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I stumbled upon several videos this morning related to John Updike, and that set me off thinking again about one of my favorite authors.

I always admired his three pages per day writer’s requirement. He really worked at his writing.  It paid off. He had a 50+ year career and has 67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography that includes 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. Many of my favorite pieces of his fiction are found among his 186 short stories.

I wasn’t reading Updike in 1960. That was the year he was 28 (I was 7) and published his second novel, Rabbit, Run.  The New York Times called the book a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion.” I would read it during the summer 0f 1968 after I had read a book of his stories, Pigeon Feathers, and then his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.

The stories especially appealed to me, since I saw myself as a budding short story writer and was reading Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other story writers too. I would go on to read almost all the stories and novels in chronological order of their publication. I wanted to write little, perfect stories like “A&P” about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. That little plot unfolds quickly and tragically and, like many Salinger protagonists, I identified strongly with that kid.

My freshman year of college as an English major, I was assigned to read his newest novel, Rabbit Redux.  a sequel to the first Rabbit book.

My wife shared many of my readings in our years together. I gave her my copy of the sexy Couples when we were dating, and we both read Marry Me when it came out and we were a few years from being married ourselves.  Updike chronicles many marriages and many uncouplings, some based on his own life story.

Updike received two Pulitzer Prizes for two of the four Rabbit novels. There is also “Rabbit Remembered” a long story (or novella) that came later. Those tales chronicle Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ex- high-school basketball star who first deserts his wife and son and then explores sexuality, marriage, parenting and also the time he is passing through in America.

This first video I found is a casual interview with Updike at the time of the fourth Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, which ends Harry’s life. It is a sad book about grandpa Harry with his Florida condo, still dealing with his son, Nelson and his wife, Janice, and the 1989 that is post-Reagan time of debt, AIDS, and President Bush 41. It won him another Pulitzer Prize.

What interested me in this video was his own thoughts about death.

This second video is John’s son, David Updike, interviewed about being the child of a writer. David is also a writer I have enjoyed reading. I have his children’s books and his books of stories and they are very good.  It certainly must have been more negative than positive to be the son of John Updike and wanting to be a writer.

I like in this video David’s decision that he would give up writing a piece of fiction if it meant hurting someone he cared about. I don’t think his father held that belief.

John Updike received much praise in his lifetime for his writing. He also was pretty strongly disliked by some of his fellow writers and by feminists. He was, like too many famous men I admire, not a very good husband or father.

But I think even those who are not fans concede that is prose is beautiful, often poetic.

I came to John Updike’s poetry much later than the books and stories. I love reading poetry, and I like some of his poems, but I feel like his prose had more poetry in it than many of the poems. I have used a few of his poems on my poetry blog

He died of lung cancer in January 2009.

I took this passage from Updike’s wonderful story “Pigeon Feathers” and broke the sentences into more “poetic” line breaks using his punctuation most of the time. It is a small poem on what it means to be dead as seen by teenaged David as he walks at night across his farm home to the outhouse and imagines a grave.

A long hole in the ground,
no wider than your body,
down which you are drawn
while the white faces above recede.

You try to reach them but your arms are pinned.
Shovels pour dirt into your face.
There you will be forever,
in an upright position,
blind and silent,
and in time no one will remember you,
and you will never be called by any angel.

As strata of rock shift,
your fingers elongate,
and your teeth are distended sideways
in a great underground grimace
indistinguishable from a strip of chalk.

Starting in the late sixties and early seventies, American poet James Merrill became interested in the occult and began using a Ouija board regularly to communicate with spirits. He began to use those conversations for his poems.

The Ouija board was originally known as a spirit board or talking board.  “Ouija” is a trademark of Hasbro, Inc. who bought the rights and produced it as a game board using the French oui and German ja to make the foreign-sounding yes+yes board name. How about a $260 glow-in-the dark version?

This flat board is marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9, the words “yes”, “no”, “goodbye” and sometimes includes  “hello” and other symbols and graphics. The user places their fingers lightly on a heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic called a planchette. The movement of the planchette supposedly spells out words and the occult idea is that the movement is controlled by a spirit you have contacted.

The original talking board of 1894

The original talking board of 1894

Most people treat the Ouija as a party game. It was big with teenage girls in my youth as a way to find out about boyfriends and future events. Once upon a long time ago, I spent some serious hours using it with a girlfriend who was into all things strange. She read the books and had rules we followed. For example, never ask a question that you already know the answer to. We received some “messages” that were difficult to pass off as coincidences or as things we had deliberately pointed the planchette to spell out. There were things that we were later able to confirm as accurate. There was also a lot of gibberish.

American Spiritualist Pearl Curran popularized its use as a divining tool during World War I. He believed that the dead were able to contact the living and he used a talking board to enable faster communication with spirits.

When I taught middle school, the Ouija board always seemed to come up somehow in some a class discussion. I would tell students that some religions, like Christians, think that its use can lead to demonic possession. That warning probably just made it seem more appealing to my students, as did reading about it in Stephen King’s The Stand or watching The Exorcist.

Paranormal and supernatural beliefs like the Ouija are generally considered pseudoscience. The planchette moves because of unconscious (or quite conscious) movements by the users. I’m sure Merrill wasn’t interested, but if you want some science, look into the psychophysiological explanation under ideomotor effect.

With his partner David Jackson, Merrill spent more than 20 years transcribing supernatural communications during séances using a Ouija board. He published his first Ouija board narrative in a poem for each of the letters A through Z, calling it “The Book of Ephraim.”  It appeared in the collection Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1977.

“The Book of Ephraim,” a 90-page narrative poem in that volume. It comes from those 20+ years using the Ouija board and revelations spelled out by Ephraim. That spirit was a Greek Jew once in the court of Tiberius. Merrill mixed his own personal memories with Ephraim’s messages. In Mirabell: Books of Number, a sequel to “The Book of Ephraim” he continued that path at even greater length.

Is it great poetry? Not for me. I prefer other work by Merrill, but with a Pulitzer and with Mirabell getting the National Book Award for Poetry, don’t rely on my critical opinions.

Merrill is an interesting poet story.  He had a pretty sweet early life as the son of a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. He had a governess that taught him French and German. They lived on a 30-acre estate in Southampton. Yes, James rejected much of that and lived a fairly simple life.

When Merrill thought he had exhausted the Ouija inspiration, the  “spirits” “ordered” (his word) him to write and publish more. That’s spooky. This led to further installments and finally a complete three-volume book titled The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. It is a 560-page apocalyptic epic poem.

Three Early Stories by J.D. Salinger is a book that might, at first, seem like a scam.  Salinger is dead and didn’t publish for many years and was famous for his lack of interest in publishing new work and suing people who tried to publish any of his older, uncollected stories.

As readers of this blog know, I am a Salinger fan. I was a bigger fan when I was young and he was still writing, and before I learned about what an odd human he was in real life.

Salinger published 21 stories in the early part of his career that he refused to republish. Fans would seek them out in sources of old magazines in bookstores, online and in libraries. Back in the late 1970s, I sought them out in the Rutgers Library and found many of them torn or razored out of the bound volumes.

This legit collection, Three Early Stories, published by Devault-Graves Digital Editions, found some way to get the rights to three of those early stories. Two stories were Salinger’s first two published works, “Young Folks” and “Go See Eddie.” The third story is “Once A Week Won’t Kill You,”published in 1944.

I can understand any author not wanting early work brought forward, especially if you think you were not at the top of your game when you wrote them. For me, Salinger’s best writing is from the first half of his writing life. Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories are great. Franny and Zooey is very good. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction is a collection that didn’t work for me. By then, Salinger was deep into chronicling the Glass family that live in many of his stories and their appeal to me decreased with every story.

Salinger had Holden say in Catcher that “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” I wanted to call Salinger after I read Catcher at age 13. I tried to catch Salinger at his home in New Hampshire when I was in college.

During my freshman year of college, Joyce Maynard published a piece in The New York Times about her freshman year at Yale which I read with great interest and clipped and saved. It dazzled me in 1972 that she had gotten a New York Times Magazine cover story published and gave me hope as a writer. The next year, she published Looking Back, a book-length follow-up that was full of things I also recalled being nostalgic about at the ripe old age of 19 – air-raid drills during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show etc.  I still have my paperback copy of that book in a box of college stuff.

Salinger read that Times story too and liked it. He wrote that eighteen year old girl and he, then age fifty-three, sent her a letter that began a relationship. She left Yale to live with Salinger, and he dismissed her about a year later. She wrote about that in her memoir,  At Home in the World, a book that pissed off some Salinger fans and caused others, like myself, to not want to call him any more.

Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, also published a memoir, Dream Catcher, about life with her famously reclusive father that I’m sure he hated even if it said some nice things about him.

But I still reread the three “new” stories. It’s the first collection of the author’s work in fifty years. I wish there were a few of the early Holden Caulfield family stories. I read almost all of the uncollected stories by finding them (and photocopying them) and these three are decent examples of the early work.

“The Young Ones” is the first story he published. It is about a college party and a young woman trying to interest a disinterested man. Not very original premise, but good dialogue and details.

“Go See Eddie” is odder with a brother trying to get his sister to go see Eddie for a job and being pretty damned threatening about it. Hints of a troubled family here.

The third story is “Once a Week Won’t Kill You” which gets into a WWII triangle with a draftee, his wife and aging aunt.

The book has some nice illustrations that don’t come from the original magazines but that look like they come from the period.

I would love a complete stories collection or all the uncollected stories collection instead of my photocopies. There are a few stories I couldn’t find. But I think in Nine Stories, Salinger selected the best of the stories he published in magazines. (The New Yorker got most of the best ones.)

His last published work, a novella entitled “Hapworth 16, 1924”, appeared in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965. I found a copy of that issue and eagerly dove into the story. It is my least favorite Salinger piece.

Osiris Press was supposed to publish “Hapworth” as a book with the author’s permission, but someone foolishly leaked word of its upcoming publication and paranoid Salinger withdrew rights. That is probably why this new and thin edition had no advance promotion and just appeared. Salinger died in 2010 and although I heard he stipulated that nothing new be published for 50 years after his death, I hope the estate is more liberal. I would love to know if he was actually writing all those years he was hiding out. I suspect he was not. If he was writing, my guess is that it was more similar to the second half of his oeuvre which I would actually rather not read. The Salinger in my head from a long time ago is the one I wanted to call up on the phone.

It’s impossible for me to blog with a pen and paper, but I still make notes for many posts in a small blank book that I keep with ideas. How often do you write things out by hand these days? Even if you are a technophobe, you probably do it less than in your earlier life. I have come across four studies that offer some good reasons to continue writing things without a keyboard. Maybe you should even try shifting some keyboarding activity back to paper.

One study found that writing by hand activates the brain. The study looked at children who couldn’t yet read and found that when they were writing letters by hand a circuit of neurons in the brain associated with reading were activated. When they had the kids trace or type those same letters, these neurons did not fire up. These are brain regions associated with literacy and it makes sense that in those of us who are older would also be firing up those neurons differently when we type and when we write on paper. 

Older folks often complain about younger people being terrible at spelling since it is taught with the same intensity as it was in their school years. Another study showed that writing by hand improves spelling – or perhaps using the keyboard makes spelling worse.

I pay a lot of attention to studies on memory as I get older. A 2014 study showed memory improvement with writing by hand. Using university students in a study where some took handwritten notes and other used laptops, the researchers found that writing longhand better helps you learn new information. The pen and paper group processed more of what was being said during a lecture. One reason might be that you need to condense information to keep up using this slower method and that requires thinking about the content rather than simply transcribing what you hear. Later testing showed that the handwriters recalled information from the lectures better than the laptop group.

As a former teacher of middle school students, I was interested in a study that looked at students in elementary and middle grades writing in both ways. I what might seem counter-intuitive, writing by hand seems to make you think faster. Students writing by hand were found to write more, and more quickly, than those who typed on a keyboard when they were writing essays. 

Get out that pen and paper, and set aside the keyboard sometimes.

toon

Thurber cartoon

Back to cleaning my bookshelves today and in the “T” section I found my old and well-worn paperback copies of books by cartoonist and author James Thurber.  I had to flip through them and start reading. I can’t give them away. Here’s my little valentine to Thurber.

I started reading him around the age of 12 after picking up a library anthology of humor and finding most of the content “not funny.” It took me a few years to understand that humor writing is not standup comedy and that Shakespeare’s comedies would not always be funny or even very happy. But Thurber made me laugh as I read, and that was a time in my life when I needed laughs.

Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio  in 1894. When he was six years old he was playing William Tell in the backyard, and one of his brothers shot an arrow into his eye. He was blinded in his left eye, and the doctor at hand didn’t know enough to suggest that the eye be removed, so his right eye swelled and was permanently damaged. Although his left eye was eventually removed, his right eye never fully recovered.

thurberHe went to Ohio State University, but left without a degree. He spent some time in Paris working for the U.S. Embassy. He tried unsuccessfully to write a novel. He moved back to New York in 1926 and got a job for the New York Evening Post. At a party, he met a young writer for The New Yorker named E.B. White.

White introduced Thurber to the magazine’s editor, Harold Ross, who hired Thurber immediately — not as a writer, but as an managing editor. He was competent, but not great at that, but he was able to get a few pieces of his (unpaid) into the magazine.

After a few months, Ross transferred Thurber to the “Talk of the Town” section, and he wrote hundreds of those columns.

The first book of his that I bought was My World and Welcome to It, a collection of stories, sketches, drawings and articles. That led me to buy a bigger collection, The Thurber Carnival. Both books had “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” which is probably Thurber’s best-known story.

It is very different from the newer film version with Ben Stiller and the older film starring Danny Kaye. That’s no surprise since the filmmakers took a short story and expanded it into a few hours. But at 12, I very much identified with that person who daydreamed about a better and more exciting life than the real one.

Nowadays, “Walter Mitty” and the “Mittyesque” are used to describe “an ineffectual person who spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world, or more seriously, one who intentionally attempts to mislead or convince others that he is something that he is not.”

That’s a pretty negative spin on Mitty. I prefer the interpretation used in the Stiller film (which really just takes Thurber’s premise as the idea for the film). Walter discovers that while his fantasies develop his imagination, they are also holding him back. “Don’t dream it, be it” becomes his mantra. (Hat tip to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)

Thurber and White collaborated on a first book of prose for both of them, Is Sex Necessary?, a  goof on sex manuals and how-to books which I imagine was pretty bold for 1929. Still funny. (I always heard echoes of Thurber in early Woody Allen writing.)

Thurber’s drawings of couples, dogs and other animals in outrageous situations became cartoons and a regular feature in The New Yorker.  He left the staff in 1936, but continued to freelance for them.

I also identified with his distractions as a writer. Starting a story, turning to a drawing, starting something else. In the early days, his wife, exasperated with his lousy writing habits, would set an alarm clock for 45 minutes and put it next to him. Produce!

That’s supposedly how he came up with his first New Yorker piece titled “An American Romance.” It is classic Thurber absurdity and still I could see it appearing on the nightly news today. A bumbling man gets caught in a revolving door and ridiculously becomes rich and famous by accidentally setting a world’s record.

I think Thurber’s stories easily move into our times. In his story “The Greatest Man in the World,”  we meet Pal Smurch, a lout who ends up being seen somehow as heroic or at least seen as a celebrity. It is a satire of the American propensity for hero worship. Like Mitty, Smurch is sometimes used as shorthand term for a hero, politician, or celebrity who, in person, is a jerk, but despite people knowing what he’s really like, everyone is reluctant to say anything about it. I’m sure you can think of contemporary examples.

It wasn’t until I had read a few collections of his stories that I discovered that Thurber had only died in 1961. Like so many writers I admired, he battled booze and had a tough time at the end, losing his vision and unable to draw, and became quite bitter. He bemoaned how The New Yorker had gone downhill after editor Ross’s death. He told a friend,  “I can’t hide any more behind the mask of comedy that I’ve used all my life. People are not funny; they are vicious and horrible — and so is life.”

Key West

Hemingway talking with Samuelson while fishing in Key West.

I was reading Maria Popova’s piece on Ernest Hemingway’s advice to a younger aspiring writer, Arnold Samuelson. It’s an interesting story. This 22-year-old kid jumps a freight train from Minnesota to Key West in 1932, like those tramps of the Great Depression, and heads to Key West to meet Hemingway and ask for advice. Hemingway was no Salingeresque hermit, but I wouldn’t have expected that the author would A) answer the door B) talk to this kid C) let him stay for almost a year.

Samuelson became the closest thing that Hemingway ever had to a protégé.


The book Samuelson wrote about that year, With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba, must be out of print and a rare find because it’s listed on Amazon at more than $1000!  (I suggest you check your local libraries – which you can also do online.)

Maria’s article gives you a summary of some of the advice.

One thing Ernest gave Arnold is a reading list. This post is really about writer’s block, but one of my cures for that block is to read other writers. I’m happy to see that I have read most of Papa’s list, though some were not my favorites. (My reordered list with my personal favorites linked is below.)

First up is Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” and “The Open Boat,” but just get one of the Crane collections and also read “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and the novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, about life in the slums of New York City.

Three of his picks were books I read before college and enjoyed.
Dubliners by James Joyce (15 stories)
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham ( I even liked the generally-not-well-reviewed film version with Bill Murray – especially the middle Tibetan and Paris sections)
The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings (not poetry – this is his autobiographical novel about his temporary imprisonment in France during World War I. Cummings, like Hemingway, served as an ambulance driver during WWI.)

These I read as part of college courses. Some I enjoyed; some not so much.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (I prefer The Magic Mountain)
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (I prefer Crime and Punishment)
The Oxford Book of English Verse
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The American by Henry James (but I preferred the shorter, creepier The Turn of the Screw. I always felt that James – like Stephen King – needed a harsher editor who could really cut.)

And I will confess that I haven’t read (or finished, in the case of Tolstoy and Hudson) these four titles.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Red and the Black by Stendhal
Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson
Hail and Farewell by George Moore

Not on the list, but told to Samuelson, was what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though I like Twain, I may have read him too early. I liked Tom Sawyer
better than Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Prince and the Pauper better than either of the “big books.” An English teacher isn’t supposed to admit that, but those were the opinions of a 13-15 year old me and those feelings have survived even after having to reread Huck in college.

If reading a good book doesn’t unblock you, Hemingway also recommends the tried and true method of stopping, taking a break and doing something else. That often works for me.

Hemingway was pretty disciplined and never spent the whole day writing. He was a morning writer. Maybe that helped prevent the block.

“The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time…  Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.”

Part of that technique is the idea you often hear of sleeping on it.

The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.

A good number of author’s have offered advice on busting the block. Some of the unblocking ideas of Lewis Carroll are interesting and parallel Hemingway’s advice. For example, “… only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest…”

It’s also interesting to look at how visual artists deal with the block and how a composer deals with creative block.

Writing on my 8 blogs each week (at least one post per blog) leads to frequent blocks. My block-busting techniques for that are not so different from how I treat writer’s block when doing my poetry or an academic paper. Take a break. Do something else. Maybe read someone else’s writing in that genre or listen to music or take a walk or work in the garden. I also keep lots of drafts. For this blog, I currently have 14 drafts that range from just a title, to a reference to a book or essay, to a long draft that needs editing, research, external links and perhaps an illustration.

Do you have another technique to bust a creative blockage? I’d love to hear it in a comment here.

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