Writer’s Corner: Staying Out of the Rain

Crowd at a Harvard-Princeton football game, Nov. 8, 1913. (Library of Congress)

Crowd at a Harvard-Princeton football game, Nov. 8, 1913. (Library of Congress)

There are plenty of good reasons to become a writer—excepting of course a desire for money, fame, or respectability.

In “Phi Beta Football,” a football-season essay for the New Yorker about his childhood watching Princeton football games, John McPhee identifies another superb reason to devote one’s life to the written word:

…on a November Saturday of cold, wind-driven rain—when I was about ten—I was miserable on the stadium sidelines. The rain stung my eyes, and I was shivering. Looking up at the press box, where I knew there were space heaters, I saw those people sitting dry under a roof, and decided then and there to become a writer.

Writer’s Corner: Anaïs Nin on Saying It All

Anais Nin (Elsa Dorfman, c.1970s)

Anais Nin (Elsa Dorfman, c.1970s)

As one of the twentieth century’s more celebrated and mutinous rebel authors, Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) didn’t seem to keep much back. After all, she made money for a time in the 1940s by knocking out ornately gilded pornography at a buck a page for an anonymous, wealthy collector. The stories were later prettied up under the label “erotica” and published posthumously in collections like Delta of Venus.

Although she wanted to be remembered for her knotty and abstract avant-garde fictions like Cities of the Interior, Nin gained true notoriety for her multi-volume diary. The first iterations were high-toned smutty gossip for the literary set, liberally threaded with luminous poetic musings. deltaofvenusThey detailed her lavishly busy and experimental love life—including a 12-year affair with fellow literary rule-breaker Henry Miller—but were later outdone by the release (starting last year) of the completely unexpurgated diaries. This revised series includes everything cut out earlier by request of some of her then-living lovers.

Nin’s career-long back and forth between taboo-busting and rectitude makes this piece of writerly advice even more fascinating:

The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.

Writer’s Corner: The Humiliations of Writing

Writing and publishing any piece of work, from novel to Facebook post to letter to the editor complaining about your neighbor’s cats, is a way of putting yourself out there for the world to see. So it stands to reason that there’s a large potential downside. Sure, there’s the (remote) possibility of fame and wealth, or even the occasional social media like. But more likely, and certainly more frightening, is the chance for embarrassment.

(Library of Congress, c.1872)

(Library of Congress, c.1872)

In his essay, “Writing is a Risky, Humiliating, Endeavor,” novelist David Gordon describes many of the ways in which the act of putting your name on a packet of words for sale is one of the most harrowing experiences one could endure:

Let’s face it: just writing something, anything, and showing it to the world, is to risk ridicule and shame. What if it is bad? What if no one wants to read it, publish it? What if I can’t even finish the thing? Every time I begin a book, a story, even a fresh page, I have a sense that it might go horribly wrong. And for a professional writer, working on multiyear projects, that would be more than an emotional humiliation. It would involve awkward letters from the student loan people and the credit card company…

But as logical as it might be—after all, there are critics just waiting out there with sharpened knives and killer instincts ready to slice into just about anything you might want to publish—to get anywhere, the writer obviously needs to just get on with it and damn the consequences. And yes, it can take a kind of bravery. Gordon again:

Writing then, must feel risky in order to feel like life. I used to cringe when people talked about “brave” writing. I’d think, calm down, it’s not like you’re a fireman or a Special Forces commando. If the mission fails, just toss it in the wastebasket. But I do think, upon reflection, that there is a need to generate emotional risk, a sense of imminence, of danger, in order to transmit that aliveness to the page. This needn’t mean personal revelation or offensive language. Sometimes quiet, dense writing is the most deeply and complexly honest. Sometimes intellectual discourse is brave in our Twitter culture. Genuine and sincere emotion can be risky in a world of snark and irony. So can making silly jokes about matters our society regards with sanctimonious seriousness. Sometimes it is just a matter of a writer doing what she does not yet know how to do, speaking about something he does not yet understand. The risk of ambitious failure…

So get on with that werewolf detective novel, historical exegesis of your family’s immigrant past, memoir about your mental breakdown, or enraged photo essay about your neighbor’s cats.

Writing means risk, no matter what form it takes. And in pretty much every instance, it’s worth it.

New Books: In ‘California’ the World Has Gone to Hell for No Good Reason

Earlier this summer, first-time novelist Edan Lepucki caught a lucky break. Just as her debut book California was due to come out, her publisher and Amazon got into a pricing dispute that caught the eye of Stephen Colbert. In an attempt to help out authors caught in the crossfire, Colbert chose Lepucki’s book as a title to champion. In his show’s appeal, he asked viewers to buy the book in droves—from anywhere but Amazon.

Now we can appreciate the novel itself, and not the furor around it.

California-cover1My review of the post-apocalyptic California is at PopMatters:

The setting is almost a generation after a slow-motion apocalypse has ground the modern age into dust. Lepucki’s two narrators, a young couple who unhurriedly trade off chapters, remember some of the earlier age’s technological glories. They’re of the last generation that experienced things like broadband and daily showers and refrigeration. By their childhoods, the world was already collapsing. They just managed to be there for civilization’s dying embers.

A more naïve writer might have made us think that they were unlucky to have these memories, that the ones who follow them would be happier without that knowledge. But that’s not the way Lepucki plays it: There is a Dark Age on the wing, and it will be savage and bleak, not a return to some pre-modern Edenic state…

You can read an excerpt here.

Writer’s Corner: Publish Your Poetry

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

If you’re a poet, you’ve already most likely resigned yourself to a career filled with penury and frustration. Fortunately, every now and again, there comes a rare chance to make some money as a poet and (quelle surprise) actually get published in a format that ensures people who aren’t family and friends will read you.

According to Poets & Writers, The Academy of American Poets is making a couple changes to their Walt Whitman Award, which “is given to an emerging poet who has not yet published a book.” It’s now “the most valuable first-book award for poetry in the United States.”

Check it out:

In addition to a $5,000 cash prize, the winner of the 2015 award will receive publication of his or her manuscript by Graywolf Press, and a six-week all-expenses-paid residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy.

So get your pencils and poetic sensibilities sharpened. Submission guidelines are here.

By the way, this is what the Civitella Ranieri looks like. Good luck.

Quote of the Day: Terry Southern on Hollywood, Writing, “Freakishness”

(Library of Congress)

Somewhere in Southern California (Library of Congress)

Today’s bit of perception about one of America’s most over-analyzed, unloved, and misunderstood “cities” comes courtesy of surrealist pie-thrower and comic raconteur Terry Southern (CandyDr. Strangelove). Interviewed at length for The Paris Review‘s occasional series on screenwriters (the interview took place in 1967 but wasn’t published until 2012) the Texas-born Southern expounded on that great Southern California sinkhole of creative energy and dashed dreams:

Hollywood, that is to say, Los Angeles, is not, of course, a city, and its sinister forces are very oblique. There’s no public transportation system whatever, so the people drive around as though they were living in Des Moines, and it has all the rest of the disadvantages of a small town, only filled with displaced persons. On the other hand, life there has an engaging surrealist quality, an almost exciting grotesqueness.

The cultural scene there in general is sped up, sort of concentrated. Southern California is a mecca for all manner of freakishness, beginning on the most middle-class level—hot-dog stands in the shape of a hot dog. If you go there, you’ll immediately see a carnival, Disneyland aspect that is different from any other place in America.

Southern also notes the differences between the ladies of Hollywood and those of the East Coast:

… girls who want to be ­writers come to the Village and girls who want to be actresses go to Hollywood.

Writer’s Corner: James Franco is a Poet Now, Too

At some point, you would think that the whirling creative polymath that is James Franco would settle down. Onetime heartthrob actor turned creator of curious art installment films (Interior. Leather Bar), star of trashy-smart comedies (This Is the End), director of small-scale literary adaptations (As I Lay Dying), author of novels and short stories, and now: poetry.

francobook1Instead of going with a big press for his collection, Directing Herbert White, Franco smartly went with one of the more respected small poetry outfits out there: the expert Minnesota-based indie Graywolf Press. You can read an excerpt from the collection here.

How is the poetry itself? Not that memorable, but not noticeably worse than much of what’s out there and not necessarily contingent on Franco’s name.

As David Orr puts it in last week’s Times‘ Sunday Book Review, it’s:

“Directing Herbert White” is the sort of collection written by reasonably talented M.F.A. students in hundreds of M.F.A. programs stretching from sea to shining sea. Which is perhaps not surprising, since Franco actually has an M.F.A. in poetry…

…uniformly written in the kind of flat, prosy free verse that has dominated American poetry for ages (typical line: “New Orleans Square is my favorite part of Disneyland”), with stanzas that aren’t so much stanzas as elongated paragraphs.

One could argue that it’s just that flat and unadorned poetic style which all too often reads as lazy and slashed-up prose than actual lyricism which has helped reduce poetry to its currently weakened state.

But Orr’s ultimate take on the book is probably the right one. In short, there’s a lot of bad poetry out there. Better that somebody with the name recognition of Franco is at least taking up the flag and giving it an honest go:

Poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts, alternately ignored and swaddled like a 19th-century invalid, and that will change only by means of a long, tedious and possibly futile effort at persuasion. Perhaps it’s a blessing to have James Franco on one’s side in that struggle.