Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Impossibility of Writing

Greetings, and welcome November!

The week began in drudgery and ended with enlightenment. How did I manage to do all of that?

I'm glad you asked.

This week began with my full intention to take a break from writing. I had some school work coming up near Thanksgiving and I decided to blitz and get it done rather than procrastinate. Several article readings and three papers later, my mind was thoroughly deflated. Then I got an email from Writer's Digest about their upcoming short story competition.

The challenge: 1,500 words. Submit by November 15.

Yikes! Better get started. Which I did. My mind spun round and round trying to think of an idea. Of course, the golden standard I kept going back to was Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." How could I possibly pull off something like that? I turned out a draft of a story that I thought had a good premise, but wouldn't work with just 1,500 words.

Once again, my beautiful and insightful girlfriend came to the rescue. "Why don't you do something different in your routine?"

I figured it was worth a shot. I went down to a local park and sat, reading a chapter from "Twilight For the Gods" by Ernest Gann. After which, I took out my typewriter and pecked out four pages. And what did I write? Well, a vignette, more or less. The story is about a protagonist (me) trying to find something to write about. He thinks and thinks and thinks, but can't come up with a premise that satisfies him. The story ends with him opening his eyes and realizing that something to write about was there all along, waiting for him to discover it.

It was one of those "ah ha!" moments followed by a "you dummy, of course that's how it's done" moment. I've never written anything that was explicitly based on anything that happened to me in real life, though authors like Hemingway became famous for it. His first published book, "The Sun Also Rises," follows his journey to the artistic community in Paris almost verbatim. He offended various acquaintances throughout his life because of the way they were portrayed.

I'm not going to discuss "how" one should use their own life experiences to make fiction, but this little episode was very enlightening. And the enlightenment continued. When I got back to the house, I watched a lecture given at Yale by Dr. Alberto Manguel on the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. It was entitled: "The Impossibility of Writing."

Here's the video. 

If you don't have an hour and twenty minutes, let me summarize the main points.

Borges was an Argentine writer who almost lived through the entire 20th Century. He wrote poetry and non-fiction before turning to short stories and novels. This lecture was the first time I'd ever heard the man's name, and I doubt many American readers know him. You might notice the quote that I put at the bottom of my blog from his work Dreamtigers.

In essence, the lecture deals with the limits of the human language. Words are incapable of completely conveying the true and full nature of something because language is an imperfect creation used by humans, imperfect creatures.

Jorge Luis Borges, 1899-1986

Therefore, it is impossible to write a conclusive or comprehensive work of literature because the language and mind of the writer are inherently flawed. That's not to say writing is useless or shouldn't be attempted. Borges, in one of his many articles, declared that it was the opposite. He illustrates by mentioning the golem. The most famous account of this mythological creature is from the 16th Century.

In Prague, a rabbi forms a creature of clay and brings it to life by writing the word "emet" which means "truth." The creature was formed to protect Jews from pogroms, but it soon slips from the master's control and begins to wreck havoc. The rabbi destroys it by striking the first letter from "emet" and changing it to "met" which means "death."

Borges comments on the legend by saying, "The rabbi looked at the pile of clay that his creature was, but no one can tell us what God felt as he looked upon his rabbi." Borges felt that all human writing was imperfect, but the closest work that came to perfection was Dante's "Divine Comedy." And yet, Dante himself admits this in a way because his love, Beatrice, escapes him after casting a fleeting glance in his direction, which he said no man or poet could ever hope to portray with language.

We have a number of expressions in our modern time for this feelings.

"Words fail me."
"I can't put my finger on it."
"I'm getting a vibe."
"I'm going with my gut."

So, does that mean that writing is a waste of time? Hardly. Borges said that the act of writing a story (or participating in any facet of the arts) was "the imminence of a revelation that never takes place." As Dr. Manguel elaborated, "To accept this paradox is to reject the temptation of the serpent, that man can be like God. Instead, we are content to reflect His creation back to Him through luminous pages that show His world."

Deep stuff.

James A. Michener also touched upon this idea in his work, "The Novel." Two of the characters are literary critics that are disheartened by the rise and dominance of commercial fiction. In their minds, the only true form of fiction is that which converses to another author or reader some higher ideal. They believe that no matter how many works might come about with their cheap thrills, boring characters, and overused plot devices, a vanguard of "real" writers should continue the conversation.

A final example is what Stephen King and many other authors have said: the act of reading a book is taking part in a two-way conversation between the author and the reader.

Bill Waterson's thoughts on the subject.

This is all very deep stuff, but I think every author needs to hear it because it puts them and their work in perspective. Whenever you write a story, you're not trying to reinvent it. When the Harry Potter series was published, many praised it as a wonderful coming-of-age story. That doesn't mean Harry Potter invented the archetype. We came up with archetypes because we realized long ago that artists are taking universal truths and presenting them in different ways.

Gary Larson, ladies and gentlemen!

That's why language changes with time: to accompany the readers' comprehension so they can participate in this conversation.

That's why you and I should never give up as writers. We all have something to say in our own, unique, imperfect way.

In that sense, writing is not impossible.


Ok, other business.

In addition to writing something for the WD short story contest, I've submitted another work to six magazines electronically. If they reject it, I'll submit the document to some more via hard copy.

While doing this I couldn't help but get drawn into the controversy surrounding submission fees. It seems that literary journals have come under fire for charging authors to pay money to send them their work. I'm new to the market, so my opinions are half-baked.

Traditionally, literary agents and publishing companies do not charge for submissions, even unsolicited ones. They get paid based on sales revenue.

Literary journals seem to be in a different boat. With the rise of electronic media, subscription rates have been going down, but there are now more writers wanting to be published. Even online-only publications have considerable expenses.

Most of the journals I saw that charged "service fees" want the author to use a service called Submittable. This isn't free either. You have to pay $10 a month or $100 a year. On top of that, the submission fees are usually three or four dollars, though I read a scathing attack on Narrative Magazine for apparently charging as much as $15-$20 per manuscript.

These fees do not get your work to the top of the slush pile, and it certainly doesn't mean you're getting published. As you might guess, the practice has generated a lot of hard feelings that you can explore with a quick Google search.

Contests are different. You can't buy prizes for the contestants if you don't have money and the best way to get money is to charge an entrance fee.

The thing that confuses me is that journals are charging for electronic submissions only. I could mail a manuscript to Boulevard via USPS and actually save money because I can buy manilla envelopes and stamps in bulk.

For guys like me that are in school, with no income, and trying to break into the market, submission fees don't appear very logical, especially in the worsening economy. But then again, I suppose that's why they're doing it. Even resource websites like Duotrope recently began charging members because so many people had signed up.

Until the situation changes, I'll probably be submitting to as many "free" places as possible. There are magazines that charge a fee and do not use Submittable, and I'll probably consider them.

All right, let's do something fun to wrap this week up.

One of Writers' Digest's articles encouraged its readers to "reject a hit." The game is simple: in 300 words, reject a well-known book and give your reasons. They can be actual errors you found in the text or completely absurd and made up.

For my choice, I selected "The Dogs of War" by Frederick Forsyth. Although not nearly as well-known to American audiences as Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy, Forsyth became famous in 1971 with his classic "Day of the Jackal." "The Dogs of War" was published a few years later, based on his experience as a correspondent covering the Biafra War in Nigeria.

The book has been hailed as a "manual for mercenaries," and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Having said that, here is my satirical reject of a hit.

Dear Mr. Forsyth,

We've read your manuscript, "The Dogs of War." I regret to inform you that we are unable to accept the work for publication at this time. I would like to offer a few editorial suggestions if you intend to pursue this with other companies. 

First, your inconsistent use of small arms cartridge designations made it difficult to read. Most professionals use the common form: 9mm Luger. There is no reason to write it as nine-millimeter,, 9x19mm, 7.63 millimeter, 9. millimeter, or any of the other twenty variations that you employed in the text. Pick one and stick with it.

At one time you refer to the protagonist's young lover as a Lolita. While it's encouraging to see that you are a well-read man, I am confident that no one who reads "The Dogs of War" will get the reference to Nabokov's novel. Therefore, I recommend that you replace it with something more identifiable with the modern generation. You can find countless ideas in the celebrity gossip magazines at your nearest supermarket.

Concerning the South African character. I find it highly improbable that any team of professional soldiers would recruit a member for whom they had to translate every word of conversation. The character dies, proving my point.

The biggest crux, by far, is your not-at-all friendly portrayal of western Europe. Your characters display an incredible amount of historically-informed distrust of nearly every democratic nation that they visit. Yet, they're judgements are hypocritical because they're more than willing to procure illegal arms from a company in fascist Spain. 

Really, Mr. Forsyth. We've decolonized Africa and India. I honestly believe that publication of this work has the potential to reignite international tensions that we've spent so much time trying to bury.

Cut us some slack. Nobody wants to conquer other nations or segregate people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideology. That went out of style ages ago.



See you next week! 

Power to the pen.

No comments:

Post a Comment