Sunday, October 31, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (VI)

So. Having rumbled for a while about useful general principles—get off your high horse, put in the work, sift earth for gold, keep your blade keen, go in fear of abstractions, MAKE THEM SEE—I’ve said about all I need to, and about all I can. I’m going to give a couple of final exhortations and then turn the mic over to somebody else...

Six: Last Words (My Own and Others)

On Critiques: If you write, you may at some point—perhaps informally, perhaps in a workshop or classroom setting—be called upon to read the work of others. This can be a difficult position for you, because you will quite naturally approach the text on two levels simultaneously—as a reader, and as a writer. When critiquing the work of others, you must do your level best to suppress the writer part of yourself, and be only a reader.

When you are reading someone else’s work, never, ever re-write it. Never. Even if your re-write would make the work better. Don’t do it. Because that’s not what you’ve been asked to do. It doesn’t help the author. The author doesn’t need you to tell hir what to do: s/he needs you to tell hir what s/he has just done.

It doesn’t help the text, either. The text already has an author—it doesn’t need you. What it has not had, up to this point, is a reader. That is your role: that, and nothing else.

And the author doesn’t really need to know how you would do something—s/he’s still trying to figuring out how s/he would do it. And that’s what really matters—because, in the end, s/he is the one who’s going to have to build the machine. Not you.

Lastly—really, truly, lastly—some reading for fun and education. It’s an eclectic mix: I tend to ignore the boundaries between poetry and prose, between “serious” writing and “genre” writing—like The Duke said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” These books range widely over a vast territory, but they each have something important and interesting to say about the craft of putting words together.

Construction and Mechanics

  • The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White
    Everybody—everybody who’s ever written a decent line of prose in English, anyway—swears by this one. Why? Because it really is the best and most concise grammar-and-usage guidebook around. No laughs, no tears, no Transitive Vampire-style hijinks—but man, does it deliver the goods.
  • How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card
    Don’t be deterred by the author’s (deserved) reputation as a God-bothering, homophobic paleocon—or the fly-by-night-writing-school title. In fact, ignore the title entirely: While there’s a heavy dollop of SF-specific hoo-hah here, what Card is talking about here is storytelling—and the frameworks he lays out for dealing with story (the Idea Net, the MICE Quotient, “Who hurts the most,” and so on) are applicable across genres. Nice sections on language and levels of diction, too, along with an excellent definition of the First Reader’s role.
  • Write Tight, William Brohaugh
    This one is invaluable. From the Rule of Thirds to the invisible adjectives and inseparable pairs and pointless comparisons that clutter our speech, Brohaugh lays out methods and tricks for reducing your word count without sacrificing (in fact enhancing) your message. Intended mainly for prose writers, but there’s a lot here from which poets can benefit—indeed, it is poets who benefit the most when every line is taut and fraught and dense with meaning.
  • To Make A Poem, Alberta Turner
    Lays out the basics with whimsy and patience. The style takes a little getting used to—a little dry in spots, a little ethereal in others—but Turner clearly loves her work here. I’m indebted to her for the term “felt idea,” which, even if a bit clunky, is still the best and most useful way I’ve found to express the notion.

Forms and Inspiration

  • The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell
    A blockbuster, in the literal sense. New and unfamiliar forms, individual and group exercises, and inspiration from poets from poets who teach. Part regimen, part toolkit, part playground, this book is full of brainstorming techniques and new ways of seeing around corners. Wonderful and indispensable.
  • Surrealist Games, compiled by Alistair Brotchie
    Taking the party-game aspect of the above and making it literal. Why do we create anyway? Because it’s fun! So roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with this collection of writing exercises and visual techniques, many of them collaborative and all couched in the form of play, to jumpstart your creativity—by cutting your conscious mind out of the equation.
The Creative Life

  • Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott
    For all its practical nuts-and-bolts information for writers—why first drafts are like NASA rockets, how the view changes when you’re looking through a one-inch window, what a plot treatment is and what it does—what really distinguishes Bird By Bird is a quality missing from most how-to books: Compassion. Anne Lamott acknowledges that failure of many kinds is the stuff of any life, even—perhaps especially—a writer’s. If you are to be merciless with your work—and you must be, if you are any kind of writer—you must be gentle with yourself: that’s the message of this kind and very funny book.
  • On Writing and Danse Macabre, both by Stephen King
    Y’know, I’ve never understood why otherwise clever people get so down on Stephen King. He has come by his massive success in the old-fashioned way—by showing up every day and putting in the work. And he is a man who thinks about the process of writing, and who can walk the reader through that process in an easy, conversational style. On Writing is equal parts memoir and style guide—straightforward and a times quite moving.

    Danse Macabre (1983), while ostensibly an overview of horror fiction an media to 1980, is a far less circumscribed work: It’s a charming ramble that incorporates autobiography, lit-crit, and pop culture appreciation, with constant digressions on talent, luck, compulsion, and What Scares Us.

    This is a man flat-out in love with the power of narrative, and well able to share that enthusiasm. If On Writing feels like a cross between a writing workshop and a motivational seminar, Danse Macabre is a long night with an exceptionally fascinating dinner guest—one of those evenings that starts with coffee in the afternoon and ends with one last cigar when all the house is dark and the hearth-fire has turned to embers.

  • Castle Of Days, by Gene Wolfe
    Three books in one, this. The first is a collection of exceptional short stories: the second, a collection of essays by Wolfe about the writing and editing of his sf epic The Book of the New Sun: the third is a miscellany—letters to other writers, forwards and introductions, personal essays, humor. From these fragments coheres a remarkable portrait of the writing life, from research through to publication and the role of writer as public figure and as part of a larger community. Even if you haven’t read The Book of the New Sun (and you really should), Wolfe’s wit, erudition, and love of books—of language—burn off of every page. You’ll find it shelved with the science fiction books, but it is entirely beyond genre.
  • The Artist's Way and its follow-up The Vein Of Gold, both by Julia Cameron
    Recommended with some trepidation. These two volumes, set up in workbook fashion—essentially, it’s self-help for blocked creative types—are wellsprings of solidarity and courage; but they’re also larded with off-putting New Age guff about “sound healing” and auras and such (this is particularly true of the Vein). There are a lot of valuable insights here about our attitudes towards art and artists, though, and the exercises—which are both practical and spiritual in nature, and are sometimes one while appearing to be the other—can help trigger a dramatic perceptual shift that will open up all sorts of possibilities. Just go into it with an open mind and a functional crap filter, and take from it what you can use while ignoring the rest.

    (The Artist’s Way has spawned a whole cottage industry of books and accessories, by the way—I guess even healing guru like Julia can’t resist the urge to squeeze more green from a marketable premise. Most of the bric-a-brac can safely be ignored: to be honest, the whole thing was going a bit thin even with the Vein, which is frankly seems padded out with lists, sheet music, and a few too many personal anecdotes. The Way, though, is well worth your time—with the above provisos.)

That’s about it from me. Good luck.

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