Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Do As I Say--Not As I Do, or Writers' Books on Writing

I first noticed the trend with the late and still lamented John Gardner, who wrote books on the subject of writing--On Moral Fiction, for instance (Basic Books, 1978) and The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (Knopf, 1984). Both these works were, and to some degree still are clutched to the emerging writers' breast as many of my generation clutched J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

If only, I came to realize, Gardner would have taken more of his own advice to heart. Had he done so, more of his novels would have had the gritty and far-reaching resonance of his one immensely successful novel, Grendel, and fewer would be burdened with the chatty fatuousness of, say,The Sunlight Dialogues, or October Light. By no means was Gardner at a lack for ideas or the passion with which to inform them; he was, however, a bit taken up with critical theory, and the splendid education he had given himself. Yes, I know; Gardner was a well-trained academic. Many of his students went forth to respectable and prolific careers in the academy and the world of publishing. But Gardner was also an autodidact and he was informed by the passions of his home schooling.

Subsequent years have brought forth many books on writing from novelists and short story writers, almost to the point where it has become de rigeur for the serious writer to write a book on writing. This observation was ratified early this morning when, scarcely had I set foot outside my car in the parking lot adjacent to Peets, avid for my morning coffee, I collided with a recognition, and events took their own lovely, accidental course.

Three weeks ago, I sat in my seminar at USC, listening to Jay(anglicized form of Jaidev) Antani reading from the current issue of Poets & Writers the opening paragraphs of an essay on writing by Walter Mosley. Jay was fulfilling an assignment in which he and other class members were asked to bring in an opening in fiction or nonfiction, written within the last fiver years, that either excited or seriously discouraged further reading.

Subsequent to Jay's reading, I not only found the entire text of the Mosley piece, I took him at his suggested word with regard to my own writing and indeed mentioned the Mosley essay in a recent blog segment.

Between then and now, I'd had email correspondence with Steve Beisner, editor and gatekeeper of Inkbyte, linked below, and Marcia Meier, Director of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, also linked below. Each had been at the Arizona Writers' Conference, splendidly overseen by Jewel Parker Rhodes (you've got to read her Douglass' Women), where Mosley was a principal speaker. Marcia had hopes of luring Mosley to Santa Barbara for the June 2007 conference. Steve had not only wangled a share ride with Mosley on the limo to the airport, he'd heard Mosley's presentation, noted its similarity to my blogged description of it, and then discovered that Mosley had used the Poets & Writers piece as lecture notes in Arizona. Here comes the ta da part: Mosley told Steve that the Poets & Writers piece was the first chapter of a new book. Ta da! A book on writing.

In recent times, Jane Smiley has done a book writers and readers would (and should) die for, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and Francene Prose, no slouch of a novelist herself, has recently published Reading Like a Writer. Do we have a trend here? Quill Driver Press, with whom I intend to publish my book on writing, The Fiction Writers' Tool Kit, just sent me a catalog, containing a listing for Barnaby Conrad's 101 Best Scenes Ever Written, which, by the way, I edited, and Writing Fiction That Sells, by William F. Nolan, whom I edited back in the raucous and rowdy days of Sherbourne Press in Los Angeles.

With these examples, I do believe I have established something of a pattern: writers not only love to tell stories, they love to tell stories about telling stories. If they knew any better, they'd be adding blogging to the list.

There has always been blogging in one form or another, the long letters of the two-delivery-a-day postal system in Victorian London being one example, diary and journal keeping yet another. Those who rendered their stark, memorable drawings on the sides of caves and the faces of large rocks were bloggers of their day; so were the men ( ), women ( ), men and women ( )--pick one who stitched the remarkable epic of the Norman invasion, The Bayeux Tapestry. So, indeed, were those who incised crude poems and epithets on walls during the time of Catullus. Even though it was once co-owned by my great friend, Jim Silverman and dispensed Steam Beer on tap, San Francisco's The Old Spaghetti Factory and Excelsior Coffee House was a major draw, not because of the gustatory ambiance but because of the graffiti so lavishly displayed on the walls of the stalls in the men's room. Ad hoc blogs from ad hoc bloggers.

So, for that matter, are the individuals who may even have wi-fi laptops at home or in their car, who nevertheless blog on the sides of buildings, walls, fences, railroad cars, elevated trains, and street signs.

So, too were the Kilroy was here signs of World War II blogs, and yes to the memorable Paso por aqui blog incised on a rock in the southwest, Spanish for "passed this way" or "came by this place," travelers reaching for a potential immortality and recognition, much the same way we carve hearts and initials on desks, fences and trees.

Don't even ask me about tattoos; of course they are.

No comments: