Nathan Bransford (author, agent, media manager) asked on his blog: “Which Writers Most Influence Your Work?” It’s a short blog, but generated a great deal of response. It’s worth looking at, if you can get past the Mom and Dad and “My second-grade teacher said…” stuff, although my response slinks a bit toward that. So, here goes:
At Oglethorpe University (in the dark ages half a century ago) my senior English professor said, “Steve, you have a very nice way with words; you just need something to write about.” I took that as an encouraging comment, whether it was meant that way or not. A year later I was in a writing class at The New School (NYC) in which the teacher was so harsh that I gave up writing fiction for decades. Really. So, they were both influential regarding my writing.
Fortunately over the years I grew up, grew thicker skin, and began to write fiction, my first and long neglected writing love. The writers who have influenced me in style, process, structure, and thought include Ron Carlson, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Philip and Henry Roth, Alice Munro, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Chandler, Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, E. L. Doctorow, Donald E. Westlake, Bernard Malamud, Melville, and of course Nabokov. Not all at the same time, certainly, but all are behind me kicking my butt generally forward (a self-indulgent fantasy, but not a bad one to have).
Below, I add for my dear readers just how (or why) some of the authors I’ve listed have helped me.
Ron Carlson: a great teacher and writer of short stories and accessible novels. He grabs everyday life, wrestles it from the mundane, and makes it meaningful.
William Faulkner: His more famous works are FAMOUS and worthy, although the style doesn’t fit the modern audience. Read his earlier works first, which are simpler (Mosquitos and Soldier’s Pay). Don’t ignore Light in August, a great read, not in the stream-of-consciousness style in which one sentence could run for pages. He does “bad guys” so deeply that you almost root for them.
John Steinbeck is down-to-earth, gritty, and “real.” Great characters who struggle with right and wrong. My favorite is Winter of Our Discontent.
Vladimir Nabokov can be hard to read. (Hey, he’s Russian.) He’s very internal, not plot driven, actually more personal issue/problem oriented. Most people know about Lolita, whether they’ve read it or seen the movie. Many people consider Lolitaa book about pedophilia, although the real subject is obsession, which is why I call his work problem oriented. Amazingly poetic writing given that English is his third language.
Kurt Vonnegut is funny, caustic, incisive, and terse. I strive for these things.
Donald E. Westlake also writes terrific bad guys. Read The Ax to see how Westlake goes so deeply into the bad guy that you can understand why he’s bad and maybe start rooting for him (or her). I became comfortable writing “bad” characters from reading his. Maybe too comfortable.
Henry Roth shows how to write three-dimensional children who are able to be “smarter than their age” in Call It Sleep.
IMPORTANT NOTE: You may be wondering where my fiction is (if not necessarily where you can buy it.) Fair question. I’ve written four novels and a book of short stories. I just haven’t published them. Why?: A) I love writing stories; sending them out for publication steals time from that; B) Fear of failure; C) Fear of success; D) All of the above. But two of the novels will soon be available on Amazon/Create Space and/or BookBaby, affordably priced. I’d love to know what you think of the novels.
It’s January 2, 2015. I promise to publish the first two of my four completed novel manuscripts in the first quarter of this year. (This is a promise, not a resolution, as I regularly break resolutions.) I promise this to myself (very important), to Valerie (even more important), and to Chandler (maximally important). For those who don’t know, Chandler is the one sticking his tongue out at you at the top of my home page. The two novels are titled Max in Repose and Hangtown.
Max in Repose opens at the burial of a man whose will awards his entire estate to his three wives, to be equally divided, on the sole condition that they live together for one year. Any failure, including the death of any of them, violates the will and shifts the estate to the Boston chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Hangtown is the story—linked stories, actually—of the five people who decide who gets hanged in a California Gold Rush town in 1850. A sixth character, a 17-year-old boy traveling to Hangtown, is a likely candidate for the rope at the book’s end. Each character is driven by his and her own fears, desires, and ghosts. It’s historical fiction and written with a structure similar to Maxwell Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
See the film Citizen 4, which describes how the NSA (America’s security hydra) collects and analyzes ALL data, including text, put into or sent to electronic devices. Throughout the world. All of it. From emails to articles, Tweets to Facebook stuff, etc. Everything, not just what they call metadata (names, addresses, dates), but the content, as well.
What are they (our NSA) looking for? What they claim and have claimed since 9-11, is that they are seeking threats to the security of America. But they have the capacity to collect absolutely everything, and it’s much easier to do that than to initially look for keywords, so they pick up everything. From everyone. Even though that violates the Constitution using the rationale that safety (national security), trumps our guaranteed rights.
Citizen 4 refers to Edward Snowden, the former government-employed data engineer and now “whistleblower,” who released information about this. Whether you believe that Snowden is a villain and traitor or that he is a hero letting the public know about illegal government activities, see the movie. It’s a documentary, not fiction, but it is dramatic, because it applies to your life.
The foundation of democracy is an aware, if not necessarily formally educated, public.
Literary writing often flows with similes and metaphors. Also, not so literary writing. And, of course, poetry. Here is the best simile I’ve yet encountered, and it comes from the pen of a critic, not a “creative” writer:
“…tombstones cried out of the earth, like teeth around a scream.”
This is from John Leonard upon visiting the Jewish Cemetery in Prague. (He was writing about Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright, as well as Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first president.)
What is the best simile you’ve ever read, or written? And what do you think of my assertion that the writing of critics, as critics, is not “creative?”
The only play that Ernest Hemingway ever wrote was called “The Fifth Column,” which enacts in part his wartime experience during the Spanish Civil War. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, defines a fifth column, as a
clandestine group or faction of subversive agents who attempt to undermine a nation’s solidarity by any means at their disposal. The term is credited to Emilio Mola Vidal, a Nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). As four of his army columns moved on Madrid, the general referred to his militant supporters within the capital as his “fifth column,” intent on undermining the loyalist government from within.
A cardinal technique of the fifth column is the infiltration of sympathizers into the entire fabric of the nation under attack and, particularly, into positions of policy decision and national defense. From such key posts, fifth-column activists exploit the fears of a people by spreading rumours and misinformation, as well as by employing the more standard techniques of espionage and sabotage.
Rumors and misinformation such as calling foolish the progressive Democrats wanting increased taxing of the wealthy. Also, sharp criticism of Elizabeth Warren, who progressives would love to run for the White House in 2016.
Enter “The Third Way,’ a self-proclaimed Democratic support group, purportedly fostering Democratic principles. The Third Way operates within the Washington, DC sphere of influence (commonly referred to as “inside the Beltway”). But The Daily Kos blog (in a piece by a writer named Hunter) recently published a list of the 29 members of The Third Way board of trustees, showing that 25 of them were heavily invested—time, money, ideals—in Wall Street, leadership of large corporations, the banking industry, real estate, and corporate law. Click here for a chart of Third Way trustees annotated with general professions of each trustee. Equity and investment managers dominate the list.
Think of the purpose and tactics of the Fifth Column saboteurs. The Third Way is akin to the old cautionary metaphor of foxes guarding the hen-house. These people may be Democrat in name and political affiliation, but their allegiance is to the infamous 1% wealth mongers (i.e., those whose primary or perhaps sole interest is in acquiring wealth and protecting the wealthy). Another way to envision The Third Way is to imagine it as representing the lane marker on a road which provides 1% of the vehicles with nearly infinite space for travel while 99% of the other drivers get infinitesimal (that means tiny, Mr. Bush) space to move. With Democratic “colleagues” like these, who needs Republicans?
And, for what it’s worth, Hillary Clinton appears to be advocating for The Third Way as she aims for the next presidency.
During this America’s holiday “feel good” season, I offer some food for thought from Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida:
The Greek poet Peisander enumerated the twelve labors of Hercules. In the second of those labors, Hercules confronted the Hydra, a monster whom the goddess Hera had raised for the specific purpose of killing Hercules. The Hydra was a fearsome serpent with nine heads. Nine heads – bad enough, right? But Hercules found that it was even worse than that. Every time that Hercules cut off a Hydra head with his sword, two more sprung up.
According to an American foreign service official who served recently in Yemen, each “target” that an American drone kills yields forty to fifty new recruits for our enemies. If we kill a thousand, then we have 50,000 new enemies. If we kill a million, then we have 50,000,000 new enemies.
Recently, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved a plan to bring much-needed oversight to America’s drone warfare program. This legislation, the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2014, will force the spying industrial complex finally to provide real numbers on civilian casualties caused by American drone strikes. It’s a start. I guarantee you that the spying industrial complex will fight this, tooth and nail. Those boys love their toys. If you try to take their toys away from them, they will cry. The merchants of death will roll out a long list of “targets” and “threats” that drone strikes supposedly have “eliminated” — while ignoring the reality of civilian casualties, and the new generation of vehement anti-American sentiment in the Middle East that they have spawned.
We are pursuing a policy that not only is killing innocent people, but also is causing the terrorist threat to metastasize, to grow geometrically, until in the end we will be left with no friends at all. As we drench ourselves with the blood of innocents.
[Congressman Grayson is an excellent and hard-working public servant. His website comments are well worth following.]
I’m sure you’ve heard enough this week+ about JFK. Still, here is a brief video showing a few well-chosen words from him spoken by young, energetic, and active people whose chosen career is to continue his work. I just couldn’t let the day pass without offering something from President Kennedy.
Please read the following article about the Gettysburg Address, which includes the address, itself, in Lincoln’s own handwriting. Lincoln’s words were brief—only 270 words—and to the point and beautifully said. Yet, they apply today, certainly about war itself, but I think more so about who we are as Americans and what we need to do.
It’s so easy to get discouraged these days. For writers with the difficulty of getting their work published, despite the new-form opportunities in e-publishing and self-publishing. Over the magnetic attraction our government has to war and other massive intrusions into our lives. Because of the attraction to greed and power fostered and aided by new technologies, leading to a new social order being commanded, dictated to us.
In the past, during a fairly compact period of time ranging around the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, we had great raging writers—Thorstein Veblen, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Joseph Conrad—who drew vivid scenarios of the plight of ordinary Americans. (You might start with “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis.)
More recently, the most effective truth-telling has come not from writers, but from revealers of the real truth deeply hidden by our government—Daniel Ellsburg, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning along with Julian Assange—who are data analysts-with-a-conscience rather than writers, per se. Thank God for them, and hopefully more of them, but where are the great writers (not to mention leaders) who could make the real issues live, as Lincoln did?:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, 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. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — 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.
November 19, 1863
NOVEMBER 17, 2013, 9:05 PM
from The New York Times “Opinionator” Lincoln’s Sound Bite: Have Faith in Democracy
By ALLEN C. GUELZO
The surprisingly short story of the Gettysburg Address is that it was a surprisingly short speech — 270 words or so — delivered by Abraham Lincoln as part of the dedication ceremonies for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, on Nov. 19, 1863.
But the long story is that no single American utterance has had the staying power, or commanded the respect and reverence, accorded the Gettysburg Address. It has been engraved (on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial), translated (in a book devoted to nothing but translations of the address), and analyzed in at least nine book-length critical studies over the last century.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put down his morning paper’s report of the address and wrote to his publisher that “Lincoln’s brief speech at Gettysburg … seems to me admirable.” Longfellow’s friend Charles Sumner wrote, “Since Simonides wrote the epitaph for those who died at Thermopylae, nothing equal to them has ever been breathed over the fallen dead.” He added: “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”
What is less clear to us today is why it struck so many people as a landmark from the start. Partly, this instant recognition of the address’s power grew out of its language. It obeys the Churchillian dictum: Short words are best, and the old words when short are best of all. The address relies on crisp, plain vocabulary, over against the three-decker Latinate lexicon beloved of so many 19th-century school textbooks. Of some 270 words — there’s no recording — about two-thirds are single-syllable, and a half-dozen, four-syllable. Rarely has so much been compressed into such simple and uncomplicated elements.
The address is also memorable because, frankly, it is short on length, too, enough to be easily memorized. Lincoln had been invited to deliver only “a few appropriate remarks” as a kind of benediction. The formal oration at the ceremonies was to be delivered by Edward Everett — former congressman, governor of Massachusetts, president of Harvard, secretary of state (under President Millard Fillmore), senator (briefly) and, most recently and most ironically, candidate for vice president in 1860 on the ticket of the short-lived Constitutional Union Party, running against Lincoln.
If we want to see what classical speech in 19th-century America looked like, Everett is the man. He delivered a two-hour-plus, 13,000-word doozy, reminding the thousands who crowded around the speakers’ platform in the new cemetery that “it was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner,” that the fallen occupied a place alongside those “who fell at Marathon,” that (in Horace’s maxim) “it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country,” and that (in the words of Pericles) “the whole earth is the sepulchre of illustrious men.”
But Everett was all length and no sound bite. At the end, there was little alternative but to report the whole oration, word for word, or simply forget it.
Lincoln’s strong suit, on the other hand, was his capacity to capture an idea in the fewest and clearest words possible. So, in the address, he describes the past and what it did (create a republic of equal citizens), then relates what the people at the ceremonies are doing in the present (dedicating a cemetery), and then moves to what they are to do for the future (dedicate themselves to the same principles the soldiers were dedicated to). In that way, the address is almost anorexic: It makes no mention of slavery or secession or the Constitution, paints no picture of the great battle, and even fails to acknowledge the civilian politicians — David Wills of Gettysburg, Andrew G. Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania — who had made the purchase of the cemetery possible.
Yet, for all of its famous brevity, the Gettysburg Address is not so simple or compact as it seems. It may be only 270 words long, but those words are woven into 10 complicated sentences — all more cumbersome to parse on the page than to hear in the open. And Lincoln does not mind throwing compactness to the wind when he wants to make a lilting impression on the ear. In fact, the well-known repetitive triplets — “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people” — are the exact opposite of compactness and constitute a puzzling luxury if we consider the address only as a terse alternative to Everett’s.
The address is less like an oration, and more like that oldest of American genres, the Puritan jeremiad, the public sermon that warned our forebears of their sins but also offered them a path to redemption. The three-part, past-present-future movement in the address matches the same movement in the jeremiad, and like it, the address contains both a word of warning and a promise of blessing.
The warning Lincoln issues is his admission that the Civil War was testing whether or not democracies are inherently unstable — “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” Today, many take democracy for granted as the endpoint of political development. But it did not look that way in 1863. The French Revolution, which promised to be the American Revolution’s beachhead in Europe, swiftly circled downward in the Reign of Terror and then the tyranny of Bonaparte; democratic uprisings in Spain in 1820, in Russia in 1825, in France in 1830 and across Europe in 1848 were crushed by newly renascent monarchies or subverted by Romantic philosophers, glorying in regimes built on blood, soil and nationality rather than the Rights of Man.
The outbreak of the American Civil War only gave the monarchs further reason to rejoice. The survival of the American democracy had been a thorn in their royal sides, unsettling their downtrodden peoples with dreams of self-government. That this same troublesome democracy would, in 1861, obligingly proceed to blow its own political brains out — and do it in defense of the virtues of human slavery — gave the monarchs no end of delight.
Lincoln’s task at Gettysburg was to persuade his hearers, on the evidence offered by three days of battle, that democracy’s sun had not set after all. Gettysburg was not only a victory, but a victory won with the Union Army’s back to the wall, and its news came, appropriately, on July 4.
Above all, the victory was the product of self-sacrifice — 3,155 Union dead, 14,529 wounded and 5,365 “missing,” rivaling British and Allied losses at Waterloo. These casualties were not professional soldiers, Wellington’s “scum of the earth” who had taken their shilling and their chance together, nor were they dispirited peasants, driven into battle by the whips of their betters, but precisely those ordinary citizens whom the cultured despisers of democracy had laughingly doubted could ever be made to do anything but calculate profit and loss.
Looking out over the semicircular rows of graves, Lincoln saw in them a transcendence that few people, then or now, have been willing to concede to liberal democracy. And he saw something all could borrow, a renewed dedication to popular self-government, “that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.” Like the jeremiad, it would point toward a renewal, a new birth, not of freedom from sin, but political freedom.
The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again.
Allen C. Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, is the author, most recently, of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”
Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company
NYTimes.com 620 Eighth Avenue New York, NY 10018
They count on weakness of resolve in the opposition.
They operate with the siege mentality (keep on bombing, no matter the cost, and the opposition will give in).
They are contemptuous not only of democratic (progressive; Rooseveltian) policy, but of the opinions of ordinary people.
They know best; after all, they’re rich and successful and Democrats work for them.
God (according to John Wesley, etc.) has given them wealth and power, therefore, they are right, no question about it.
They are America’s royalty, even though America supposedly has no royalty.
They allow no doubt (though some of them have it). It’s a classic case of circular reasoning, reinforced, of course, by each other (which is known in adolescent circles as a “circle jerk.”)
Even when they are in the minority, they act as if (1) they are in the majority, or (2) majority/minority doesn’t matter.
They see themselves as granite, even though they may be sinking in quicksand.
The very fact that “health reform is Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement,” is reason enough to prevent it from happening, even if the majority of Americans want it.
They will attack their own from further on the right rather than allow their own members to be soft on anything toward the center of right.
(Read this again; it’ll make sense. Sort of stream of ‘un’consciousness; think Snopes thinking in Faulkner. Or, just let it ride and move on.)
AND SOME OTHER RELEVANT THOUGHTS:
When did American politics become dysfunctional? (I think somewhere around 1800.)
We’ve been fortunate to survive, possibly by the grace of the Great Spirit.
Our government, all branches and persuasions of it, has ridden itself into a box canyon. Like watching one of those old Westerns, we’ll certainly see what happens. And please clean up around your seat.
Ask yourself this question: Are “Democracy” and “Capitalism” incompatible? See where it takes you. (I’m asking you to think, not simply to react as you’re used to.)
Okay, the overwhelming response to this humble blog-site’s question (Do Congress-Idiots keep getting paid during the government shut-down instigated by themselves?) was, Yes, they still receive their paychecks ($174,000/year) during the shutdown. Why? Because they are considered “essential” employees, just like those who work for the National Security Agency.
But, I repeat, why? How “essential” could they be if they contrive to shut down the government they are supposed to be working in, with, and for? That’s like me going to my old boss, Bob, and saying I’m going to shut down your store, Boss Bob, but I insist that you continue paying me my salary.
Does that make sense? I’d sure like to hear from someone what sense it makes. (I’ll probably hear from Boss Bob over coffee at Lily’s on Thursday.)