Friday, August 31, 2012

Signifying Nothing

31st August 2012

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
Til the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays light fools the way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle, life is but a walking shadow,
A poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage
Then is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot,
Full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I wrote this on the black board one hundred times for shooting my mouth off about Shakespeare last week. This speech is probably without parallel in the history of literature. Depressing, but unmatchable.
Try this:
The history of the meadow goes like this: No one owns it, no one ever will. The people, all ghosts now, were ghosts even then; they drifted through, drifted away, thinking they were not moving...Only one of them succeeded in making a life here...Before a backdrop of natural beauty, he lived a life from which everything was taken but a place. He lived so close to the real world it almost let him in. By the end he had nothing, as if loss were a fire in which he was purified again and again, until he wasn't a ghost anymore.
That's from the opening of "The Meadow," by James Galvin. I keep mentioning that book, because it is one of the few modern books that doesn't try to hook you with anything but language. There's not a whole lot of plot here, but there's a whole lot of why we like that Shakespeare speech. Perhaps we don't use the same guage anymore. Perhaps we've let ourselves become cheapened by the hook. We used to let ourselves be tickled out of the water, but now we wait for the hook, line and sinker. We have become an illiterate breed of fish.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Shakespeare in the Round

24th August 2012

Every summer, a good friend of mine takes the best local actors and performs Shakespeare in a small amphitheatre off the main street in Aspen. They typically run for a dozen performances and get upwards of a hundred people per audience, which, here in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, only goes to show that Shakespeare is alive and well, as if we ever doubted it. Well, they perform Shakespeare, but not as you might find it in Stratford, home of the bard and the Royal Shakespeare Company. It's Shakespeare with a twist, more Kiss Me Kate than The Taming of the Shrew, more All Shook Up than Twelfth Night. Not that they don't stick to the script. They do. But they add a song or two, a dance step or three - this year, Twelfth Night, was set in the Swinging Twenties and featured some very good tap numbers and "Putting on the Ritz," for good measure. I can't help feel the bard would approve. He liked a joke, did old William, at least that's what we have to conclude from the Falstaffs and the Toby Belch's in his plays. He understood that even bleak subjects need a little levity. For me, Shakespeare needs it a whole lot, because I find it so supremely inaccesible. I've been to Stratford a few times; I have heard Shakespeare on both sides of The Pond, even squirmed in the uncomfortable seats at the reconstructed Globe in London. And, believe me, I only go to the lighter stuff. But even in the comedies, I am forcing myself to be entertained, trying to be amused by fairies and asses, and being eternally grateful for characters like Puck. I once saw Benjamin Britten's opera of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." At more than three hours, it was all I could do to stop myself leaping from the balcony to the unsuspecting audience below in a desperate act of suicide. Too much murder has been committed in the name of Shakespeare, including violence against the ear (in Britten's case.)
Of course, I jest. There are sublime lines in Shakespeare and runs of lines, but the rest of it feels like chewing on old steak to me. It's a good thing, I suppose, since man cannot live by bread alone. Except for the hard hitters, we would be malnutrioned. I take full blame for my ignorance. Maybe it was Hamlet read by unwilling high schoolers on the rural west coast of Scotland, maybe it's just the way it is acted by the Gielguds and the Barrymores, and I am sorry, but my eyes glaze over. I hear that Shakespearean voice and I think about what I had for breakfast. "To be or not to be," is all very profound, but it's been overdone. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" "My love is like a red, red rose." (Woops, that's Robert Burns.) I know it's just me. I know I should be firmly set with the "popular" authors back in the room for paperback sensibilities. I'm just saying, that's all. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Potted Plants

17th August 2012

In this month's Writer's Digest, agent Marcia Wernick gives this advice:  the hardest lesson to learn for any writer is that everything takes longer than one expects. No kidding. I mean, you spend years writing and years trying to find an agent, and then you'd think things would start to get going. But then your book doesn't find a publisher for another year, during which time there's only silence when you would REALLY like an  answer from that agent that you love for taking you on but secretly suspect of playing mind games with you. When he submits your work to publishing houses, there are the rejections and the re-writes to make the rejections less likely (or so you or agent think.) Finally. the day comes when a publisher picks up your book and then you wait. You get that first re-write done in lickety spit time, and then you wait. Summer comes and goes, your editor goes quiet on you, and then an e-mail arrives one day saying you are third for take-off, probably in about three weeks. Right after labour day. Being a Brit who has only lived in the country for twenty-five years, I have to go and look up when labour day is. I begin to worry that with all this delay, my book won't be coming out next summer, after all. But, anyway, third for take-off is better than back in the hanger. "I have two other books in the hoppper before yours," says my editor, and I don't know what a "hopper" is - probably something only people who have lived in the USA for more than twenty-five years would know, but I get the general drift: I'm in line. I'm saying all this, not to denigrate my agent or my editor or the publishing house, but just to reiterate Marcia Wernick's point: It all takes a lot longer than you'd think. And being impatient doesn't help a bit. Right?
This week, I was reading an interview with best selling Y/A author, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, in which he says, "Music is what I love most in the world, more even than books."  On the face of it, this seems a strange thing for a writer to say. But it's not, and this is where the potted plants come in. If you've ever tried to grow a tree in a plant pot, you'll find that it can indeed grow, will grow, in fact, for many years, but it won't grow very big. If you want to see a tree live to its optimum, express its DNA to the fullest, then you need to take it out of the pot and put it in the earth and surround it by other life. And a writer is the same. I was sitting in a concert this week at the Aspen Music Festival listening to an extremely youthful demigod run his fingers through, around and over Rachmaninov's second piano concerto. It might be as close as a person comes to being vivisectioned, as the soaring lines of that incredible melody steal into your heart and rip it, still beating, from your ribcage, then hand it back to you. Music can do that to you, probably more than any other discipline, but you have to put yourself in the way of it.  If you keep your writerly self to writing and to other people of like mind, you're stuffing yourself into a pot. To grow strong roots and great spreading branches, you really need to get out into the world - go to a concert, go to the theatre, watch a film and be moved by it, expose yourself to all this rich soil for the soul. Blinkered writing, like blinkered anything else, becomes wrapped up in itself and soon can't see the forest or the trees.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Filthy Lucre

10th August 2012

Forbes has just published its list of Highest Earning Authors, and who says there's no money to be made in publishing? If, as the German's say, "Geld regiert die Welt," or Money Rules the World, then write on! Mystery writer James Patterson earned a staggering ninety-four million last year, followed, one suspects (though she's too new to make this list) by author of The Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James (I see her sales are actually sagging, so maybe it will turn out to be one of those strange fads that takes people over for a while until they come to their senses, like Crocs.) It's a piece of good marketing to give her such a distinguished name, sort of like J. Alfred Prufrock, and TS Eliot let us know how vacuous these kinds of names can be.  JK Rowling doesn't actually have a "K" in her name, but her publisher thought it would give her more credibility. She hardly needs that these days, though she didn't make the top ten on the money list. Who cares? She got eight million advance for her upcoming adult novel. Jeff Kinney who writes those "Wimpy Kid," books that adults love to hate, earned a whopping twenty-five million. Nicholas Sparks whose books leave your fingers drippy and sticky, earned sixteen million.
Let's put our money on the table. I earned a whopping fifteen thousand for my upcoming novel, and they aren't giving it to me all at once either. I got six thousand upon the sale, which sank to five thousand once my agent got his cut. I blew the rest on a trip to Steinbeck country, which I consider money well spent. I'll get another six thousand once my currently silent editor and I finish the editing process. Then I get the last installment on the date of publication. Small change, I guess. If I had got fifteen million, I would be shopping for a house with panoramic views and river access.
But, anyway, fashion in our stimulus-happy culture has always been richly rewarded. I look at the list of millionaire authors, and I wonder how many of them will be read in fifty years. There seems to be very little correlation between those authors pulling in the lucre and the writing life and what that is all about.
Truth is, I wouldn't know what to do with ninety-four million dollars. And the the other truth is, the business of writing has as much to do with dollar signs as Hostess Twinkies have to do with nutrition. We don't write for money, because art is not a commodity. I like the term "priceless," which this culture only applies to works of visual art, but at least it got that much right. This isn't Hollywood. You can't pay writers or artists for their performances. The "performance" happens in the silent corners, in the lonely place out of which a writer does his or her stuff. Strictly speaking, you can't reward someone for being a misanthrope in that way. I think that if some law barred us from ever earning a penny for our efforts, we would still go through the motions like a runner in sleep, still jerking those legs, because we don't know how not to. And that is where the artisitc life resides, like Luther, in not being able to do otherwise. Money has nothing to do with it. The act of creation is priceless.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Here, There and Everywhere

August 3rd 2012

After singing Pat Conroy's praises a few blogs ago, I decided to read "Prince of Tides" again. It's a big book, though not as big as it was in its initial 1400 page version. An editor at his publishing house made him cut that count by half, which I think was probably a good idea. He was made to re-write the book eight times. Ron Carlson says that if you open a book on any page, it should bleed. And Pat Conroy's book certainly does do that. All over your hands and down your wrists. It's a bloody book, and the presence of the author is very raw. I always think my writing is a bit like literary vomit - I can't help it. I have very little dignity as a writer. The story just comes out heaving and ends up on the desk, and then neatly into paragraphs and pages somehow or other. There seem to be (very generally speaking) two types of writers: there's the vomiting kind and then the ones that stack their stories brick upon brick, very carefully avoiding smudging mortar on anything. DH Lawrence was of the former, James Joyce of the latter. James Joyce could spend a whole day working on half a sentence. Not I. Not Pat Conroy.
I should wait until I finish "Prince of Tides," before giving my verdict. But I do know an interesting fact about it, which is that Conroy listened to Barbara Streisand a lot when he was writing it. He was in South Carolina and she was in California, but when she picked his book up, she couldn't put it down. She didn't know him, but she vowed she would make a film of it, which she did, and handily (though  haven't seen it yet) as it was nominated for seven Academy Awards. So, the moral of the story is: watch what you listen to when you write. Stephen King listens to heavy metal when he writes. Enough said.
As for my book, I am still hurrying up and waiting, which seems to be the name of the game and something I have done plenty of since it was first picked up moons and moons ago. Agents and Editors follow this ritual of abandoning New York in July and heading for the Hamptons (this is how the story goes) where they sit around reading books not on their work lists. Sounds good to me, but not what I want my agent or editor to be doing. At any rate, I haven't heard a squeak in at least one moon and, Hamptons or no Hamptons,  no one is answering my e-mails. Still, the bottom line is that it says in my contract the publisher has to publish the book within eighteen months, so if the clock is ticking, it isn't my clock. Why should I worry (she asks unconvincingly.)
I want to get moving in other directions, is the answer to that. I feel vomit coming on. Another of my novels, which I have re-written several times, needs more than a new coat of paint; it needs a whole new engine. It's about a troupe of Scottish nationalists stealing The Lewis Chessmen (strictly speaking the property of Scotland, so not stealing at all) from The British Museum in London. It's a great story, but it sort of got drowned in my efforts to be oh so literary. I need to eat it up and try for a more productive spew next time. I would really like to get away from writing in the first person,which I resisted for a long time because it is limiting. But whenever I go for third person narrative, for some reason it gets stodgy. This Lewis Chessmen story is in the third person, and I would love to keep it that way. Writing in the first person seems like a bit of a cop-out to me, though I do my best writing (thus far) in that voice. It's the closest voice to vomit, so no surprises there.
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I like Pat Conroy's writing. It leans towards being a bit over the top, but you get the sense of a big intellect behind it, which is always a good backdrop for bloody writing. As a rule of thumb, if you are reading along and keep having to stop to savour the beauty of a sentence, you are in good hands. Messy but adept hands.