Friday, March 25, 2011

THE NEW LANGUAGE OF NONFICTION PART I

Having nearly exhausted my creative capacity after a year-long project of researching, writing and rewriting, (and now seeking publication of) my popular history of American literature, ‘American Masters’, I have given myself a month off. (Of course with my novella ‘The Angelic Mysteries’ due out in August, it won’t be much of a break). But it is important to replenish the wellsprings of narrative creation. For some time I have put off writing of my inquiry into narrative structure, desire and resistance in nonfiction – what is called plot in fiction. (This along with the study of language generally). So now, after many patient months of doing other things, I have begun. It is the fruit of this lengthy inquiry I would like to share with you today.

I begin with a new notion of language itself as set down by Steven Pinker in his brilliant and popular book (is popular the right word? Well read, perhaps.) ‘The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language’. It is his contention that language is something far more organic than has been previously believed. (Something I have suspected for a long time, too). Language is, he writes, a human instinct that is hard-wired into our brain much as animals have instincts of their own. (A squirrel to bury nuts for winter. A spider to spin its web). This is why, when stone-age people were discovered in New Guinea, for instance, long cut off from any other humans, language had still developed among them. This offers us only a place to begin – it is not my intention here to dig deeply into the work of either Pinker or Noam Chomsky. Let us say that my conclusion has been this: If language grows naturally and organically from the human subconscious, perhaps our approach to narrative structure and plot has been too formal, just as the dictates of grammar may restrict rather than enhance a student’s ability to learn language.

With that as a premise, then, I began to look further afield for ideas that I may employ in my narrative nonfictions. I came across some very interesting writings by Algirdas Greimas – ‘The Semiotics of Passion’ and ‘On Meaning’ in which he searches for those elements in narrative that create oppositions. What he discovered is that there are points of opposition – of friction we might say – that lie outside our normal patterns of narration. They lie, rather, in the deep structure of the work itself. He designed a semiotic square with which to illustrate his findings. Contradictory pairs could be found not only between life and death, but in ‘not life’ and ‘not death’, for instance. If such pairs could be identified in a work at the outset, a certain tension could be created without the use of standard ‘fictional’ plotting techniques. As you can see, this gave me another way to think about narrative nonfiction. If tension could be introduced that was not glaringly borrowed from fiction, a new and different kind of story would result. And, since nonfiction has at least the potential of being more ‘true’ than fiction, whole new possibilities present themselves.

I hope this gives you something to chew on this week, as it has me for some time now. I will continue the subject next week in Part II. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments either here or on my Facebook page. This is part of an article ‘The New Language of Nonfiction’ Copyright © 2011 James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

Thanks for reading,
Jim

Friday, March 18, 2011

A SENSE OF CONVICTION II

“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” - A.J. Muste

This week I briefly jumped in on a Facebook conversation. One man posted that he liked plain old fashioned characters in fiction that are caught up in the human condition. Regular ol’ storytelling, in short. I agree with him. But immediately that puts those on the defensive who read ‘experimental’ fiction. “Why can’t we read both?” one asked. Well, of course we can read from across the spectrum and probably should do so. But to say I prefer straight storytelling should not offend anyone. It is coming from my sense of conviction. I have read much experimental and postmodern fiction and nonfiction and still, I prefer straight storytelling. Now here is what may offend: I do so from a sense of conviction about the way the world is. From my personal worldview, if you will.

Let me take a giant leap back to the beginning of existence. To the beginning of the universe, if you please. There are really only two ways of approaching the truth about existence. Either A) we have been created by God and that as those created in God’s image we have an eternal purpose and… greatness, as a result of that, or B) we are all just the result of some cosmic accident that leaves us living in chaos and absurdity, fighting our way forward – struggling just to live out our time of existence in the here and now.

Now, again, I am not going out of my way to deliberately offend anyone; but either we believe that we are a part of God’s great design and purpose for the universe, or we don’t. If our conviction is that we are part of a design and plan, then it is easier for us to find a design and purpose for our fiction. (Not that we can’t experiment within our structure, but the structure remains intact). If we believe that all life is absurdity – that there is no plan for anything and that our lives are over the moment we draw our last breath – then we are free to ‘experiment’ outside any kind of set structure. “The truth is relative. There is no definitive truth. One person’s truth is just as valid as another’s.” All of these ideas grow from the so-called postmodern worldview or sense of conviction.

I’m probably not going to convince anyone to change their worldview here in my little weekly blog post. I am only going to point out that there ‘is’ a difference. I will even go so far as to say that nothing great has ever been written that was not written from some deep conviction about the way the world is. That sense of conviction was certainly different for Tolstoy than it was for Kafka. Different for Hemingway than it was for Emily Dickinson. But each held their conviction deeply and attempted to convey what they believed through the written word – through the world of their writing. That is the way to literary greatness.

For many years my wife and I have held to the conviction that the way of nonviolence is far superior to the way of violence. (See last week’s post). Over and over again we have seen the ‘miracle’ of forgiveness and reconciliation in situations that might normally lead to harm and retaliation. We have put our convictions into practice. So, when I write, that is the place in reality that I write from. For many years we have held to the belief, the conviction, that there is no place for nuclear reactors on our planet. We are not capable of handling it or disposing of it properly and so we ought not be employing it in any capacity. Not many people listen to us about nonviolence or the nuclear problem or anything else. But hey, this is my written world. And in this world I get to say what is what. This is my island. And I say we vote everything nuclear off. And just like that… it is gone.

All the Best,

Jim

Friday, March 11, 2011

A SENSE OF CONVICTION

“Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the end of the protracted civil war in Nicaragua, in 1990, I went to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in an upcountry village called Jinotega. The end of the war had been announced. Peace had been achieved. But as is often the case the end of hostilities does not always coincide neatly with such announcements. In the jungles around Jinotega there were snakes, jaguars, big spiders, armed Sandinistas, armed Contras, land mines, trip wires and so on. Oh, and it was rainy season.

Pat and Donna, the supervisors of the building site, never once used the word ‘nonviolence’ to describe how they conducted themselves in such an environment. I, having spent time in the US Army Infantry, would not have understood if they had. When soldiers in olive drab uniforms that lacked any kind of insignia or identification swept cautiously through the village armed and dangerous, I felt completely at a loss. Such men can do what they want.

In spite of the dangers, this young couple came and went as they pleased in their old Toyota Land Cruiser. Once, they said, they had taped ‘TV’ on the windows of the Toyota. When they were stopped, rebel soldiers assumed they were from American Television and let them go where they wanted without hassle. One day I had the opportunity to ride along with them to pick up supplies. By the time we were heading home it was growing dark. I was jammed in the back with the supplies so I did not at first see why they were slowing down and coming to a stop. When I did see, I felt the icy sweat of panic. “What’s going on?” I asked, though I had a pretty good idea.

Armed men were blocking the road with their vehicles. These men, too, had no insignia nor identification of any kind. When we came to a stop one of the men came around to the driver’s side window and demanded to know who we were. Pat told them. They ordered us out of the Toyota. The back of my scalp prickled as I clamored out of the back and was lined up at gun-point with the others. What should I do? What could I do?

The moment of death was at hand and yet Pat and Donna addressed the soldiers lovingly and with a great sense of calm. I could not believe how calm they were, in fact. Here we were lined up and for all any of us knew we might be dead bodies dragged off into the jungle in another minute. (Perhaps less than a minute). But they continued to respond in ways that showed a great deal of courage, and without the need for weapons of any kind. We were not killed. What did happen, however, was a profound shift in the way I saw my life. A shift in the way I view courage. A shift in everything.

When I returned home I began to study everything I could get my hands on about this nonviolent way. I read Gandhi and Jesus (in a new light), and Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others. After a time my wife and I swore an oath of nonviolence. We have not taken that oath lightly.

Now, what does any of this have to do with writing or great literature? (The title might lend a clue). Over this past year I have been writing a series of short stories based on the ideas of nonviolent direct action and the various movements of nonviolence in the world. The collection is due out in the Spring of 2012. Meanwhile, you might check out one - 'A Most Curious Activity' that has been published in the online literary journal 'The Smoking Poet'. See it for free at www.thesmokingpoet.net Click on Fiction3 or my name James D. Sanderson.

Return next week, same time and same station for Part II of ‘A Sense of Conviction’.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A TALK WITH THE AUTHOR

I had the great pleasure being on the Tony Angelo radio show last Saturday, and I wanted to share some of the things we talked about (and have added some other things we didn’t talk about). If you have any comments or questions of your own, please add them in the comments below.

Why do you write? A person must be crazy to want to write, and I mean that literally. When I was a kid my Dad was such an overbearing and dynamic force in my life – and I don’t mean to say he was abusive, really – that I couldn’t seem to find a voice for myself. When he argued with my mother I remember scrunching down into the corner of my bedroom and making myself very tiny. Then, when I learned to write, my writing was very tiny as well. People still comment on it today. My script is almost microscopic and all pinched together. It was as if I was trying to express myself but I didn’t really want anyone to be able to see what I was trying to say. So, I guess to keep expressing myself, I had to write.

How do you come up with story ideas and characters? It takes me a long time to come up with story ideas – and I mean years – and they almost always come from character. Characters develop from people I know, or from my own experience, but I don’t believe any of my characters are based on real people. They are more like composite people. Then, when I know my character, I begin to wonder how they would act or react in this situation or that. The story usually emerges from that.

When and how do you write? I have the great luxury now of being a full-time writer, but if I’m not careful my time can go away just as fast as anyone else’s. I usually blog ‘The Angelic Mysteries’ – my novel coming out in August - on Monday. Then I work on the next chapter of my latest novel on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then on Thursday I blog ‘Literary Greatness’, which is my blog about great authors, literature, books, and writing. I promote my work online anytime I get a minute. For the modern author, marketing and promotion must be part of the writing process.

What authors inspire you? I have a library full of authors I refer back to often. Tolstoy. Dostoevsky. Hemingway. Faulkner. Steinbeck. Melville. The complete Shakespeare. Henry James. Of course any I don’t have right on the shelf I can usually find online now. That is a great benefit of reading classic literature – you can usually get it free or very cheap on the library giveaway shelf or the used bookstore or online.

What are you working on now? ‘The Angelic Mysteries’ is a novel about a man who meets a woman who believes herself to be an angel. They are being pursued around Europe by a psychopath she believes in an anti-angel – an angel from hell. It is a thriller and a love story, but also a novel of ideas: about the thin line between sanity and insanity. It’s due out August 18th.

How long does it take you to write a novel? Oh goodness, there is no time limit. ‘The Angelic Mysteries’ came out in a limited edition literary paperback in 1994. I have been working on it off and on ever since. The edition due out in August is my final draft however.

What is your next project? I have been working on a series of short stories about nonviolent direct action as it has been used around the world, and the collection, as yet untitled, is due out in the spring (March 2012). Meanwhile some of them are being published in small press magazines.

How long have you been writing? Well, as I said about being a kid hiding out in my bedroom from the fights my parents had, I began to write stories almost as soon as I could write. I remember my twelfth year in particular. I always read classic literature too, so I was considered somewhat weird by my young friends.

How does your background influence your work? I know I have always wanted to be a writer, and the fact that I read classic literature from an early age has had the most influence on my work. Whenever I read I am making mental notes about how this or that style or technique might be useful to my work in the future. I believe that novels should express great ideas because the written word is just too important to waste on only entertainment.

How do you research? Plain old library time. Of course it is a lot easier to get books now through inter library loans and so on, and I use the internet extensively. A writer simply must use the internet to help with research. There is no reason for a writer to miss some important detail.

Give some facts and juicy tidbits about your work. (Laughs). I don’t know how juicy it is, but when I was writing ‘American Masters’ I came to the chapter about our American State Papers as Literature. It occurred to me that Benjamin Franklin, because he had access to his own printing press, was able to go directly to his readers with his story. Who knows what would be known of him today if he had had to go through some convoluted publishing process to get his work out. In France especially he was able to influence people directly with his writing. I think we authors need to start looking for ways to write directly to our readers. Of course the internet is making great strides at helping us do that.

What are you reading now? I am reading ‘Anna Karenina’ for the umpteenth time. It is really my favorite novel. On my shelf are also ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘Vanity Fair’, which are also long reads. So, I’ve got my reading time mapped out for me for quite a while.

Do you have any concluding remarks? Only that we writers need to hear from our readers. If you are reading a blog or are meeting an author on Facebook or wherever, don’t be afraid to speak out and say what you think about our work or about reading and writing in general. (Be kind, but be real). We are just breaking into the idea of being able to speak directly with our readers, and we need to know what you are thinking. It will help us create our future works and it will keep us honest about why we’re writing, and who we’re writing for. I would love your feedback at either of my blog sites: Literary Greatness - www.jamesdsanderson.blogspot.com or www.theangelicmysteries.blogspot.com. You may also look for me on Facebook (James D. Sanderson).

Jim