Writer’s Desk: Today’s Prompts

The thing with writer’s block is that there’s no way to get around it but by writing. That’s where the prompt can come in handy.

At Poets & Writers, they have a handy resource that churns up a steady stream of prompts to get you going on that project, regardless of what it is, from creative nonfiction (always a tricky category) to fiction.

Here’s a few:

This week, take a straightforward scene you’ve been working on and insert an awkward mistake made either by a major or minor character.

Do you have a time period you routinely set your stories in? This week, choose a story you’re struggling with and reimagine it in a different decade or century.

This week, write about a time when you were out of your element, immersed in a community or culture that you felt was very different from your own. Observe your own behavior as an anthropologist would.

You might want to toss the results away when you’re done. But at least you’ll be writing.

Writer’s Desk: Finding Time

writing1“Where do you find the time?” That may be one of the questions writers hear the most. It’s heard just about as often as “Where do you get your ideas?” and is possibly as hard to answer.

The most likely response is, “I have no idea.” Every writer tries to carve off little pieces of time here and there. But none of us live in a vacuum. Family, work, joy—There are lives to be led, after all. Because of the time crunch difficulty, advice can help.

Here’s some time management ideas that Fast Company gathered from people who took part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo):

As a single working mom of two, [Toni Morrison] carved out a few minutes to write before bed. She cranked out The Bluest Eye in that time.

I absolutely refused to go to sleep until I’d written 500 words. This was a ridiculously small goal for each night but I found that this was my own personal ‘hump.’ If I could get to 500 I could usually get to at least 1,500

When you have a big goal, you may need to turn down opportunities or invitations, or let go of a few responsibilities. Sometimes people feel guilty about this, but people who care about you will likely support you, especially if there’s an end in sight.

It’s not always about inspiration. Sometimes it can be about what you’re willing to give up. How important is writing to you in the end? If you’re not sure about how to answer that question, you may have your answer.

Readers’ Corner: Cervantes Found

cervantes1It looks as though the grave of the Western world’s first true novelist might have been found at a 17th century convent in downtown Madrid. According to NewsHour:

Cervantes died the same week as William Shakespeare in 1616. He had requested to be buried at the convent where he was found. Luis Avial, the georadar expert on the team, said at a news conference on Tuesday that Cervantes’ remains will be reburied at the same convent, after a tomb has been built…

Cervantes didn’t just create the modern novel with the satirical mock-epic (and bestseller) Don Quixote—Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu is normally credited with penning the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in the 11th century—he also lived a life that most novelists could only dream of.

One of the more notable episodes came when the larger-than-life writer’s years of incarceration by Moorish pirates was put to an end in part by a ransom paid by the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, the order of nuns whose convent ultimately became his resting place.

In Books: Ursula K. Le Guin is Right About ‘The Buried Giant’

buriedgiant-coverIn Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant, the author of Remains of the Day takes on a different kind of period setting: A fantastical yesteryear in which ogres roam the land, King Arthur is only recently departed, and a great dragon threatens the land.

It’s not the easiest fit for Ishiguro, who never quite seems comfortable in his own setting. He continually holds the reader’s hand, taking them aside for background notes on what they are witnessing instead of just letting the story flow. The flatness of his language, which was more appropriate to the subject of a novel like Never Let Me Go and its story of stunted humanity, here keeps the reader from ever engaging with his deeper, fascinating-in-theory themes of memory and selective amnesia.

When Ishiguro was interviewed about working in a different metier than he was used to, he seemed uneasy that readers might think of the novel as being fantasy. Which, of course, it was. You wouldn’t think that authors would still hold such prejudices against genre, given how porous the borders between literary fiction and fantasy and science fiction have become. Just see the reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road a few years back. Now everybody can play.

Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) took exception with Ishiguro’s defensiveness, as well as his seeming nervousness, “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

Le Guin is right in her judgment. Ishiguro’s inability to commit to the wild strangeness of his story kills any joy or mystery the reader might have found in it. Perhaps the natural chilliness of Ishiguro’s prose makes it a better fit for certain other types of genre writing (again, like he was able to deliver much more powerfully in the mournful science fiction of Never Let Me Go).

The Buried Giant is fantasy. It’s just not very good fantasy.

There’s an excerpt from the novel here. You can also see Ishiguro reading from it here.

Writer’s Desk: Orwell’s Reasons

George Orwell at the BBC (1940)

According to George Orwell, he played around with writing from a very early age. A patriotic poem here, some comic verse there. But it wasn’t until he read Milton as a teenager (always a dangerous combination) that the fire was well and truly lit.

In the essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell lays out the four “great motives” for pouring one’s heart and soul into the often tedious manufacture of prose:

  1. Sheer egoism—”Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm—”Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”
  3. Historical impulse—“Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
  4. Political purpose—“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

You might not agree with all these reasons; though it is difficult to argue with all books being political to some degree or another. But it is Orwell, so attention must be paid.

 

Reader’s Corner: Eisenhower and Book-burning

Nobody associates Dwight Eisenhower with much of anything literary or particularly high-minded. After all, his presidency was typified by pragmatism and political small-ball more than grand oratory and lofty goals.

But, then there was the graduation speech he gave at Dartmouth in June 1953, six months after taking office. According to Jim Dwyer, it started off in the usual way: platitudes and bromides. Pleasantly dull as a summer’s afternoon. But other matters were afoot. It was the age of Joe McCarthy, after all. Just a few days earlier, it had been reported that books by politically suspect authors like Langston Hughes and Jean-Paul Sartre had been purged from libraries run by the United States Information Service in Europe.

Dwight Eisenhower (c.1954)

Dwight Eisenhower (c.1954)

With that in the background, the president made a sharp detour: “Don’t join the book burners!” He exhorted those in attendance:

Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency … We have got to fight [Communism] with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they are accessible to others is unquestioned, or it isn’t America.

With sentiments like that, what’s not to like about Ike?

Terry Pratchett Walks with Death

Fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels were by definition fans of one of his greatest characters: Death. A calm, steady, and fairly graceful presence, Death could be counted on for some wry observations, delivered in ALL CAPS. 

So it was appropriate that when Pratchett died yesterday of dementia at the age of 66, it was announced on his Twitter account in the voice of Death himself:

AT LAST SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.