Haute Cuisine & Creative Writing

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Some people dive into a book the same way they would a juicy steak, and find just as much sustenance. Great chefs are dependent upon fine diners just as great authors rely upon refined readers. But no one wakes up one day and thinks that since he likes eating that he would make a good chef at that point. It takes years of training and hard work to become a master chef. But any old dingus can write a book, right? Wrong! Without training, you may be a line chef in some greasy spoon or you might write some mindless pop-lit drivel. People may eat it up, too, but you’ll never be any good, much less great.

Some people confuse popularity and acceptance with ability. The best has not always been popular (that does not mean that anything popular is not well done). The Great Gatsby did not sell well until after the Second World War, which was after Fitzgerald died. Vincent Van Gogh did not earn enough from the sale of his art to pay for all of the paint that he ate. And while McDonalds may have served billions, Ruth’s Chris will still be serving the best food in town on any night.

A Keen Palate

Before you can even begin culinary school, you have to had eaten a lot. And just as the chef needs to be well-fed, the author must be well-read. A chef needs a refined palate so they will know the flavors of food and how they will taste in combinations. Maybe you’ve seen the bit on TV where chefs are blindfolded, fed something, and then have to identify it. It’s funny how much they get wrong.

People want to be good writers, but they’ve never read anything, or at least they’ve never read anything good. The Classics are the Classics for a reason. They are the best that the literary world has to offer. As Mozart was above Salieri, anything by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Joyce will always be better than anything written today considered popular literature. You will never write better than the level you read, and if all you eat in cotton candy, you’ll end up as a terrible chef.

Cordon Bleu

There are cooking techniques student learn in culinary school. I didn’t know that for a long time. I thought they learned recipes. There may be a few they learn near the end, but for the most part they are developing the necessary skills to carry out the instructions of any given recipe. And once they graduate, they should be advanced enough to put together their own recipes.

When any serious author takes the time to learn how to write, they are developing the skills that are necessary for a great story. They train in plot and character development. They learn how to write dialogue and build worlds. Most of all, they work on finding their voice. That is the most difficult part of all to any Creative Writing.

I have run across people who call themselves authors, even though they have no training. Their mommy told them they write the best stories, and that’s enough validation for them that they can start that novel at 16 or 21 or maybe 35, but it all reads like it was put together by an 8-year-old. And as beneficial as a subscription to Writer’s Digest may be, it’s articles can never substitute for time spent in classes under professors. The finest culinary school in the world is the Cordon Bleu in Paris. Its name means Blue Ribbon. The best validation does not come from mommy, but from professionals. Have the courage to learn from them.

Knife Skills

Chefs are known by their knife skills. They cut everything the same size so it cooks evenly. Writers are also known for our knife skills, but these knives are the cutlery used in editing a piece. The untrained writer falls in love with his work and does not have the knowledge or the heart to take anything out. Nothing is beyond editing.

Any given writing project is very personal to the writer, but the most advanced know how to distant themselves from the manuscript and stare at it coldly and let go anything that doesn’t work. Editing is not just fixing the commas and misspellings. It is fixing the story. We flush out the flat scenes and cut out is filler. We fill in the plot holes and tighten to story arc. Writing is rewriting.

Anything ever doing at all is worth doing well. In fact, if you’re not going to try your hardest and do your best, why do anything at all? This goes for the short story from the hobby writer to the professional author and everyone in between. If you are a Creative Writer, you don’t have to be the literary equivalent of Wolfgang Puck, but don’t settle for burger flipper, either.

It still takes 10,000 hours to master any discipline. If you are going to be a serious writer, put in the time to learn, and then put in the time to exercise what you have learned. If you are going to be a serious author, you need to take your preparation and execution seriously. If you do, folks will read your stuff and ask for seconds.

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“Of All The Gin Joints In All The World:” The Power Of Coincidence In Fiction

rick

One of the most beloved and best quoted movies in the 1942 classic Casablanca. It’s set in the costal Moroccan town during the Second World War. Our hero, Rick Blaine, is an American expat who for runs a nightclub and casino. A Czech leader of the Resistance, Victor Lazlo, comes to Casablanca and to Rick’s place with a woman, Elsa Lund, one with whom Rick shared a romantic past in Paris. They decide to leave when the German Occupation is upon them, but she abandons him at the train station with only a note of goodbye.

The Germans are trying to keep Victor from leaving for America. In the end, Rick helps them escape, even though he sticks out his neck for nobody. He is strongly tempted to disappear with Elsa and leave Victor with the enemy. He nobly sacrifices his happiness for the greater good, the fight against Nazism. One of the most familiar lines comes the night Rick sees Elsa again after the club is closed. He says, “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to come into mine.”

It Just So Happens

It is the greatest of coincidences that she had just happened to come with her husband to the club ran by her ex-boyfriend. But the movie would be nothing without that coincidence. It’s not just the arrival of Elsa. There are a series of coincidences that make the story possible. It just so happens that letters of transit were stolen from German couriers, and it just so happens that the thief asks Rick to watch over the letters. Another coincidence is that the thief is shot. Now Rick is in a place to help Victor or himself or no one. The string of coincidences begins long before all of this. It’s coincidence that some time before Victor was a prisoner of the Germans and Elsa thought he was dead, that as a grieving widow she happens to meet and fall for Rick, and finds out Victor is both alive and free just as she is supposed to leave Paris with Rick.

Great storytelling relies on the wonderful power of coincidence and how it connects the dots of the plot. Coincidence arranges for Jay Gatsby to live across the bay from his former girlfriend, Daisy Faye, now Daisy Buchannan. This same coincidence just happens to arrange for her cousin to move in next door to Gatsby, and he uses this to arrange a reacquaintance that steers the rest of the story. Sometimes the coincidence helps with the plot twist. Pip just happens across an escaped prisoner and helps him, and coincidentally he grows rich and becomes Pip’s benefactor. Pip and the reader assume this will help him win Estella, but it doesn’t. She is such a manhater like Mrs. Havisham that Pip is better off without her. And the twist is the help of the benefactor places Pip in a better world with class and status.

Suspension Of Disbelief

The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the idea of the need for a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of any reader of fiction. Without this, the reader constantly exclaims, “That’ll never happen,” and never get around to enjoying the story. Try reading and enjoying “Oedipus Rex” with your skepticism barking as a guard dog at every fantastic occurrence. In genre like Fantasy and Science Fiction, it is clear how the suspension of disbelief is indispensable. But even in more mainstream stories with realistic settings, a willing suspension of disbelief is needful. One place this works is in the story’s reliance upon a heavy use of coincidence to make sure everything happens just as it should.

The Creative Writer needs to be aware that coincidence is necessary for fiction and not be afraid to use it. We can hope that the reader will do their job and chain up the dog. Still, we need to be careful in how we apply the use of circumstance to suit the story. If it’s done in a ham-handed manner it will be a weight to the suspension and help the skepticism poke through. We need to take care to apply the coincidental in a manner that is still believable, something that makes the reader say, “I could see it happening like that.” It needs to resemble the time and chance that happens to us all. If coincidence does not look like the regular occurrence of life that happens to everyone, it’ll be hard to swallow. So when our characters have their own “of all the gin joints” moment in our stories, the reader consoles the character, and says, “I’ve been there before, too, buddy!”

 

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Creativity – As Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien

jrr

Many are familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Long before he began work on any of these stories, he wrote something he called The Book of Lost Tales, which was published posthumously as The Silmarillion. It serves as a prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as a reference book for the history of Middle Earth for the few thousands of years of the beginning of Tolkien’s legendarium.

The story of Sauron and the Ring of Power is the final section of The Silmarillion. A good deal of the book discusses the origin of Middle Earth, Tolkien’s creation myth for his fantasy world. The One true God creates his angels, and through these, He creates the rest. This is not some Gnostic demiurge creation story because God still is the sole creator, but his creation is simply mediated by these angels.

Sub-Creation
These angels are sub-creators, according to Tolkien. The notion of sub-creation is a big element in Tolkien’s entire mythology, and it relates to all of us who are Creative Writers. Tolkien writes of angels as created beings who help create the world as a means of indicating his idea that mankind is intended to be God’s sub-creators in the Primary World.
Before we read about the love or the holiness of God, we see His creative powers. He creates the world in six days. Man in the highest order of God’s creation, made in His image, and into whom is given a soul. Since God is a creator first, then that made in his image is creative, as well. All artists are specifically sub-creators, but so is the doctor and the nurse, the lawyer and the judge, the smith and the mason. In this, man has not only the ability to create, or the right to create, but the obligation to create.

Leaf on the Tree
We will limit our consideration to writers. Tolkien did not think that writers originated anything. That would be creation. We are still sub-creators in that we only deal in representation of what God made, even in worlds of fantasy (here’s a little secret: all fiction is fantasy). Fiction is not invented, but rather discovered. He compared it to a leaf on a tree. Each story is a single leaf that indicates there is a whole tree full of others leaves from which it sprang.

The job of the author is take the leaf given to him by the tree and talk all about that leaf, not forgetting the tree, but not mentioning it, either. How artistic the author is seen in how he relates the leaf to others and allows them into the tale of that leaf. Each leaf is on its own glorious, but still a single leaf from an even grander tree. God made the tree and lets us have whatever leaves He will in His own time and in His own manner.

Escapism
Another image Tolkien used to describe the concept of sub-creation is that of light and a crystal. God is the light, and is described as a single shaft of light that comes down from above and strikes a piece of crystal, which represents the individual person as sub-creator. The light is fractured and comes out of different sides and at different angles, and often in different colors. These different individual branches of light is the story sub-created by the writer. The splinter of light is impossible without the one true shaft of light coming down from above. Likewise, our individual tales of fiction are only possible because they come from the Great Creator down into us and through us as His sub-creators.

The fact that all human sub-creativity comes God as Creator feeds into the reason and purpose of our fiction. Tolkien wrote of his books as means of escapism, but not in the way it is often used today. People say they want to read a good book and escape this world and all of its problems. Tolkien calls that foolish. As a Christian man, Tolkien believed in Heaven, and that this world is not all there is. Escapism is considering the world to come, that there may be something better than this one. For Tolkien, this is the stories ability to remind the reader of the greater tree.

We all have the ability to be a sub-creator of God. The author who writes as well as the reader who recreates what the author wrote all use their creative capacities given by God. This is more than a talent, but a task – but what a wonderful obligation it is!

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Creativity: Part One – As Inspired by Osho

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Anyone can benefit from a study of Creativity, but all artists are dependent upon it. And to be sure, Creative Writers need to develops a continual sense of Creativity. In this first article, we will consider the book Creativity by Osho. She gives us four points that should help us work on our own use of Creativity.

Be a Child Again

Our brains are separated into a pair of hemispheres, the left and the right. The left is the more reasonable and intellectual side and the right is more emotional and creative. Children are very creative and imaginative. But it seems our school system and society at large restricts and shuns this right brain work far too often. Bosses say they like people who think outside of the box (which is such an inside of the box sort of phrase), but it’s usually the innovators who are fired and the people who plod along with the expected who advance. Remember Jerry Maguire?

We need to learn to be like a child again so we can regain the right brain use we have lost in our present world. We need to spend time being imaginative and innovative. Ask the eternal What? but always follow it up with How? and most importantly Why? Curiosity is that vital first step in Creativity. Imagine things both real, potential, and impossible.

Be Ready to Learn

It takes 10,000 hours to master any subject or discipline, at least that’s what the experts say. No one says I always wanted to be a musician and picks up a saxophone and starts playing, even trying to be a professional. They take lessons. It has to be the same for Creative Writers. I have read far too much stuff from people who always wanted to write, or their mommy told them how good their stories are when they were kids, and it’s always awful. They think they can write a novel just because they have the desire and determination.

I spent a good five to six years learning the craft of authorship before I began a novel. I wrote many short stories, and each of them was an exercise. I took as many Creative Writing classes as I could get into. I knew I wanted to be an author and took it seriously enough to learn how to write the English language. And I am still learning because I don’t know it all. Every novel is an exercise where I try to develop this or work on that. I read books and articles on writing. Maybe the best schooling is from the masters themselves. I read the greats to learn how to write as well as I can.

Be a Dreamer

Many will call it a waste of time, but Creative Writers need to give themselves time to daydream. Part of this has to do with being a child again, and some it has to do with letting scenes and characters act things out before our eyes. But mostly, daydreaming is like anything else in that the more you do it, the better you get at it.

Take time to daydream, but not necessarily about any writing project, just dream about anything, everything. Try not to control it, but let it happen. The best daydreaming is intuitive. That’s because the best daydreaming is actually a line of communication between our conscious and sub-conscious minds. This is the true self, and that part our conscious mind often tries to hide from us.

Here’s a little secret: all of my novel ideas come from dreams. I don’t mean daydreams, but sleeping dreams. I’ll awake and remember if I’m lucky, and think about it for the morning or the day. And if I think it’s got enough juice, I’ll develop it and write it. So when I say be a dreamer, I mean both kinds.

Find Greatness in Ordinary Things

This blends the analysis of left brain with the wonderment of right brain. I’ll be honest, it’s hard to do. But like anything else, if you do it often enough and consistently enough, it can be a habit. And what a wonderful pattern for your life, to watch a bug on a leaf, a bird eating tossed out bread, or a sunset from beginning to end.

This is one reason I like watching some of these nature shows (another reason is there is nothing good on TV these days). But when I speak of ordinary things, I mean look at your life and the ordinary tasks of human existence we all do every day. Find pleasure in the simple things and enjoy what most ignore as mundane. This will keep your minds active, both left and right, conscious and sub-conscious. This works the soil for Creativity and makes sure your brain is fertile ground for anything you may write or do.

We are made by God to be Creative, but like all other personal aptitudes, it takes work to develop and maintain it. Anyone will benefit from a Creative mind, but authors and artists are skilless without it. Try these things and you’ll see an improvement I your writing and your life.

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“There Are Two Kinds Of Men,” A Study In Foils From Doctor Zhivago

foil

Whenever there is a novel-based movie in the theatres, someone will say, “The book was better.” Almost always it is, but there are always exceptions. David Lean’s 1965 film Doctor Zhivago is at least as good as Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel by the same name.

There is one scene I enjoy in the movie not in the book, so the credit goes to screenplay writer, Robert Bolt. Larisa Volokhonsky has just introduced her fiancé Pasha Antipov to her mother’s “advisor” Viktor Komarovsky, with whom she had been having an affair. Afterward, Komarovsky expresses his disapproval of the marriage because it’s basically a mismatch.

He says, “There are two kinds of men,” and Antipov is the first kind. “He is pure. He’s the kind of man the world pretends to look up to, and in fact despises. he’s the kind of man that breeds unhappiness particularly in women.” He follows this with the second kind of man, which he insists is “not pure, but alive.”

Two Kinds Of Men

Antipov and Komarovsky are two ends of a pole, the prig and the libertine. In literature this is called a foil. This serves as an example for those of us who are Creative Writers. We can learn how to further develop our characters with the use of foils. It is common to foil the protagonist against the antagonist, but that is really the low hanging fruit of authorship. This model is more exciting and provides more options for us.

While there are many opposites that can be foiled, the prig and the libertine may be the most common and the easiest to attempt. Antipov is a revolutionary committed to ending the rule of the czars and bringing about a worker’s state. He is the high-minded idealist. Komarovsky is a rich lawyer who likes to drink, gamble, and eat at fancy restaurants. He has political opinions, but they don’t move him as his appetite. Pasternak, as well as Lean, show us two kids of men as dissimilar as they can be.

Two Kinds Of Women

After Komarovsky tells Larisa about the two kinds of men, he says, “there are also two kinds of women, and you as well both well know are not the first kind.” He follows that with, “you are a slut.” She may not this depraved, but she is far from being the prig. She is indeed alive and willing to experience life. A woman of the first kind would be Tonya Gromyko. She is not as snobby as one thinks a prig to be, be she is rich and proper and fits the bill of the idealized woman.

The main character, Doctor Yuri Zhivago, marries Tonya, but has an affair with Larisa. This is after her husband, Antipov, has left her to fight in the revolution. While Tonya and Larisa might not be as severe as a prig and a libertine, they do foil each other as Antipov and Komarovsky do, just not as extreme.

What About Yuri?

So what kind of man is our main character, Doctor Zhivago himself? Neither, or more to the point, both. That is why I feel that we as Creative Writers can use foils in major character who surround our main character, and not have the two foils be the protagonist and the antagonist.

Zhivago has the best qualities of both men without their excesses. This helps put his affair in a literary context. As both kinds of men, Yuri despises both Antipov and Komarovsky, but he loves both Tonya and Larisa because just one type of woman would not do. Zhivago has ideas and is ideal, he knows life and how to live, he is simultaneously the doctor and the poet.

The challenge to us authors is to learn how to use foils, and maybe even form a foil triangle of sorts as both Pasternak and Lean did. These are the sorts of things that make our texts more full and our characters more developed.

 

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Animal Group Names & A Collection of Characters: Part II – Land Mammals

lions

In my last article, we looked at the idea of group names for animals as metaphors in fiction. It is such a long list, so we began with groups names of birds. For example, we have all heard of a murder of crows. You can refer to group of characters, let’s say – assassins, as a murder of crows.

We are on land today. There are many mammals who roam the earth, and their collective names are just as varied and interesting as those of the birds. Think of the phrase, “a pride of lions.” If you have a collection of characters who are particularly arrogant, this would fit marvelously. So here is the list.

  • A shrewdness of apes
  • A cauldron of bats
  • A sleuth of bears
  • An obstinacy of buffalo
  • A pace of donkeys
  • A parade of elephants
  • A gang of elk
  • A business of ferrets
  • A tower of giraffes
  • A tribe of goats
  • A band of gorillas
  • A thunder of hippopotamuses
  • A cackle of hyenas
  • A shadow of jaguar
  • A mob of kangaroo
  • A conspiracy of lemurs
  • A leap of leopards
  • A barrel of monkeys
  • A romp of otters
  • A passel of pigs
  • A prickle of porcupines
  • A warren of rabbits
  • A crash of rhinoceroses
  • A streak of tigers

I find this list wonderful. I’ve already used one of the collective terms of birds in my work in progress, a scold of jaybirds. Using these group names of animals as metaphors for your groups of characters will add a layer of flavor and color to your prose, and you’ll be glad you did it.

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Animal Group Names & a Collection of Characters: Part I – Birds

birds

As authors, we make sure our characters are as individualistic and unique as possible. That having been said, all of us will at times use a group of characters to do something. This group could be big or small, a few people of an entire village. You can say something about the group my metaphorically comparing your group to a collection of animals and use the name of that animal group. We all know that comparing the group to the animals is easy enough, but the name of the group adds another level.

For example, we all know that a group of lions is called a pride. You can refer to a group of people as a pride of lions is they have the nature of a lion or if they exhibit pride. The sentence “The Professors milled about like a pride of lions,” is more colorful with the metaphor than without, and it tells us something about the Professors.

We refer to birds as a flock, but each kind of bird has its own group name. I’m sure we have all heard of a murder of crows. That is what I’m talking about, the group names for specific birds. We will consider other animals in the next few weeks.

  • A bellowing of bullfinches
  • A clutch of chickens
  • A gulp of cormorants
  • A flight of doves
  • A paddling of ducks
  • A convocation of eagles
  • A cast of falcons
  • A charm of finches
  • A flamboyance of flamingoes
  • A skein of geese (in flight)
  • A charm of goldfinches
  • A rasp of guineafowls
  • A kettle of hawks
  • A brood of hens
  • A siege of herons
  • A scold of jays
  • An exaltation of larks
  • A congregation of magpies
  • A richness of martens
  • A watch of nightingales
  • A parliament of owls
  • A pandemonium of parrots
  • An ostentation of peacocks
  • A pod of pelicans
  • A convent of penguins
  • A bouquet of pheasants
  • A drift of quail
  • An unkindness of ravens
  • A fling of sandpipers
  • A host of sparrows
  • A chattering of starlings
  • A phalanx of storks
  • A gulp of swallows
  • A lamentation of swans
  • A pitying of turtle doves
  • A descent of woodpeckers

You can add color and flair to your manuscript by comparing groups of characters to groups of animals. Here are a lsit of the names of the groups of individual bird kinds. We’ll have more lists coming soon.

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Another NaNo In The Books

nano16win

I haven’t posted in a while, and for I am sorry. But I’ve been busy preparing for and participating in this years National Novel Writing Month, best known as NaNoWriMo, or just NaNo, tout suite.

And now that it’s over, it’s only eleven months until the next NaNoWriMo, so start working on those outlines. I know this sounds funny, but if you’re like me, you already have an idea for NaNoWriMo ’17. And if you’re like me, you’ll probably change your mind about what to write somewhere around July, and then again near the end of September, and once more November 2nd. But this is not the time to prepare, but reflect. And so looking back on yet another NaNoWriMo experience, I’ve been reminded of one unexcapable fact.

Writing Is Hard And Fun

How many times have you heard or even said that writers write because we cannot not be writers? It’s true for any artist. We must create. If we were not doing NaNoWriMo, we’d be working on a short story or finishing yet another draft for another novel. NaNoWriMo just gives us all a mutual target.

And we all know that creating is pure joy, mostly, although sometimes barely. And yet we create, because there is a pleasure in it not determinable anywhere else. But the joy comes with tears because being creative is difficult. I mean much more than writing 50,000 words in 30 days is hard, but being an artist who makes something from nothing is problematical, at best.

And this hardness brings tears because we genuinely care about our product. We are truly angered when what we love so much appears to us as something quite ugly. If we didn’t care about our art, we would write garbage and be satisfied, or give up when to gets too hard. But we cherish our writing as a mother does her newborn, and we want nothing but the best for it. So when our baby hurts, we suffer, too. But we would not have it any other way.

The Only Way To Fly

As truly difficult as it is to be a creative writer, difficult even to the point of pain, we love being a writer because of the joy it brings on so many levels. Coming up with that perfect word, that most beautiful sentence, or the best-written paragraph we ever produced – these things brush the tears from our cheeks and turn the corners of our mouths up in a well satisfied smile.

We write because we have to, and we have to because we know first-hand of the unmitigated satisfaction that arises from getting it just right. And we know that there is nothing else under the sun that can bring about that sense of this-life fullness, and we cannot have it any other way. Maybe writing is fun because it’s hard, or hard because it’s fun. Either way, I’m grateful for NaNoWriMo, but if it were not there, I’d still be writing something else.

And now if you would excuse me, I need to start working on next year’s outline.

 

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Why I Listen To Music While I Write

music

I used to go around saying, “I write to Be-Bop Jazz, but do all my editing listening to Baroque.” I guess the sentiment was that the free-flowing jazz was intended to inspire my originality, while the rules and formulas of Baroque music should help me edit properly. To tell you the truth, I listen to Jazz plus a whole lot of other things when I write. And for the most part, I don’t listen to any kind of music while I’m editing. You can do what you want, just as long as it suits you. But I would recommend that all Creative Writers listen to music while they write.

Creative Juices

Listening to music is fun. It helps us relax. just this alone helps Creative Writing. But the brain goes through the same creative process as the composer when listening to music. That means we who are authors put our creative brains on steroids when we listen to music. And science has further found that this takes place latently, which means if you listen to music but don’t concentrate on the piece, you brain still is effected with more creative capacity.

Sorry, No Lyrics

This is a preference, and not a rule. And I’ll admit, I break it sometimes. But it’s best to listen to music that has no lyrics. To be honest, I greatly enjoy music with lyrics. But it is not preferable when writing. Now for the reasons music works so well in embellish our creativity is because it blocks out our logical side of the brain just as it enhances the creative side of our brain. Add lyrics and it creates confusion in the brain. I don’t want the lyrics to interfere with the words I’m trying to put down on the page. The last thing I want is to build to a great climax and look back and see that I typed, I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. The only words I want in my brain are the ones in my story.

Block The Block

Writer’s Block often occurs when the logical side of the brain interferes and chokes out the creative side. Music works the creative side and shuts off the rational side, so there is no bossy side of the brain cutting of our magnificent story telling. Let’s face it, we all know that Writer’s Block comes from thinking too much. And quite often it comes from striving for perfection. Music allows us to let our stories flow and we can worry about perfection when he get to editing.

I love music and I love good stories. How lucky am I that both can work together? And in addition to everything already mentioned, if we are writing in a public place and people see the ear buds going to our ear, they’ll leave us alone. That help our writing as much as anything else.

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In Defense of the Classics

homer

I hear a lot people these days bag against the writers of what are considered the classics as a bunch of dead, white men. I’m sick and tired of that. Not everything considered classic is written by a man or a white person. But I’m no dummy, a majority are. So does that mean there’s something wrong with them? When I hear someone wail on the classics as dead white men’s work, I reply with a quote by (I think) Twain, who said, “Given the choice between Proust and the Pau-Paus, I’ll read Proust.”

Why would Twain not read anything written by the Pau-Paus? Simply put, they have not produced a writer on the par of these dead white men, like Proust, for example. Any culture or society could have developed a great writer. Most leading civilizations in the world have had a Golden Age at some time in their past. But have all of them developed a culture that accentuated storytelling and laid such an emphasis on language? Very few, in fact, mostly none.

The First Classics

One ancient society not only developed a storytelling culture but excelled in it. They influenced cultures and nations for centuries to come. These are the Greeks. The highlights of thinking and writing were picked up by the Romans, so much that many speak of the Greek and Roman times as the development of Classical culture. Europe fell into a millennium of ignorance called the Dark Ages. There were some writers, but they were all Classically educated. The end of the Dark Ages saw a flourish of writing known as the Romances, which were popular in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Examinations of different manuscripts lead to comparative reading of literature and the Renaissance and the Enlightenment fell out from that. It began and ended with reading and emulating the Greeks and the Romans.

This lead to a whelm of literature to come out of Europe, the best of which are considered cannon for great writing, the much maligned classics. Any culture had the same chance to create great writers. The fact that they hadn’t is not the fault of the champions of great literature to come out of Europe. So when I write, I carry with me the weight of everything I’ve read, and I personally like well-written books. No teenaged wizards or shiny vampires in my stacks. I read the classics and I think the classics will shape my writing. I know you cannot write better than what you read. So if all a person reads is pop-lit, they should not expect to write like Faulkner.

Non-White Males

While I like a lot, my favorites are Russian and Modern American literature. The best of these, dudes like Chekhov and Hemingway, write with a style known as Minimalism. That doesn’t mean the writing is bare, but that only those details necessary for the story are used. Extra details just get in the way. I like that and I think I write that way, and to the degree I do not, I’d like to develop that quality.

I want to be clear – there are plenty of greats who are neither white nor male. I never want it to sound as if I am defending dead white men, but the idea that the canon should be ignored because it supposedly is only dead white men is piffle. Flannery O’Conner is one of my all-time favorites and Catherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I like the Harlem Renaissance and the more recent African-Americans such as Walker, Angelou, and Morrison. Additionally, Marquez is awesome. I totally love his Love in the Time of Cholera. I would consider all of these classics as much as Proust, Beotheus, or Virgil.

 

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