Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: Samuel Beckett on Persistence

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

—Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
Thanks to Legendary Cow Skull Cindy for the suggestion!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: Robin Abrahams on a Career in the Arts

I think there are only two kinds of people who make those "If you could be happy doing anything besides acting, do it!" or "People become writers because they have no choice but to write!" One kind are the people in the field who want to feel special, called in some way, or at least not to feel so bad that they are 30 years old and don’t have health insurance. There isn't any shame in being 30 years old with no health insurance—but there’s no great romance or meaning to it, either. Really, you could have taken the real estate class and become a leasing agent. You chose not to, which is fine, but it really is a choice. The muse invites you to dance, she doesn’t mug you in an alley.

Robin Abrahams (Miss Conduct) is my favorite advice columnist. She manages to be both sensible and very funny on every topic, both manners-related or, in this case, not. Check out her blog and her new book.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: William Stafford on What Makes a Successful Poem

[R]eaders do not like to extend credit to poets: a poem must have early rewards. It must be eventful in language; there must be early and frequent verbal events. Content, or topic, is not nearly enough, of course. A poem is an experience in the reading or hearing; the eventfulness of a poem comes in the experience of the reader. And in those events for the reader there must be coherence; one experience must relate to and enhance the next, and so on. Readers should not be loaded with more information and guidance than a lively mind needs—puzzlement can be accepted, but insulting clarity is fatal to a poem.

—William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life

Monday, November 9, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: Annie Dillard, via Alexander Chee, on Persistence

Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.

On the basis of this quote alone, I will be attending the event for this title presented by the Harvard Bookstore, Grub Street, and The Cambridge Center for Adult Education on Friday, November 13th, at 6:00PM at the Brattle Theater. Five bucks gets you in to hear Elizabeth Benedict and contributors Chris Castellani, Margot Livesey, Jay Cantor, Julia Glass, and Jim Shepard talk about mentorship and influence. Check it out!

Special thanks to Kevin for suggesting this quote.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hooked on Form

I've noticed lately that a lot of my writing is falling into forms with relatively fixed structures: a how-to, a braided essay ("Faith and Reason"), two micro-essays, a collage ("Pictures of You"), a list ("Catch and Release"), and a chronology ("A Brief History of My Hair and What Was Said About It," just accepted for publication in Sycamore Review).

I tend to decide on the structure of a piece early. When I don't, or when I've got a structure that I haven't yet recognized, I struggle a lot more with both content and organization. Settling on a form, whenever I manage to do it, gives me a road map for completing the piece.

A well-defined structure dictates a lot of choices for the writer—particularly choices about what must be left out. If a paragraph or section or detail doesn't fit in the structure—it disrupts the timeline of a chronology, it can't gracefully be expressed in as an instruction, it's too long-winded for the target word-count—then it must go. No stays of execution on compassionate grounds. Throw in additional restrictions, like second- or third-person narration or limiting the piece to the present tense, and if the essay doesn't exactly write itself, nevertheless the way forward is both clear and narrow.

Formal constraints make explicit the kinds of choices writers make all the time. For newer writers especially this helps us understand what those choices are, gives us an understanding of the effects they produce, and gets us in the habit of making them consciously. I think that in order to grow as a writer I will have to venture beyond my road maps, but for now I'm satisfied that experimenting with form is a valuable learning experience and my time as a structure junkie will not be wasted.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: David Bayles and Ted Orland on Perfection

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those of the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pounds of pots rated an "A," forty pounds a "B," and so on. Those being graded on "quality," however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an "A." Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. I've read it twice and now and have recommended it to every writer I know plus a couple of software engineers. I expect that I will read it regularly, as a kind of refresher course, in the future. If you want to practice any kind of craft and find that you are the biggest obstacle to your own work, this is the book for you.

I particularly love this passage. Perfectionism is my nemesis—I'm so afraid of failing, as if writing something badly would cost me anything more than the time spent. I need frequent reminders that the only way to get better at writing it to write, that even failing is a step forward.