Writer’s Desk: Stephen King on His Muse

Calliope -- she was the muse responsible for those writing epic poetry. (Library of Congress)
Calliope — she was the muse responsible for those writing epic poetry. (Library of Congress)

There are writers who like to talk about their muse. They don’t have to necessarily be thinking about one of the classical nine Greek muses, just trying to personify that indefinable thing which is inspiration. It’s an easy thing to wax poetic about because, well, most writers don’t truly understand this thing that we do.

Stephen King has his own way of describing his muse, when talking about his writing room:

My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That’s the other level, and that’s the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it’s a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level — the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread — fades even more. This is a real thing I’m talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it’s good, it’s better than the best pill.

Is that helpful to somebody struggling with the blank page? No, of course not. What’s helpful is how King ends the piece:

My muse may visit. She may not. The trick is to be there waiting if she does.

Meaning that being a writer is somewhat like being a Boy Scout. Always be prepared.

Weekend Reading: June 26, 2015

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Screening Room: ‘Dope’ – Nerds in the ‘Hood

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Rick Famuyiwa’s antic comedy Dope tracks the adventures of three LA nerds obsessed with everything their peers aren’t — ’90s hip-hop, manga, skateboards, flat-tops — and just trying to survive high school in one piece.

dope-posterDope is playing now; my review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Alone Time

Is there anybody here who can write in a loud room full of people? There are people out there who can somehow accomplish that feat; your average journalist, say, who doesn’t have the luxury of going off to find a cozy tea shop with decent coffee and good Wi-Fi. They’ve got 45 minutes to pound out that 1,100-word piece on the newest unemployment numbers or a listicle on the month’s top 10 most cringe-inducing GOP candidate flubs, and a deadline waits for no man or woman.

Them1Prose is a different matter. Because that’s what we’re generally talking about when we say writing, yes? Those of us who toil on both sides of the fiction divide don’t waste too much time worrying about process and idea-mongering when it’s time to work on the nonfiction material. It’s just as much work, and frequently just as much artistry. But nonfiction writing is simply different. Not to get into fuzzy notions of the muse, but one usually doesn’t need to be struck by inspiration to knock out 500 words on a new misery memoir or 1,500 on what the popularity of Game of Thrones says about the impending collapse of Western hegemony. You just need to find a way in and then how to put all the building blocks together. That’s a vast oversimplification, of course, but it generally holds.

Prose (or verse, assumedly), though, is a creature of a different hue. And it’s not an easy thing to do with others around. Joyce Carol Oates said this to Salon on the question of creativity requiring being alone:

Probably nothing serious or worthwhile can be accomplished without one’s willingness to be alone for sustained periods of time, which is not to say that one must live alone, obsessively. Ultimately, any art is intended for an audience — a community. In this way, the artist/writer is linked to the community and is only temporarily “alone.”

So buckle up, close the door, put on the headphones, whatever you have to do. Don’t worry. The world will still be there when you get back.

Weekend Reading: June 19, 2015

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Screening Room: ‘Eden’ Goes to the Rave

'Eden': The party never ends (Broad Green Pictures).
‘Eden’: The party never ends (Broad Green Pictures).
Ah, to be young, French, and to care what DJs think or do. That’s the short synopsis of the new film from Mia Hansen-Love, whose Goodbye, First Love was one of the sweeter romantic films of the last few years. This time, Hansen-Love dives into the electronic music scene of the 1990s and throws love into the mix as well.

Eden opens this week, here and there. My review is at Film Racket.

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Necessary Tools

handmaidstale1People don’t often think about what they need to write. Just a great idea and 10,000 hours, right? They don’t realize that writing requires tools, always. And not the ones that all those websites have been trying to sell you, either.

See what Margaret Atwood has to say:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s different for every writer. Maybe you’re one of those people born knowing the right word. If so, chuck the thesaurus and move on.

But she’s right about the no-whining thing. Get on with it. Writing still beats doing everything else out there. Except maybe velociraptor wrangler; that’d be cool.

Weekend Reading: June 12, 2015

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Babel Tower: Of Phanariots, Googlebots, and Infidelity

Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire's dragomen, whose work as translators of the "infidels" language gave birth to the word "infidelity."
Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire’s dragomen, whose work as translators of the “infidels” language gave birth to the word “infidelity.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s superb article “Is Translation a Language or Math Problem?” has many things to recommend it, most particularly this aside on the roots of the word “infidelity”:

Translation promises unity but entails betrayal. In his wonderful survey of the history and practice of translation, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” the translator David Bellos explains that the very idea of “infidelity” has roots in the Ottoman Empire. The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots. They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan’s preference. (Ottoman Turkish apparently had no idiom about not killing the messenger, so their work was a matter of life or death.) We retain this lingering association of translation with treachery.

Later in the piece, Lewis-Kraus limns what happens when engineers obsessed with using brute-force computation for online translation tools run up against the vagaries of literary nuance:

One computational linguist said, with a knowing leer, that there is a reason we have more than 20 translations in English of “Don Quixote.” It must be because nobody ever gets it right. If the translators can’t even make up their own minds about what it means to be “faithful” or “accurate,” what’s the point of worrying too much about it? Let’s just get rid of the whole antiquated fidelity concept. All the Sancho Panzas, all the human translators and all the computational linguists are in the same leaky boat, but the machinists are bailing out the water while the humans embroider monograms on the sails.

Nothing wrong with Google Translate, of course. But let’s hope that translating literature is left in the hands of people who, well, like literature and acknowledge the importance of linguistic subtlety. You wouldn’t hire a Ph.D in comparative lit to beta-test your server network, now would you?

Writer’s Desk: Harper Lee on Who to Ignore

Harper Lee, c. 1962.
Harper Lee, c. 1962.

There’s a lot of education that can go into being a writer. All those workshops, retreats, seminars, and conferences; there’s enough of them that just taking in a small percentage could be a full-time job.

There’s also the less-formal education, that involves just listening to what other people think of what you’ve done. That’s always necessary, because writing is nothing without its audience.

But it matters who you listen to. Not every opinion matters, after all. Harper Lee knew that. Listen to this, from one of her letters (written after To Kill a Mockingbird was published) that are being auctioned off next week:

…one is not supposed to be aware that critics, reviewers, and English teachers exist.

All those people have their place, of course. But their beliefs should probably only be taken seriously in moderation. Especially by a writer who’s just trying to write.

Weekend Reading: June 5, 2015

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Screening Room: ‘Entourage’ on the Big Screen

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Four years after HBO’s dude wish-fulfillment series Entourage ground to a generally unloved conclusion, the far-from-inevitable film follow-up comes to a theater near you.

My review is at Film Racket:

If the question of what would happen to the big-dreaming boys from Queens occupied you for one minute after Entourage finished its eighth season in 2011, then Entourage the movie might be your kind of superfluous entertainment. If not, then stay far, far away. After all, this is not a film so much as it is a shrugging “Sure, why the hell not?” afterthought of a media brand extension…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’

(Magnolia Pictures)
(Magnolia Pictures)
If the question of what exactly A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is would bother you if it can’t be answered, then by all means, don’t see it. Philosophical investigation, bad joke, or just a series of modern-art video installments strung together into a “film,” it resists easy definition. That doesn’t make it a masterpiece, but it’s something different, and in a good way.

A Pigeon… opens this week in limited release, and should cause a few furrowed brows as well as some rapturous praise. My review is at Film Journal International:

Roy Andersson (A Swedish Love Story) announces his newest film with a bravado that typifies the style of this acutely controlled and almost hermetically sealed piece of work: “The final part of a trilogy about being a human being.” The glacially paced circus that follows is certainly an investigation of being human, but one that’s done in the manner of an intellectual burlesque. Answers aren’t proffered in these short pieces that feature many of the same waxy-faced performers in absurd situations that range from a dance teacher who can’t keep her hands off a student to Charles XII riding into a bar. But plenty of evidence is found on the way…

Here’s the trailer: