Archive for ‘About writers’

February 15, 2012

Notes on Being an Artist

How My Writing Frees Itself

A talented young writer recently asked me for some support and I dashed off a letter to her and I tried to explain, just how I, myself, managed to keep working day after day, and year after year. That inspired me to come up with a list of ways I support myself. This is my list:

• The more I become myself as an artist, the less I ask other people how or what I should write.
• What other people think about my writing is not important.
• What I think about my own writing, is not that important.
• Each day I sit down and tell my mind to shut up. I sit quietly for twenty minutes and then write what my inner self guides me to. It asks me to consider very difficult things in my own life, my thinking, and in my memories. That’s as it’s supposed to be.
• I hope my writing is a sharing from my most honest self. If I don’t have that in me, I’ll never share much value as an artist.
• I don’t think being an artist is easy: that I’ve had a difficult life so far, is to my advantage. It’s made me quite human, and that’s all there is to write about anyway.
• An artist’s sensitivity is all he or she is. In one sense a true artist is the bravest kind of person. No one wanted to hear Jesus say “love your enemy,” that was too brave. No one wanted to hear Buddha say: “Give up all your money, the only value is spiritual.” Neither one published anything, but we have to read their words all the time because they got the voice right. It’s an inside job, I’m afraid.
• I look in the mirror and I can tell myself one great fact: “I did not give up on myself—I love that about me.”
• I don’t listen to anyone who tells me what I should do with my art. I don’t even listen to myself, because many of those voices I hear in my head are only echoes of negativity that have been doing their push-ups for many years.
• Be unique, be yourself, be weird, be fabulous. I don’t have to try to do that, I just let myself go.

January 22, 2012

Writing Novels Is Simple, If You Like Simple Novels

A new writer recently protested while writing his first novel that he frequently felt disgusted and incompetent. He felt that perhaps he should give up—that he didn’t feel “normal” enough to be a novelist. My response was this:

Who told you writing novels was easy? Writing is like life, but more intense—like a life that if all you do is ride a ferris wheel crossed with a roller coaster that breaks down a lot and the only mechanic you know can only be accessed by psychic smoke signals and the only ink available consists of your own blood mixed with stomach bile and the sweat off your back.

It is like that, but it’s also harder than that for a true artist who writes. Also, it’s more fun than real life sometimes because you get to make it all up from your own imagination, although if you don’t have one of those, give up right away. It’s all those hard, sad times that make the good ones so great. Also, it makes for a unique book, and that’s the main point. If it feels like nothing else you’ve ever felt or read, pat yourself on the back—you have arrived. Enjoy the ride.

January 15, 2012

The Work of Writing and Friends

The Work of Writing and Friends

WORK IS MEMORY: I was reminded by a writer friend of mine today about the struggle to work at writing when it is going poorly or not at all. It is an easy reminder for me because mine has not been going well recently. You can tell by my increased attention to my website here. I was also reminded by an opinion piece in The Times. Susan Cain writes: “One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone—and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” What did help me today was offering my time to help her by remembering my own experience earlier in my own career.

WORK IS PRACTICE: The best thing you can do is show up for it every day, because like any art, much of it takes place between sessions at the page and much of it takes place in the subconscious. I just wrote a paragraph about my main character in my Cuban novel where he imagines that his skin has turned dark overnight. It’s actually the first night he spends together with Tesora, and the vision signifies to him how shallow his prejudice against Africans had been: his mind is blown and his skin is now brown.

WORK IS CRITICISM: Yes, it’s hard to take criticism, but writing is a form of conversation, so feedback is important. Someone once said that whenever someone tells you a piece of your writing doesn’t work, the critic is probably right—at the same time that person, when they tell you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong. You must stick to that inner self who knows the truth, whatever that is. Take time to sit quietly every day to listen to your inner voice (don’t worry if it sounds exactly like silence). No one can read the vision behind the piece you write.

WORK IS LISTENING: And to show up every day, is also to be a part of that audience yourself. You change and your point of view changes a bit every day, so you can be a better critic for yourself. One of my critics, a young Japanese woman, who writes urban fantasy, is someone I picked who would be far from my own point of view, certainly. She expects a whole different thing from writing—more present-tense action. Me, I think action is best emphasized by pauses, like music uses it to produce rhythm and cadence. I still enjoy reading books who were born in the 1800s. Plus, I have a propensity to enjoy and accomplish a certain lyricism. I enjoy reading it, and I enjoy creating it, too. So way to hang in there, writers: who told you writing was easy?  It’s simple enough; you just stare at the page until blood forms on your forehead: no problem.

WORK IS COLLABORATING: Writing with a partner right there at your side can be helpful too. For a whole year, once a week, I trekked down to the Reading Room of the Boston Public Library and met a friend and we both wrote for a few hours and then had tea to congratulate each other. It was a wonderful way to learn how to show up for the work. Writing regularly helps you to feel good about yourself, even when that time is not a big number. Other things always get in the way: keep writing and feel good about that. I wrote much of one novel commuting on a bus, surrounded by black high school kids yelling and blasting music. At first I thought it would be impossible to write like that, but then it just became part of my routine like the Boston Public Library. Years later it gave me the idea for my last novel with the plot involving a Scottish boy marooned in an all-African Cuban town. Did you ever hear the phrase, “acceptance is the answer to all my problems”? That also applies to writing as well.

January 13, 2012

Wise Blood a Novel by Flannery O’Connor

When it occurred to me I’d never read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, I felt I’d be missing something if I didn’t. I’d read a book of her short stories and saw the movie of Wise Blood long ago so perhaps I imagined I’d read it. I’d never knowingly substitute the movie for the book. It is an amazing book. A minor annoyance is wading through the dialect-spellings she uses, but beyond that the book is a marvelous mix of clear writing and language with its impenetrable yet vivid characters.

Well, the characters are impenetrable at first, but also beautifully whole and unique. Mostly, though, they are as mesmerizing in themselves as mysteries which need solving. She does not supply easy answers for that. Through all this she creates a world both of this world and apart from it. I cannot put it down (except to write this review). The story has so taken root in my head, I couldn’t think of another book to mention from the past year.

December 28, 2011

How Bravery Failed in Hemingway and Fitzgerald

I just finished re-reading A Moveable Feast, by Hemingway. The edition is one that was restored from its earliest version but it does not restore Hemingway himself to “Great Writer” status. The novel or memoir (or both) tells tales of writers in Paris in the 1920s without the humor or drama that Woody Allen does in “Midnight in Paris.” To me, his short work such as The Nick Adams Stories show an early brilliance that his novels and later work could never match. In Moveable Feast you can watch him wobble between that brilliance and his clumsy attempt to bully his way through the story.

Two topics: one each about Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein are the best of the bunch. In these two he does not appear to be in direct competition with his subjects. To Hemingway, it would seem, Stein is a woman so she offers no macho competition though she is easily his intellectual equal and mentor. And Pound is merely a poet who cannot match Hemingway in a boxing ring, so he requires no bullying either. In the section on F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, you can see how hard he competes. Most of the section is wasted with Hemingway spending too much time arguing how much worse a drinker is Scott than himself. Who wins that one? And who cares? Where are the great chats about writing we hope for? There one delightful small chapter on his use of first-person narrative, but it only highlights the lack of writerly tales.

Hemingway finally admits how “fine” a novel The Great Gatsby is, but he tags that with the prediction that because of Zelda, Fitzgerald could never match it after that. While it’s true that Fitzgerald never equaled that novel, it was not because of Zelda. According to Hemingway’s own statements that period of his own life also saw the dissolving of his marriage to Hadley, but you won’t find any of that in the text. The worst of it is a tedious discussion between the two men about the size of Scott’s manhood, the sub-text implication behind the story is the opposing size of Hemingway’s pen. Apparently, Hem had never heard the expression, T.M.I. and neither had his publisher. Finally, however, what felled Fitzgerald was also what felled Hemingway—a lack of writerly courage—which they covered up with their use of alcohol. Neither won that battle, and as their readers, neither do we.

I wish I could hold in my mind the foggy memory that I had after the first reading of the book (it was the sixties, you know) rather than have it sullied by this rereading. Something every reader knows is that fiction creates the best memories, so I will choose to “remember” Paris in the 1920s as Woody Allen has dramatized it in “Midnight in Paris.” Memory has always been my own best editor to me in life, but I pray never to be above any good editor of my own writing.

December 13, 2011

Read the pages that Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Galileo saw.

I found this Website from Octavo,, that brings us into all the best rare book rooms of the world. You can read the same type that our earliest writings, scholars, and musicians wrote and read. You can read Books of Hours, medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts; check out Galileo’s notebooks; and study charts of Copernicus about how he proved the truth about the solar system. Of course Octavo hopes you’ll buy some limited edition reprints of these, but if you can’t afford them, you certainly can’t afford not to check it out on your computer. The reality of these pages makes the type fonts on any computer screen look lame and pale by comparison, and something of the spirit of those times is transferred to the reader.

Octavo says, for instance: “Over the past several years in cooperation with the world’s greatest libraries, Octavo has digitally photographed most of the existing early quarto editions of William Shakespeare’s plays and poems, as well as the quarto editions of plays such as The Yorkshire Tragedy once considered part of the Shakespeare canon.”

You can explore the earliest texts here.

December 11, 2011

The Daily Beast has a list of 10 books you shouldn’t miss

They say these are: “10 Books That You Might Have Missed but Shouldn’t.” They are titles that might have flown under the radar for you.
There are capsule reviews of the books to help you decide which to read. Enjoy.

1. ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’
2. ‘Habibi’
3. ‘A Book of Secrets’
4. ‘Assassins of the Turquoise Palace’
5. ‘What It Is Like to Go to War’
6. ‘Hemingway’s Boat’
7. ‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’
8. ‘Into the Silence’
9. ‘Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness’
10. ‘Keynes Hayek’

November 26, 2011

New Works from Kerouac and Woody Allen

Jack Kerouac has a new book out (possibly one he never would have let out of his desk drawer) called “The Sea is My Brother,” which he wrote about his travels in the merchant marine. It’s short, a 158-page work that was unpublished during his life. It was written even before “The Town and The City” (1950) and certainly before his powers as a novelist reached their full fruition. I will probably get time to read that at some point, so I will have a review of it then.

For a better time and a better read, just re-read “Visions of Cody” which is to his own canon, what Finnegan’s Wake is to James Joyce—they are both long novels full of soliloquy from their main characters. For my money, Joyce’s best book is “Dubliners,” while “Cody” is Kerouac’s most sublime long work. In the category of average-length novel, the most over-looked novel of Kerouac’s is “Big Sur.” I believe a movie of Sur is to be filmed in the coming year, but don’t pass up the writing in “Big Sur” to see the movie. The writing you’ll find there is excellent—indeed it’s the best novel ever written about a horrendous drunken week by a horrendous drunk (and there have been a few who wrote well).

Speaking of which, I just read the “Letters of Hemingway, Volume 1” which is a bit of a disappointment compared to the excellent early letters that Kerouac wrote: “Notes from an Underwood,” I believe. I must admit I enjoyed the Hemingway letters to Gertrude Stein—he seemed to pull his best self together for her. She did a lot for his writing. This is quite amusingly dramatized in Woody Allen’s latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” which brings us into the art and literature world of the Parisian 1920s.

November 15, 2011

“Laura Bridgman” Was Helen Keller before Helen Keller

For three minutes of a haunting and brilliant writing listen to Kimberly Elkins’ “Laura Bridgman” on The Drum, an audio literary magazine.

Her flash fiction “Laura Bridgman, the First Famous Blind Deaf-Mute, Aged 59, Upon Meeting Helen Keller, Aged 8” was recorded at The Drum’s Open Mic session at the 2011 Boston Book Festival and appears in the November 2011 issue of The Drum.

Kimberly Elkins’ “Laura Bridgman” offers a fascinating fictionalized account of an actual historical moment. It’s from her newly completed first draft of the novel (Yay, Kim!). As Laura meets the young girl (Keller) who is being groomed to take her place as a celebrity, Bridgman muses on the vagaries of fame and reputation. Elkins’ piece raises interesting questions about the rivalry among the senses (or their loss), and the strange power that can be wielded by disability.

This piece from her novel may either be part of a preface to the novel, part of the last page, or a bit of both. In any case it’s one look at the most significant point of the plot of this historical novel.

Kimberly Elkins’ fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Best New American Voices, The Iowa Review,The Village Voice, Glamour, and Prevention, among others. She was a finalist for the 2004 National Magazine Award and has received fellowships from the Edward Albee and William Randolph Hearst foundations, the SLS fellowship in Nonfiction to St. Petersburg, Russia, the St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award, and a joint research fellowship from the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, and the Massachusetts Historical Society for research on her novel. Residencies include the Millay Colony and Blue Mountain Center, and she was also the 2009 Kerouac Writer in Residence. Kimberly has taught at Florida State University and Boston University, and is currently a Visiting Lecturer and Advisor for the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of Hong Kong.

November 11, 2011

Top 25 Retweets of “When the 1% occupy themselves?”

Top 25 RTs of my post: What is it called when the 1% occupy themselves? #occupyharvard

1. it’s called the .99% 🙂
2. #mockupyharvard?
3. Occuception.
4. When the 1% occupy themselves, it’s called preoccupation.” ROFLMAO!
5. Make no mistake, there are a lot of 99%-ers who attend Harvard, some who are accruing major debt$ 2 start their adult lives.
6. maybe when the 1% are paying attn and joining the #Occupy movement we call it victory. We will not win w/divisive attitudes.
7. “We are the 99.9%!”
8. At least Harvard kids will actually have a clue to what they’re occupying.
9. Building support with sympathetic insiders? 🙂
10. When the 1% occupy themselves I think it’s called a guilty plea (or maybe just masturbation).
11. Just because some very wealthy people attend Harvard doesn’t mean that all of the students are even particularly well-off.
12. When the 1% occupy themselves, it’s called preoccupation.
13. They must have found out the shelters for the upcoming depopulation events are a lot more selective than they imagined.
14. happy carefree
15. white guilt
16. Some people do get into Harvard on academic merit but then take tremendous student loans to cover costs.
17. I believe the word is “ironic”
18. privilege?
19. we r the 0,99% we want our credit cards full again 😉
20. raised consciousness?
21. checking your privilege?
22. great slogan anyway “occupy yourself” 🙂
23. There are plenty of Harvard students not in the 1%. Like me!
24. Having a conscience?
25. Actually, Harvard gives more in economic aid than many other top universities. Legacy is on the wane everywhere, it’s merit now.

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