Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Four Horsepersons of the Writer's Appocalypse

The four horsemen of the biblical apocalypse are war, pestilence, famine, and death.  An apocalypse is a lifting of a veil (ignorance) or, no surprise here, a revelation.  Many, if not all these elements, are set into play when humans and their cultures (for culture, read organizations and wired-in mythic visions) fail to reach amicable resolutions to the ongoing requirement humans and their cultures have for peaceful resolutions of differences. 

Writers need apocalyptic visions, too.  The four horsepersons of the writers' apocalypse are, Failure, Despair, Rejection, and Hubris.  To be successful in the most profound ways possible, the writer must undergo conversations and relationships with all four of these horse persons, the better to lift the veils of derivation and complacency.

At one time in the writer's growth, choosing other writers from whom to learn is a valuable form of exercise, a way of using the muscles of the writer to develop the muscle memory that will allow for the kinds of performance that do not require thought.

You were drawn to writers whose voices seemed to you admirable to the point where you could hear them without being told who they were, which is to say without seeing their name on a title page.  Among these and in no particular order were Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mark Twain, Jack London, and George Orwell.

As you began to hear then listen to your own voice, yammering for attention, there were still other voices that captured you, causing you to think voice is close to being the major factor in story.  If you make the statement with enough precision, you get to the place where you can say voice is your number one priority in telling story.

Such a voice is Elmore Leonard, whom you got to meet and hang out with when you were working for Dell, who published the massmarket reprints of his novels.  

Another such voice fits so well within your own beliefs about sentence length.  For reasons beyond your immediate ability to articulate, you were loathe to read William Faulkner.  Then you read his longish short story, "Spotted Horses," after which everything changed.  To this day, when you are given an editorial note reflective of your fondness for long sentences, you think Faulkner did it, then you look at the notes, then you break a sentence into two, possibly even three shorter ones.  You do not have to remind yourself you are no Faulkner, but you do note with some pride, when breaking your sentences along interior dotted lines, that you kept the logic and the story clear.  While you don't have Faulkner's drive to remind the reader of the difficulty to escape from the past, you've learned from close reading of him how important a role the past plays in a story that takes place in a dramatic now.

Failure keeps you going, is your friend as a person as well as a person who writes.  The lifting of the veil of failure from both your out-of-writing life and your writing life.  So long as you work, you risk failure. If you did not risk failure for most of the life of the project, the project would be like one of those paper airplanes you made as a boy, lumpy, cranky, unable to fly as you wished.  Once you understand how failure was extending the hand of true friendship to you, your life away from the pen and notepad and computer screen changed, taking your life upward to a plateau where you, risk, and failure are like three cronies out in the parking lot, after the bar has stopped serving, trying to remember whose car we came in, thinking perhaps we'd better walk anyway, then after a bit, breaking into a sour, off-key singing.

One of you says, shh, we'll wake up people trying to sleep.  And you say, here's a way we can find out what time it is so we can tell if there's any chance of a bus still running.  You start singing again, projecting your voice.  Across the street, from a window, just opened, comes a furious voice.  "Hey, knock it off,  it's three in the goddamned morning."

"There,"  you tell your pals, Failure and Risk.  "It always works."

Another companion you need to give you the kinds of props you'd once hoped to have from admiring readers--despair.  You have to have the despair of getting any kind of handle on your craft before you can even hope to think about readers.  You have to have the experience of picking up a short story by Louise Erdrich or Lee K. Abbott and feel your eyes beginning to go moist with the sorrow of understanding how far you still have to go in this craft before you can have the humanity and tension built into it that the likes of these two have.  There is comfort in knowing it does not come easy for them, either.  This is the knowledge that sends you to the printer, making a copy of your latest draft, thinking somehow that having it before you in hard copy will help you find the things you should have put in and didn't, the things you should have left out, but, alas, did not.

A plain rejection slip, such as the ones you used to get from Raymond Smith at The Ontario Review, are the ones you like best because they are scarce recognition that you've put some words down on the page.  You read that damned journal.  You read those stories.  You go as deep or deeper than those, and yet not even a penciled note, a "Nice" or a "Sorry." implying close but no cigar.  You recall coming out of a writer's conference and nearly walking into the car he was driving, which contained seated next to him, his wife, Joyce Carol Oates.  You'd gone to hear her speak, and now, less than an hour later, she's in a car, being driven somewhere by her husband, while she is typing away on a laptop computer.

When word of his fatal heart attack came, you said Fuck you, Raymond Smith because you died before I could write the short story you would at least have read all the way through, before returning it with a penciled note, You might try us again.

Thus rejection.  Every one of the stories he rejected found a home somewhere, which is the point of bringing rejection into the family, making it one of your pals.

You have to invite Hubris along to the boys' night out.  Hubris is as hard wired into you as Failure.  Hubris informs you that you are now beyond failure.  Craft, Technique, and Insight have signed longterm contracts with you.

The moment you reached an age when persons began holding doors open for you, or motioning you to proceed before them, you began to ask questions.  Do you look as though you need help?  

The year progresses.  There are projects that need your eye.  This is the last month of the year.  You are a tad over four hundred miles from home.  Google says six hours, but what does Google know of your failure, your despair, the number of times you have been rejected, your potential for hubris.  

By now, Google knows a great many things about you, but none of those, or of the failures, despair, rejection, and hubris to come.

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