Writing

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

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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’ The Sense of an EndingPeople 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.
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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?”

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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.

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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.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned

The Weekly Photo Challenge this week is Abandoned. The creator shows a photo from Berlin that is excellent and writes: “I’ve always loved wandering inside and taking photographs of abandoned buildings. Ruins are fascinating: in these physical spaces, the past, present, and future are one, and time becomes fuzzy.”

I am currently working on a piece of writing that deals a lot with abandoned places, especially ones that are right in front of us, but somehow are forgotten or overlooked, hiding secrets and history. I once wrote a post titled, “Cities That Inspire Us For all Sorts of Reasons,” which included two photos relevant to this topic. Below are my photos of the block around the corner from where I stayed during my last bout in the former GDR city of Leipzig, Germany. I come back to these photos of the abandoned schoolhouse often and have even written a story about it.

Places, spaces, and how we relate to them in fiction and writing is a top fascination of mine. I thank you for indulging me and if you want to see some more excellent abandoned photos, look at the Doublewhirler photo-blog, where they have captured some haunting images of the graffitied bobsled run from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

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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.

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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.

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week, A Clockwork Orange

a clockwork orange

What’s it going to be then, eh? There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.

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There was a point in my life where I could recite the entire opening paragraph of Anthony Burgess’ stellar novel, A Clockwork Orange (1962). Although I might not be able to remember it verbatim in its entirety anymore, I still find myself repeating this line as a sort of a mantra when I try to focus with my own writing.

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

Bookishly Me

persōna f (genitive persōnae); first declension

  1. mask
  2. character
  3. person, personality

self-portrait of the writer on the streets of Prague.

When I originally began this little corner of mine, the idea was to keep myself anonymous to give myself a distance from my published work and this personal work, which still remains the case. Also, to have something separate from my peers and colleagues; only a few of my friends know about this site. The few images I’ve had here have always not included my face; for a while, some people assumed I was male because I gave no identification (Female, here). For now, that’s pretty much all you’ll get from me.

I sometimes wonder why certain blogs are super-successes and some live in quieter niches. Blogs with a specific personality win over hearts and rack up the followers. I don’t know where I fit in with that, but I was surprised to see Acid Free Pulp included on a Southern literary agents list of personality-driven review sites. This is what got me thinking about the whole thing…

I suppose I add myself into my musings and reviews here in a way that is different from my published work. In that way, I can see why I was added to the personality-driven section. However, my identity is missing and in its place, I rely solely on my words to showcase my personality and sense of humor, along with what fascinates and captivates me.

In comparison, the very popular book blogs that have clear author personalities with people’s names have tons of comments in the discussion section, where mine, for example, does not. Of course, I am generalizing here because I read a gaggle of well-written blogs with all sorts of owners, but I’ve noticed many of them offer a clear representation of who they are (“Jane X, Midwestern housewife who loves YA books and travelling…”). Could connecting with the blog author be easier for discussion? I sometimes wish that there was more discussion here, but it means LOADS to me when people leave comments thanking me for a great review and telling me to keep up the good work, or pointing them in the direction of something that is new to them. That’s the point of all of this, right?

Words are what I work with. They’re everywhere in my life. When I’m not writing, I’m usually reading. I read when I’m rinsing my mouthwash, swishing it through my teeth, while I stand at my bathroom sink. I’m envious of my friends who are fantastic playwrights, poets, memoirists, because these are disciplines I haven’t mastered. I’m more comfortable in fiction and criticism. I get audibly annoyed at Jeopardy contestants who avoid the literature categories. Most of my jobs have been in the arts in some way (with the exception of my bit time working as a rep for a holistic dog food company. Weird.).

I think this post comes from a few places. The first, of course, being the aforementioned list and my rumination on “personality.” The second comes from a book fatigue of sorts. I have a whole stack of this past year’s award winners and books that have been reviewed in the New York Times. I just feel that they must be read, if nothing more than to be a part of the larger discussion (which I still think is important). But, I’m a bit weary of it all. I want something astounding and not written by the same writers all of the time. I want books that can also be beautiful pieces of art (this usually comes from smaller presses).

My weariness also comes from the boom of young adult novels. My point is not to knock them (if you have a well-written piece about The Phantom Tollbooth, I’m all over that), but their current incarnations are lacking and are usually turned out factory style (think Andy Warhol for novels). An interview last year with an outgoing Munich editor said that we are reading more books than before, but we are consuming so many of low quality (take what you will from that paraphrase). The blog world is full of book bloggers talking about these books, where, in my opinion, other reviews are getting ignored. To remedy this, I did a book order this week. I am dreadfully poor, but still had a gift card lying around from a few months ago and scooped up some reads that might ease my ailing book lover heart.

Like this little writerly musing, I am grateful that you put up with my ramblings, complaints, and meanderings; I get a kick out of other bloggers’ reactions to the occasional Distraction; I love getting new insight and recs like on yesterday’s PKD post; even though I might be a masked book blogger, many thanks goes out for reading my reviews and recommendations. My main mission is to write about books that I find interesting and share them in the hopes that others will find something new that they normally might have missed. I also particularly like the interaction with other bloggers and reading their recommendations, etc.

What is the point of this post? I don’t know and I hesitate to press ‘publish’ after all of this, but I think I’ll do it anyway…

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  1. The definition above is taken from Wikipedia. Accessed 6 February 2014.
  2. Something personal on this rare occasion inspired by the self-portrait on this post: I love Prague. It is what inspired me to start writing this blog.
  3. For those who’ve stuck with me for this long, I present you with the music video for The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” because it has been stuck in my head all day.

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week, The Easter Parade

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

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The Easter Parade (1976) is an all-time favorite book of mine and this simple but complicated opening line sets up the entire book, which details the differing yet bleak lives of the Grimes sister. When I first read this book, I couldn’t put it down; I took it everywhere–the subway, waiting in tedious lines, to school.

**Inspired by New York magazine’s “Unexpected First Sentence of the Week.”