Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Making Plans

It’s that accountableness time again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

What I have done this week (8/23/2011-8/30/2011):

1. Finished a chapter just in time to hand in a submission to UGWP. May the force be with it, because I don’t think there was much force behind it. I was trying to finish up two chapters…but it just wasn’t to be. Ah well, I’ll get ’em next week.

2. Speaking of getting stuff next week – I did manage to figure out that  I can finish the thing up in six months at my current pace…which I’ll admit I was disappointed by. But writing and immediately editing is a tough thing and it takes more time than just banging it out. Then those snarky writer’s group members find even more stuff that I have to fix. All of which I’ve already put in my Track Changes file. (That’s pretty impressive actually – I just got the critiques yesterday. Can I get a GO JENNY!)

3. I formulated a plan to finish in six months too. Along with looking at what I was comfortably accomplishing plus an extra push, I have it broken down month by month – time to bang out words and then time to revise said words each month until I’m done. (This may or may not mean something because I’ve formulated many, many, many plans in the past…the plan that I just came up with is, in fact, a revision of my previous plan.)

4. Switched novel notebooks. I know this seems so silly. However, I write faster in the cheapy little spiral notebooks when I’m working on something large like a novel – so I quit fighting it and am ignoring the pretty notebooks…which shall be saved for notes or random jottings or fits and starts. The things we sacrifice for progress.

All right guys, your turn. Whatja do?

Alcoholism, The New Fitness, and Writers

At some point, he [Tobias Wolff] says, he would like to tackle another memoir. He recently read a book about literary life in 1940s Dublin and fancies writing something in a similar vein, about the writer’s place in 21st-century America. Are there any obvious comparisons? Wolff laughs. ‘Well, there’s less alcohol than there was in Dublin, that’s for sure. In fact, that’s been one of the big changes during my time as a writer. We all grew up inspired by men like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Robert Lowell – all of these great authors who drank too much and led these troubled lives. But then, over a period of about four or five years, the whole culture shifted and the drinking just stopped. So writers in America today are very different. They live on the campus, they’re supported by the universities. It’s all extreme health with them. It’s about energy drinks and running programmes.'” ~ from “Tobias Wolff: ‘I still feel as though I’m faking it'” by Xan Brooks, from The Guardian, Thursday 25 August 2011

(Special thanks and shout out to Ajay, who pointed the article out to me!)

Jack Kerouac lived life hard, and his writing reflects this. There are a lot of drugs mentioned in his novels. The number one: alcohol.

There have been enough hard-drinking, alcoholic writers through the centuries to make the hard-drinking, alcoholic writer a cliche. Substance abuse has traditionally been part of the package, right along with depression, manic-depression (bipolar), and suicide.

Kerouac was a poster boy for alcoholic writers everywhere. He died from it. A liver hemmorage, caused by cirrhosis, killed him at the age of 47.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty damn young. And it seems like a real waste of talent.

I’ve heard the arguments/reasonings for alcohol and/or drug induced writing. Stuff like: drinking can relax a writer. Drugs can stimulate a writer. Alcohol and other substances help enter that dream-state where creativity waits, just out of reach.

In my opinion, it all boils down to the idea that a writer has to get out of his own way in order to write.

Do I agree with Wolff’s assessment of how writers have changed? That, instead of margaritas, they hit Jamba Juice and ask for an extra shot…of wheat germ?

In my experience, that’s exactly what’s happened. The Pulitzer prize winners are teaching at universities. A ton of writers of my acquaintance are vegetarians. (I’m also from Colorado, where we have the highest percentage of fitness junkies around…so my impression could be skewed.)

So, why would writers today be more likely to die from a sports related injury than cirhossis of the liver? There are millions of reasons outside of the writing sphere -D.A.R.E. programs, Got Milk?, and anti-meth billboards abound, for example.

But I think there are some changes within the writing world itself that have created these changes.

Here are my completely unresearched, unscientific, unverified theories regarding the shift from Alcoholic-Inspired Writers to Aerobic-Inspired Writers:

1. The alcoholics blew it for the rest of us. After Kerouac and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, do you think publishers want to work with that today?

2. Publishers are big-business. This ties to #1. Here’s a truth about big-business: you can’t keep up if your eyes aren’t focused. These editors are not going to risk their careers on a production company (that’s you, writerly brethren) that can’t deliver on time. They can’t be bothered to track your butt down at the local bar and hope that you have a manuscript tucked in the bottom of your glass. Your head has to be in the game. (Perhaps this self-publishing trend will bring back the glory days of alchies…but I doubt it…readers can see a jack-off as fast – if not faster – than professional editors)

3. Those troubled writers of yesteryear, when faced with today’s world, would be slapped on Dr. Phil faster than you can say “Twelve Step Meeting.” Society just doesn’t put up with that kind of shit anymore. Reading Kerouac is actually irritating because you can see the psychology behind what’s going on…and, even as a reader, you know that this kind of behavior can be moderated. There’s no need to die for it.

4. Try figuring out “Track Changes” on Word when your drunk.

5. There isn’t a whole ton of money in writing now (or then) but today’s writers get a lot of funding (as the Wolff article states) through Universities. The competition for those jobs is fierce – maybe fiercer and bloodier and more personal than getting a publishing contract. You think you’re gonna beat anyone if you’re drunk? Nope. It won’t happen. Sure, there are some remnants of the old school, but the liberal arts students-turned-profs are more likely to be doing those shots of wheat-germ than shots of whiskey.

6. Author photos. You cannot be ugly nowadays and be an author. We don’t have to be super-model attractive yet, but hot authors on the back of the cover do sell more books than ugly authors. (Like I said, this is a completely unscientific opinion….) We’ve all seen those anti-meth billboards and, even if you’re not all that pretty, you will not sell books looking like those teenagers.

Kerouac’s Genius/Interpreter Theory vs. Jenny’s Genius/Genius Theory

Let’s examine the word ‘genius.’ It doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive ‘talent.’ It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare.” ~ Jack Kerouac, “Are Writers Made or Born?”

If you get a chance, you should really read the whole text of “Are Writers Made or Born?” – Kerouac covers a lot of ground in a short space of essay. In it, he talks about the difference between a genius and an interpreter. His argument is that a genius is someone who does something that has never been done before: like Walt Whitman with poetic lines or James Joyce with the stream-of-conciousness thing.

He goes to explain the idea of an interpreter: “I always laugh to hear Broadway wiseguys talk about ‘talent’ and ‘genius.’ Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a ‘genius,’ but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter – in other words, a ‘Talent.’”

So, in other words, there are genius writers and there are interpretive writers. You can be talented, but still not be a genius.

I don’t know if I entirely agree with this assessment. I’m more inclined to think that there are two types of genius.

The first type is identical to Kerouac’s definition of genius – the guys and gals who put out something that hasn’t been seen before. You know their names: James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and even Gertrude Stein’s weird repetition, weird repetition.

However, I have to disagree with his assessment of interpreters not being geniuses in their own right.

In his essay he brings up Thomas Hardy – a genius writer, right? Kerouac thinks so, and I think so, but Kerouac says that Hardy was an originator…and there I have to disagree. I say Thomas Hardy was a kick-ass interpreter.

He wrote long, sprawling, Victorian epics whose subject matter stretched the boundaries of what was ‘decent’ or ‘acceptable’. But he didn’t create the three-volume form that was so popular during the Victorian period. Nor did he develop the serialized epics that were equally as popular…and in which he participated. Nor did he create the idea of writing epic tales of relationships, industrialization, or interfamily conflicts. He’s a genius the same way George Eliot and Charles Dickens are geniuses: working with subject matter, and working within a structure that’s already been developed, and telling the world as they see it, building on the authors that have come before. That’s interpreting something, not creating it.

Now, Kerouac defends Hardy as a genius because, no matter what, Hardy would always write like Hardy – and I see and appreciate that argument. But I’d also argue that a genius interpreter would always sound like him or herself. If we’re going to use some musical examples, yes, Brahms is an originating genius…but he doesn’t sound the same when performed by, say, Yo-Yo Ma. It takes on a new life. You know when Yo-Yo Ma is playing. That skill level, that talent, is a form of genius.

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Almost, not quite

It’s that Tuesday time again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

What I have done this week (8/16/2011-8/23/2011):

1. I was hoping to say DONE with the chapter I’m working on, but I’m not quite there yet. Trying very hard to finish it for this writers group submission go-round. It’s getting there….(I’ve gotta say that these last two chapters have been the most difficult to write so far. I think I’m making it too hard on myself.)

2. Got a list of new markets to submit short stories to, but again didn’t quite make the submissions themselves. Ah well. I guess this is the week of “Almost”

3. Did figure out the next few steps in my novel outline, so I know where I’m going. That’s a plus. I don’t outline a whole piece before I write it — though I generally know the end spot. So I ‘outline’ a few chapters at a time. When I first write a chapter outline it’ll be something like “A and B fight” and by the time I get to actually writing the chapter, I know what A and B are fighting about and what the outcome needs to be…because generally the next chapter is outlined as “B recovers from fight” or something.

Writing to a Soundtrack

My proclaimed ‘protégé’, Oliver, likes to put the “song of influence” (my term, not his) underneath the title of the short story or novel chapter that was inspired by the tune. He has received much feedback on this, ranging from: “don’t do that” to “I can see how that fits.”

He is not the first writer to be influenced by musical stylings. I admit to being pretty influenced by music as well.

Nowadays, when writers talk about ‘soundtracks’ to their work, I think we refer to inspiration instead of interpretation. The music acts as muse (ha! word roots, anyone?) for subject matter, not style. That’s certainly how I refer to it. I make playlists on the iPod with the names of my WIPs as constant re-inspiring material. These songs remind me why I wanted to write the story, or they remind me of a character’s motivation, or something else related to the storyline.

Jack Kerouac is a little different.

Kerouac was heavily influenced by Bop. The jazz stylings were something new, different, and emotionally compelling to the generation following WWII. While I’m sure Kerouac was inspired the same way that Oliver and I are (getting story ideas, etc.), it also influenced how he told the stories.

Kerouac’s spontaneous prose theories – the improvisational styling, the lack of editing, the ‘flow’ of words instead of musical notes – were a writerly interpretation of this musical style. Bop is fast, like Kerouac’s flow of writing. Bop riffs on melody lines, like Kerouac’s story lines – On the Road’s central idea was moving from one place to the other, each place was different, but the road/being on the move acted as a melodic line.

I’ve never written a story or novel based on a musical form. Partly because I’ve never had the training to understand how music forms worked. I can’t tell you the difference between a symphony or a concerto. (If there is one?) I understand bits and pieces of jazz and Beatle’s era rock-n-roll. Mostly, I can tell you what a bridge is…but after that…if it doesn’t repeat in the study of poetry…well, I couldn’t write an entire novel on any of my bits of knowledge. Still, I find the concept an interesting one.

What about looking into a song structure and expanding it into a longer piece, like a short story? Would you get the classic story ‘structure’? The rising action, climax, denouement, etc.? As Kerouac illustrates, when you play around with structure, some not-regular things happen.

And now, some Bop music to ‘type’ to…here’s some Dizzy Gillespie

Don’t Make It Too Hard On Your Reader

Okay, writing a book in three days and three nights is a feat. It probably requires amphetemines of some kind. Or copious amounts of Vivarin. It also requires keyboarding skills that most secretaries would envy.

I think most of us would agree that some editing would be involved.

Kerouac did not think as most of us.

He banged out The Subterraneans in the aforementioned three day—three night psycho writing frenzy. And he didn’t edit it too much either, according to popular record. While this has certain interesting advantages (Ah, the satisfaction of being done)…and while there are interesting linguistic stylings that occur (as shown on Monday)…it sure is hard to read.

He wrote the book a lot faster than I’m reading it, that’s for sure.

I’m still pushing through it. It still has interesting bits, fascinating bits even. But I find that I read a sentence over and over and over again and I’m still not 100% sure what’s going on some of the time. Since his sentences are paragraph-length with minimal or creative punctuation, that’s a lot of rereading only to get the overview, ya know?

What’s the last book that you struggled through? Was it worth it in the end?

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Mini-Scenes and Track Changes

Welcome to Tuesday! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

What I accomplished this week (08/09/2011-08/16/2011) :

1. First and foremost — I got the oldest kid to school starting last Thursday (where did the summer go?). Youngest kid and I are renegotiating the terms of staying at home alone together. “No, you can’t watch television all day just because older brother is away and can’t play with you.”

2. Am halfway through next chapter of work in progress. After reading The Help, I have been aware of what I’m calling ‘mini-scenes’ that last a few paragraphs, fill in some gaps in the story and then continue along their way. Say what you will about the racial aspects of that novel (read this, I think it’s a pretty good review), Stockett is a very good ‘mini-scener.’

Now, the thing to understand with mini-scenes, as I’m learning, is that you can really set them anywhere. Mainly you just have to ask “What’s the character thinking about?” and then think about what setting would trigger it. Since the focus is just on a mini-epiphany, or a mini-struggle in the character’s life, the field is wide-open. Which is both freeing and frustrating at the same time because you wonder “Where would be best?”

The chapter that I’m working on now is a sort-of series of mini-scenes — it has information that needs to be covered in order to move forward, but didn’t quite serve a large, cohesive scene. Plus, I want to show a little bit of time passage, so again, the mini-scene is coming in to do some heavier lifting.

Until I caught on to the concept of a mini-scene, I was completely floored on how to write this chapter. So, if you find yourself stuck…you may wanna try them too. Don’t be afraid of writing a section that’s just a few paragraphs long. Throw in some white space and call it good.

3. I also created a Track Changes version of all the critiques I received last month. As I was stuck on the above-mentioned chapter, I decided that reviewing people’s notes and typing it all in to one document would let me see problem areas.

Luckily, all of the problem areas boil down to one chapter. So at least I know where to hit when I do the big revisions. For now, I’m plunging through and trying to finish a rough draft by the end of October, so no time for MAJOR revisions unless it absolutely changes the outcome of the story (as it is, the critiques mainly wanted more POP and some clarifying details, which doesn’t change the overall information presented in the problematic chapter…so I don’t have to tear it up this second).

And by the way, I hate Track Changes. I did that so when I’m all finished I will have to retype everything in a clean draft. That’s the easiest way to catch all the glitches anyway, may as well force myself to do it the right way instead of the easy way, ya know?

Spontaneous Prose: What it Looks Like

There’s a list Kerouac jotted down that is often copied. Called “Belief &Technique for Modern Prose,” it is thirty pieces of advice for writers who want to write spontaneously and Beat-like.

A couple of my favorites tidbits:

#1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy (because I love the idea of writing for your own joy)


# 29. You’re a Genius all the time (which is just a nice thought, ya know?)

The items that concern me today are: #13 Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition and #15 Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog.

It’s hard to define these kinds of terms – what does Kerouac mean? How do you know if you’re grammatically inhibited? Does interior monolog mean no dialogue? How can any story be written in such a manner?

Mostly the answer to all of these questions is: write FAST. Don’t THINK. Kerouac wrote very quickly, inspiring the famous quote from Truman Capote regarding Kerouac’s writing style: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” And a big part of me sides with Capote. (Most of me, actually.)

That’s not to say that, as writers, we shouldn’t experiment.

Writing fast, keeping to internal thoughts, and removing English-teacher-inspired inhibitions has an interesting effect. There’s a blurring of lines. There’s an additional layering of meaning – because an adjective or an adverb can apply to multiple things. It reads more poetically, and has a lot in common with stream-of-conscience writing.

Here’s an example from Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, which I’m reading right now and, to me, comes across as the most free of Kerouac’s prose I’ve read yet (just be forewarned, this excerpt is a little long so you can get the feel of it):

Out of the bar were pouring interesting people, the night making a great impression on me, some kind of Truman-Capote-haired dark Marlon Brando with a beautiful thin birl or girl in boy slacks with stars in her eyes and hips that seemed so soft when she put her hands in her slacks I could see the change – and dark thin slackpant legs dropping down to little feet, and that face, and with them a guy with another beautiful doll, the guy’s name Rob and he’s some kind of adventurous Israeli soldier with a British accent whom I suppose you might find in some Riviera bar at 5 AM drinking everything in sight alphabetically with a bunch of interesting crazy international-set friends on a spree – Larry O’Hara introducing me to Roger Beloit (I did not believe that this young man with ordinary face in front of me was that great poet I’d revered in my youth, my youth, my youth, that is, 1948, I keep saying my youth) – ‘This is Roger Beloit? – I’m Bennett Fitzpatrick’ (Walt’s father) which brought a smile to Roger Beloit’s face – Adam Moorad by now having emerged from the night was also there and the night would open –

I never said it was easy to read. The whole book is like this. No commas = no breathing.

But let’s take a look at a couple of the effects….

Without the pesky commas, a line like “with stars in her eyes and hips that seemed so soft when she put her hands in her slacks I could see the change” gains multiple levels of meaning. Since the stars refer to her eyes and then syntactically continues on with no break to her hips, it reads like there are stars in her hips. That’s an interesting image.

By putting her hand in her slacks, Kerouac adds a sexual image with ‘change’…even though it also refers to coin change in her pocket.

And ‘night’ in the last sentence gets multiple uses as well. The reader hears “emerged from the night” “the night was also there” and “the night would open” all in one fragment – and the first two ‘nights’ are in the same position in the sentence, so you also get the longer image of “emerged from the night was also there” when it’s all smashed together…and it all refers to the character of Adam Moorad still.


Fun, huh?

I didn’t even go into Kerouac making up new words (‘birl’ for a girl who wears pants or ‘slackpant’ to describe the clothing).

Or his use of repetition of “my youth, my youth, my youth”…and then his flat out, kinda spaced-out “I keep saying my youth” as if the reader didn’t notice.

Thank God this is a rather simple boy-meets-girl-they-break-up story. Otherwise my head would be spinning more than it already is with this book.

Should you like to hear all of Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose” here ya go:

Ben Hecht’s Interview of Jack Kerouac

I seem to have talked a lot this week, so now I’m gonna let Kerouac talk, scabs and all.

This is the second portion of an interview held just before/immediately after the release of The Dharma Bums, which we’ve been talking about this week. In this interview Ben Hecht and Kerouac talk about Buddhism vs. Christianity, a brief mention of The Dharma Bums as the new book out, the “happiness of Negroes” (full disclosure: I have to say that I’m embarassed for both of them – white 1950s guys that they are, I cringed at the generalizations made), and world peace.

The interview is interesting both for the interviewee and the style of the interview. It’s not quite McCarthy-esque…but it certainly has the flavor of the time period….

Thursday Reviews!: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

The Dharma BumsThe Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I’d read this alone on a mountaintop, or while camping, or just out in nature somewhere I’d probably’ve given this four stars. The descriptions of nature, the out-and-out enthusiasm for the outdoors, and the romanticizing of living out of a backpack (which, for an indoor girl like me, is a hard sell) were the most engaging sections for me.

That and the descriptions of food were somehow entrancing. Who knew pork and beans could be so effective as a literary presentation? And I’m not being sarcastic either. After Kerouac describes the cold during the mountain climbs, or the extensive traveling without rest, the descriptions of food seem to rejuvenate the reader as well as the lead characters. It’s a strange thing and I can’t think of a book that comes close to describing food in such a satsifactory way. (Odd praise, I know, but it worked for me.)

Had the nature and backpacking and food been the center stage for this novel, it would’ve been just fine for me.

My issue comes with the pop-Buddhism. It really felt like Ray (the main character/Kerouac doppelganger) was an enthusiastic guy trying to understand something that he wasn’t quite getting. He knew the terminology, knew some Buddhist practices and tried to apply it in his life…but there’s a section where Japhy (the Ultimate Dharma Bum) calls him out and says that Ray is just putting everything into words. And that is exactly right — I practically cheered when I got to that point. Ray is just describing and describing being “enlightened” but he never actually is, and doesn’t see it, and it gets annoying.

Really, it’s Ray’s childlike enthusiasm and joie de vivre that make the pop-philosophy forgiveable.

Side note — I found it hilarious that Alvah Goldbook, Allen Ginsberg’s doppelganger, was the poet to protest the Buddhism the most. Funny, because Ginsberg was the most faithful of Buddhists after Kerouac introduced him to the religion…his funeral was in a Buddhist temple. There’s just no predicting….

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