Writing Fiction? Turn Off All Devices!

Want to write? Turn off all devices. This is hardly an original concept, yet it is so important that it bears repeating. Turn off all devices- phones, tablets, computers (other than word processors), televisions, etc. Turn off all superficial and exterior distractions. Not for an hour. Not for several. Turn them off and put them away.

Devices are so ubiquitous that few people consider them superfluous. Perhaps they aren’t, not in general. Much of life seems to funnel through them. But if you want to write, devices are deadly. They distract, even more than realized. But even worse, they pull a person to the surface. Upwards, outwards. From within to without. Consistently, constantly. And nobody, no matter how talented, can write his or her best when continually yanked from story world to computer world.

Story world. That is where we live. Where we should live. Immersed, completely, for long stretches of time, in that world and no other. Only by existing there, by perceiving it all around, by experiencing it with all five senses in full dimensions, can the story appearing on the page even begin to convey it. This happens only when no distractions exist. (Some distractions aren’t controllable, but devices are.)

I hear so many people say, but I’ve got to be connected, I might miss something if I’m not. I call bulls*#t on that. There is absolutely no need to check texts, emails, social media multiple times per hour. Prior to such things, people got along just fine without knowing every last little thing immediately. Do this. Check whatever you need to check once in the morning after waking up, once at lunchtime, and once in the evening. That’s it. Three times a day. More than sufficient. If you can’t do that, if you keep getting drawn to your devices, then guess what? You’re addicted.

This is actually good advice for life in general, not just writing. Look up from the device screen, observe the world around you, experience the moment in the here and now. Too many people have forgotten how to do that, never understanding that the mind existing in the moment, whether in the outer world or story world, expands in so many wonderful ways. Devices prevent that potentiality. They deaden and dull.

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Gentle Advice from the Reading Gods

This is kind of amusing. The reading gods, apparently, have been speaking to me. About a year ago, at a local used bookstore that offers one small shelf of $1 books, I came across  the Penguin Classics version of The Poem of The Cid. Excellent. I hadn’t read it, so I got it. But, of course, I already had numerous other books in my reading queue, so I put the volume on my bookshelf for the future. A few months later, same bookstore, same $1 shelf, I found The New American Library version of the same poem. For no particular reason, I bought it. At that point I was still working through my reading list, and hadn’t yet read the poem. And then yesterday, same bookstore, same $1 shelf. The University of California Press version of the poem.  I had to get it.

I’m pretty sure that the reading gods are giving me an exceedingly strong recommendation. Read The Poem of El Cid already!! I’ve acquiesced to their sage advice, and have started reading. All three versions, that is. That has been part of the fun, comparing the different translations.

I’ve included the first paragraph (stanzas) of each translation, offered in the order in which I acquired the volumes. The juxtaposition clearly demonstrates that the quality of translation makes all the difference. As you will see, one version is better than the others. (I won’t say which. Evaluate for yourself.) It is written in clear, flowing English, yet retains an essence of the original.

Penguin Classics:

“Tears streamed from his eyes as he turned his head and stood looking at them. He saw doors left open and gates unlocked, empty pegs without fur tunics or cloaks, perches without falcons or moulted hawks. The Cid sighed, for he was weighed down with heavy cares. Then he said, with dignity and restraint: ‘I give Thee thanks, O God, our Father in Heaven. My wicked enemies have contrived this plot against me.'”

New American Library:

“His eyes, grievously weeping, he turned his head and looked back upon them. He saw doors standing open and gates without fastenings, the porches empty without cloaks or coverings and without falcons and without molted hawks. He sighed, my Cid, for he felt great affliction. He spoke, my Cid, well, and with great moderation. ‘Thanks be to Thee, our Father Who art in Heaven! My evil enemies have wrought this upon me.'”

The University of California Press:

“My Cid turned his head and stopped and gazed with streaming eyes. He beheld the open doors, the postern gates unbolted, and vacant the perches where once his skins and mantles hung, and his molting hawks were wont to rest.

My Cid sighed, for his heart was heavy.

My Cid spoke, well and measuredly:

‘Blessed be the Lord Our God, Our Father who art on high! See now what my wicked enemies have wrought!'”

Writing Fiction? Read History!

Many fiction writers, myself included, are fascinated by people. Who they are, what they do, and why they do it. Which traits can be attributed to quirks of personality, and which to underlying human nature. It seems like a wonderful mystery. Who are these incredibly complex beings, living all around us and existing within our own minds? What past experiences and innate forces created who they are, and how do those influences cause them to think and act now?

To understand people, read history. Broadly, and in depth. From all cultures and time periods. Read and read history. Because only by doing so, by studying people throughout thousands of years of recorded and archaeological history, can a writer begin to grasp who people are. Fundamentally. Patterns emerge, intertwined with anomalies.

Through the lens of history, great truths about human behavior become very clear and obvious. And yet in other aspects, on the individual level, people remain that great mystery. And isn’t that why writers create characters? Delving deep into that mystery, elucidating it for themselves and for their readers.

The Thrill of Editing

I must say, I’m having a lot of fun editing. Two years or so ago, I was about to publish Brilliant Disguise. Had it completely edited (I thought), formatted, etc. Was  about to push that publish button, when for some reason, I thought, no. Let it sit a while longer.

Two years later now. Far longer than I had anticipated. (Other writing projects consumed my attention.) I pulled out Brilliant Disguise, thinking to review it briefly, and then publish. I started to read. And to my surprise, I found that the story needed substantial editing. A bit of a shock, and not a pleasant one. Apparently, my writing skills had improved considerably in the intervening years. Once I got over that initial jolt, I sat down, blue editing pen in hand, and began to edit.

And edit. And edit. And edit. I’ve found the process to be absolutely thrilling. Taking a piece of writing that has good underlying bones, though somewhat obscured by inessentials, and stripping away the unnecessary to reveal the true story. What a charge. What a rush. Now far more clear and elegant, though maintaining depth and complexity.  The story I wanted to tell. The one I originally envisioned.

Editing requires sheer ruthlessness. Every last unnecessary word, sentence, paragraph must be deleted. That can hurt. Obliterating a phrase that sounded so pretty when being written, cutting and cutting tens to hundreds of hours worth of beloved labor, wrastling and wrangling and wresting it all into shape. But now that I’ve learned to be ruthless, I find great pleasure in the cutting and rewriting. It is nearly the best part of writing, watching the essential emerge in vivid image. Turning vision to words, which in turn evoke that vision. Good, happy fun! True elation.

If You Only Read the Books That Everyone Else is Reading…

I recently read a quotation by Haruki Murakami. “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Nothing particularly unique about the thought, but it is interesting, and led me to a tangential line of reasoning.

The books that everyone else is reading. That bit seems particularly relevant to the current book market. And it resonates with me in particular, because whenever multiple people tell me that I just must read a popular book, I viscerally cringe. Why? Perhaps I’m a little snake-bit at this point, having delved into such popular volumes, only to find most of them at best mediocre. Perhaps I assume that popular equates somewhat with lowest common denominator, a certain group-think when it comes to perceiving both books and the greater world. Whatever the reason, the books that everyone else reads should often be avoided.

The issues at play here are two-fold. A portion of readers only want to read what is popular. What other people know and discuss. For them saying that they’ve read a certain book, and receiving only blanks stares of non-recognition in return, is both uncomfortable and lacks the neurotransmitter rush of positive reinforcement. If they can’t place themselves and their reading into some social context, then what is the point?** Certain books then get spun up into a popular pressure vortex. These are the books to read, these and no others. (And people only have so much time to read, so there is little opportunity to read beyond the expected, or even to find other options.) The books that are deemed popular are the ones where consumer money is spent, so the publishing world focuses its selections on meeting this demand.

But the problem doesn’t really start with the consumers, or even with the publishers. It starts with the book reviewers. The publishers, yes, but mostly the reviewers. Why? Reviewers, the ostensibly real, respected kind, tend to all review the same narrow selection of books. Countless times I’ve found, in a given month, the same books being reviewed in, for instance, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the New York Times Book Review,  the New York Review of Books, etc. There is no broad reading of all new books being published. There is no search for the best and brightest. These people aren’t book reviewers. They are simply shilling for the publishers, promoting those few books that the publishers want promoted, forcing them into becoming those popular, must-read volumes. Cynical, perhaps. But really, what else could account for nearly all published books being ignored? What else could account for truly excellent books having no chance against the promotional juggernaut? What else could account for the reviewed books coincidentally having the largest publicity budgets, already established prior to publication and public reaction? It’s rather QED, like it or not.

Imagine. Just imagine. If book reviewers actually read broadly of all published books, and wrote real reviews of the best of the lot, imagine how much more vastly and beautifully textured the reading landscape would be. People in general don’t have the time to peruse hundreds of possibilities every month. That should be the job of the reviewers, and they are failing miserably.

This discussion has wandered far from the quotation, but it circles back round to this. If everyone reads the same few books, foisted upon them by the publishers and reviewers, then the scope of perception is severely curtailed. And isn’t that representative of current society? It seems that the more freedom we have, the more information to which we have access, the greater and broader the scope of possibilities (of all sorts), the more narrow and confined and stunted our minds and imaginations become. By choice, by not seizing the endless opportunities that exist all around us.

 

** And perhaps for that same greater context, people tend to want to read what is already familiar. This accounts for some truly horrendous book series, whose latest installments, no matter how wretched, land immediately on the bestseller lists.

Trying to Write? Take a Walk.

The simplest advice. Suggested by many writers before me. But it is such good advice, the best, really, that it warrants repeating and repeating and repeating.

If you are trying to write, take a walk.

When your writing flows easily, straight from thought to paper, then stay seated and type away. When writing is more difficult, a real conscious effort, but accurately reflects what you envision, then keep writing. But when the mind is sluggish, those words with great effort appearing one by one (by one by one) on the page like the drip drops of ancient water torture, take a walk. When even with focused effort, writing fails to reflect the vision, take a walk. When frustrated, angry, weary, or in despair, take a walk.

No headphones. No devices. No distractions of any kind.  Your mind, your body, and the world opening all around you- nothing more. Nothing more. Can’t stress that enough. Take a walk. Blood flows, endorphins surge, and the mind, the imagination, expand in all sorts of lovely and unexpected ways.

Walk outside. Not on a treadmill, unless that is truly the only option. There is something about the vastness of the outer world that sparks the vastness of the inner mind. They both expand to infinity, until they almost seem to merge.

When you’ve finished your walk, sit back down and write. And write and write.

Whenever I think of writers walking, I always envision Emily Bronte, walking for hours upon hours across the wild Yorkshire moors, a lone, slim figure traversing scraggly earth and stormy sky.

Writing vs. Storytelling

By pure coincidence, I recently happened to read two non-fiction books about the same general topic, traveling through Africa. Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux, and African Silences, by Peter Matthiessen. The juxtaposition of the two tales made me think about writing versus storytelling.

The two authors themselves are similar in many ways. White, American males from the northeast, middle-aged when writing the books, of the same generation or nearly, having lived and worked in Africa years earlier and now returning to revisit the continent. They are both famous and successful authors, well-received critically, and much lauded. And while both are good writers, one is more clearly a storyteller as well. And isn’t it stories that we want to read, the kind that draw us in past the words, past the black and white text, to a world that we envision opening all around us. Storytelling, good storytelling, seamless and enthralling, is the most difficult form of writing to master. The technique can be somewhat learned, but the experts have an innate talent.

I’m going to say nothing more, no analysis, simply leaving you with four passages to review for yourselves, allowing you to draw your own conclusions.

The following are the first paragraph from each book.

Dark Star Safari:

“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hots spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again. Feeling that the place was so large it contained many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too- feeling that there was more to Africa than misery and terror- I aimed to reinsert myself in the bunda, as we used to call the bush, and to wander the antique hinterland. There I had lived and worked, happily, almost forty years ago, in the heart of the greenest continent.”

African Silences:

“On African journeys that began with an overland trip from Egypt to Tanganyika in 1961, I traveled widely in East and southern Africa (Botswana), the last great redoubt of large and wild creatures left on earth. Not until the winter of 1978 did I reach West Africa- specifically Senegal-Gambia and Ivory Coast- accompanying a primatologist, Dr. Gilbert Boese, on an informal survey of what was left of West Africa wildlife, from the Sahel region, south of the Sahara, to the Guinea forest of the coasts, then continuing eastward to Zaire, hoping to join an expedition in search of the rare Congo peacock, and enjoying two meetings with gorillas along the way.”

The following are a paragraph from each book, chosen completely at random.

Dark Star Safari:

“My first impression of Addis Ababa: handsome people in rags, possessed of both haughtiness and destitution, a race of aristocrats who had pawned the family silver. Ethiopia was unique in black Africa for having its own script, and therefore its own written history and a powerful sense of the past. Ethiopians are aware of their ancient cultural links with India and Egypt and the religious fountainhead of the Middle East, often claiming to be among the earliest Christians. When your barbarian ancestors were running around Europe bare-assed, with bellies painted in blue woad, elaborately clothed Ethiopians were breeding livestock and using the wheel and defending their civilization against the onslaught of Islam, while piously observing the Ten Commandments.”

African Silences:

“In the dead heat that persists into the dusk, the kob and waterbuck lie down on the dry mud of Sita N’di (the western kob seem to ignore the hottest sun) but the bushbuck and warthog have retreated to the shade of the hot dry woodland all around. Here and there, the woodland floor is white with silk-cotton from the Ceiba pods, which are eaten by baboons as well as vervets and thereby scattered in the time of seeding. Bamboo the brown color of burning white paper sprouts from a crust of lateritic stone, and the common Pterocarpus tree is coming into a pretty yellow blossom, as if in anticipation of the rains, but over the white woods hangs a ghostly stillness, intensified by hot wafts of the harmattan in the dry fans of raffia and borassus.”