are.”

— Margaret Atwood

This week I’m thinking a lot about Atwood and her book The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, because today her book becomes a show, and I’m pretty stoked about that since I recently read it, but I’ve also been thinking about time. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be the writer and the reader, and for time to pass between both. I’ve been wondering what it means for me to exist as I am now, and for me to exist again with you when you read these words. I wonder in what forms I will exist when I am read after I am long gone?

I know that I am a human and I know that all humans are mortal and still my own death seems impossible to me. How can there ever come a time when I will not breathe, or think, or write, or love, or look to the sky and feel small, and here, and so myself and so a part of everything that exists? How can there come a time when my heart stops and with it the thoughts in my head while the world goes on spinning and humans go one warring, inventing, and evolving, doing things I will never witness or be a part of?

This makes no sense, and yet it is a certainty, and it hurts me so every time I remember it.

I am afraid, I admit, not to be anymore. I want to face the fact, but I also want to keep it out of my mind. Why let the inevitable distract me and keep me frozen? Then again, the fear can be a motivating and focusing force until my end comes. If I want to live on after my death, I must remember that I am going to die and use what I have to limit my fading into the nothingness.

When I read the works of other writers they come into me, into my time and place, or some form of them does anyway, and I am happy to give them life again. I suppose I want a bit of that too. I want to know what it feels like to exist again and again and yet still be me, growing and changing here and now.

I want to live in every person and in every time after this one and words are the only way to do that.. It is a selfish thing to want, but I can’t help wanting it either. I am afraid of not being.

I am angry too. To be limited to this body, to this mind, and to this time feels so petty and unfair. One day there may be better ways to circumvent these pesky limitations, but for now, all I have are words. I have the imperfect ability to write down who I am and the improbable hope that in the future, minutes or eons from now, you will read them and remember me.

But who will it be that you remember? By the time this goes out I will be a little different, and the longer the distance between now and then the more the difference between the Lisa that wrote this and the Lisa that exists. So, I suppose no part of me will live on really, only bits of who I was. Only a snapshot in my history. Still, it’s all I have, and I am happy to give it to you.

Because even though I am not that Lisa anymore that does not mean she cannot be of some use. She can be a friend, a comfort, and warning, or a dream for you. She can walk with you when you feel alone, same as she walks within me. She can exist far longer than I. She can travel through space and time and be what I cannot.

And because the Lisa I am now is jealous of where that past me is able to go and where she is able to be, I will send this out and immediately sit sown to write again. I will send myself out to you over and over again, and one day, if all my works, everything from my little notes and journal entries, to the stories I’ve endeavored to tell here, and the books I may one day write, were to be put together it would be the closest a person could come to time travel. To real, complete, existence in another place and time.

I hope it happens for me one day, and that something like magic will allow me to feel what it is like to be here and there, now and then, and me, with you.

exist1_sq.png

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Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

See also: Margaret Atwood on Writing Poetry

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M.H. Abrams on a Writer’s Desperation

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American author and literary critic M.H. Abrams.

23abrams-1-obit-blog427Meyer Howard “Mike” Abrams, born July 23, 1912, was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Long Branch, New Jersey.The

The son of a house painter and first in his family to go to college, he entered Harvard University as an undergraduate in 1930. He went into English because, he says, “there weren’t jobs in any other profession…, so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.” After earning his baccalaureate in 1934, Abrams won a Henry fellowship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where his tutor was I. A. Richards. He returned to Harvard for graduate school in 1935 and received a master’s degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1940.

During World War II, he served at the Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory at Harvard. He describes his work as solving the problem of voice communications in a noisy military environment by establishing military codes that are highly audible and inventing selection tests for personnel who had a superior ability to recognize sound in a noisy background.

In 1945 Abrams became a professor at Cornell University. The literary critics Harold Bloom, Gayatri Spivak and E. D. Hirsch, and the novelists William H. Gass and Thomas Pynchon were among his students.

Abrams was an American literary critic, best known for works on Romanticism, in particular, his book The Mirror and the Lamp. In it Abrams shows that until the Romantics, literature was typically understood as a mirror reflecting the real world in some kind of mimesis; whereas for the Romantics, writing was more like a lamp: the light of the writer’s inner soul spilled out to illuminate the world. In 1998, Modern Library ranked The Mirror and the Lamp one of the 100 greatest English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Under Abrams’s editorship, The Norton Anthology of English Literature became the standard text for undergraduate survey courses across the U.S. and a major trendsetter in literary canon formation.Abrams was not only the general editor of The Norton Anthology, but he was also the editor of The Romantic Period (1798–1832) in that anthology, and he evaluated writers and their reputations.

Abrams died on April 21, 2015, in Ithaca, New York, at the age of 102

“I think most of the things I published have been published out of desperation—not because they were perfected.”

— M.H. Abrams

I still do not have the honor of calling myself a published author. My book has stalled, and I am looking to other things, for now, but I think I do know something of a writer’s desperation and reasons for publishing. I have felt it with the publishing of every post, poem, personal essay, and story I have posted here and elsewhere on the internet. Surely these published pieces, bits and parts of my life and larger themes, were pushed out into the world out of at the same sort of desperation too and surely none of them left me perfected.

The word desperate, to lovers of this craft, means two things:

  1. (of a person) having a great need or desire for something.
  2. (of an act or attempt) tried in despair or when everything else has failed; having little hope of success.

A writer is a person with a great need for expression and communication. We write because there is nothing else that will satisfy that need. Art maybe, but writers often gravitate toward the clear expression that language can offer over the murky interpretations of art. We work to satisfy these needs, and we do it with very little hope for success. Still, we persist. Our need outweighs the hopelessness I suppose. Our need will not allow us to feel hopeless. It has to work, because if it doesn’t, who are we?

I am desperate to say something, to tell you something. All writers are. A writer’s work is at least hard, even if it is not always fast. Writers bend all their time, giving as much as they can give to words, words, words, always the words. Giving everything they h to getting them out of ourselves and into the world hoping to have an effect. Hoping to move someone, hoping to become and move themselves.

Why the urgency? Why the intensity? Why do whole worlds hinge on our abilities and dedication?. Why do these things scratch at us so? Why do we hurt ourselves this way? What do we hope to achieve?

The desperation stems from our inevitable deaths I am certain. No tomorrow is promised, we know that, and writers feel it more acutely than most. We know that if we hope to leave behind the thing in our chests beating to get out, we must work hard and fast. We must make choices and sacrifices in our lives, and in the work too, to do just enough, to say just enough, to get the message out in a way you can live and die with.

Desperation is a writer’s friend. Desperation leads to an outpouring of work. It leads to pens flying across pages and fingers flying across keyboards. It leads to a body of work that might be less than perfect but at least says what you were meant to say.

But I wonder, what will happen to the ones who don’t make it?  With a life lived straining toward work we may never get right? How can a writer cope with in obscurity without acknowledgment? What if I am among those who no one reads, hears of, or remembers? The thought alone makes me want to pick up a pencil and write furiously whatever comes to mind. The thought alone fills me with anxiety and hunger. I am reminded of my drive and my reason: To tell my truth. To get at what makes us all so great and terrible a force in this universe, even while we mean nothing and matter, not at all.

Desperation is a writer’s friend, and it may be the very defining thing that sets a writer apart from dabblers and fakes. Charles Bukowski wrote that a writer without desperation is nothing at all, and I am inclined to agree. Writer’s need to feel always on the verge of losing life and sanity without words or our work wanes both in quality and quantity. We forget to care about the truth and telling it, in just enough time.

When you sit down to write you should be sweating like you’ve just sat down to disarm and disassemble a bomb set to go off in seconds. You have to be struggling like you need food, water, or air. Write like the world depends on it, like your loved ones lives depended on it, like your life and legacy depend on it, no matter what your subject, from dystopian future to sci-fi, to memoir, to children’s books, and on down to little blog posts like these. Write like it truly matters whether you succeed or fail.

Of course, there ought to be balance, like all things. Walk the line between desperation and contentment, between urgency and patience. There has to be positivity and joy when you sit to write too, not just fear and anxiety. Find peace and focus in the knowledge that you are doing the work you were made for and that someone out there will agree. Even if it is one person you save through your sweating, you will have achieved your objective.

Balance is what keeps you getting better. It’s what keeps your ideas clear, organized, and coherent. Your words will mean nothing if rushed out there disjointed and jumbled.

Do not fear the desperation, the need, let it push you to stay dedicated to getting better and getting your name out there. Keep hold of that need, it will keep you going, and remember that without it, you are no writer. Keep it, cultivate it, let it guide you, but do not let it control you and never let it hinder your message.

Be desperate to get better, to learn, and to hone your craft. Be desperate to be different, desperate to show the world something new.

 

Be desperate to get it right.

 

***

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Quote via Alec Nevala-Lee

Biographical information via Goodreads and Wikipedia

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Willa Cather on Telling The Truth

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American writer Willa Cather.

Willa Sibert Cather, born December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers! , The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel set during World War I.

willa-catherCather grew up in Virginia and Nebraska, and graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, initially planning to become a physician, but after writing an article for the Nebraska State Journal, she became a regular contributor to this journal. Because of this, she changed her major and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English.

As a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s, Cather sometimes used the masculine nickname “William” and wore masculine clothing. A photograph in the University of Nebraska archives depicts Cather dressed like a young man and with “her hair shingled, at a time when females wore their hair fashionably long.”

After graduation in 1894, she worked in Pittsburgh as writer for various publications and as a school English teacher for approximately 13 years, thereafter, at the age of 33, moving to New York City for the remainder of her life, though she also traveled widely and spent considerable time at her summer residence in New Brunswick, Canada.

Throughout Cather’s adult life, her most significant friendships were with women. These included her college friend Louise Pound; the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, with whom Cather traveled to Europe and at whose Toronto home she stayed for prolonged visits; the opera singer Olive Fremstad; the pianist Yaltah Menuhin;  and most notably, the editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived the last 39 years of her life.

Cather’s sexual identity remains a point of contention among scholars. While many argue for Cather as a lesbian and interpret her work through a lens of queer theory, a highly vocal contingent of Cather scholars adamantly oppose such considerations. For example, scholar Janet Sharistanian has written, “Cather did not label herself a lesbian nor would she wish us to do so, and we do not know whether her relationships with women were sexual. In any case, it is anachronistic to assume that if Cather’s historical context had been different, she would have chosen to write overtly about homoerotic love.”

She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author’s total accomplishments. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947, at the age of 73 in New York City.

A resolutely private person, Cather had destroyed many old drafts, personal papers, and letters. Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from the personal papers that remain. However, in April 2013, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather—a collection of 566 letters Cather wrote to friends, family, and literary acquaintances such as Thornton Wilder and F. Scott Fitzgerald—was published, two years following the death of Cather’s nephew and second literary executor, Charles Cather. Willa Cather’s correspondence revealed complexity of her character and inner world. The letters do not disclose any intimate details about Cather’s personal life, but they do “make clear that [her] primary emotional attachments were to women.”

“The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.”

— Willa Cather

Being truthful is not the same thing as being honest. Being open is not the same as not telling a lie. One is to answer when asked. The other is to pour your soul out thoroughly and unprompted. One is hard to do, the other feels almost impossible.

Telling the truth is complicated, tiring, and terrifying and writers and artist do it every day.

Telling the truth means making yourself vulnerable to judgment and rejection but since no man or woman is an island telling the truth can mean exposing not just yourself, not even just your family and friends, but your hometown, your gender, your race, and even your age group. It means that what you say means something and you have to carry the full responsibility and ownership of what you reveal.

Being truthful is painful. I’ve read over and over that the best way to be a writer is to just write but what do I do on the days when I am too afraid and too hurt to welcome more eyes and acknowledgment? What about the days when I am already exhausted and have nothing left to help carry the weight of revelation? What about the days when I cannot look myself in the eye let alone allow strangers to see such deep parts of me? What about the days when the truth is too disturbing and scary to examine? How do I do on those days?

The ones who say “just write” I wonder if they understand how much the tears sting and how the real the old memories feel when they pour put of you.

There are so many times I sit down to write my truth, and I find I have built so many defenses against what I carry deep down that I see no truth worth telling. I am nothing, I feel nothing, and nothing has ever hurt or helped me.

Society tells me to be happy and grateful and ordinary and getting past that to all the ugly things we would rather look away from is like pulling teeth or climbing mountains. Telling the truth starts with a search, and the mazes of this world are complex on purpose. The truth is hard to find and what you find may be nothing but illusions. More lies. Tell those too until you learn, I suppose.

I wouldn’t go as far as Cather in calling anyone stupid, but I would say they are a whole lot of ignorant, uninspired, and non-introspective ones out there. I would say I am among them, and so are many other artist and writers aspiring to do better too. The truth never comes easy, and the need to hide and run for cover never leaves us. Writers tell other writers what writing ought to feel like, forgetting what is hard for them will be hard for others too.

It’s rare to find people who open so easily and unapologetically, but we cannot deny that the ones who do are the best among us. Most people live lives so closed up and cut of that such vulnerability is beyond comprehension. I have met husbands and wives, sisters, and best friends who reveal less to one another than a writer does to the world.

Being truthful is hard. There have been many times I have written something that left me in tears and utterly exposed. When I read back over pieces like that, I get embarrassed and afraid. They are just too truthful, too raw. I edit and chop away at the feeling until I am once again cloaked and covered. I know that in doing so I have turned my work into lies but being so open is something you have to build up the courage to do.

And that is what all this practice is for, I suppose. Not just to write better but to write a little more truthfully every time. To write what we are again and again. To write what has been forgotten and what is wished to stay that way. To write about right and wrong and reality, about broken dreams and broken hearts and about the way the world doesn’t care or owe us a damn thing, it is exhausting! And it is the most fulfilling thing we can do.

Write often. Open yourself often. Feel pain, feel joy, feel fear, hope and anger, as often as you can and write, write, write, but never deny to yourself or anyone else that it is the hardest thing to do. Never minimize the worth and the work of what you and other writers do every single day.

***

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Jorge Luis Borges on What Writers Become

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.

jorgeluisborgesenpalermofotoferdinandoscianna198403Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo was born into an educated middle-class family on 24 August 1899. They were in comfortable circumstances but not wealthy enough to live in downtown Buenos Aires, so the family resided in Palermo, then a poorer suburb. Borges’s mother, Leonor Acevedo Suárez, came from a traditional Uruguayan family of criollo (Spanish) origin. Her family had been much involved in the European settling of South America and the Argentine War of Independence, and she spoke often of their heroic actions.

In 1914, his family moved to Switzerland where he attended school and traveled to Spain. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in Surrealist literary journals. He also worked as a librarian and public lecturer. Borges was fluent in several languages. He was a target of political persecution during the Peron regime and supported the military juntas that overthrew it.

Borges was a key figure in Spanish-language literature. His best-known books, Ficciones (Fictions) and El Aleph (The Aleph), published in the 1940s, are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes, including dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, fictional writers, philosophy, and religion.

His works have contributed to philosophical literature and the fantasy genre. Critic Ángel Flores, the first to use the term magical realism to define a genre that reacted against the dominant realism and naturalism of the 19th century, considers the beginning of the movement to be the release of Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia). However, some critics would consider Borges to be a predecessor and not actually a magical realist. His late poems dialogue with such cultural figures as Spinoza, Camões, and Virgil.

In 1914 Borges’ family moved to Switzerland, where he studied at the Collège de Genève. The family traveled widely in Europe, including stays in Spain. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in surrealist literary journals. He also worked as a librarian and public lecturer. In 1955 he was appointed the director of the National Public Library and professor of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. He became completely blind by the age of 55; as he never learned braille, he became unable to read. Scholars have suggested that his progressive blindness helped him to create innovative literary symbols through imagination.

In 1961 he came to international attention when he received the first Formentor Prize (Prix International), which he shared with Samuel Beckett. In 1971 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe. Borges himself was fluent in several languages. He dedicated his final work, The Conspirators, to the city of Geneva, Switzerland.

His international reputation was consolidated in the 1960s, aided by his works being available in English, by the Latin American Boom and by the success of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Writer and essayist J. M. Coetzee said of him: “He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists.”

Due to a hereditary condition, Borges became blind in his late fifties. In 1955, he was appointed the director of the National Public Library (Biblioteca Nacional) and professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961, he came to international attention when he received the first International Publishers’ Prize Prix Formentor. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe. He died in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1986.

J. M. Coetzee said of Borges: “He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish-American novelists.”

“When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.”

— Jorge Luis Borges

Yesterday I wrote a list of ten bookish resolutions for the new year. One of them was to read more books. Another was to read books written by the acclaimed author Jorge Luis Borges.

I first encountered Borges years ago when I came across his short story Borges and I. To me it was a little masterpiece, perfectly written. I planned to read more of his work but then I got very busy trying to be a grown up and making all the grown up mistakes I needed to make, and I forgot all about reading books, and about Borges and his little masterpiece.

I’ve been reading again for some time now. I have gotten back that old obsession for language and stories that draw me in and change me a little with every page. I have come back to books a bit more mature and ready to get more from them than just entertainment.

I want to study how they are written. I want to learn all the ways there are to say things, and I hear Borges said things in very interesting ways.

I went back and read Borges and I last night, and I think I understand better what he is saying or at least I know better what it means to me. Borges is a writer, a public figure, a persona, and a mask presented to the world. “I” is the inner self, the secret self the one who lives and dies while the persona endures in books and the minds of others.

Borges and his “I” are very similar. I think everything that Borges is must have begun in the “I” but now has become distorted and at times unrecognizable. I think as time goes on the “I” gives more to Borges and Borges distorts it all the more and eventually there will be no “I” left. The inner Borges will die because we all die one day and Borges the writer, the persona, and the memory will live on.

The whole thing is very powerful, and if you want to be a writer, artist, entertainer, etc. It is all something to consider, but the last line is what hits me the hardest. The last line — “I do not know which of us has written this page.” — is where the problem really lies.

Who is the real you? The one on paper or the one who lives inside? How much of what you write is the truth? Can you tell the difference? Does it matter to you?

All writers have a habit of exaggeration and distortion. We leave out what we feel needs leaving out, and we highlight all the action. The lows get lower, and the highs get higher. The colors become brighter and the smells more intense. We take the chaos of life and give it order and meaning. We write what we feel and forget the rest and the reader creates a version of us in their minds. This other self is who becomes what we are to the world, and slowly we fade away and the other lives on forever.

I thought that writing about myself meant being my true self, but now I think that one human can never fully and accurately explain who they are or what kind of life they have lived. We can only give approximations and caricatures.

I had thought I could obtain a sort of immortality through words, but I think that isn’t true either, not exactly. The Lisa that lives on, if one does at all, won’t really be me. I am giving birth to a new Lisa, one who is much more interesting and colorful than I. The new Lisa is something I had hoped I could be. The new Lisa is the one I dream was born the night that I was. I give her whatever I can, and she uses all that I am for selfish gains. I don’t mind. I love her all the same.

Lisa and I, which one of us has written this?

***

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E.B. White and Writing Among the Moving Stars

Writing is and always has been my passion, in all forms, whether blogging, poetry, or, my newest endeavor, novel-writing. Like any art, it takes practice and a dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you.

In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American writer, E.B. White.

988142From Wikipedia: “White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, the youngest child of Samuel Tilly White, the president of a piano firm, and Jessie Hart White, the daughter of Scottish-American painter William Hart.

White served in the army before going to college. He graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1921.

White worked for the United Press (currently the United Press International) and the American Legion News Service in 1921 and 1922. Then he became a cub reporter for The Seattle Times in 1922 and 1923. Once, when White was stuck on writing a story, a Times editor said, ‘Just say the words.’ He then worked for two years with the Frank Seaman advertising agency as a production assistant and copywriter before returning to New York City in 1924.

Not long after The New Yorker was founded in 1925, White submitted manuscripts to it. Katharine Angell, the literary editor, recommended to magazine editor and founder Harold Ross that White be taken on as staff. However, it took months to convince him to come to a meeting at the office and further weeks to convince him to agree to work on the premises. Eventually, he agreed to work in the office on Thursdays.

A few years later in 1929, White and Angell were married. They had a son, Joel White, a naval architect and boat builder, who owned Brooklyn Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine. Katharine’s son from her first marriage, Roger Angell, has spent decades as a fiction editor for The New Yorker and is well-known as the magazine’s baseball writer.

In 1959, White edited and updated The Elements of Style. This handbook of grammatical and stylistic guidance for writers of American English had been written and published in 1918 by William Strunk, Jr., one of White’s professors at Cornell. White’s rework of the book was extremely well received, and further editions of the work followed in 1972, 1979, and 1999.  The volume is a standard tool for students and writers and remains required reading in many composition classes.

His first children’s book, Stuart Little, was published in 1945, and Charlotte’s Web appeared in 1952. His third children’s novel, The Trumpet of the Swan, was published in 1970

White died on October 1, 1985, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, at his farm in North Brooklin, Maine. He is buried in the Brooklin Cemetery beside his wife Katharine, who died in 1977.”

“Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

― E.B. White, The Elements of Style

It’s been about a week since I first started reading The Elements of Style, the famous “little book” originally written by William Strunk Jr. and brilliantly edited and expanded decades later by his student E.B. White. The Elements of Style, I have heard, is the place to starting you are serious about writing.

This isn’t a book about outlining, or plot, or character development, or world building, it’s about the words, just the words. Which ones to use, how to put them in order, what words not to us and why. This book is about the basics, it’s about what comes before your ideas and your

I do not agree with every rule, but the book gets me thinking about what my rules are and about what is the best way to say what it is I am trying to say. I’ll write a proper review of the book when I finish it. For now, I just want to say that, interestingly, instead of inspiring me to buckle down and work on my wordiness, or my tendency to write in the passive voice this book is just showing me see what rules I don’t want to follow.

Am I defiant for defiant’s sake? Am I only being lazy? Am I allowing my ego to get in the way of improvement? Strunk would think so and no doubt he would beat me over the head with the rules until I complied, but White might have understood.

I can’t get past my own certainty that not only is there no singular “best way to write” but that no single person can tell another person how to write. Especially not from the distant past.

Writing is about expressing what is inside ourselves, and some of us are not trying to express something so forceful or sure. Sometimes your writing requires being unsure, passive, and maybe a little timid. Sometimes you need more words because wordiness says something in itself.

I am weary of any rules or ways of doing things that have existed longer than I have. I just can’t believe that anything that was useful or right at one time can be right and useful for all time. Words pop in and out of existence every day and each word’s meaning morphs from one mind to another. The ways we communicate change with every new messaging app, blogging platform, and emoji pack release. Why shouldn’t the rules for communicating effectively change too?

Maybe beyond making your sentences comprehensible there is no blueprint for how to write well and no way to predict what might work and what might not.

Maybe, like in any art or creative expression, it is good to know what other people think is good and right, and how they do things. How else will you know what is possible? But maybe it’s okay if I casually disregard those rules and guidelines even if the only reason I have to do so is that I simply don’t like them or see the point. It’s my writing; I’ll do it however I want to dammit!

I don’t want to sound like a child who refuses to listen to reason, I am considering Strunk and White’s advice very seriously, and I am learning, I just don’t care for the tone throughout the book that any writer who chooses to do things differently is bad or lazy. I get a little perturbed that writing seems to be the only creative endeavor where straying from the established rules and Way of Doing Things is condemned rather than studied or celebrated.

Instead of trying so hard to write the way other people say we should, we should be writing the way we want to and bending all our energy to getting better at that.

I mean, if we truly are out there navigating among the moving stars, one person’s path won’t work for everyone. Don’t think yourself a failure because you know that and choose to go your own way. Get to where you are going any way you can, and make sure to enjoy the ride.

P.S. This post is riddled with errors that both Strunk and White would cringe at. Despite my assertions, I am ashamed. 

***

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Stephen King on Setting Your Monsters Loose

Writing is and always has been my passion, in all forms, whether blogging, poetry, or, my newest endeavor, novel-writing. Like any art, it takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you.

In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from one of the greatest authors of our time, Stephen King.

3389Stephen Edwin King was born the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. After his father left them when Stephen was two, he and his older brother, David, were raised by his mother.

Stephen attended the grammar school in Durham and Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. From his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, he wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper, THE MAINE CAMPUS.

In the fall of 1971, Stephen began teaching English at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. Writing in the evenings and on the weekends, he continued to produce short stories and to work on novels.

In 1973, King’s first novel Carrie was accepted by publishing house, Doubleday. King had thrown an early draft of the novel into the trash after becoming discouraged with his progress writing about a teenage girl with psychic powers. His wife retrieved the manuscript and encouraged him to finish it. His advance for Carrie was $2,500; King’s paperback rights later earned $400,000.

King and his family moved to southern Maine because of his mother’s failing health. At this time, he began Salem’s Lot . Soon after Carrie’s release in 1974, King’s mother died of uterine cancer. His Aunt Emrine had read the novel to her before she died.

After his mother’s death, King and his family moved to Boulder, Colorado, where King wrote The Shining. The family returned to western Maine in 1975, where King completed his fourth novel, The Stand.

In all King has published 54 novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and six non-fiction books. He has written nearly 200 short stories, most of which have been collected in book collections. Many of his stories are set in his home state of Maine. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television shows, and comic books.

“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.”

— Stephen King

Monsters are everywhere. We know they can be found in horror movies and macabre art, but did you know you can see them in the news, and I’d bet money there are a few you have encountered in your own past. I know I have. Writing for me has been a way of discovering who the monsters are and learning how to defeat them.

In the real world, the monsters are hard to spot, and they often live inside people who look a lot like good guys too. In the real world, they can be nearly impossible to fight, you may not even know how, and you may be fighting alone. In the real world, monsters hurt you, they win, they get away with it, and they hurt you again. In the real world, the monsters live inside of you too.

In writing, we get to make it easy, we get to win. We get to give the monster all the worst parts of ourselves, and we get to defeat them in all the gruesome and bloody ways we’ve fantasized about. In writing, we get to be the monsters we know we are, and we still get to call ourselves the hero too.

It sounds easy, but it isn’t. I’m used to non-fiction, which may seem messier but at least it’s easy to write. Fiction is more organized but the surprise is I don’t know how to function in a world that isn’t as as convuluted as the one I’ve grown up in, even when it’s a world I’ve created.

Learning to write villains is going to take time, but they don’t really mean much if my characters don’t make you feel bad for them now do they? Characters have to be relatable for that to happen I suppose. We have to see a little of ourselves in them.

I’ve always wanted my characters to be the same kinds of characters I have always related to, female, queer, and of color. I’d love for her to be empathetic, afraid, and lonely. I want her to feel like there is nowhere she fits in but I want her to have an incredible capacity for love. Now that I am trying to do it though, I am worried these kinds of characters cannot elicit sympathy from most people. I am also wondering if I care.

I worry I am going to write a book that is based too much on myself and all I have been through, but maybe that is what I need to do. It feels right, or does it feel easy? I don’t want to create a hero only I can feel sorry for and I don’t want to create a character I’m afraid to sic the monsters on.

It’s hard to figure out what parts of myself to put into the story and what parts of myself to leave out. It’s hard to figure out how much of this is for me and how much should be for other people. It’s hard to know if what you feel for your characters, monsters, and story is what other people will feel too. It’s damned hard to figure out how to make them feel the way you do.

I have no answers for you today, only questions, frustration, and doubt about what this book is supposed to be.

I have no way to find the answer, except to get back to writing it.

***

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Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads