Influence from Great Writers

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 Lolita a 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.

 

 

Who are they?

  • WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?:
  • 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.)

 

 

William Faulkner’s War Wisdom

“For six thousand years we labored under the delusion that the only way to stop a war was to get together more regiments and battalions [including, of course, more and more efficient technology of murder] than the enemy could, or vice versa, and hurl them upon each other until one lot was destroyed and, the one having nothing left to fight with, the other could stop fighting.  We were wrong, because yesterday morning, by simply declining to make an attack, one single French regiment stopped us all.”

This passage from William Faulkner’s [with one small bracketed addition] A Fable says  so much so directly (for Faulkner).  A few decades later First Lady Nancy Reagan said it even more succinctly (which is not to say better) with “JUST SAY NO,” although her focus was sex, not war.  Lysistrata combined the two—war and the withholding of sex—to great effect.

Wouldn’t it be truly glorious, efficient, and wise if those who made war happen had to do the fighting, just them, no armies to do the dying for them?  But humanity as a whole, judging by our long record, has been well equipped with brain-power while short-changed on wisdom.

Others have raised the message, too, but I like Faulkner, so I offer his words to you.  Yet, perhaps the most troubling rendition of this message comes from Dalton Trumbo in the form of “Johnny Got His Gun,” a 1939 novel about World War I, made into a 1970 movie.  It’s the story of an American soldier who loses all his limbs and half his brain, so that he has no sight, hearing, speech, yet is alive and thinking, wondering what happened, where he is, who’s there, though the medical staff at the field hospital don’t know of his ability to think, only that his heart still beats.  The opening moments of the film showing generals and politicians and the “glory” of war provide the message behind the credits and a military drum-beat.  Then comes the bomb blast.  Then the army surgeons speculating over Johnny’s delimbed body.

I offer nothing new today, just a reminder from a great writer in our leaders’ latest moment of searching for war.  I love finding gems such as this and feel spurred to pass them along.  A Fable is about World War I, the “war to end all wars,” (a phrase attributed to Woodrow Wilson), was published in 1950, but entered my consciousness just this week.  Lysistrata is a play by Aristophanes first performed in Greece in 411 BCE. which I first encountered in college (Oglethorpe University).  Being young and not yet smart, I was of two minds about the anti-war message (Peloponnesian War) of Lysistrata, actually three.  First (or last), it is a hoot.  More importantly, it spurred my own then uber-masculine urge to fight to defend whatever, while contrarily opening my mind to the peaceful bliss of Canada.  Fortunately, I turned out to be 4-F and have lived out my life in relative peace in this, my nation of war-willing leaders.

Circling back to Faulkner’s opening quotation, the expected price of refusing to engage the enemy in battle is a bullet in the back from one’s own officer, but that’s another story.

Wm. Faulkner home movie – 1949

The Millions does it again, finds and presents something of great interest and value to fiction writers.  In this case it’s a 15-minute gem of William Faulkner (offered in five  3-minute segments, as the technology of the time was so limited) just after he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.  These short films show Faulkner in his home town of Oxford, Mississippi, interacting with friends and neighbors and giving a graduation speech to the high school.  It’s scripted to show Faulkner at his interpersonal and philosophic best, which is pretty damned good.  Each brief segment provides memorable stuff.  Enjoy.

Faulkner film-1949

My love-hate relationship with writing advice

I do not write in isolation.
I have a spouse (roommate/compatriot/lover/best friend) who expresses strong ideas about my lack       of self-promotion.
I am in three critique groups, each worthy of my devotion.
I have attended various writing retreats/programs (Centrum five times).
I was in a masters degree writing program (UC-Davis) before blowing town.
I spend several computer hours each day reading and researching about writing.
And it’s relevant to this piece that I began writing for publication well before the computer age, producing books, daily journalism, and academic stuff.

But I sometimes wonder whether I wouldn’t have been better off, writing production-wise, in a cell, solitarily confined.  How much have I gained from all of those (these) writing-related activities?

I cherish the comments I receive in critique groups, because the folks are usually paying attention to the work, though I use maybe one out of five comments.

I seldom go to writing conferences anymore because they yank me out of writing-mode, and most of the general advice I’ve heard before. The specific advice applicable to my pages hits home (is useful), again, maybe one in five.

As to writer-blogs and the bounties of the internet in general, it’s like trying to squash a one-pound slice of chocolate decadence cake into a four-ounce Chinese take-out container.  (Well, maybe not, though some of you will resonate to my meaning.)  Along with the tons of horrid junk available on the www, we can find some great stuff—Anne R. Allen’s blog, The Millions, Kristen Lamb , Jane Friedman, etc.—but even these take loads of time.   Sure, you can access the stuff fast, but you still need to digest and use it at far less than warp speed.  (One answer, of course, is for humans to evolve into cyborgs, which is not the sort of progress I would hope for.)

Maybe the origin of my problem lies way, way back in childhood.  “Shmuck!,” my mother used to say (not actually; it just felt that way), “Your eyes are too big for your stomach!”  I want the advice, but I don’t want it.  It takes too much time to get, then mostly reject.

So, who says I have to spend the time seeking it?  But if I don’t, then maybe I’m missing things.  A new writer-help program or product.  Insight or information about selling (a term I prefer to “submitting”) my writing.  New tricks for an ever-trickier trade.  The wonders of self/indie-publishing vs. the horrors of traditional publishing.  And vice versa.

And what if Asteriod XXX-fortyskugelfogwahwah passes too close to earth and wipes out all our data and programs and chapters?  What will literary (more or less) civilization do then?  Go back to the methods of Faulkner, Hemingway, Mansfield, Woolf, Huxley, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Wharton, Lawrence, Ferber, etc.?  Wouldn’t that be awful, to have a new generation that wrote with less advice and minimal machinery?

Laszlo Luddite, guest poster

William Faulkner’s Self-Doubts (and yours)

Have you ever doubted yourself as a writer?  Why am I doing this?  Am I good enough, or any good at all?  Is it worth my time and the blood-letting?  Have you tired of the “Oh, that’s nice,” response when someone asks what you do and you reveal that, “I’m a writer”?  William Faulkner has some wise and telling observations in the Editor’s Notes at the end of the Vintage Books edition (1987) of “Sanctuary.”  They deal with his early sense of himself as a writer and his off-beat perception of success.

I’ve just finished reading “Sanctuary” for the third time, but the first  in over twenty years.  I recalled having liked it a great deal but like it even more now.  (I suppose “Light in August” is my favorite, but choosing among his works is like a chocoholic choosing whether he or she prefers dark chocolate nuts or chews.  Here’s a better analogy:  If I were “stuck” on a desert island with “Light in August,” upon finishing it (again),  I’d swim to the next island for the promise of “As I Lay Dying.”

So, here is what William Faulkner has to say about himself as an early writer  (By the way, he didn’t want this revelation printed in later editions by Random House):

“This book (Sanctuary) was written three years ago.  To me it is a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money.  I had been writing books for about five years, which got published and not bought.  But that was all right.  I was young then and hard-bellied.  I had never lived among nor known people who wrote novels and stories and I suppose I did not know that people got money for them.  I was not very much annoyed when publishers refused the mss. now and then.  Because I was hard-gutted then.  I could do a lot of things that could earn what little money I needed, than to my father’s unfailing kindness which supplied me with bread at need despite the outraged to his principles at having been of a bum progenitive.

“Then I began to get a little soft.  I could still paint houses and do carpenter work, but I got soft.  I began to be concerned when magazine editors turned down short stories, concerned enough to tell them that they would buy these stories later anyway, and hence why not now.  Meanwhile, with one novel completed and consistently refused for two years, I had just written my guts into “The Sound and The Fury” though I was not aware until the book was published that I had done so, because I had done it for pleasure.  I believed then that I would never be published again.  I had stopped thinking of myself in publishing terms.  [I wonder why he doesn’t include “Mosquitos” and “Soldier’s Pay”.]

“But when the third mss., “Sartoris,” was taken by a publisher and (he having refused “The Sound and The Fury”) it was taken by still another publisher, who warned me at the time that it would not sell, I began to think of myself again as a printed object.  I began to think of books in terms of possible money.  I decided I might just as well make some of it myself.  I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would  believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine  and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to Smith, who had done “The Sound and The Fury” and who wrote me immediately, ‘Good God, I can’t publish this.  We’d both be in jail.’  So I told Faulkner, “You’re damned.  You’ll have to work now and then for the rest of your life.’  That was in the summer of 1929.”