Archive for August, 2013

Teach me now to listen

August 30, 2013

To strike it rich behind the linear black.

– Seamus Heaney, Clearances

When I learned this morning that Seamus Heaney had passed away, just before the start of my first class of the day, I felt a kind of devastation. I say “a kind of” because as much as I love the man and his work and what it has done for my life of the mind, and for the world, it isn’t the same kind of devastation as losing a father, or a brother, or a best friend, all of which I have lost.

And yet it was a devastation nonetheless. Seamus Heaney was the first poet whose work I sought out on my own. He was the first poet I recognized as important not because a teacher told me so but because my own instinct screamed it at me. His work, and that of his fellow Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, had a profound effect on the decisions I made in college to major in English, concentrate in Irish Studies, get an M.A. in the same with the intent to get a Ph.D., then say “hang it all” and get an M.F.A. instead. One of the essays I wrote for my M.F.A. Comprehensive Exam spent quite a lot of time talking about Heaney’s contribution to the tradition of the sonnet in English.

While I have lamented some of my choices in academics here and there, there has never been a moment in my life that I have regretted picking up any of Heaney’s books and losing myself in the humbly glorious language.

There are an awful lot of things I could try to say about Heaney but I don’t want to delve into the kind of academic speak I have more or less left behind and I’m afraid I would. This morning I thought, briefly, about trying to read one of his poems aloud to my students, who, despite having received a stellar high school English education to date, had a 100% “never heard of him” rate. But then I realized if I did I would probably break down, at least a bit, before I got to the end of it. There’d be no coming back from that in front of students in the first week of their senior year. Instead I left them with the brief anecdote of hearing him read twice while in undergrad, and having a few minutes of interaction with him the second time, and how he took a moment to sign my copy of his selected poems while he had a jumbo shrimp dangling from his mouth. I don’t offer this anecdote to be glib or to denigrate him in any way; I think it was awfully decent of him to take the time to inscribe a book to some dumb undergrad who was chirping at him about poetry and how he wanted to be a poet. He would’ve had every right to tell me to go away, but if there’s anything you keep hearing about Heaney today, it’s how approachable, how humble he was. Let’s reiterate this moment; a Nobel Laureate had no free hand to hold a pen to sign some annoying undergrad’s book, so he freed up a hand just to sign it. How many Nobel Laureates would do that? Frankly I’m not sure how many Laureates I’d want to ask to do that, but that’s a separate issue.

In the end I will quote not one of his poems, because I don’t know how I could choose, but from his Nobel lecture. I keep returning to this lecture and to this paragraph in general, because it says a lot of what I believe about why I consciously choose to engage in certain traditions.

“Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.”

 

Part of writing, part of living any kind of examined life, is choosing your values. We have a tendency to be perhaps either too mutely accepting or too nihilistically dismissive of those values or beliefs that are in some way native to us, to what is handed to us or what we grow up with. Either is bad, but Heaney asks us to do the work of looking for that in our local, clannish, backwards existences which is good. Identifying that good, lifting it out, is the first step to carrying it forward and outward into the world. Heaney did that in his poetry for nearly fifty years. I’m hesitant to believe the rest of the world will ever follow his lead, but if we ever are, the poetry will be there, showing us how.

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Eliot was wrong.

August 21, 2013

It’s actually September that’s the cruelest month*.

Why, do you ask? Well, that should be obvious. Note how it says “teacher” on the about/FAQ. Yes, the summer is drawing to a close, and while I won’t see students till next week, tomorrow is the first day since early June that I have to haul myself out of bed at an unreasonable time in the morning and and face the commute and everything that comes after it.

Let’s not get anything wrong here; I’m happy to be employed. I genuinely enjoy a lot of my interactions with students, and there are several I like to think I can count as friends since they’ve moved on. I have the benefit of mostly teaching them at the very end of their primary schooling, when they are seniors and have had the time and the education to develop into interesting people.

And yet (of course there’s a but, haha, see what I did there), I am not a man who would, if left to his own devices, choose early rising, a long commute, and the bulk of my day spent away from home. I’d rather be at home, writing, annoying my cats, watching baseball, day drinking, and so forth. Who wouldn’t? Madmen, that’s who.

At any rate, I thought I’d use this to reflect a little on the summer and how much I wrote, what I read, and so forth.

I made my first contact with some authors I should’ve started reading a long time ago, Jack Vance and Elmore Leonard. The former is quite simply required reading if you want to write fantasy fiction (which I do) and the latter the same for crime/noir fiction (which I love, but don’t write). Unfortunately both authors passed away almost immediately after I began reading them. Now I’m a little gun shy when it comes to diving into any other established author for the first time. The rule of three and all that. I read Neil Gaiman’s newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and thought for the first twenty pages I wasn’t going to like it. I was incorrect in the end, of course, but it was touch and go for a while there. I read and loved Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon and Paul Cornell’s London Falling, though the latter did some harsh things to my beloved West Ham United. The best novel I read this summer was almost certainly Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars, but that’s generally true of any season when a Guy Gavriel Kay novel is published; it’s going to be the best thing I read in that time frame.

I didn’t read very much poetry this summer, which I alternate between feeling bad about and not missing much. I paged through some of my favorites, Stevens and Ivor Gurney mostly, but I tend to do that with Stevens and any one other particular poet fairly often anyway. I certainly didn’t really write any poetry, maybe one or two poems that I sort of began and wandered away from. I’m beginning to wonder, truly wonder, if I have just passed beyond the point where writing poetry is something I care enough about to devote significant time to any longer. This is a pretty significant possible turning point for me, given that I spent 10 years in higher education trying to become a poet, culminating in an M.F.A. I wouldn’t necessarily trade that degree or the experience I had in George Mason’s program, but something in me has just worn away as the years have rolled on from graduating in 2008. Somewhere in the past few years, 2011 seems like a good bet, I decided to choose writing SF/F over writing poetry.

I read quite a lot of great comics this summer, like Fred van Lente’s/Clayton Henry’s always clever, never for-a-panel boring reboot of Archer and Armstrong, Jim Zub’s/Edwin Huang’s glorious Skullkickers, the incredible Brian K Vaughn/Fiona Staples Saga, but probably most of all Matt Fraction’s/David Aja’s Hawkeye. That’s just the surface, of course, with plenty more on the pile every month.

That’s right; I read more comic books than I did poetry this summer. I find myself totally at peace with this choice, and in a future post I might try explaining why.

And how much fiction did I write? Before I began writing today, over eighty thousand words of it. Eighty-three thousand, three hundred and thirty one, to be precise. I often wonder if, given the amount of time available to me in the summer, the number shouldn’t be a great deal higher. Maybe I should’ve spent more time editing/revising the previous novels, but I’d been doing nothing but that from early February, when I finished the second book, to June 14, when I started the third. In that time both of those books certainly got a good deal better, the first especially. But man cannot live on revision alone, especially when another book (and frankly, another set in the same world, though with different characters and ideas in play) is battering to get out of your head, eventually you have to start writing it down or it’ll disappear. I still feel as though eighty thousand words is good progress for a little over two months of work.

Are my books any closer to getting published? Who knows? I sure don’t. At the very beginning of the summer I received an extremely positive agent rejection, which praised the world-building, characters, action, pacing, and exposition, but a rejection is still a rejection. Most of the others have been a good deal less responsive, which is basically to be expected. I’ve gotten more stock replies than I have tailored rejections. Not that I’m going to be deterred by rejection, but it is a little hard to measure whether I’m making progress in the salability of the work, or in how I am presenting it. The entire manuscript of the first novel is with a publisher I queried directly in February, who responded in May asking to read the book. Not a word since, but publishers are busy folk and I will wait as patiently as I am able.

I feel confident that the start of school won’t interrupt my progress on book three, and the subsequent revision of the entire project. I didn’t crash to a halt in the 2011-2012 or 2012-2013 school years. While I’m not likely to be putting up forty thousand words a month while also teaching World Literature and Composition and Creative Writing and whatever else it is I’ll wind up doing this year, but I will keep working at it, keep searching for the figure in the block of stone. What I need to remind myself is that any time spent writing is a net positive, that I need to focus on the part I can control, that being the quality of the work and how I pitch it. I’m not particularly good at focusing only on things I can control (thus, sports fandom). But I think I am pretty good at this writing stuff. Sort of ok, anyway. Passable. Plenty of room to improve. Going to keep at it, anyway.

*Eliot was wrong about myriad things, that’s for sure. Pretty much any time Eliot and Stevens clash, I’m going to be on the side of Stevens. You can keep your “Wasteland,” I’ll be over here reading superior poems like “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and especially “Esthétique du Mal.”

The Fight

August 15, 2013

There are days where the fight doesn’t seem worth it. Days I can only think about the vast amount of work that remains, the uphill struggle of selling it, of convincing someone else to believe in it enough to sell it for me.

I’m calling it “the Fight” because I think there are some valid figurative similarities between writing and boxing. Other writers have covered this better, but the basic point is this – whether you’re writing a novel or fighting, you’re in there by yourself.

Sure, other people will help get you there. Alpha readers, editors, friends, spouses who put up with you, or, managers, trainers, sparring partners. But in the end, you are alone, consciously stepping into something that’s designed to drain you and punish you.

Tonight I went to bed early (11:30 is early for a teacher during the summer, or early for THIS teacher during the summer) thinking I’d just skip a day. Take it easy. After all, I’ve written 430k words across three books (well, technically two and a third books) in just under two years. I deserve a day off.

I spent forty minutes lying in bed thinking about the book.

I eventually began to feel ill.

Now I’m back at the desk.

Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.*

 

*Name the quote. 

What’s it about?

August 13, 2013

During the school year I often teach a special elective “Creative Writing” class for high school students. Most of them want to write science fiction/fantasy (SF/F) which is fine with me, since that’s what I’m writing, and much of what I read. One of the assignments I give them is to write a deceptively simple statement. It looks something like this:

In one sentence, tell me what your story is about.

I give them a week to answer that question. The answers I get vary widely, and while I won’t reproduce any of the answers here, they tend to look and sound something like this.

“A world where corporations have taken over and infect people with lycanthropy, sort of.”

“A mercenary company in a future dystopia where everyone lives underground.”

“A zombie apocalypse in a medieval fantasy world.”

“A war between humans and aliens told from the perspective of the aliens.”

My expectation in giving this assignment is that most, if not all, of my students will answer in this way; with a setting, or an idea, or the germ of one, but not any actual grasp on what their story is about. The point of the exercise is to teach them that setting isn’t a story by itself, and frankly neither is plot. You need both of them, yes, but if you really want to write the best story you can write (and you should always want to, which is a topic for another time) your story needs to be about something.

As examples, then, I tend to turn to works I can count on their familiarity with to make my point. An example:

The Lord of the Rings is about the refusal to meet power with power; in fact it is about the refusal of power being the strongest, most heroic act any individual can perform.”

Star Wars (the original trilogy) is about the bond between father and son overcoming, and ultimately undoing, a great evil.”

Hellboy is about proving that nurture is ultimately more powerful than nature.”

Batman Begins is an exploration of fear, how it forms and informs our existence, how we can be empowered or destroyed by our response to it.”

Now, are these statements over-simplifications? Absolutely. You could write dozens of such sentences about each of the above properties, and be correct. The point of the exercise is that, in addition to memorable characters, vivid setting, and exciting plots, stories like The Lord of the Rings, Batman Begins, Star Wars, and Hellboy are all about something. I believe that if you want to write good fiction, you’ve got to be writing about something, and that’s what I’m aiming to do. Just what my story is about is a discussion for another post.

In the comments, feel free to add your own “what’s it about?” sentences for the above named properties, or any other favorites. I look forward to hearing them.