The Authentic Voice

biography, C.S. Lewis, Oxford, Oxford History of the English Language, Uncategorized
 One of the best biographies I have ever read is: C.S. Lewis, The Authentic Voice by William Griffin. It is unlike any other biography that I have come across, in that it is not a continuous narrative of Lewis’s life, but rather a collection of chronological vignettes that together give a much more rounded picture of the man than would a traditional style of biography. Some of these snippets last for several pages, but many of them are short two- or three-paragraph descriptions on encounters he had with people, speaking engagements, books he was reviewing, students he was tutoring, walking trips he made with his friends, conversations he had with various people, his loves and his hates. It is a highly entertaining volume in which each chapter is a year of Lewis’s life from his inauguration into a teaching position at Oxford, in 1925, to his death in 1963. Nevertheless because it is broken into fragments of his life, the book can be dipped into anywhere.
The copy I have is somewhat dilapidated, so I guess I must have read it half a dozen times.  An example of the style of the little sections in the chapters is an episode involving a tutorial with a student who walked in late, snickering to himself. When Lewis asked him what was so funny, the guy answered, “I’ve just been walking through a graveyard and I saw the headstone of an atheist that read ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go!’ Quick as a flash Lewis responded, “I’ll bet he wishes now that that were true…”

Great-grandfather’s Poetry

Uncategorized
 A while ago I was idly surfing through amazon.com when I decided to do a search on my great-grandfather’s name: John Wellwood. He was a poet, writer, biographer and Minister of the Church of Scotland who lived from 1853 to 1919. I have in my possession a biography he wrote, that of Norman MacLeod, which was published under the Famous Scot Series in 1897. Norman Macleod (1812–1872) apparently was a Scottish clergyman and author. (Incidentally, John Wellwood’s brother-in-law, Professor William Herkless, of Glasgow University, also wrote one of the books in the series, a biography of Richard Cameron – an equally obscure Famous Scot). I also knew that John Wellwood had written at least one book of poetry. I used to have a copy of that book, but it seems to have vanished during one of the many house-moves we have pulled off over a period of thirty years. So I was interested to know if he had written any other books.
Sure enough, what I came up with was a poetry book that John Wellwood had written along with his best friend, Robert Kemp, entitled The Praise and Blame of Love. A good chunk of it is romantic poetry of one kind or another. But, occasionally, there are daring little pieces that must have been somewhat controversial at the time. For example, here is a poem called “The Curate’s Resignation” which I can’t help quoting in full:

Trollope’s Daily Grind

Charles Dickens, Chronicles of Barsetshire, novelist, Uncategorized, Victorian
Anthony Trollope (24 April 1815 – 6 December 1882) was one of the most successful, prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era. In his day, he was as famous as Dickens. Among his best-loved works is a series of novels collectively known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire, which (unsurprisingly) revolves around the imaginary county of Barsetshire. He also wrote perceptive novels on political, social, and gender issues, and on other topical matters.
He says in his autobiography:
“It had at this time become my custom,—and is still my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient of myself—to write with my watch before me, and to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour… This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year…”

Plagiarism, parody and parrotry

Alex Haley, Dark Laughter, Elizabethan sonnet, Faulkner, Harold Courlander, Hemingway, Nigel Watts, Roots, Sherwood Anderson, Teach Yourself Writing A Novel, The Torrents of Spring, the Waste Land, TS Eliot, Uncategorized
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” T.S. Eliot.
One of the things that is intriguing about what is taught in creative writing programs is how similar the advice is for would be novelists. For example, the structure of the novel can be broken down in to the following eight elements, as defined by Nigel Watts in his book Teach Yourself Writing A Novel:
1.     Stasis
2.     The Trigger
3.     The Quest
4.     The Surprise
5.     The Critical choice
6.     The Climax
7.     The Reversal
8.     The Resolution
I wonder how many people, using that structure, write novels that are, to all intents and purposes, identical to someone else’s.

What a novel idea!

England, Italy, London, Milan, Minnesota, novel writing, organized crime, outline, Psych, St. Paul, synopsis, Uncategorized
So far I have written six novels, each of which is a standalone book. Three of them take place in the St. Paul, Minnesota and three of them are located in Europe (one in a fictitious prison camp somewhere in England, one in London and one mostly in Milan, Italy). In the past few years I haven’t written any novels at all, but instead concentrated on nonfiction and poetry. Nevertheless, I have, from time to time, tried to come up with plots that might lend themselves to a full-length novel. Here are just a few of the possible contenders:
1.     A guy who is having a midlife crisis decides to quit his job and head off on a road trip across the USA. The story also involves his relationship with his father, whom he had always admired, until… he discovers a dark secret about him that changes his whole perspective. His route takes him through small towns and large cities and he has encounters with various people, including a number of weirdoes, criminals and crackpots. At one point he is held hostage during a bank robbery. The back story unfolds, as he travels, through the use of flashbacks.
Here it is unclear whether the story has “legs.” Is there enough of a basic plot to last a whole book? Possibly not. There would need to be several subplots tied to the main plot in order to make it credible as a 70k+ word novel. Also, the idea of a guys simply doing a road trip seems kind of aimless. He would need to be searching for something specific.

Kafka’s Daily Grind

Assicurazioni Generali, consumption, Franz Kafka, Uncategorized, Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Bohemia, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was a writer of novels and short stories and is widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. His work, which combines elements of realism and fantasy typically features a lone protagonist faced with a bizarre or surrealistic predicament. His work explores the themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity.
Over the course of his life, Kafka wrote hundreds of letters to family and close friends, including his father, with whom he had a strained and formal relationship.

Michael Moorcock – 10 Rules for Writing

Bunyan, Byatt, Conrad, Enid Blyton, HL Brunswick, Lester Dent, Michael Moorcock, Uncategorized
Michael John Moorcock (born 18 December 1939) is an English writer, primarily of science fiction and fantasy, who has also published literary novels. He is best known for his novels about the character Elric of Melniboné, a seminal influence on the field of fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s.
As editor of the controversial British science fiction magazine New Worlds, from May 1964 until March 1971 and then again from 1976 to 1996, Moorcock fostered the development of the science fiction “New Wave” in the UK and indirectly in the United States. His publication of Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad as a serial novel was notorious; in Parliament some British MPs condemned the Arts Council for funding the magazine.
In 2008, The Times newspaper named Moorcock in its list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945” (Wikipedia)
Here is his advice to would-be authors on how to write.
1. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.
According to Norstrom’s Alphabetical List of Famous Writers there are no writers between Bunyan and Byatt. The closest is H.L. Brunswick, author of the renowned “Nefarious Twelve” children’s series, whose oeuvre includes the wildly popular Nefarious Twelve Beat the Heck out of a Policeman. Brunswick was an unapologetic alcoholic and prominent member of the Friends of the Phlogiston Cowboy Society, who wrote almost thirty books for children including Nefarious Twelve Ruin a Perfectly Good Soufflé, Nefarious Twelve Bite the Hand that Fed Them and the ever-popular Nefarious Twelve Start World War III with a Balloon Whisk. Enid Blyton’s derivative Secret Seven Electrocute a Swan came along later and cornered the market in saccharine juvenile potboilers, thus ruining it for everyone else.

How to Write an Essay: A Beginner’s Guide

How to Write a Non-fiction Book: A Beginner’s Guide, How to Write a Novel: A Beginner’s Guide, How to Write a Poem: A Beginner’s Guide, Uncategorized
When I was in Glasgow University (that enormously prestigious and much brouhahaed institution which was founded in 1451), I had to write essays for both the English Literature and Religious Studies Faculties. These small irritants (the essays not the faculties, although…) were a normal part of my student life. In my previous existence as a theology student in London, England, all of my exams were oral exams and quite frankly, despite the nerve-wracking possibility that you could get asked anything contained in the syllabus for each subject, I preferred this oral torture to its death-by-footnote alternative. If only every course did away with essays and concentrated on the verbal talent of practiced and seasoned BSers, the world would be a happier place.
Unfortunately, that Nirvana of academia is never going to materialize and essays, for good or ill, are part of every high-school and college course in the world. The problem is that very few teachers ever tell you how to write an essay. It’s an art that is somehow magically supposed to appear in your skill set as you cross the threshold of the school. The consequence of this is that even if you are prodigy at the subjects you are studying, even if you happen to know more about the subject than your teacher, even if you can talk knowledgeably for hours about any aspect of the course, if you can’t write an essay competently, then you will never achieve the grades you deserve.

The Bedside Book of Insults

Betsy Braddock, Bette Davis, Bob Martinez, Dave Barry, George S Kaufman, Groucho Marx, Guido Nadzo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Margot Asquith, Ronald Reagan, Roy Blount Jnr, S.J. Perelman, Uncategorized, Winston Churchill
One of the funniest books I have ever read is The Bedside Book of Insults. It’s a book that catalogues a host of quotations about the great and the good – who now appear neither great nor good after the tongue-lashing they receive from their critics. True, most of the insults are brutal and mean, but what is an insult for otherwise? The main joy of the book is the wit and insolence of some of the insulters. It only has 150 or so pages but there are gems on every page and, even if you don’t know who the person is who is being insulted, it’s still a hoot and can bring a smile to the lips if not a guffaw to the quivering gut. The quotes were compiled by William Cole and Louis Phillips who are both poets and writers and who have written a few other books of quotations which, like the book in question are amply fleshed out with illustrations from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Here are some stellar examples of witty wickedness from this remarkable but modest tome:
Dave Barry speaking of Bob Martinez, governor of Florida: “Governor Martinez exudes the warm personal charm of a millipede.”
S.J. Perelman on Groucho Marx: “The man was a major comedian, which is to say that he had the compassion of an icicle, the effrontery of a carnival shill, and the generosity of a pawnbroker.”
Bette Davis on Joan Crawford: “The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down stairs in Whatever Happened to baby Jane.”
Betsy Braddock to Winston Churchill: “Winston, you’re drunk!” Churchill’s reply: “Bessie, you’re ugly, but tomorrow I’ll be sober.”
Jean Harlow, approaching Margot, Lady Asquith at a Hollywood party: “Why, you are Margott Asquith, aren’t you?” Lady Asquith’s reply: “No, my dear. I am Margot Asquith. The ‘t’ is silent, as in Harlow.”
George S. Kaufman about Guido Nadzo the Italian actor: “Guido Nadzo is nadzo guido.”
Groucho Marx commenting on S.J. Perelman’s first book, Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge: “From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”
Roy Blount, Jnr. on Ronald Reagan: “… the most widely beloved American since E.T.”
Jonathan Hunt on Ronald Reagan: “In a disastrous fire in President Reagan’s library both books were destroyed. And the real tragedy is that he hadn’t finished coloring one.”
Winston Churchill on Charles de Gaulle: “He is like a female llama surprised in her bath.”
The impressive list goes on and I’d better stop there before I breach copyright by blogging the whole book (I notice, by the way, that it can be bought from Amazon.com for $0.01) Who knew that insulting people could turn into a minor, yet highly entertaining, art form? Yes, I’m sure many hours of thought went into thinking up these impromptu jibes and outstanding zingers, but the results are stunning, in more ways than one. People don’t quite insult celebrities the same way they did in the old days. Whether this is because the would-be insulters have become too timid or politically correct, or because potential insultees have become hypersensitive or litigious is anybody’s guess. All I know is that I got a kick out of reading this exquisite volume and, if you have a strong stomach and are not easily shocked, I would highly recommend it.

 


Annie Proulx: 5 Techniques for Good Craftsmanship

Bafta, Brokeback Mountain, Golden globe, Milano, Postcards, Pulitzer Prize, The Shipping News, U.S. National Book Award, Uncategorized

Annie Proulx (born August 22, 1935) is an American journalist and author. Her second novel, The Shipping News (1993), won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and was adapted as a 2001 film of the same name starring Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, and Julianne Moore. Her short story “Brokeback Mountain” was adapted as an Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe Award-winning major motion picture released in 2005. She won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her first novel, Postcards.
Proulx didn’t start writing until she was in her fifties and her method is slow and measured, as you will see. She has written many short stories, as well as novels and she has five pieces of advice which, she says, contribute to producing a quality product. Here they are:
1.     Proceed slowly and take care.
This piece of advice would militate against those writers who prefer to power through the writing of a novel or short story with the intention of going back later and sorting any anomalies. Of course the problem with the blast-it method is that if you’re not careful you can end up writing a load of irreparable twaddle and have to scrap it and start again.
On the other hand, if you decide to take Annie’s advice, there is a danger if you take things too slowly that you lose momentum and possibly even interest, and abandon the project before you reach the end.
What’s needed, it seems, is a balance where you write carefully, but steadily, keeping the thrust and energy you have for the project high. That way you can potentially get the best of both worlds: a quality product finished on time.
2.     To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand.
I don’t think I could do this now. I’m so used to typing what I write that it would seem unnecessarily redundant to write by hand and then type up what I had written. There’s also the problem of handwriting. Quite often I can’t read chunks of what I wrote in the first place because it’s just a scribble or a scrawl, so the exercise would be pointless. You might argue that if you’re writing slowly  – which handwriting a text would definitely achieve for me – then I would have time to write coherently and in a way that is legible afterwards. You may have a point. Nevertheless, it’s a big ask. A solution might be to simply make sure that when you write, you think about how you are writing as well as what you are writing. In other words, type away by all means but be careful to make sure, as you go along, that each sentence is the best it can be.
It’s true that you can always go back later and edit what you’ve written in the hope that you can improve it. But what I’ve found is that if the material I’m working with isn’t of a high quality to begin with, no amount of tinkering will improve it sufficiently to be satisfactory.
3.     Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.
I guess this goes by the principle that if you’re not interested in what you’re writing about then neither will your readers be. Fair comment. On the other hand, I usually find, if I’m writing a novel, say, and I come across a part of the story that I need to research, then I may not start out being interested in that subject to begin with. But then as I research a subject I begin to get more interested and gradually become a minor expert – or at least informed amateur. For one of my novels, Milano, I needed to research how to pick locks, which I had very little interest in at the start. I ordered the requisite manuals online which told me how to go about it and about the different types of locks etc. I even went so far as to order a set of lock picks and had a go at opening every locked door in the house. I found out that if I happened to be locked in a room and my life depended on my ability to open the door with improvised tools, then I was a goner! Nevertheless, I learned the principles and that was enough to represent it convincingly – and even enthusiastically – in the novel. As it turned out the novel didn’t go into a lot of boring detail about it – thank goodness – but gave enough detail to sound plausible.
4.     Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading.
It’s interesting that she talks here about craftsmanship and not just reading for the fun of it. It goes without saying that you should read the genre of writing that you want to write yourself. But here she’s talking about wide reading. I guess reading even nonfiction is on the cards and so is poetry, novels and short stories. But it’s not just reading for reading’s sake. It’s studying the craftsmanship that other writers possess, how they achieve their effects, the quality of their words, phrases and sentences. Then it’s a case of trying to achieve the same in your own writing.
5.     Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase / sentence / paragraph / page / story / chapter.
Editing is a skill in itself and only becomes useful through practice. It is almost impossible to competently edit something you’ve just written – although that is exactly what I used to do as a freelance journalist when time was pressing and deadlines loomed. It helps if, once you have finished a piece – be it a short story, a novel, a poem or a piece of nonfiction, you leave it for a while and detach a little from it. After all, you have spent maybe weeks or months on the thing and may find yourself very reluctant to sully its pristine perfection with amendments. Nevertheless, it pays to be brutally honest. If something doesn’t work, cut it out. If you haven’t got quite the right word or phrase to describe what you mean to say, spend some time coming up with a better one.
Like most advice, Annie Proulx’s is more or less difficult to put into practice depending on who you are, how serious you are about writing, how long you have been writing, and whether you care much about the quality of your writing in the first place.