Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Physical Writing Process: Donna Tartt - Multicolored Pencils, Polychrome Paper

Donna Tartt (Image courtesy Airship Daily)

Literary Talismans
Literature as we tend to conceive of it exists in the realm of the mind, represented by little markings that are easily reproduced (the written word) and endlessly spread, whether on paper or electronically. But my goal in this series was always to explore the physical roots, the paper on which the words were originally carved.

I'm also exploring what an English professor of mine once called "literary talismans" - tangible objects left behind by creatives. She mentioned this at her surprise that I was interested to see her signed copy of a book of Allen Ginsberg's poetry. She showed it to me in her office one day - her name and his on a page of arabesquing sunflowers all drawn by Ginsberg's hand.

Being so much rarer, these literary talismans can be difficult to track down. I'd read Jack Kerouac's On the Road when I was younger, but I didn't fully immerse myself into the world of Kerouac until just after the original scroll finished its tour of the United States - much to my disappointment, as I'd still love to see it in person.

The same thing just happened to me with The Goldfinch. At the end of last year the world of arts and letters was abuzz with Donna Tartt's most recent novel, but I only just got around to reading it. The novel goes hand in hand with the ideas I had in starting this series, since it explores themes related to the near immortality of physical things such as paintings or antique furniture. The 775-page tome was inspired by a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, a Dutch master who died young in a gunpowder explosion, leaving behind only a handful of works. His painting, "The Goldfinch" was serendipitously exhibited at the Frick Collection in New York at the exact same time Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch was released. It'd be great to see the painting that's so reverently described in the novel:

"The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever."

And while it's entirely possible I walked uncaringly past the Frick Collection while the painting was there, "The Goldfinch" finished its exhibition in New York at the beginning of the year, and after a brief stay in Italy, has returned to its home at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, so unfortunately, I missed it - for now.

"The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius

Donna Tartt's Writing Process

On the topic of interesting things you might unknowingly walk past in New York, Donna Tartt did most of her research and writing for The Goldfinch at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, in the Allen Room. She prefers to write by hand with plain ballpoint pens in large college-ruled, spiral-bound notebooks. She likes her work to be portable and keeps notebooks to write in all the time. Some inspiration for the novel actually began twenty years ago, based on notes she wrote in Amsterdam (She first saw "The Goldfinch" as a copy at Christie's in Amsterdam).

As she explained to Omnivoracious, she had stacks of different notebooks by the time she was late into the composition of The Goldfinch:

"In the fall when the school supplies are in the store, I'll tend to buy lots of them so I can get just the kind I want: silly patterns and colors are, for me, an important aide memoire, a mental filing system. When I was finishing Goldfinch, I had a series of notebooks that had covers from Beatles albums, and when I was looking for something, it was easier for me to think: 'Oh, I wrote that in the "Hard Day's Night" notebook' or 'I wrote that in the "Sgt. Pepper" notebook' rather than 'I wrote that in the blue notebook.'"

She has a color-coded process for her revisions. She uses red, blue, and then green pencil to make the palimpsest easier to read and keep track of which revisions were written when. She'll also staple index cards onto the notebook pages when needed.

When the notebooks are "too tangled-up to read," as Tartt likes to say, she types them up and prints them out, but even here she uses a color-coded system to stay organized. She mentions having a pink draft, a grey draft, and a blue draft of The Goldfinch to easily know which stack of paper is the newest version. "My French teacher, many years ago, told me this, and it actually works," Tartt says. She takes about a decade per novel, so it seems ideal to keep everything meticulously organized over that span of time.

We often think of escapism as readers getting lost in books, but in these decade-long excursions, Tartt finds escapism as a writer: "I don’t want to write about my own life, I want to write about someone else’s, to live someone else’s life."

Monday, May 5, 2014

Salman Rushdie and Timothy Garton Ash in Dialogue on Freedom of Expression

Salmon Rushdie sat down with his friend and colleague Timothy Garton Ash for a conversation about the importance of freedom of expression during his last year as chairman of the PEN World Voices Festival, which he founded back in 2005.

"If we all had a right not to be offended by anything that offended us, nobody could say anything,” Rushdie said. “I don't like the novels of Dan Brown, but I think he should live." He added under his breath, "I'm not sure about published, but live."

The conversation began with Garton Ash’s description of three different 1989s: Liberation in Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tienamen Square in China, and the Fatwa against Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Garton Ash shared a story of a party he attended with Rushdie in 1989 - Rushdie’s security team inconspicuously leafing through the bookshelves in the background - where Rushdie asked him how it felt when he heard that the Berlin Wall had fallen. Garton Ash had replied that, “It felt good,” and he said this understatement would have been forgotten in irrelevance, had it not been the opening of Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton. A BBC reporter calls Rushdie at home and asks him how it feels that the Ayatollah Khomeini has sentenced him to death, and Rushdie responds, “It doesn’t feel good.”

Their conversation encompassed free speech issues around the world. During the discussion of an attempt to make it illegal under British law to criticize religion, Rushdie shared the story that it only failed by one vote because Tony Blair went home early for dinner. “Say what you will about Tony Blair, but he did his part.” Garton Ash reminded the audience that they were being addressed by Sir Salman Rushdie, which prompted Rushdie to share his awkward exchange with the queen. "When I went up to get the sword on the shoulder,” Rushdie said, the queen began the conversation with, "Are you still writing books?" Rushdie said that the conversation only went downhill from there.

Rushdie said that The Satanic Verses is still banned in his birthplace, India. Although, "If you want to buy The Satanic Verses in India, just download it onto your Kindle." During the discussion of freedom of expression in India, Rushdie expressed that he thought the country was going in the wrong direction. When Garton Ash asked him why he thought this was the case, Rushdie responded that the reason is “Its desire to appease every interest group by allowing them to ban whatever they like, so that you have a banning competition. You know, if the Muslims get a book banned then the Hindus want a book banned and so on." Rushdie continued, stating that in India it only took one individual being offended to ban a book. “The person who's offended your sentiments is guilty because you say so. There is no defense. And that was the problem with the Wendy Doniger book.”

The authors also discussed the United States, focusing on NSA spying and Edward Snowden. While Garton Ash was adamant that Snowden performed a public service, Rushdie agreed that Snowden’s actions had been beneficial for freedom of expression, but he also had reservations.  "I don't like the fact that he's sitting in Moscow with Putin."

Continuing on the topic, Garton Ash said, "It's not just free speech versus privacy. In an important way, privacy is an important condition for free speech."

Rushdie countered, "By endlessly putting stuff out there on the internet, we voluntarily surrendered our privacy."

During the discussion of publishing books in China, Rushdie said that he refused to have his books published with any part censored. He said that after a few plans with publishers had fallen through, another publisher was supposed to publish ten of his books in China. After the first one was released, the next nine were cancelled. "You're never given a reason.” Rushdie said. “The reason is, ‘No.’ That's the reason."

On working with publishers pushing the boundaries in China, Garton Ash said, "They're on your side, and they're making the minimum possible compromises." When he was having a conversation with Chinese publishers about publishing his book Free World they said, "We like your book very much, we just think it needs to be improved." Garton Ash responded with skepticism, "In what areas exactly does it need to be ‘improved’?" But Garton Ash said that in the end, they published it with only two paragraphs removed - one of which dealt directly with Tiananmen Square. "That tradeoff is worth it for a political book of nonfiction," Garton Ash said.

"Well you're right,” Rushdie agreed. “Nonfiction has slightly different rules."

The authors took questions from the audience on topics ranging from narrative in the Quran and young writers in Pakistan to the limits of free speech.

Reflecting on the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rushdie said that it was his great regret that Garcia Marquez never agreed to come to the PEN World Voices Festival, despite repeated invitations. Garcia Marquez had been banned from entering the United States until late in his life due to his friendship with Fidel Castro, and Rushdie suspected that this negatively affected his outlook on a trip to New York.

Closing on the topic of freedom of expression, Garton Ash shared one of his ten principles of free speech, "We neither make threats of violence nor yield to violent intimidation."

The PEN World Voices Festival ended on Sunday, with Colm Tóibín, the incoming chairman, delivering the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Know Thyself... but be open to new ideas

Note: I’m part of a small writing guild called Scrawl. This is an excerpt from an issue of the Scrawl newsletter.

For various reasons, I’ve recently been thinking of Emerson’s concept of Self-Reliance. Now, that’s not meant to go against the spirit of collaboration that this guild is founded upon – after all, our group perfectly matches Stephen King’s advice: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open” – and the comments on this last round of stories seemed to be particularly insightful. However, Self-Reliance is meant in the spirit of inner reflection and the contemplation of your core values, even those that swim upstream of society and resist conformation with the world.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -- That is genius.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve all read those advice lists about writing and immediately thought of a counter-example. For instance, in Chuck Palahniuk’s essay “Submerging the I,” he advises hiding the fact that the story is written in first person until after the narrative has been established and the story has some authority. He writes, “My personal demon is any story that starts with ‘I.’ That instantly turns off my attention. But that’s just me.” It is just him, because when I read that, I instantly thought of the opening of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground: “I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.” That’s the example that comes to mind, but in every one of those rules for writing articles, you’re going to find a few that rub you the wrong way – Jonathan Franzen’s “It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction” also looms at hand, with writers like Teju Cole publishing compelling fiction via Twitter accounts just one illustration of how that can’t be true.

Yet we still read these lists because for every rule that doesn’t get you, you’ll find one that seems to have been unlocked from deep within your soul. You need to mix Emerson’s “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” with Aristotle’s “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Know thyself – but be open to new ideas.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

#TwitterFiction and the Art of Microfiction

I decided to write a quick blog entry after reading an article in The Millions by Elizabeth Minkel entitled, "Can #TwitterFiction Transcend Gimmickry and Become Art?" which has the obvious implication that current fiction on Twitter has not, and maybe cannot, become worthy of the title, "art." 

As I read her article, I learned of the Twitter Fiction Festival that is currently going on now through this Sunday, March 16th. I thought she was covering the gist of Twitter fiction pretty well - the obligatory Jonathan Franzen anti-Twitter quote, a couple of short stories by well-known authors that used Twitter as the medium, and even tracing origins in the Japanese cell-phone novel. However, there still seemed to be a huge piece of the puzzle missing.

The Twitter Fiction Festival 2014

I had vaguely stumbled upon the Twitter Fiction Festival at some point last month and forgotten about it, but this is the first I heard of it even though it started in 2012. As I looked into it, I started to wonder if Minkel's accusations of gimmickry stemmed from the nature of this festival. For example, look at what we are greeted with on their "About" page:

While I agree with them "That means perhaps something more than just tweeting out a narrative line-by-line," the first item in their example list is "Parody Accounts." If we're talking about fiction on Twitter, it seems to me that the foremost use of the word is not in the sense of "fictitious," but in the sense of a narrative story. Yet as you can see, not only is "Narrative" crammed in slot four of five, it is also combined with the other genre I would expect to be of utmost importance if we're going to talk about writing as art: Poetry. I understand that the interplay between when something so short becomes defined as a poem or a story is part of what's interesting in using Twitter as a medium for creative writing, but I've read guidelines of Twitter literary journals that distinctly indicate they are only publishing stories with character and plot, not poetry. What's that? Twitter literary journals?

Twitter Literary Journals - As in, Literary Journals That Publish Exclusively on Twitter

Something that was absent from all of the conversation I read about the Twitter Fiction Festival was the mention of literary journals that use Twitter as their medium. I still intend to dig a little deeper, but as far as I can tell, the existence of these literary journals has been entirely ignored, when I would expect the exact opposite to happen in the case of a big name festival on Twitter. The Twitter Fiction Festival is backed by the corporation of Twitter itself as well as Penguin Random House and the Association of American Publishers, and they didn't seem to invite any of the literary journals that are actually publishing quality fiction on a daily basis.

...or maybe not. While I didn't see anything on their website or the news coverage of the festival, I did find this tweet when I was checking into Nanoism:
So maybe they are included, which would be fantastic. Maybe the festival can provide some exposure to the Twitter microfiction community. I was most active in those circles back in 2009-2010, and as tends to be the case with the lifespans of small literary journals as a whole, a lot of the journals from that time are now defunct. However, I can't find a comprehensive list of Twitter literary journals, so that might be a project for another blog post.

Narrative Art in 140 Characters or Less

To go back to the concept of Twitter fiction as art, I think where the medium really shines is in the creation of a complete story in one tweet. To use Nanoism as an example, their guidelines read:

"Nanoism is a twitterzine, an online publication focused on nanofiction, which in this case refers to stories that clock in at a maximum of 140 characters...

we are most interested in literary fiction—stories that move us with their writing. We are looking for staying power: pieces that leave an impression disproportionate to their length."

A well crafted piece of Twitter fiction is a cousin of the haiku. The minimalist restrictions imposed upon it may be arbitrary, but they force the writer to do the delicate work of distilling a story down to its barest essence. Other types of fiction on Twitter that work via serialization of multiple tweets or utilization of different accounts may still achieve the status of art, but they're a different breed than the single-tweet story, more in the same vein as an epistolary novel than a haiku.

Microfiction and Twitter: More to Come

I've been intending to write a post on the art of microfiction and highlight the writing of Daniil Kharms, the undisputed master of the shortest stories (according to me, at least), so this is a topic that I'll be returning to in the future with more depth.

In the mean time, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Twitter Fiction and what you think of the Twitter Fiction Festival.


Related Posts:

Saturday, March 8, 2014

How much does the character of the author affect the work?

Death and a Dictionary

I recently read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The subtitle captivated my attention when I saw it on the clearance shelf and captures the essence of the book. It takes something that sounds quite boring and tedious (making a dictionary), combines it with crime thriller terms (you immediately think, “Why the heck does anyone get murdered in the making of a dictionary?!”), and then you reflect back on the fact that maybe making a dictionary from scratch in the first place is kind of interesting because it poses such an overwhelming challenge (figuring out what every word is!).

In the end, the Oxford English Dictionary took over seventy years to make, and the protagonists of this nonfiction were both dead eight years before the book’s release. However, one of these protagonists, William C. Minor, the “madman” of the title, is really the focus of the book, and it puts the author in an odd spot. On the one hand, Minor was an interesting scholarly figure who sent in thousands and thousands of words with quotations for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, and he was able to do this while battling schizophrenia every night. On the other hand, Minor murdered an innocent man in the street, leaving behind a widow and seven children. The text often reflects the author’s struggle to want to paint Minor as a hero. It vacillates because clearly Winchester feels like he can’t overlook the murder of an innocent man. It’s an odd case due to the fact that Minor is a completely sane person during the day. He apologized to the widow and sent her money often, and she forgave him, and even came to visit him at the asylum, bringing him books. However, at night the surgeon completely loses his grip on reality and hallucinates that he’s under attack.

So, we have someone who, because he was locked in an asylum surrounded by books and unable to leave, contributed huge efforts to the Oxford English Dictionary, a great achievement for all English-speaking people of the world and anyone who appreciates language. But he never would have been in the position to help achieve this if he hadn’t murdered someone. The ambivalence Simon Winchester clearly feels about this has had me thinking about how much a person’s character and deeds affect their works and contributions to society.

Nazism and Philosophy

“The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre read Heidegger (in six straight days at a table in Lex Deux Magots, according to Sartre’s waiter)...” - Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

This concept of a murderer-scholar was in my head when I came across an article about Martin Heidegger. Evidently his Schwarzen Hefte (Black Notebooks) are going to be published for the first time, but the article where I read this news was titled “Martin Heidegger's Black Notebooks Reignite Charges of Anti-Semitism.” Heidegger is famous as a philosopher turned Nazi, and some scholars debate the significance of this on his thought. Does his philosophy necessarily lead to Nazism? Can we read Being and Time without concern for his later conversion to the Nazi party? Many people think so, and I would say the enduring significance of his magnum opus reflects that point of view; however, it’s fascinating to read the impassioned debates of people on the opposing sides of this controversy.

In the New York Times’ coverage of Emmanuel Faye’s “Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy,” Adam Kirsch writes:

“Most readers would agree that Heidegger was a Nazi, and that this matters to his philosophy; it has remained for Faye to argue that Heidegger was a Nazi philosopher, which is to say that he was no philosopher at all, and that his books are positively dangerous to read. In fact, he comes very close, on the book’s last page, to saying that Heidegger’s collected works should be banned from libraries.”

Clearly, it’s beyond the parameters of this blog post to settle this specific debate - especially because most of my knowledge of Heidegger comes from PhilosophyBro’s summary of Being and Time:

“The truth is, the single word 'being' just wasn't meant to bear as heavy a load as this project puts on it. So think of 'Being', the essential thing we're trying to get at, like a Party, and think of 'to be', the verb, as 'to rage'… who do we know who rages the hardest? That's right, fucking Bros, that's who. They're the Dasein at this party.”

I have to assume that’s an accurate analogy…

However, the main question still remains. Even if we agree that it’s a great work of philosophy, doesn’t it seem odd to want to internalize the philosophies of a Nazi? There’s a certain part of us that can’t help but connect the person with the work that person wrote. How important is the character of the author when we read a work?

Emulating the Virtuous

One of the first things they’ll teach you as an English major is not to equate the author’s biography with your analysis of the work. It’s also a rule that will be immediately broken by your classmates, and then broken by your professor shortly afterward. On some visceral level, it’s difficult for readers to entirely divorce the person who wrote the work from the work itself. While I generally try to avoid this form of analysis, I can’t help but want to read more about an author I love - biographies, interviews - anything that lets me learn more about the person who’s crafted such magnificent compositions.

Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations , a great book written by a journalist who interviews people who have lived their lives according to certain philosophies, introduced me to Plutarch’s Lives of Grecian and Roman Noblemen (ParallelLives). Plutarch’s idea is that young people need to read about virtuous people who they can model their lives on, which will inspire them to be morally good people. Jules Evans’ Philosophy for Life... is framed around the concept of using ancient wisdom as a therapeutic toolkit for good mental health (he believes philosophy helped him through a mental breakdown), and the angle here is that emulating virtuous people can make you virtuous.

Who are your heroes?

This had me wondering if I ever read books written by or about “virtuous” people. I’ve never been one to look up to “heroes,” but just thinking about the people who wrote the books I tend to read, or the authors I’ve read biographies of, the quick answer seemed to be that there weren’t excessive amounts of virtue to be found. I’d never before considered the idea that the authors I’m reading should also be role models for me, only that the writing captivate me. Should I be thinking of what effect they might have on me as my unwitting role models? In that case, creative types don’t have the best reputation in terms of having healthy relationships and finding satisfaction and contentment with life.

The two authors I’m probably most familiar with biographically are Jack Kerouac and Franz Kafka.

Kerouac could be extremely selfish, and this led to some appalling behavior in relation to his ex-wives and daughter. His life as a whole is a sad, downward spiral from a hopeful kid excited to go see the world and discover the mystical “it,” to a hopeless alcoholic, depressed, pessimistic, and cursed by the success of his writing, which brought him fame that only exacerbated the problems he was struggling with. Not exactly an ideal role model.

When reading Kerouac, I feel like I’m not supposed to think about his character flaws and instead pay attention to the writing, and accept the tragedy as presented in The Legend of Duluoz, rather than compare it against my background knowledge about his life. But when you’re dealing with a writer like Kerouac who drew so heavily from his own life, how do you just disregard the biographical? All the choices he made that you know put him in the situations he’s describing?

Or take Franz Kafka. While his stories don’t appear to be particularly autobiographical, scores of Kafka scholars immediately disregarded that first English major rule and analyzed the works according to his life. They write that the totalitarian bureaucracies like the courts or the Castle are representative of his father, who ruled the Kafka household unquestioned and according to his arbitrary whims. Milan Kundera claims this whole industry of “Kafkologists” removes Kafka from his proper context within the Modern literature of the world and pigeonholes him into these little autobiographical readings. Looking at Kafka’s works, the world can be a cruel place, even if you just have to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and looking at Kafka’s life, he struggled in all of his relationships and had excruciating engagements with women that were eventually broken off. Some have described his five-year epistolary engagement with Felice Bauer as a form of psychological abuse, and by all accounts, Kafka felt a certain sense of relief when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis because it freed him to take sick leave from his job at the insurance company and live out in a cottage where he could write - pretty grim stuff.

Must we only read the virtuous?

Now these considerations don’t make me think I should stop reading authors like Kafka and Kerouac by any means, but I’ve concluded that maybe I should make sure to pepper in some positive role models for myself every now and again. Literature and philosophy may be fascinating, but there are other things to consider in life as well, such as your relationships with others and your contributions to society.

So let me know what you think. Do you consider the deeds and characters of the authors you read? Or do you think that the works themselves are all that really matters? Is the virtue of the writer worth considering?

Related Posts:
Love of Literature and Hatred of Fellow Man: Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos