Paying homage at Hemingway’s Paris shrines

I’m responding to a Daily Writing Prompt which, interestingly, resonates with a blog entry I wrote two years ago. The idea is to show some sort of homage, which I did, once; I could only show homage to Hemingway, because his simple, but profound, suggestions to writers formed a neural network in my brain that hasn’t been erased by time or experience. 

Writing For Non-Writers

I did something while in Paris last month that I actively rail against, and ordinarily deplore: I worshipped at two of the shrines associated with Ernest Hemingway. I struggle with the why of this, since it goes against everything I preach to beginning writers. My only excuse is that I was an English major three times over, and Hemingway said some very important things about writing, and so homage was due.

I deplore the worship of ‘the capital A’ author. I wish we didn’t put these people (usually, but not always, men) up on pedestals, then compare ourselves to them, telling ourselves their creativity is a unique act of divine inspiration we’re too ordinary to match, that The Author was stroked on the forehead at birth by a muse that will never visit us.

In other words, we take mere mortals and turn them into statues, dipped in the…

View original post 616 more words

Jade Splinters

Cover of "The Art of Writing: Teachings o...

The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters

I used The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters while writing my dissertation about why people feel uncomfortable thinking of themselves as writers. My thesis is that writers are taught by society to think of themselves as writers (or not), and that society’s definitions of what a writer is or is not are constructed by our collective values.

Western writers can access this book most easily through terminology used in the poems, which refer to writer’s block, revision, inspiration, and other subjects of concern to all writers everywhere. Rather than be told what to think, though, each of the inspirational poems illustrate the principle of the writer’s concern, a Taoist approach to writing.

You are being guided, rather than pushed, in other words. To understand how to write, or how to write a poem, for that matter, you are being shown ancient Chinese poems. Then you sit with them, meditate upon them, and find that, instead of being taught in the style you’re accustomed to, which is based on agonistic beliefs of how writing ‘ought’ to be taught, you discover your writing. It’s a gentler, less aggressive way of thinking about writing, one where writer’s block is more about emotional stagnancy than painful avoidance: “…when the six emotions are stagnant/the will travels yet spirit stays put.” (The ‘six emotions’ referred to are sorrow, joy, hate, love, pleasure, and anger.)

If there is a how-to guide in this book, it is to be found in the section called “The Twenty Four Styles of Poetry.” Its twenty four poems illustrate a special style of writing that would have been considered important for the student to know: how to write in the elegant style; the masculine; the potent; the Ancient Heavenly style, and many others that were considered a poet’s highest attainment at the time.  Each of the twenty four styles uses language that illustrates its style, e.g.:

The Flowing Style
It takes in like a water mill
and turns like a pearl marble.
It is beyond words
and these are clumsy metaphors.
Earth spins on a hidden axis
and the universe rolls slowly around its hub.
If you search out the origin
you’ll find a corresponding motion.
Climb high into spiritual light.
Then dive deep into dark nothing.
All things for thousands of years
are caught up in the flow.

This is the essence of poetry, isn’t it? To reify itself within the lines of the poem? Think of Chinese poetry almost like a calligram, and I think you’ll start to realise why this slim volume is so effective. The section called “Jade Splinters” is truly where a new paradigm about writing began for me. The Chinese compared writing to “jade splinters,” meaning that their writings were attempts, only “splinters” left as they carved a gem. Don’t you prefer a metaphor that envisions writing as a process of carving a gemstone, rather than the metaphor of writing as a struggle (the metaphor we’ve learned from the Greeks)? I know I do.

Grammar as a political act

Link to The Grammar Police, Who Claims "Grammar Saves Lives"!

Grammar is typically taught very much as a form of “inside the box” thinking. In other words, there are rules, they’re packaged and sold as being fairly linear; follow them, and your writing will improve. However, the deeper truth about grammar is that it’s actually extremely complicated, and accurate use (an arguably impossible task) depends very much on who you read and why they wrote their grammar guide. Scariest of all, there are actually multiple grammars.

Let me start with my strangest-sounding proposition first, the notion that there are, in reality, multiple grammars. This statement flies in the face of what we grow up being taught, that there is “one” grammar, one way of doing something, and one true way to write. In fact, grammar use is highly political, it’s fluid, and it changes with the prevailing values of the dominant culture. You are forgetting, even as I write this, the grammar you learned to set in cement when you were a child.

The reason you’re forgetting is because you do not use the grammar you learned as a child. You don’t realise it most of the time, but it’s true. A great deal of what you learned when you were young is probably still valid, but there are once-important bits and pieces that no longer matter, that no one cares about, and that few people, except perhaps die-hard grammarians and linguists, think are important. In other words, the grammar you were taught to cling to as a life raft on the sea of errant words has been over-written by more recent information, and that newer information was written when you weren’t paying all that much attention.

So the concept of multiple grammars starts with the simple fact that there are acceptable ways of saying something and unacceptable ways of saying something. The second aspect to the concept of multiple grammars lies with the inherent politicization of the use of language when a grammar is applied to it; the grammar forms and restrictions determine ‘correctness’ at the cost of meaning, but if you’re representing the dominant voice in society, do you honestly care if a group’s meaning is erased by the power of your grammar? No, you do not. Your concern is to make the group learn ‘the correct way’ to say something.

Unfortunately for those you dominate with your grammar rules, they had their own forms, methods, and ways of saying something, now in the process of being erased by your need to ‘correct’ them. Grammars then become a method of controlling what people are allowed to say, how they are allowed to say it, and who, ultimately, will be heard. In this way, the deep structure of language is controlled by the very few in charge who are authorised by society to make the decision to approve or disapprove language use.

You begin to see the inherent risk of making it necessary to say something in any one way, when you start to realise how rigid, limiting, and controlling the concept of grammar can be. Grammar is never a value-neutral activity; it always carries with it the danger of oppressing the writer’s unique voice, creativity, and style, and replacing it with what you approve of, what the dominant voice in society approves of—this is what makes grammars political. Yet, control constantly slips through the hands of those who seek to manage the unmanageable. The very fluidity of language makes it an impossible quest for lost verb forms to try to tell someone to use the language the way it was used in your Aunt Sally’s era.

Further, the disparity between the grammar that is approved by those ‘in charge,’ and the grammar that is actually used, reveals the divergence between someone’s reality and someone’s ideal, and that territory belongs to philosophy. Grammar exists in that space very uneasily, and should come with a warning label: danger, you’re entering heavily politicized ground! User beware!

Just remember that correcting someone carries with it a tremendous responsibility. Who and what are you turning them into, precisely, when you correct their language use? You? Perhaps they’d like to be themselves instead.

The purported link between creativity and madness

There is a strong social bias or prejudice in favor of believing that genius comes along with some form of psychosis. Depression, anxiety, even mania, are frequently associated with creative ability. Writers have often done little to dispel this myth; even psychologists who specialise in understanding and explaining human behavior seem to have a vested interest in maintaining this belief.

A study done in the late 80s (and reinforced by later studies on a similar theme) interviewed and followed 30 participants who had all been published writers and taught writing for at least 15 years at University of Iowa‘s writing workshop. The study indicated that 80% of these writers had some kind of affective illness. Now, the catch with studies like this (and this one in particular) is that it was conducted by one person, and none of the “evidence” was corroborated by peers. In other words, the author of the study, a psychologist, might be said to have found what she was looking for.

This is a problem for writers, this perception (reinforced by society, writers themselves, and the entire history of Western civilization going back to Plato, for crying out loud) that writing is a form of “madness,” that creativity is a gift, a divine inspiration given to us “by the gods” (thanks, Plato) and that we who write (or do any kind of creative act, really) are of necessity better at it when we’re looking for our muse at the bottom of the bottle, let’s say, or in the arms of our best friend’s wife, or some other such nonsense.

You can also take the time to make a list of all the writers you can think of who have been known to be in some way ‘crazy’ or suffering from some kind of affective disorder (to put it in the words of psychologists). I think you’ll find the list is long, indicating that writing is something we associate with various forms of mental illness. It’s entirely possible that since writing is a form of catharsis, the predominant writing that holds our collective attention is mostly that which has been shaped by difficulty, tragedy, or loss.

Click here for an excellent online resource for further research into this perplexing topic.

The Vexed Subject of Voice, Part 1

“Voice” is one of those amorphous terms I object to, and cannot fight, since the concept of individual “voice” dominates the field of creative writing. What does it mean, though? Why is it such an elusive subject? And what does it mean to “find one’s voice”?

Here’s the problem I have with the term, first of all: it’s vague. Even though a critique of your writing will often include “strong voice,” or “lacks a clear voice,” it is never apparent what the critic means by that, because they themselves only know it when they see it. They learned the concept of voice in school from teachers who were taught Expressivism, a movement that relies on Romantic ideas of individual expression for its theoretical basis.

Secondly, it’s inaccurate. Everyone has a voice. Everyone. Every writer who ever wrote anything writes in their own unique style, which is what “voice” apparently means, first and foremost, these days. So what critics mean when they say your writing lacks “voice”, then, is that it lacks an individual style that separates it out from everyone else’s writing. Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up, what can we do about it? And is it realistic to expect writing to carry a truly “unique” voice that doesn’t contain echoes of other voices you’ve read before? I say this because, realistically, no one writes in a vacuum. We are all influenced by one another, and every writer I read reminds me of someone else I’ve read. Every single one. None of us have ever recreated the wheel, not entirely. It’s unrealistic to hold a writer to that standard.

Playing devil’s advocate, let me ask, why do we need an individual voice? What’s so bad about sounding like the author you love? Why shouldn’t you aspire to copy, or mimic their style? When you take beginning writing classes, that’s exactly what you do; you learn how to imitate the style of the writer you’re reading, so that you can prove to your teacher that you understand the basics. The idea(l) that lies beyond that level of writing skill, however, is what plagues most writers. The ideal is that you will not want to mimic someone else, and that it is bad to do so.

The problem I have with this goes back to what I was saying above; it is entirely unrealistic to aspire to what critics love to label “a brand new voice.” That’s hype. There is no such thing as a brand new voice. What there can be is a new take on an old subject, told from a different perspective, using language you’re not used to hearing. Anything reminiscent of someone else’s writing that sounds too much like them, though, will be trash-canned, either for real, or dragged into someone’s trashcan icon.

Why is that? Why is the search for that “new” or “fresh” voice so important to the writing community?  I believe some of it stems from the perpetuated belief that the act of writing is really akin to the divine. There is that unexpressed hope that you’re going to read something you’ve never seen before that will lift you out of the mundane. That seems to be a deeply-rooted need, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for readers of all sorts. We’re taught so many things about writing that allow these myths to persist, that the myth of the “fresh” voice is just one of many.

If voice is about your style, though, about how you say the same old thing, that’s different, and that can be taught, and it can be nurtured. It is attainable. It is no longer a divine mystery.