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.

Screening Room: ‘Cunningham’

Cunningham
‘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

Image result for The Dragon Waiting

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.

Screening Room: ‘The Irishman’

the-irishman2a.jpg

In Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a reputed hitman who charts a course through a baroque landscape of postwar American intrigue, crime, and paranoia.

The Irishman is playing in a few theaters now, as well as on Netflix. My article about it is at Eyes Wide Open:

Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, about the decades Sheeran spent as a Zelig-like mob enforcer and assassin,The Irishman is one of the more curious and hard-to-pigeonhole gangster movies that Scorsese has ever done. Pulling back from the music-strobed buzziness of Goodfellas and Casino, and worlds away from the Nouvelle Vague/Cassavetes jitters of Mean Streets, it’s a cool, elegiac, and somewhat detached epic whose three and a half hours float by with a disconcerting calmness…

 

Reader’s Corner: Stan Lee’s Marvelous Life

My interview with Danny Fingeroth, author of the new biography A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee, was just posted at Publishers Weekly:

What do you think accounts for Lee’s ability to create such an incredibly long-lived roster of characters?

Stan is pretty much the only comic creator who the casual person on the street would know. Because he became the voice and face of not just Marvel Comics but the comics industry, there was a long time when Marvel had no publicity department. Stan was in the office most days, he was available, he always had a quip and a quote. Stan took that on. He realized that this would be his vehicle for extending himself and Marvel beyond the attention of people who read comics. He cultivated it. Why nobody else took that on is hard to say…

Writer’s Desk: Keep at It

Parable of the Sower

Like many writers of science fiction, Octavia Butler spent many long years working at her craft while remaining mostly unknown and with precious little to show for it. She is revered today for her classics like The Parable of the Sower and Kindred but for much of her career she toiled in relative obscurity, as so many female writers of color do.

Point being, she knew something about sticking with it.

Here’s what she told Locus magazine back in 2000:

I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me. You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. It’s just so easy to give up!