Monthly Archives: April 2014
Breaking Hemingway’s Rule… Sort Of
I may have broken one of Hemingway’s rules of writing. It’s a pretty basic rule too, I should have known better. Write drunk, edit sober.
Seems simple enough.
And it looks great visually, as the original art print that illustrator Evan Robertson made (along with other author quotes) that got the ball rolling on this line’s popularity, or any of the other versions that have popped up on t-shirts and coffee mugs and whatever else.
It’s a perfect gift for any writer who’s still in love with the idea of being the angst-filled, drunken author character who writes in coffeehouses and bars, whose first draft is literary gold ready for immediate print, more than the reality of being an author who writes for a living in the same manner as anyone else who gets up and goes to work each day.
It validates the excuses we make so we can drink all day while plunking away at the keyboard. It’s ok, I’ll edit sober. Right, as if I need to edit. I’m sure some publisher is on his way right now to knock on my door and grab the latest bourbon fueled masterpiece I’ve come up with. Faulkner did it, Fitzgerald did it, look at Kerouac and Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Capote and Joyce. And Hemingway.
Well, except that it wasn’t really one of his rules.
People who have read more of Hemingway’s work then I have, and have read more about him, argue that he would write in the morning immediately after a good night’s sleep and before he had read anything that might cloud his own creative judgment. Sounds similar to advice I read recently warning people not to check their email early in the morning if they’d like to have a productive day.
In a quote from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway claimed not to drink after dinner or before writing, and on the subject of drinking while writing said, “Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner.”
The closest anyone can tell about that quote, is that it originated from Peter De Vries’ novel, “Reuben, Reuben” about a drunk poet based on Dylan Thomas.
“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”
That doesn’t fit as cleanly on an art print. Even just quoting it here I considered hacking part of it off. Apollonian, Dionysian, the undecided nature of the character’s habit. The Hemingway version was sweet, simple and clear.
Regardless of the true ownership of the advice, I broke the rule.
I tried to edit drunk. Not a bad idea for the times I need to read something out loud to get a feel for how the words actually flow outside my own head where everything is perfect. Something on the rocks nearby relaxes the vocal cords, right? But stay away from the stuff if you actually intend on digging through your most recent convoluted, long-winded draft and the short but painfully fragmented draft you wrote four months ago (before you started dreaming of turning a short story into a novel) with the hope of marrying the two into something worth reading.
What I thought I was editing turned out to be a completely different draft that had snuck its way into the mix. It wasn’t until I’d finished tearing up the second half of it and went back to the beginning that I realized I’d been working on the wrong draft the entire time. Now there are three drafts to sift through and piece together. And each one has its moments, because they always do.
This might work out for the best. I could end up with a better draft because these three versions I have before me represent the various levels of development in style or theme, or the inclusion of details and research, that have led to their evolution with each reading.
Or I could be back at the start. It could all be crap. I should get back to work. I need a drink…
A Too-Late List for Mr. Poetic Fiction
“Maybe you can help me,” my co-worker said after she waved me over, “That customer over there is looking for ‘poetically written contemporary fiction.’ Everything I’ve suggested he’s pooh-poohed already.”
I made a face. I made a face like I… well, like I had to pooh-pooh a little. What does that even mean? Poetically written contemporary fiction?
First of all, the definition of contemporary depends on the person. You might think contemporary and modern are synonymous. Sounds like it. Maybe. Nope. I made that mistake when I took a class once called “Modern Philosophy.” That branch of philosophical namby-pambying starts in the 17th century. In a big picture kind of way sure, that’s modern times, but not for a 19 years old college kid. Contemporary philosophy, while closer to the mark, is still old. It picks up towards the end of the 19th century.
The periods in literature are more confusing and more poorly defined because writers are artists, which means we’re all babies and can’t make up our minds about anything. Periods overlap and lack any clear start or end. Contemporary literature, I guess, starts in the 1930s, because that’s what Wikipedia said. More or less.
But is that what this guy meant by contemporary? Your typical bookstore browser might say contemporary but mean current, present-day. Does he want new releases? How new? And what does he really mean by ‘poetically written’? I can jot down some sentence fragments full of adjectives and no clear point, if that’s what he wants. Better yet, I’ll write a full page and just delete every third word, let’s call that poetry. I think someone may have written a poem on the wall in the men’s room, how’s that for contemporary?
I offered up Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but that’s more fantastical than poetic, even though I found the writing beautiful; a children’s book written for adults. This reminded me I have yet to read Rushie’s sequel to Haroun, which aggravated me even more. Giving up I said dismissively, “Just give him some Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Every death article I’ve read talks about how poetic his writing is. Or maybe I’m confusing that with magical realism. I don’t know. You’re on your own.”
Before I could complete my dramatic exit however, I suddenly thought of a book I’d read a few years ago, one I came across by chance walking down an aisle in the Fiction section. It was depressing, full of imagry and difficult to follow; if that isn’t the purest definition of poetry then—well, actually I think I’ve made it clear I have no understanding of poetry. After handing this book off to my coworker a couple others came to mind, and for no particular reason, I’m going to share them with you. I’ll start with the one the guy purchased…
Tinkers / Paul Harding —
It was weird. It left me feeling as though I was looking up while being sucked down into a whirlpool. It’s been a couple years since I read it, so that could actually be something that happened in the book, I’m not sure. That’s the only way I can describe my memory of reading it. It centers on an man lying in a hospital bed in his dining room dying. In and out of consciousness, the world around him constantly breaks down as he moves through his memories and those of his father. What’s real, what is hallucination, what is the point of… all of it?
The cover of the paperback is absolutely appropriate: a snow-covered field, a solitary figure. Imagine being that—no, imagine being in that field and seeing that figure. Walking across the field in the snow, the cold reaching through your coat and the fog of your breath pouring out of you, but never getting any closer to that figure, and that figure never turning around to see you.
the Solitude of Prime Numbers / Paolo Giordano —
A few years ago, when this book first came into the store, a coworker and I instantly hated the author. Italian, good looking, twenty-seven and working on a doctorate in particle physics who, you know, in his spare time, wrote a novel. He’s probably one of those guys who makes riding a scooter look badass. His author photo only rubs it in that I don’t have an awesome corduroy sport coat. Yet.
The book makes you uncomfortable. There’s no point in trying to hide that from you. You care about the characters, you want things to happen, but you’re entirely sure if they deserve to be happy. You want them to be, you want things to work out. But you also give up and push them away. You’re rooting for and against them the entire time. It’s painful and beautiful in the same moment. Its infuriating. Paulo, you need to stop being awesome.
the End of the Alphabet / C.S. Richardson —
I saw this book on the shelf but forgot the title and the author. Three years later I finally tracked it down after countless internet searches with the incredibly limited information I had. This book is beautiful, inside and out; it is a tragedy of literature that it is out of print. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the book broke my heart. Go find a used copy of it, buy it, it’s worth it. Be dramatic and read it on the porch during an afternoon rainstorm. Have either a glass of bourbon or a cup of tea within reach. It’s a short book. You can read it in one sitting, but it will be a book that on days when you are feeling alone or lost, when nothing can hold your attention, you will want to find it on your shelf and read again.
The main character, Ambrose Zephyr is going to die. He has one month, so he and his wife pack their bags to travel the world in alphabetical order. This is about loss, it’s about dreams, about love. It’s the shortest book ever written to cover everything that makes a life beautiful.
Office Supply Therapy | a World of Possibilities
I assume most people have their own quirky habit for dealing with stress or bad days. Some people will go to the pet store and look at puppies, my friend has a cache of cute bunny pictures; some might go to the mall or a park and wander, just needing the presence of people and conversation surging around them to balance out whatever negative energy had thrown their day off.
Me? I like to wander around office supply stores.
Of my local options I prefer Office Max to Office Depot. I always have, but especially now that many Depot stores have closed or downsized. There’s also an Office Max in the plaza where I work, so its proximity to a constant source of my own mental unbalancing may have something to do with my affinity for it.
There’s something very calming, very soothing about office supply stores. I found a similar feeling a few weeks ago while wandering up and down the bourbon aisle at Premier, checking out interesting bottles, reading the manufacturer or employee write-ups that accompanied many of them. It was similar and led me to identify what it was I like so much about office supply stores, even as it wasn’t as intense a feeling. It was the possibility. Where the bourbon aisle offered great variety and possibility, it did so at the threat of my losing a night of productivity if I got carried away.
(I ended up with a bottle of Jim Beam that was on sale and a couple small sample bottles of Woodford Reserve and Bulleit Frontier Whiskey that I took my time trying out—a surprisingly responsible outcome considering my state of mind walking into the store).
But office supply stores offer possibility of another kind. The possibility of organization. I don’t consider myself a very organized person, despite being someone who really, really wants to be organized, and even was once. Briefly. I think. (That was an amazing ten minutes of my life) And here is this magical place, this world of office supply, where everything I could possibly need to get my shit together is there, it’s all there! If I went wild in that store with its plethora of options; clicky pens, whiteboards, cork boards, bookshelves, cabinets, trays, stack-able boxes, desks, corner desks, corner desks with bookshelves—don’t even get me started on the pens, there’d be no stopping me. I’d rule the world, and I could too because they also sell coffee and Twizzlers. Everything I need to survive is in that store. Have I mentioned their inexhaustible selection of pens?
This goes back to childhood, and running errands with my mother. Across from K-Mart was a little pair of stores, The Paper Cutter and Fay’s Drugs. I was always partial to the Paper Cutter, mostly due to the wall of pens they had in the back corner of the store near the photo counter. I think I learned to spell my name finally by trying out each and every pen they had over and over until I found the perfect one. I was very particular about pen tips, even then.
The Paper Cutter was where I bought a discounted copy of Lord of Chaos, one of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, because it had a cool cover. I’ve never read it. Why did my mom even let me buy it? That’s book six in the series. It’s also where I purchased Gordon R. Dickson’s Other, which is part of his unfinished Childe Cycle. Recently I bought a cool old paperback edition of the first book in the series published under its original title, The Genetic General. I’ve never read either book. I would routinely lose feeling in my legs from sitting so long under the spinner rack of comic books. One day I will buy a copy of that 30th anniversary Amazing Spider-man with the hologram on the cover that I read there. It was a big issue; it was too pricey back then for my mom to buy me. $3.95. And that’s 1993 dollars. Man, that was a good run of comics. One day Spider-man, one day.
And next door was Fay’s. Which, whatever, it was a drug store. We had to go there for my brother’s inhaler, but other than that, it didn’t appeal to me too much. I wanted to go next door to read comics. All of the comics.
The thing you should know about Fay’s, was it had the best bag. I know that sounds strange to say, but mention a Fay’s bag to anyone over thirty that lived in Buffalo. This might extend to more than Buffalo actually, since the company started in Fairport, New York and had their headquarters in Syracuse. This wasn’t just a local Buffalo thing.
I don’t know what it was about those plastic bags; that they were yellow when everyone else used white or brown? Or was it the plastic they used, weren’t they thicker than most other stores’ bags? Could have been the colors, the yellow bag and black design? It jumped out at you.
These bags were used and reused and reused, and they held up. Ten years after Fay’s was sold off and turned into Eckherd’s, I saw a homeless guy walking down Hertel Avenue with a Fay’s bag stuffed full. They’re still around. There may still be one in my parent’s hall closet full of winter hats and gloves. Those bags are indestructible. They’re legendary.