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

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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.

Screening Room: ‘Cunningham’

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‘Cunningham’ (Magnolia Pictures)

The new documentary Cunningham does double duty, first telling how pioneering modern-dance choreographer Merce Cunningham built his thrilling body of work in the 1940s and ’50s, and second recreating those dances in colorful 3D.

Cunningham is playing in limited release. My review is at Slant:

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, [director Alla] Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About What Sells

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Sometimes you can have all the talent in the world and not enough people will notice. Take the much-beloved writer John M. Ford, who published a bewildering array of fantasy and science fiction that earned him plaudits from a devoted core of fans but little popular success. From Isaac Butler in Slate, about one of Ford’s unsung classics:

The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another…

But Ford never stuck long enough with one genre or style to make a great success of it. He jumped around, played games (literally, he had a strong side career in role-play gaming), and was not interested in making things easy for his fans.

“He could have had a more successful career,” Patrick Nielsen Hayden [husband of Ford’s editor] and Tor’s editor in chief, said, “if he had been more disciplined about his writing” and stuck to one genre, or written a series. “But Mike wanted to write what he wanted to write.”

The argument could be made that writers like Ford (whose work, by the way, is finally being re-released in 2020) do themselves a disservice by not finding a lane and sticking to it.

But if you know what you enjoy writing, have fun writing it, can find at least a few people who enjoy it, and one person who will pay you a few bucks to write it, do that. If writing is not fun, it becomes a job.