Monday, May 30, 2011

WRITING GREATNESS

I was twelve years old. It was the year - and this is how I remember it - it was the year I took a job with old Mister King. He grew tomatoes for the local grocery stores and he was gettin' old. He needed a hand around the place. Mostly I was breaking up tomato crates so they could be reassembled into new crates. Anyway, it was in that same year my dad took a creative writing course. So I have my writing career to thank my dad for - for better or worse.

Here's how it went: When I heard that a body could make money writing stories, which is what I already knew I wanted to do anyway, I was amazed. I was already reading classic literature by that time. I would read a story like 'A Barn Burner' or 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' and I didn't really understand it so I would go to my dad and ask him what it was all about. "Did the guy die in the end or what?" I'd ask.

"Maybe you're too young to understand it yet," he'd say.

And he was right, of course, but I'd read them anyway and maybe that was part of the appeal - that I didn't really understand and wanted to, or that I wanted to be able to say I read stuff than nobody my age understood.

This is the second anniversary of my blog. I am creating this blog while I am working on my work in progress - attempting to work out details and to come up with solutions I might not otherwise have come up with. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is which. I am writing from within the creative eye, as I call it. I hope you are enjoying my work here.

In August my novella 'The Angelic Mysteries' will be released through Amazon and Barnes and Nobles and Smashwords. I hope you will give it a try and let me know what you think of it. It has been many years in the making. 'The Angelic Mysteries' was published first as a trade paperback novel in 1994. It was picked up by an agent who made promises of millions $. When that didn't happen it was dropped quick enough and I don't feel it was ever given a proper reading. I have since completely re-written it and it is much shorter. I like to think it has been distilled. In any case, I like this version much better and am excited to be releasing it soon.

Thanks for following my work here and as always I invite comments from my readers.

Yours always,

Jim

Friday, May 27, 2011

RESURRECTION

What if you decided to give up everything you owned and live among the poorest of the poor? Would it make any difference in the world? Would it make any difference in your life?

Tolstoy tried it and the results were mixed. His family didn't want him to give up his property and they wanted to retain the rights to his work. After his death they won it all back in court. We know Tolstoy by his greatest works 'War and Peace'
(1863-1869)and 'Anna Karenina'(1873-1877) of course. So how is it I have never before read his third great novel, 'Resurrection'(1899)?

Tolstoy's later writings caused a great deal of trouble for a great number of people. 'The Kingdom of God is Within You' and other writings and thoughts troubled the Orthodox Church so much that he was excommunicated in 1901. He corresponded with M.K. Gandhi about the way of nonviolent resistance to evil. (Still a controversial idea today in this world filled with violence). It is better to let such troubling ideas slip into oblivion, is it not? But this is Tolstoy! How can you silence this great author and moralist? But that is apparently what happened to 'Resurrection' in those years following his death in the train station at Astapovo in 1910.

'Resurrection' is the story of Prince Dmitri Nekhlyodov who, as a younger man, seduced and then abandoned a young woman by the name of Katyusha. Many years later he chances to become involved in her life again - as a juror this time - and he is confronted with the fact that his actions have ruined her life. He becomes determined to give up everything and follow her into exile in Siberia.

The questions remains: Will he be able to find redemption in his attempt to overturn his past mistakes? Will it make any difference to anyone if he does? Will the world be a better place because of his sacrifice?

Tolstoy's conclusions will be as disturbing today as they were then to those who have chosen to look for answers everywhere but in the Bible: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all the rest shall be added on to you."

Tolstoy highlights five 'commandments' from the Bible, each of which is most disturbing to those of us who have decided to try to live this way literally in our daily lives. They are commandments based upon the law of love and nonviolence. From our own experience we have found that the way of love leads us quite literally to die to this world and to be resurrected in eternity. 'Resurrection' is work of literature that explores that territory.

Friday, May 20, 2011

THE WORDS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Now that we are all positively giddy with the prospect of yet another election season - only seventeen months left before the election - we can't wait to see what a crop of political geniuses will enter the ring and which will stand victorious before the nation next November. (Or as my southern friends would say, "November a year.") Will it be Newt? Sarah? Jim? Jim. Jim who? Yes, it always begins like that. From 'Jim who?' to Mr. President. In this way I am announcing my own bid for the White House.

And why not? Every four years we hear the we have need of change. Well I say we are tired of change. We'd rather have dollars. We're tired of spare change. Give us dollars or give us gold!

And why not? I really am the common citizen. Others make a mockery of our commonness by claiming their own commonness. This when they are anything but common. They are common to one another. They are not common to me.

Campaigns are a war of words and images. Slogans. Speeches. Radio and Television and Internet spots. And words are the stuff of literature. The one candidate I believe transcended words to achieve literature was Abraham Lincoln. I'm not sure how that happened. He really was a common man and he spoke in the common language and he lacked the classic education of other gifted pols. Further, his words were few. All of his speeches were incredibly brief. In that fact may be the key to his literary greatness.

In his 'Farewell to Springfield' he summed up his sentiments in this way: "To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything."

His 'First Inaugural Address' was longer, but for good reason. Only two weeks earlier Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated President of the Confederacy. He made his case again the division of the Union in part in this way: "Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. ...no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination." "...if the destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be law full possible, the Union is less perfect... having lost the vital element of perpetuity."

His most famous speech is, of course, the 'Gettysburg Address'. Who has not heard the words, "Four score and seven years ago..." "...we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract." And in conclusion: "...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

And finally his 'Second Inaugural Address', delivered little over a week before his assassination: "With malice toward none, with Charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, t bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

As I was looking at Mr. Lincoln and his work this past week I found that it was important to keep in mind the time in which he lived, and the pressures that he was under. Pressure is what turns carbon into diamonds under the earth. Pressure is what makes the need for a few well-chosen words a must. We live in a world that is filled with words, words, words. There is no pressure. Words can just be glibly reeled out, one after another after another. Everyone knows they don't mean anything. They may even be lies. That's just the way it is.

What if we began to apply the pressure of the spiritual to our words? What if, as in other days, words were seen as sacred? What if our lives had to live up to our words, and our words live up to our lives? Would that not bring a different and more pressurized meaning to our words? I believe it would. As I am writing my latest work, I am keeping in mind that each word is sacred. That should make all the difference.

In closing I will use these words spoken by former Presidential Candidate Pat Paulsen: "If you vote for one of the other candidates, don't blame me!"

Friday, May 13, 2011

BOTH

Both! That's what the title character in the popular movie 'Radio' answered when he was asked which kind of pie he wanted. (Cherry or Apple? I don't remember specifically). But I remember that answer. Both. Isn't that what we all want when it comes to pie? (Never mind my diet).

But when it comes to literature we are told we can't have both. It's either cherry or apple. Take your pick, but you can't have both. Only in this case it's either deeply moving character-driven 'literary' stories or novels 'or' it's plot driven stories with shallow characters and even more shallow moral problems to work through. Now I may be hard to please but if I get the chance, I want both. I want a work that sweeps me up in a genuine story (it doesn't have to be a three act play or follow the Freitag Triangle, but it has to move along) 'and' a reason for that story to exist. Both a deep character study 'and' a great story line, in short.

After all, what is a plot but a series of incidents that happens to (or are caused by) character? What is character but an ever deepening personality formed by the things that happen to her/him, or by what they already believe? I know. I know. This is not the place to go into a long study of either character or theme or plot. You can read entire books on any of those subjects.

I'm a frustrated author and reader. About the time I started writing in earnest, back in the early seventies (that's 1970s thank you very much), a movement was taking hold that later came to be called 'Post Modern'. A division had begun between what was considered 'literary' and thus serious writing, and popular, and thus not serious writing. If you were a serious literary writer, you didn't concern yourself with the story. (Sniff). You only concerned yourself with character and experimental ways of driving the story forward. But if you were a popular writer who wanted to explore the depths of human character in your story, you were accused of slowing the plot line down. (Which is Baaad).

Well, I'm here to tell you: I still want both. I want to read both and I want to write both. I know I'm too picky for words. I want 'Lonesome Dove' or 'A Thousand Acres' or even 'Blindness' for crying out loud. Both. So if you're writing, please remember me while you're doing it. And I pledge that I will remember 'both' in my writing.

Work on my master work continues and you can bet it has both. I am experimenting a little too, but it is within the framework - the structure (another no-no word for post moderns)- of the greater story. I am taking time to develop my characters and they have genuine heart-felt reasons for doing what they do and the action grows from those characters and their convictions. Work is progressing nicely.

I wanted to take a moment to thank my daughter Holly here, too. I was struggling with all the work I am doing promoting 'The Angelic Mysteries' which is coming out in August. I wasn't getting as much work done of my work in progress and was having trouble concentrating on it. She reminded me of something her writing professor taught her: "Do the writing first." Now that sounds like pretty simple advice (the best advice usually is), but it is so true. The minute I started putting my writing first again, everything else has begun to fall in line. After all, I could work 24/7 on promotional activities and still never be done. Start with your writing. Then do everything else. Thanks again Holly.

Jim

Friday, May 6, 2011

THE HEART AS LUTE - PART TWO

The first Gothic novel was ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole, Earl of Oxford (1717-1797). Its castle was a dismal place, but not near as much time is spent developing the atmosphere in that story as in ‘Usher’. (The Fall of the House of Usher). The reader is led, there, straight into the action with the crushing death of a young prince. There was the underlying shame of incest, of supernatural events, and hauntings by unknown and perhaps unknowable fears and horrors. Other influences on Poe may have been Clara Reeve (1729-1807) who wrote ‘The Old English Baron’ and Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818) who wrote about things supernatural in his ‘The Monk’ and in the Gothic tradition in ‘Mistrust’ with its mysteries, witchcraft, murder and the horror of human deeds. There was Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’, of course, and his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, though Poe did not like Hawthorne’s, ‘The White Old Maid’.

Did Poe influence Wolfgan Hildesheimer’s story ‘A World Ends’? This story describes a gala party at San Amerigo (an artificial island – can the word America be missed here?). It is a place of much splendor and opulence. The end of something has come but no one seems to have a clue about it. It is as if they are on the deck of the Titanic but no one notices that they are about to sink. The story is told in a tone of dreaminess and acceptance. There is a certain cynical notion presented here that things have always been this way, and they always remain so. The first person narrator finds himself among the cultural elite, but the rats have quite literally begun to abandon the place. The floor vibrates as the very foundation of the island is breaking apart. The music continues to play and all stay behind save the narrator who, like the rats and the servants, flees for his life. There was the crashing roar as of a building collapsing. Upon looking back from sea, it was if the place had never been.

To ‘usher’ is to lead someone to their seat. An usher is a person who is the doorkeeper; the one who introduces a personage. In this case, to usher in a new way of being, and to usher out the old.

Poe is the first one to usher in the detective story as well. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ begins with a narrative discussion of those who delight in analyzing (as with Poe himself): “that moral activity which disentangles”. “He (the analyst) is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, hieroglyphics…” The author is setting the scene here in a different way – setting the mind to pondering what it means to analyze a situation. He then discusses various games – chess, draughts, and whist – weighing the necessity of each in the use of calculating powers. He goes on to say, “The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis.”

His narrative then brings the reader to Paris in the summer of 18— and as a matter of shear coincidence the narrator and a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin happen to meet while searching for the same rare book. Dupin had, he noticed, a peculiar analytic ability. He seemed, in those times when he pondered a problem, to become a different person, as though he were a “Bi-Part Soul”. Dupin managed to amaze him with his powers of deductive reasoning. His powers of observation were extreme.

Later, as they were looking through the latest edition of the ‘Gazette de Tribunaux’ the story of “Extraordinary Murders” caught their eye. At about 3 A.M., according to the report, there was an uproar on the fourth floor of a house in the Rue Morgue which was occupied by Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. Neighbors and gendarmes found the door locked and upon forcing it open found the apartment in wild disarray, a blood-stained razor, several thick tresses of gray human hair pulled out by the roots, with the corpse of the daughter up the fireplace chimney, head downward. The old lady was found later in the rear yard of the building, also dead. Her throat had been cut.

The next day’s paper added some details, statements had been taken from various people but these seemed to bring the authorities no closer to solving the case. In spite of that, a clerk named Adolphe Le Bon had been arrested and imprisoned in the matter. Dupin remembered that La Bon had once done him a good turn and wanted to look into the case a little further. In the end, of course, it is C. Auguste Dupin’s powers of deductive reasoning that cause him to solve this extraordinary case using only the most common and obvious of clues. He resolved at the beginning that these women were not murdered by spirits, thus rejecting the possibility of spectral evidence that had been used in the trial of witches a century earlier. By ruling out the various possibilities, what is left must be truth, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

This ratiocination, that is, the cold, objective logic used to solve a mystery, was later used in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. It is difficult to miss, again, the very American contrast and conflict between the use of brains, represented by the man of reason; and brawn, represented here in the very real animal itself.

‘The Gold Bug’ too, is an extraordinary story. Extraordinary in that a code is embedded in the text. A parchment is found on the beach, apparently something from the pirate Captain Kid. A treasure hunt is afoot, but what distinguishes this story from other ordinary adventure stories based upon the seeking of a lost treasure, is the cryptogram written in invisible ink on the parchment. An ink that only reveals its secrets when held near the fireplace. A code, of course, begs a solution. And what is used to solve this particular code is a substitution cipher using letter frequencies. This cipher presumes that some letters occur more often than others. The letter ‘E’, for example, occurs in writing more often than any other. This is one of the few stories ever to involve a cryptogram in the story itself.

In a way Poe was already ‘ushering’ in with his work, the coming of modern literature - (Can ‘ushering’ be used more than once?) – laying out the satisfying but fragmentary modern short story. The collapse of the old way was not to be eclipsed yet for another sixty years. Then it would come tumbling to pieces in the hands of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and others. With Poe the old order is already being shaken. A new order is yet to take its place.

I have lived under the specter of madness all my life and suspect many people have. The malady seems to infiltrate every home in one form or another. It is this sense of madness in modern life that Poe predicts so well. When I sat down to write 'The Angelic Mysteries' (it was begun many years ago), I wanted to convey this madness not only in the story itself, but in the way the story is presented. Some early readers have commented on the large number of very short chapters. Yes, that is right. Madness leads to a kind of fracture in a life's story. So, this story also attempts to break up attempts at a 'rational' reading. Please bear with it. I think the effect is worth it in the end.

Jim

This post has been adapted from a chapter of 'American Masters' due out March 2012. It is copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson