Archive for December, 2011

December 28, 2011

How Bravery Failed in Hemingway and Fitzgerald

I just finished re-reading A Moveable Feast, by Hemingway. The edition is one that was restored from its earliest version but it does not restore Hemingway himself to “Great Writer” status. The novel or memoir (or both) tells tales of writers in Paris in the 1920s without the humor or drama that Woody Allen does in “Midnight in Paris.” To me, his short work such as The Nick Adams Stories show an early brilliance that his novels and later work could never match. In Moveable Feast you can watch him wobble between that brilliance and his clumsy attempt to bully his way through the story.

Two topics: one each about Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein are the best of the bunch. In these two he does not appear to be in direct competition with his subjects. To Hemingway, it would seem, Stein is a woman so she offers no macho competition though she is easily his intellectual equal and mentor. And Pound is merely a poet who cannot match Hemingway in a boxing ring, so he requires no bullying either. In the section on F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, you can see how hard he competes. Most of the section is wasted with Hemingway spending too much time arguing how much worse a drinker is Scott than himself. Who wins that one? And who cares? Where are the great chats about writing we hope for? There one delightful small chapter on his use of first-person narrative, but it only highlights the lack of writerly tales.

Hemingway finally admits how “fine” a novel The Great Gatsby is, but he tags that with the prediction that because of Zelda, Fitzgerald could never match it after that. While it’s true that Fitzgerald never equaled that novel, it was not because of Zelda. According to Hemingway’s own statements that period of his own life also saw the dissolving of his marriage to Hadley, but you won’t find any of that in the text. The worst of it is a tedious discussion between the two men about the size of Scott’s manhood, the sub-text implication behind the story is the opposing size of Hemingway’s pen. Apparently, Hem had never heard the expression, T.M.I. and neither had his publisher. Finally, however, what felled Fitzgerald was also what felled Hemingway—a lack of writerly courage—which they covered up with their use of alcohol. Neither won that battle, and as their readers, neither do we.

I wish I could hold in my mind the foggy memory that I had after the first reading of the book (it was the sixties, you know) rather than have it sullied by this rereading. Something every reader knows is that fiction creates the best memories, so I will choose to “remember” Paris in the 1920s as Woody Allen has dramatized it in “Midnight in Paris.” Memory has always been my own best editor to me in life, but I pray never to be above any good editor of my own writing.

December 15, 2011

“Neither a panster nor plotter be —be both.”

Whenever a writer of fiction leaps into the unknown of a new story, he must ask himself whether he is a plotter or a panster. A panster does not plot, but allows the story to flow on wings of imagination. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of imagination’s flying air force and let my pen roam free, or to allow the ropes of reason to dictate laws to bind my pen to the bulleted list and follow the one, two, three . . . who knows which is best? And when?

Sometimes as I write, I want to be a million miles away from any plotted plans. Other times I type red numbers into the text to keep track of events or character blocking marks. Any outline bit that occurs to me, I jot down for reference. I also feel free to cross them out or delete them as the story rolls past their limited views of imagination. Usually, there will be one or two good ideas left in a list of ten items that make the final cut. I do however believe that I wouldn’t have found the one or two good ones unless I had made that list of ten. Doing a second or third draft brings me more strongly to use definite plot points to guide me. When the laundry is dry on the line it is easier to reel in—in other words, during a rewrite I’m less invested in some of my sentences and more concerned with the flow of story, so it’s easier to re-arrange (or cut) paragraphs and sections of text. I don’t follow the rules, but I keep a wary eye on them lest they bite my book.

December 13, 2011

Read the pages that Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Galileo saw.

I found this Website from Octavo,, that brings us into all the best rare book rooms of the world. You can read the same type that our earliest writings, scholars, and musicians wrote and read. You can read Books of Hours, medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts; check out Galileo’s notebooks; and study charts of Copernicus about how he proved the truth about the solar system. Of course Octavo hopes you’ll buy some limited edition reprints of these, but if you can’t afford them, you certainly can’t afford not to check it out on your computer. The reality of these pages makes the type fonts on any computer screen look lame and pale by comparison, and something of the spirit of those times is transferred to the reader.

Octavo says, for instance: “Over the past several years in cooperation with the world’s greatest libraries, Octavo has digitally photographed most of the existing early quarto editions of William Shakespeare’s plays and poems, as well as the quarto editions of plays such as The Yorkshire Tragedy once considered part of the Shakespeare canon.”

You can explore the earliest texts here.

December 11, 2011

The Daily Beast has a list of 10 books you shouldn’t miss

They say these are: “10 Books That You Might Have Missed but Shouldn’t.” They are titles that might have flown under the radar for you.
There are capsule reviews of the books to help you decide which to read. Enjoy.

1. ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’
2. ‘Habibi’
3. ‘A Book of Secrets’
4. ‘Assassins of the Turquoise Palace’
5. ‘What It Is Like to Go to War’
6. ‘Hemingway’s Boat’
7. ‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’
8. ‘Into the Silence’
9. ‘Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness’
10. ‘Keynes Hayek’

December 6, 2011

Re-Writing My Blues

Maybe Hemingway re-wrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms seventeen or thirty-seven times, I don’t know, but I know the torment when a piece of writing is not right. I’m sure he felt mighty good about having almost finished a novel he knew would be widely read, but also that he would feel mighty bad to think he had written an ending to it that was less than his best. At this point I know that my second novel, Blues Pizza, is not my best (indeed, it is my worst). So I feel compelled to fix it. I’m not sure I can and, as a matter of fact, I can’t seem to fix the first two paragraphs of to fit my best standard. If I can’t fix the first two chapters, the whole novel will be forever laid to rest. R.I.T. (Rest In Turmoil). But for now, I’m taking another chance at giving the novel another chance. I’ve cut 12,000 words and made plans to re-arrange all the rest, but first I’m going to re-imagine and re-write those first two chapters if it kills me (or rather, if it kills the novel). I think I’ve re-written the first two paragraphs about thirty-seven times. That’s not quite enough, but it may be close.

There’s a certain satisfaction in playing a blues song well. To crawl into the back-story of the lyrics, to feel the passion there, and then to translate that into notes that fit feels good. It may also hurt, but it’s a good hurt when the played blues liberates the source of my real blues. It’s worth working for, I’d say. Onward.

December 3, 2011

Where is the balance in a novel between telling and showing?

One of my first-draft readers of Tesora sent me this note:
“The concept of your story is very promising . . . what draws me in is the promise of adventure. The first chapter reeled me in because it had a nice amount of action but afterward I felt like the story was being “told” rather than “shown” so I had a really hard time getting into the story.”

This was my answer to her:
Yes, I know my novel does not sustain the level of action that Chapter 1 shows: it’s a book with a full range of rhythms. Some are dramatic, of course, but many are psychological or meditative. To me, the thought-process of a main character is important action. The story was never intended to be only an adventure: it concerns slavery and racism and an accurate historical context. Also, the whole conceit of the story is that it’s a book adapted from the journals Ronan (its main character) keeps aboard his boat. After Ronan’s arrival in Puerto Toque (page 50 or so), there is also much dialog—and that is a form of both action and contemplation. For me the best reading is in stories where I learn the depths of a character, in mind and history, as well as action. When I was young I read and re-read books to rediscover not just events in motion, but what Borges calls “emotion in books.” Huckleberry Finn opens with a recitation of the plot of the novel, Tom Sawyer. At the bottom of page one of Mysterious Island by Jules Verne reads an extended weather report. Notes from Underground is 95% internal monologue. I find stories with ceaseless action to be dreary. I’d rather sit and watch Rodin’s Thinker think for ten minutes, than watch 1,000 marathon runners go by. While I don’t think novels have to compete with movies for action, nevertheless, I am reexamining my story to better dramatize the story. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning about writing, nor will I want to stop.

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