Writing

No Rest for the Writer

the-day-after-1895

weary reader rest
not for too long when you pick
your head up rejoice

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In celebration of National Poetry Month and in response to Time For Poetry, a haiku by this tired writer and reader who is trying to muster up some stamina for two book reviews that are due to editors soon (books I still haven’t finished reading) and trying to look at my own manuscript with its final 10,000-20,000 words being narrowed in on. I can’t help but feel like this perfect Edvard Munch painting.

Distractions : Which Beat Generation Writer Are You?

I usually loathe all things Buzzfeed, but I was totally suckered into their Which Beat Generation Writer Are You? quiz. Perfect for a Friday distraction. Which writer did you get? My result is: Charles Bukowski.

beat writer

Unfinished Masterpieces

I recently watched the 2012 BBC documentary program, Unfinished Masterpieces with Alastair Sooke.* The host begins with the eternally frustrating predicament of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the Charles Dickens novel that was never finished, because Dickens famously died during the writing of it, leaving very few clues to the intended outcome of the narrative. Biographers, historians, and artists have endlessly tried to anticipate Dickens’ wishes by both speculating about the novel’s unfinished portion and even going so far as to invent possible endings in different mediums like theatre, radio, and film, as well as boldly attempting to finish the task of writing the novel.

Alastair Sooke also looked at other unfinished works and pondered the reasons behind the unfinishedness of these respective works. Like Dickens, Jane Austen also has an unfinished novel, Sanditon, which was left incomplete because of her death. A dozen “continuations” have been penned, all trying to capture Austen’s specific voice and her intended path for the remainder of the book. When Sooke separately asked a handful of complete strangers which they would rather have, all chose to stick with Austen’s original unfinished work.

The program also took a look at works that might have been purposefully suppressed by their creators. For example, the famous portrait of US President George Washington, which is the basis for the image on the $1 bill, was left unfinished by the portraitist Gilbert Stuart. What started off as a difficult portrait, the fact that it was unfinished was a financial benefit to Stuart, who sold replicas for $100 a pop. The notoriety of its incomplete presentation might have been more lucrative for him than otherwise.  This, of course, is reminiscent to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s explanation for his unfinished poem, “Kubla Khan.” He purports of wild inspiration from an opium haze and begins writing the famous poem when he is suddenly interrupted; when he returns to the poem, all inspiration is gone and “Kubla Khan” remains unfinished. Perhaps, the story behind it is more exciting than having an actual completed work.

There are other works that Sooke investigates including newly discovered poems from English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was known for his WWI poems that captured the horrors of the war, but whose unpublished poems have a tinge of romanticizing. This conundrum of including them in Sassoon’s canon is questioned. Perhaps, the poet didn’t feel these were up to snuff and didn’t intend them to see the light of day, beside being out of step with his known views. This idea was reminiscent of other writers (who were not featured in the doc) like Franz Kafka, who famously asked that all of his documents be burned and left The Castle incomplete with the final written line ending mid-sentence and David Foster Wallace, who upon his death left an incomplete manuscript and notes on his computer. This was all gathered together by his widow, agent, and other literary folk to become The Pale King.

The question of whether we should finish something or bring to the masses an unknown work once the creator dies is debated and Sooke presents authorities with equally good arguments. Would The Garden of Eden really be a novel Ernest Hemingway would have written himself or could it only be imagined by editors after his death? Kafka wrote that he had an idea for the ending of The Castle, but who knows if it would have still been the same by the time he got there. He leaves the novel mid-sentence and incomplete, almost a perfect final note to a book so concerned with bureaucracy and never-ending frustrations. Sassoon’s poetry could have been just for himself, an attempt at a new form that didn’t quite fit with his other poems or maybe, they were simply something he was not proud of. Thus, choosing to let them go unpublished.

A whole other dilemma–the one of continuing a series–I shall leave to the documentary, but I’ll give you this small bit. Think of the long-dead novelists, Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose characters–James Bond and Sherlock Holmes–are still appearing in new releases, albeit, by different authors. What an entirely different conundrum. For some reason, we are ill-at-ease when it comes to the unfinished. We like wholes, a feeling of sturdy completeness. Although, I do not count myself among them, this might be why so many people had a hard time connecting to Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. People generally dislike ambiguity and residing in the liminal.

Have you seen this documentary? Are there other famous incomplete works out there? It seems like a strange debate that I find myself on both sides of. I’m curious if anyone has additional thoughts.

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*The 50 minute program can be watched in its entirety on the BBC’s website here; I don’t know how long it will be available, so step on it.

Liebster Award

It’s been a little while since I’ve seen these awards poke their heads out in the blogosphere, but twice in one week, I’ve been nominated by two lovely ladies at Turning Pages and Tea and Bookwormchatterbox. The Emmas both curate excellent blogs and I highly advise you to take a peek over there (because finding new sites is really what the Liebster is about). So without further ado…

The Rules:

  1. Thank the blogger that nominated you and link back to their blog.
  2. Display the award somewhere on your blog.
  3. List 11 facts about yourself.
  4. Answer 11 questions chosen by the blogger that nominated you.
  5. Come up with 11 new questions to ask your nominees.
  6. Nominate 5-11 blogs that you think deserve the award and who have less fewer than 1,000 followers. (You may nominate blogs that have already received the award, but you cannot renominate the blog that nominated you.)
  7. Go to their blog and inform them that they’ve been nominated.

Eleven Facts About Me

  1. I really disliked the film Million Dollar Baby and still don’t understand why it received so much hoopla.
  2. I used to play the saxophone; one of the first songs I learned was “Tequila.”
  3. After reading Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, I briefly thought I knew how to play baccarat.
  4. I own two copies of Gravity’s Rainbow, have cited it in papers before, but I have never read past the first page.
  5. Bill Murray was once standing outside of my work building on a disused street with no one else around, but he wasn’t waiting for me.
  6. Much to the horror of others, I am double-jointed in my arm and can turn it all the way around.
  7. I still vividly remember kindergarten.
  8. I am an avid reader of Wikipedia pages about religious cults. To think of all of the time I’ve spent…
  9. My second apartment in New York City was above a fish market, but it mysteriously didn’t smell like fish.
  10. I make a mean sauerkraut au gratin. Don’t turn up your nose. It’s delicious.
  11. Because of an illness, I haven’t been able to have a cup of coffee or a pint in ages. It’s driving me mad!

Eleven Answers - because I received two nominations, I picked questions from both lists, with some overlap

  • What is your favourite book?

That’s always a tough one. I’ll cheat and give three: Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal, The Notebook by Agota Kristof, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. (Also, the Kafka oeuvre).

  • What made you become a book blogger?

I started writing this blog as a way to keep track of the books I was reading and to share my love of literature. I also had just returned from a trip to Prague and felt particularly inspired.

  • How do you arrange your bookshelf? (e.g. by colour, by author, etc)

I sort of have a feng shui thing going on. It’s more about the balance of the books and how they are placed together than by color, author, etc.

  • Do you ever listen to audiobooks?

I do. I usually listen to an audiobook when I’m traveling and have a while to go. I used to also listen to audiobooks every morning while I showered before having to go to my soul-sucking government office job.

  • Is there anything else that you would blog about, other than books?

Probably movies–old ones with Lon Chaney or Vincent Price on the posters (so probably old horror) or maybe kitschy sci-fi like Barbarella and Zardoz. Of course, art. I love photography.

  • What is the longest book you have ever read?

Probably 2666 by Roberto Bolano. It’s the only one I can think of right now. While reading it in a park, a man walked by asking if I was reading Twilight.

  • Which book do you recommend most to others?

I think it depends on the person, but for the purposes of this Q&A, I’ll say Speedboat by Renata Adler.

  • Do you think more people should read the classics?

Of course! I wish I had more time to read the classics, too.

  • Where do you read?

Up here, over there, but my favorite place is in my wing chair.

  • What is the worst book you have ever read?

Hm. That’s a tough one. I was one assigned a book to review called The Abominable Gayman. That was pretty terrible.

  • If you could take 5 books with you to a desert island, which ones would you choose?

Dracula by Bram Stoker, Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, Catch-22 by Joseph HellerBad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill, and probably a big book by Wilkie Collins.

Bloggie Blogs - nominees are in no particular order other than alphabetical

  1. Beguiling Hollywood – Vicky Lester’s smorgasbord of old Hollywood.
  2. Bibliophilopolis – Jay writes about a variety of bibliophilia, but his biggest project is “Deal Me In,” which focuses on short stories.
  3. Doublewhirler – I love their photos and stories that accompany the posts.
  4. Fourth Street Review – Rory always has a great review up or other literary goodies.
  5. Grotesque Ground – A new blog; she writes about finding the grotesque in films and literature.
  6. Multo (Ghost) – Nina’s blog has been a favorite of my mine since my beginning blogging days. Folklore, ghosts, and all tales of the amazing.

**This is a little of a cheat, but I have to give a shout to one of my faves: Helen at Schietree but she has over 1000 followers (oh, those pesky rules!).

I hope you have fun investigating the other blogs listed above. The list could have gone on, but I’m short on time now.

Questions for Bloggers

  1. When did you start your blog?
  2. What was the motivation behind it?
  3. Have you found anything surprising about blogging?
  4. Do you have a personal favorite post on your blog?
  5. Has the point of view for your blog changed since you started it (strayed into other directions)?
  6. Any favorite internet places for wonderful procrastination in the art vein or otherwise?
  7. What has been your favorite place to visit and why?
  8. If you could meet any historical figure, dead or alive, who would it be?
  9. Time for that completely unanswerable question: What’s your favorite book?
  10. I can’t leave out the Proust questionnaire: What is your most treasured possession?
  11. Jet ski or 100 bottles wine? Which is a better prize?

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do. Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

***

Is there a person among us who does not love Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? We all tumble down with Alice as she falls through the rabbit hole. With logic games and nonsense rhymes, frightening threats of beheadings, lost wanderings in dark places, Wonderland is just one of those books that is imprinted on us all, no matter how old we get or how turned around and upside down we feel during our rambles through Wonderland.

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

Devil Bats and Misogynist Professors

Well, more like one misogynist professor.

It started before my essay on The Devil Bat–the 1940 Bela Lugosi horror flick about a mad scientist who uses a dubious aftershave on his victims before they are mauled to death by his devil bats–but it was this piece of writing that has so cemented this unpleasant experience in my memory.

It was an introduction to creative non-fiction course, a class I had waited to take till one of my final semesters in college. I had never tried my hand at it before and I knew that anything I produced would be shaky at best. If even my own writing ended up being terrible, I was more interested in sitting in a room with my peers and a professor, talking about this avenue of writing that had not yet been a part of my undergrad studies. I wanted guidance, critique, and a list of recommended readings that were so wonderfully a part of my other writing classes at the university.

My friend Richard* and I were both in this class. Richard was a strange, chain-smoking loner who looked like a greasy Alex DeLarge minus the Russian slang and debauchery whose long meandering conversations I took pleasure in after class. He told me he had enjoyed previous classes with our chosen professor, but he said this with reserve. As the weeks went on and I had first-hand observations, I was able to pull out of Richard what he was actually holding back from me. But we’ll get to that soon.

Right from the beginning everything was all wrong. The course, which met once a week for about a three-hour block, was being dismissed around 60 minutes. I would soon learn, however, that this was a godsend for I don’t think I could have made it without first ripping out my eyes. Most other writing classes at my university were much more intimate; we usually moved desks to face each other or at least sat close together so we were in discussion mode. Not here. We were spread out, unable to see everyone and half the class became disembodied voices from across the room. The professor stood at the front for the first part and rambled on, usually about which movie he saw that weekend. The next half was dedicated to a few people chosen to read their essays aloud. A short comment by the professor was given at the end of each selected essay.

The above was a snoozefest, but that was not where my more drastic complaint comes from. Our papers, whether read aloud or not, were all submitted and then redistributed the following week with a handwritten grade scrawled atop the front page. I noticed that Richard always had a higher grade than me, but I attributed this to non-fiction being more up his alley. Yet, I started to see that the women of the class always had a lower grade than the men (grades were denoted by both letter system and numerals: A-/92).  I would have completely dismissed this until it came to The Devil Bat.

I was randomly selected to read this essay aloud, which was a weird retelling of the time I was watching The Devil Bat with an ex-boyfriend when a strange phone call interrupted our viewing. I can still remember that this was the only day that I sat in a different desk away from Richard. I handed in my paper and the following week, I received my paper–no grade, just a note that said to see the professor after class. When I spoke to him, he said he wanted me to rewrite the paper, that it wasn’t up to snuff, and that maybe I should confer with my classmate, Richard, who could tell me how to make the essay better. In short, I was annoyed with this response. After class, I told Richard what had happened.

He told me that he met with our professor during office hours and had in the past when he took other classes with him. I didn’t understand Richard’s fascination with our professor and I still don’t. This is when Richard divulged some of what our professor had said to him. Before I continue, it is wise to point out that this is second-hand, no longer my perceptions and immediate experiences, but I still have no reason to doubt him. Our professor, according to Richard, confided that he wanted to be a novelist, but failed at it. He became a literary critic and penned books on twentieth century American [male] writers (his experience with literary criticism had been a reason I chose to take his class in the first place). We all fail–I still do on a daily basis–but this wasn’t what struck me. It was what Richard then said: our professor told him that he didn’t think woman could be writers.

I went home, chopped out one paragraph from the essay, and handed it back in the next week. It was a test of my own concoction to see if anything I handed in really mattered in the eyes’ of this one professor. A grade was finally inked on it and this episode has been one I’ve told very rarely over the years. I had even forgotten the professor’s name (with a little Googling and the university’s website) I was able to determine that he had retired at some point and you know what, we’re all better off.

It was such a strange experience for me. My professors and peers, both men and women, had never shown a gender prejudice in our classrooms. It felt like we were all in it together and our faculty’s most prominent professors were women. One of them even went on to help launch Women in Literary Arts, which later became the organization we all know as VIDA and another was the first professor who really made me feel that I was no longer a student and had some sort of potential (I am always delighted when I see her vast accomplishments written about).

I complained only to Richard about our professor and at the time, I don’t think I even thought to complain about it to anyone else, especially in any official capacity. By writing this, I don’t think I’m overreacting. In fact, I think I’ve totally under-reacted. My 21-year-old self let this roll off her back completely and instead, tapped into some schadenfreude over this man’s self-perceived failure in life.

I consider this a minor blip in the overall gender bias women face, both in publishing and the other facets of our lives, but I can’t help but wonder what would have been if I hadn’t had such an atrocious guide with my first (and last) experience at creative non-fiction in school. Perhaps, something marvelous would have happened, but most likely not (but a gal can dream, can’t she?).

I wonder why Richard was drawn to him, even though he readily pointed out the man’s flaws. I searched for the professor’s name on Rate My Professor and saw that people were writing reviews who had his class two decades removed. He had somehow made an impression. The handful of write-ups were so polarized: some absolutely loved him and found him inspiring, while others, like me, found him to be a dud.

The Devil Bat is lost to time. I have no copies of it or the other essays from the class (the rest of whose topics I don’t remember). I’m sure it was wobbly and tangled, but that’s the stuff that first drafts are made of, right? I have never excelled at non-fiction writing as this uneven post can show. As a writer, my attempts at non-fiction are awkward and I usually think my writing weaker. I’ve always been comfortable in fiction, where I’ve found encouragement and support. Perhaps, the devil bat instead will find a home there.

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*His name has, of course, been changed.

On Writing About Places and Spaces in Fiction

How characters relate to spaces and places in fiction is an incredibly intriguing topic for me. I find myself drawn to works that have characters who find deeper meaning from the spaces or places they inhabit with their actions manifested by some connection to the place or space. Some examples are K. and the impenetrable castle in Franz Kafka’s The Castle, the shy Eleanor Vance and the wickedly haunted house in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and let’s not forget the whimsical yet frightening world of Wonderland that Lewis Carroll’s Alice must endure. 

I often find great inspiration by looking at photos, both my own and others. They help me to remember places I have been or invoke imagination. Images are very relevant to me as a writer. I shall secretly divulge my desire of creating a literary journal that would feature short/flash fiction or vignettes inspired by photos that in someway document “place and/or space.” Writers would cook up what ever they wanted based on the image. I once was involved in an anthology where writers were given carte blanche to write a piece inspired by anything at a private museum’s collection. Also, after recently translating the script of a short film for whose actual film I wasn’t able to view till after I translated it, I relied on photos and other artwork I found on the internet. Half of the script was mostly concerned with the surroundings of the narrator, whether it be in the wild or back in civilization.

So, in lieu of my imaginary literary journal, I present a photo that I can’t stop looking at and the original flash fiction it inspired.

Some would have thought it was the end of the day by how tired Martin looked. His eyes were set back and sunken in folds of skin that were cracked from the cold air that blew in from the large roll-up door that was left open during the day. When he had started working at the factory, his skin was tight and unblemished. The factory walls still looked the same, though, ever since his first day there. They were painted an industrial white that conjured feelings of both cleanliness and insanity. Once while waiting for his paycheck, Martin sat on a folding chair that was placed off to the side. He turned and looked at the walls and saw for the first time the cracks that ran up to the ceiling, the smudges of dirt that had been left by other men waiting for the same thing. Martin put his thumb to the wall and swiped it across. He had left nothing behind. Martin turned his face toward the wall and smelled. Again, nothing.

The walls didn’t smell of the factory. How could this be? He smelled it on himself, on his clothes, and on the other men who walked up and down the main floor watching as machines crunched and whirled. Martin washed his clothes, scrubbing them across a board, listening to the repetitive metallic rhythm of each stroke. The sounds reminded him of the factory’s noises and how they were never supposed to change. If there ever was a change, this meant trouble.

At the beginning of the day, Martin was already tired. The day before, he had heard a different noise on the line. Everyone came to a halt and ran to one side of the main floor. Martin stood there without moving. He looked up to the fluorescent lights that were hanging high above and squinted. Finally, he moved to the far wall away from everyone else and leaned against it. Martin didn’t look toward the wall. Instead, he rested his shoulders back and kicked up one foot to hold his balance. He didn’t think of the dirt at the bottom of his boot that, no doubt, smeared across the imperfect white.

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week: The End of Mr. Y

You now have one choice. You…I’m hanging out of the window of my office, sneaking a cigarette and trying to read Margins in the dull winter light, when there’s a noise I haven’t heard before. All right, the noise–crash, bang, etc.–I probably have heard it before , but it’s coming from underneath me, which isn’t right.

***

I read The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas while on a train in Germany at the end of the summer of 2012. I was totally gripped by the novel and I still wish that I could have given it a better quality review. What I have up is short but to the point. Because my internet situation was wonky and my free time minimal, I only blurted out my love for it in a few brief paragraphs. Scarlett Thomas has written other books as well and I hope to get to them sometime in the near future.

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

Storytelling: True Detective and The King in Yellow

If you are not already watching my new television obsession True Detective, what are you doing here? Go watch and then we’ll talk. True Detective is an anthology series written by the novelist Nic Pizzolatto.¹ It is an eerie and unsettling look at two detectives who are tracking a potential serial killer in 1995 and are recounting the events separately during a mysterious police inquiry in 2012.

True Detective. Episode 5. Photo from HBO.

Detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) looks a little fleshier with a little less hair in the more recent year, but an even more interesting draw is Det. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), who went from a brooding, introvert who takes a sketch pad to crime scenes so he can visually document what he sees to a gaunt, long-haired alcoholic in the “manic street preacher” genre.² There are elements of the uncanny that give me an uneasy feeling when watching. The show was shot in southern Louisiana, portraying that haunted beauty that only the American South can capture (they’ve won my hearts over with Spanish moss and the 24-hour chirping of hidden insects).

But less about television and more about books. Like previously mentioned the show was created and written by a novelist. Nic Pizzolatto recently revealed that he includes inspiration from the 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. The King in Yellow itself is full of the eerie and unsettling. The stories are painted with broad strokes of the macabre, which horror fans are sure to appreciate. Because of all of the hoopla on the internet about the book and episode five’s Sunday airing (Amazon reports that the 119 year old book’s sales shot up 71% over night), I figured I would write a little about it and my favorite story from the collection.

The stories’ locations oscillate between New York City and Paris, with some of the stories mentioning an unholy play called The King in Yellow that will drive a reader insane. Snippets of the play are scattered throughout the collection and characters often make mention of it or the Yellow King, a character from the play.

artwork by ZlayerOne

Not only is “The Repairer of Reputations” my favorite, it is also the first, giving the collection a strong opening. The story takes place in the close-future from the book’s publication–1920–and is told from the POV of Hildred Castaigne. We learn that Hildred fell from his horse four years earlier and was sent to an insane asylum for treatment. From the start, the story leads us into a skewed version of 1920 New York City: there has been a “repeal of the laws prohibiting suicide…when the first Government Lethal Chamber was opened on Washington Square.”

As the story progresses, the reader gets the impression that Hildred is no longer the out-going youth he once was, but now has become obsessed with this dastardly censored text called The King in Yellow, which drives men insane, and often visits with one Mr. Wilde, who is a “repairer of reputations” (blackmail and scandal!). Hildred’s narration becomes more delusional as he becomes further engrossed with the play. He often thinks of the characters and their plights, attributing them to his own life,

I remembered Camilla’s agonized scream and the awful words echoing through the dim streets of Carcosa. They were the last lines in the first act, and I dared not think of what followed–dared not…

As Hildred’s first-person narration becomes more outlandish and his behavior can easily be categorized as most bizarre, his reliability is of course doubted. Once his unreliability comes into question, the reader will doubt the details Hildred earlier revealed. Like Hildred in “The Repairer of Reputations,” Dets. Cohle and Hart are not as they first appear and their reliability can certainly be questioned. How the viewer/reader sees events and details are extremely important to both Chambers and Pizzolatto.

Robert W. Chambers

The fictional play within the book and the loosely fitted connection it has throughout a chunk of the stories has inspired authors including HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, Raymond Chandler and many others. Also, it is clear that Chambers himself was inspired by great horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, even taking the latter’s name for Carcosa, a fictional city, and utilizing it heavily throughout The King in Yellow. Chambers’ two motifs, the Yellow King and the Yellow Sign, are clearly interpreted in True Detective (don’t worry–no spoilers from me) and Pizzolatto loves including images and lines from the fictional play within the book,

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

*The King in Yellow is available for free in the public domain through Zola BooksProject Gutenberg and Feedbooks.

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Further information…
  1. And with music coordinated by T Bone Burnett!
  2. Love New York magazine’s approval matrix noting that True Detective should win the Best Toupee Emmy.
  3. Try doing a Google image search for the book; lots of fan art that looks like it should be on a Led Zeppelin album cover.