Friday, May 25, 2007

Sooner or Later: Writers on Writing

Sooner--see The Danse Macabre by Steven King--or later--see Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose--a productive writer will want to produce a book that instructs readers how to write the way a writer does. This is something like the elegant irony of the motion picture Shakespeare in Love, which a fictional version of Shakespeare falls in love with a young woman who masquerades as a boy in order to become an actor. It was a fact that in Shakespeare's time, the roles of women and girls were played by boys. This historical reality becomes the dramatic device that causes Shakespeare to conceptualize Twelfth Night, in which the character Viola pretends to be a young man. 

 Thus in the reality of the time, you'd have a boy actor portraying a girl portraying a boy portraying a girl. A nice ride of identity and ego, an entertaining story. So, too, is the growing genre of the writer writing about writing, a temptation from which I am scarcely immune, considering the progress of my own venture into the field. I think the motive goes well beyond mere ego and into the emotional terrains of nostalgia and a desire to provide some sort of monument for what at times seems to have become muscle memory but which at other times seems to have been a long, laborious process.

At first blush, this seems an altruistic gesture, but thinking it through, I'm approaching the belief that it is anything but altruistic, not merely bordering on but invading the terrain of egotism. Yes, it is true, I wish I'd had a teacher like me when I was starting out. Instead, my first creative writing teacher was Herman Quick, a man who wore double-breasted suits and imparted a message that actually proved out for me: one learned the craft by doing the work. Vernon King, my first college-level instructor, had a wry sense of humor (college writing instructors, I came to realize, either had a wry sense of humor or none at all, and those who had none at all tended to throw things), published small editions of poetry about Western topics, and got me firmly anchored with F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories. J. E. Johnston took wryness to new levels, causing in me a sincere desire to project wryness as a badge of writerly disdain for the commonplace, to emerge as sarcastic and insufferable. 

John Jenkins Espey not only looked writerly in his academic regalia from Oxford, he published memoir with Alfred Knopf, and had a significant number of short pieces in The New Yorker. He had a definite wryness that ultimately helped me seem more overwhelmed than sarcastic; the depth of his learning and connections to writers I admired was then and remains today humbling. His book explaining and demythifying Ezra Pound's poetry almost changed my mind about graduate school and pursuit of the scholarly life.
Mr. Espey was the last of my formal teachers, leaving me to discover informal teachers in such remarkable places as The Garden of Allah, a Belgian Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, the West Valley Democratic Club, The Cock & Bull Pub (also on Sunset Boulevard), a Chinese Restaurant run by an actor named Benson Fong, and Sunday afternoon writers' baseball games played in various venues throughout west Los Angeles and Sherman Oaks. Only one individual from this multifarious group of informal teachers, Wells Root, wrote a book about writing, and its publisher, The University of California Press, impressed me almost as the content. The truths I'm trying to get at are stunning in their simplicity:

1. No matter what the writer tells you, the book can only take you, Moses-like, up to the Promised Land, but not into it. You have to get there on your own devices, your own wit, your own persistence. Friends help, it is true, but they can help only so much.
2. Until you know who you are, you are likely to be rejected or ignored because you sound like too many other people who are not rejected or ignored--although maybe they should be.
3. Even when you know who you are, you may well be ignored or rejected because who you are is too sarcastic or worse.

4. Your best chance is knowing who you are, thus writing the way you talk and talking the way you write. At least you will be authentic, even though this leaves more questions unanswered than it provides solutions.
Books on writing by writers who are probably between projects than have nothing to do with the process of writing can be valuable in helping you discover who you are. It is a freeing thing to say I am not Steven King or Francine Prose or Jane Smiley or Annie Lamott. I wish Annie Proulx and Daniel Woodrell would write books on writing so that I could have the freedom of not being them. Admiring each as much as I do, there is an incpient danger that I would be caught up in their slip-stream.

At my age, that is not a good thing.
In fact, at no age is that a good thing.

When writing books and magazines tell you it is hard work, you may be tempted to think they mean the act of creating stories is difficult but that is not the case because you have already learned from another writer who is too busy writing novels to write books on writing that you should only write things you enjoy. The hard part of the work is being yourself instead of Elmore Leonard or Joan Didion.
The hard part of the work is keeping yourself from the realization that you are having too much fun and that you ought to get serious.

It sounds as convoluted as what I can now call the Twelfth Night Syndrome, with you having so much palpable fun and not writing anything serious that your friends and associated begin to wonder.

So we close with these observations:

1. Don't write anything that isn't fun. Seen from the proper perspective, even a suicide note, written in the proper spirit, could provoke important second thoughts.

2. If you see it beginning to get serious, stop and ask yourself what it will take to get you back on the right path.

3. Reread Twelfth Night at least every eighteen months.


lettuce said...

oh, this made me laugh and think and smile (wryly)[:o)] - and admire you more than a little. I wish I could have been in your Wile E Coyote class.

i found you via wonderful pod and will visit again.

did you ever see Stage Beauty? that was also, i thought, a very nice ride of identity and ego and gender.

Anonymous said...

Okay, okay, I'll read Twelfth Night. Don't be such a nudge.

And by the way, in my opinion, not being Jane Smiley is a very, very good thing.

dot said...

Hello from Portland, Oregon!
I recently picked up a lovely old title called The Book of Culture, that belonged to a Herman Quick, of Santa Cruz, California. He signed his name quite distinctly, and the papers inside are school notes to and from the vice-principle of Fairfax High School. The charming signature makes him seem exactly like the sort of english teacher who would wear double-breasted suits. Do you think it could be the same person?