Writer’s Desk: Rebel Against Yourself

While all writers have to get out into the world to study it, feel it, live it, and understand something beyond what lies inside their own cranium in order to make an impact, they should not overlook the value that can come from determining what would shock themselves.

Per the great provocateur J.G. Ballard (Crash), circa 2005:

As for the special problems facing the middle-class artist — it looks as if alienation is going to be imposed on him whether he likes it or nor. Most artists and writers in the past have been middle-class, the surrealists to a man, with backgrounds similar to those of the Baader-Meinhof gang. However, the middle-class world against which they rebelled was vast and self-confident. Who today would bother to rebel against the Guardian or Observer-reading, sushi-nibbling, liberal, tolerant middle-class? I think the main target the young writer/artist should rebel against is himself or herself. Treat oneself as the enemy who needs to be provoked and subverted…

How can one shock the world if one can’t shock oneself?

Reader’s Desk: Best Books of 2019

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Photo by Ivo Rainha (Pexels.com)

If you are looking for something to get for yourself when you are at the bookstore grabbing a last-minute gift for somebody, there were a lot of amazing books that came out this year. I contributed to a couple best-of lists with a lot to choose from, see here:

Screening Room: Best Movies of 2019

‘Parasite’ (NEON)

Now that the holidays are upon us, it is time to do the truly important things, such as catching up on all the movies of the last year. No, it is not crucial to run out and see the latest Star Wars (you can already figure out pretty much everything that’s going to happen). And yes, it is worth braving the snow and the crowds to go see a movie with other people rather than streaming Game of Thrones again. There’s a lot of great things out there.

My year-end wrap-up of the 15 best movies of 2019 was published at Eyes Wide Open. It’s a diverse mix, with everything from Hitchcockian Korean horror-comedy to wartime drama, teen comedy, and a shockingly great Adam Sandler movie. Plus: Adam Driver sings Sondheim. Like I said, there’s a lot to see.

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Your Characters

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng.jpg

There are a lot of writing books that tell you how to craft an exciting plot. They provide exercises, quizzes, little tricks to spur your creativity and come up with new and interesting wrinkles. Helpful tricks, of course. But no matter how thrilling or curiosity-spurring your plot, nobody will care if they do not care about your characters.

How do you get readers to invest in the fictional people you are writing about? Get to know them like you would real people in your life. Novelist Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) has some advice in The Writer:

I get to know my characters like you’d get to know someone at a cocktail party. You sit down with them and listen – whether they talk about work or their families or sports or politics, whether they seem open-minded or opinionated, whether they’re logical and articulate or rambling – and you get a sense of what’s important to them, who they are as a person. So I sit down and write about a character, or write in the character’s own voice and see what emerges. It’s a lot easier to bring characters to life on the page when you know them well…

Once you know how your character will act when they’re at a party, having a cocktail, watching the game, or who they voted for, you will be able to write anything about them and it will ring true.

Writer’s Desk: Love Words More Than Your Voice

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W. H. Auden (c. 1939)

According to legend, or at least a book with the lilting title How Does a Poem Mean?, W. H. Auden was once asked what advice he would give to a young poet. Auden responded that if he asked the young poet why they wanted to write and the answer came back that they thought they had something important to say, Auden’s conclusion was that there was no hope.

However, Auden went on to say that if the answer came back as “I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,” then he thought the young poet might have promise after all.

Following Auden’s line of thought, you could say that if you start with a love of words, their flow and shading and endless permutations, you might get to somewhere important. But starting in grandiloquence will get you nowhere.

Screening Room: ‘Uncut Gems’

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Adam Sandler in ‘Uncut Gems’ (A24)

In the Safdie brothers’ newest movie Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler plays a wheeler-dealer whose world is always on the brink of greatness or collapse.

Uncut Gems is playing now in limited release and should expand wider later in the month. My review is at PopMatters:

He has a good line of gab, Howard, but what he does best is what every true operator understands: Just keep talking, never stop moving, and keep those plates spinning. Uncut Gems is an exhausting movie about an exhausting character, shot through with an intoxicating restless relentlessness powered in large part by Sandler’s ferociously hungry performance…

Writer’s Desk: Rely on Your Instincts

Rilke in 1900
Rainer Maria Rilke

In Letters to a Young Poet (1929), Rilke corresponded with Franz Xaver Kappus, a young poet who was not sure whether or not to go ahead with a career in the arts or to stick with the Austrian military. It seems clear that anybody seriously considering those two paths in life would not be well-suited for a lifetime of uniformed service, but Rilke took the query seriously.

Commenting on some poems that Kappus had sent and some questions about their worth, Rilke had this to say:

You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

Feedback is necessary, particularly when it helps writers overcome blocks or be more attentive to flaws that escaped their notice in the first draft. But waiting for acceptance from the outside world or permission to continue on is a fool’s errand. Better to follow Rilke’s advice to dig deep, find a reason, and write as though it were your last day on Earth:

Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.