Monday, July 29, 2013

Rewriting: Disturbing the Sentence

In the article, "Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists: How self-editing became the first commandment of literature," Craig Fehrman writes an encapsulated essay about the history of rewriting, a review based on a new book, The Work of Revision by Hannah Sullivan.

The article includes how technology changes writing. Paper started out scarce and expensive. When a novel-length manuscript was written by hand, rewriting would have been time-consuming and tedious, and the paper wasted considered a lapse of luxury. Cheap paper provided new opportunities. The typewriter changed the culture as well; typing up a manuscript could give the writer distance from the work, provide a new view on the subject and sentences. Although the Modernists (Hemingway, for example, and Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates are mentioned, too) valued revision, not everyone was or is interested in revising.

The article also points out that we now write in "real time": that we create "living documents" that are constantly changing. Drafts ooze one into another and unless we save separate files, we have no record of the original impulse. It poses the possibilities that the original might be better than the rewrite and that rewriting can't always polish a prosaic piece into publishability.

The thought about writing in real time reminded me of a book I bought a year or two ago, How to Write by Gertrude Stein; her work feels immediate, in the moment, it does not seem to have a past or future. I originally found the book impenetrable. (It does not teach you how to write, it shows you how she writes.) Sometimes I sensed that the sentences made sense. Mostly I sensed sounds in the sentences. The book shows moments of thinking, jumping from thought to thought, then tying them back together with her own knot. It is not for the impatient reader. It's more like a shower of words and juxtapositions. Stein's style flows, stutters, and becomes distracted by whatever interests her. But after reading the preface and introduction by Patricia Meyerowitz and keeping the idea of revision in mind, I began again. I pressed on because I had a quest. My questions were: what were her feelings about revisions, did she follow her own rules, and did she revise? Some quotes began floating to the surface of clarity.

Do Not Disturb the Sentence
A sentence should be arbitrary it should not please be better. It should not be disturbed (26).
Let them tumble out as they come. That's what Stein's writing feels like, although through repetition of thoughts she made her work look like it was shaped, something I called previously Cubist writing. Keep writing from all angles until you find the whole shape. So, on first look, no, she would not rewrite. She would let the thoughts accumulate until they gathered meaning collectively.

On page 151 it comes again, "Leave a sentence alone when they end." And again on page 162, "Leave a sentence alone." 

At this point in the book you realize that what she is calling a sentence is different from what everyone else calls a sentence. She's using words, but in different ways than you do, as if she had her own code. This may not be helpful in one sense, but at least it blows your mind and allows you to experiment. GS on revision again:
A sentence need never to be arranged afterward. This is an example of a sentence that has been thought which is the same as if it has been has been bought. (178)
 (And yes "has been" does repeat.) As a justification for not revising, I think she is saying that the spontaneity is more akin to how we think, and for her thinking and writing are/should be the same, which appears again as "…there is no use in preparing for it" (169). At the same time, she could have been deceiving herself and not realizing she was thinking and revising before she put her pencil to paper. Perhaps how much rewriting you do depends upon how quickly you can organize your thoughts, consciously or not. Or perhaps she intentionally wanted the work to look like her thought process.

Did She Follow Her Own Rules? 
You can see the first page of manuscript from The Making of Americans on the Yale Library Beinecke Rare Book website and notice there is only one correction, from "broken out" to "broken over." In a manuscript for Tender Buttons (one of my favorite of her books for sounds and imagery), from the center of the poem "Roast Beef," same thing: one revision only. There are a few corrections on a typescript for Ida A Novel, but not many. Alice typed her manuscripts for her, so it is hard to know if the corrections are due to Alice's typing or Gertrude's rewriting. The typewriter, for her then, was not part of her revision process. For the most part, it seems, Stein let her sentences alone.

To Revise or Not To Revise?
In the Boston Globe article, Fehrman cites Ezra Pound's, "In a Station of the Metro," a two-line poem that started as a 30-line poem, but was revised until it became a polished gem that expressed the beauty that Pound was struggling with, buried under too many words. Revising worked for him.

But Hannah Sullivan isn't convinced that rewriting is always the answer. I think she means that rewriting isn't a cure for poor writing and shouldn't be thought of as one. Sometimes the work is not salvageable, the subject not interesting enough, or doesn't lead anywhere. This can happen to any writer. In that case, rewriting can work up to a point. But in general, I'm in favor of disturbing the sentence. I think one needs to balance the spontaneous flow and freshness of the work with precision and clarity, which can most often be achieved through rewriting. On the other hand, sometimes the first draft is full of clichés that need to be overhauled. Rewriting gives the writer a chance to dig deeper.

I like learning about various writers' creative processes and understanding how our approaches change as new technologies make us see things differently. Some people say we may not be able to teach our students to write, but we can  teach our students to rewrite. An interesting thought. We also need to teach them how to begin.

You might like the 2010 Paul Simon music video, "Rewrite."
The lyrics are here.

Monday, July 22, 2013

If on a winter's night in Gilead: An Odd Couple

If you read If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino you would surely say it is one of the most unusual formats of any novel you have read. But if you go from there to Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson you might be stunned. How can two so very different books employ such odd means of suspense and tension to pull you through to the ends? If I had three eyes I would be reading with all of them: one for story, one for language, and one for form or craft. Instead, it seems, my eyes take turns cycling through the three with a focus on one at a time.

I am fascinated by their vast differences and their tiny samenesses. Both authors clearly show a love of language (granted, the quotes are by a translator for the Calvino, but translators try to be true to the original authors in some way). Both begin by addressing someone in the second person. Calvino clearly meant you to be the person addressed. Robinson showed immediately that this is a kind of extended letter or journal to the narrator's young son, but over time, the reader winds up wearing the son's skin.

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. (Calvino, 1979)
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. (Robinson, 2004)

The rhythms are wonderful. The tones and stories are quite different. Calvino's narration is determined, almost demanding, appealing to your mind. (I wrote a teeny bit about it in this post.) Robinson's is gentle and begins tugging at your heart immediately. Both writers were quite purposeful about this. Calvino's book is about suspense and writing and what keeps a reader's attention; it is also metafiction (self-reflexive). Each chapter takes on a new story without completing the preceding one—the story of the reader the only running thread—although the stories turn out to contain retellings, borrowed and disguised characters, and variations as well. While he introduced a sort of courtship or romance with another reader, you don't really feel it as anything more than plot. Robinson's book is pure heart. A fictional autobiography of a minister at the end of his life musing about forgiveness, being a good person, judgment, God, family, and philosophy. The book is solidly Christian-based, but it does not feel too heavily so; it feels more humanistic to me, more universal. It takes on common thoughts and feelings and questions of a person in older age. A slow book to be taken slowly.

How can they possibly be crafted in a similar manner? If on a winter's night… has 22 short chapters that alternate a new story with the reader's story. Gilead has breaks, but no chapters. It does, however, have stories begun but not completed, new stories started and finished, older stories fleshed out. The reader has to wait to find out why a man is distrusted or when the narrator met his young wife or how his grandfather lost an eye. The desire to find out what happened in several different situations carries the reader along, although the slowness of it comes awfully close to making the reader either stop reading or look ahead. Luckily, it doesn't actually stop the reader, probably because Robinson's prose is so lyrical and the images so beautiful.

At one point in If on a winter's night… a character (Lotaria) says that she does not need to read a book to understand what it is about; she has a computer program that lists all of the frequent words, that can read the book for her, saving her time. She looks to the middle, to "the words richest in meaning" after "and" and "the" etc., to give her "a fairly precise notion of the book" (186-Harvest Book paperback). If you ran Gilead through this program, you likely would find the words "remarkable" "astonishing" "beautiful" "wonderful" and probably "light." The interesting result of reading these words so many times is the beauty and lightness and astonishment you start to feel.

They really are two totally different books that can teach a similar lesson in writing craft: how to propel a story. In these two cases,  you might give only the information needed for one particular moment. A look at an ordinary day might give a clue to how these books work. Simplistically, of course!  Imagine that this particular day the tasks are: learning to knit a sweater, reading an article, writing a letter, and fixing a large meal; each task is broken into sections with no one task completed until the end of the day, and then maybe some tasks deferred for another day. The reader of this day might wonder what each of these things is going to look like. Whom is the sweater for? What is the article about? Do either of these things change the character's actions? How important is the letter? What will it do? Perhaps the front of the sweater is started. The first page of the article is read. A draft of part of the letter is composed. The ingredients for the meal are bought. Then a sleeve is worked on. A crossword puzzle started. A letter completed. Little by little, the story unfolds. The reader finds out who the character is, what his/her desires, worries, and hopes are. The plot may not be much, but with skill and attention to language, the writer can make it interesting. 

If several of the tasks turn out to have complications and stakes, all the better. The finished sweater will actually be an art piece that the patron will pay a year's wage for. The letter is a response to a new-found sibling. The meal is for the character's daughter who was given up for adoption as an infant. Who knows? I don't know if these ideas could ever get to the level of either Calvino or Robinson, but it is interesting to consider those writers' forms as a starting point. 

Taking on much more than an ordinary day, both Calvino and Robinson are astonishing masters of writing in their own particular voices. Those two books, side by side or back to back, are a strange juxtaposition, indeed. I wonder will happen with the next two books I read, or the two you read, and what you or I will take away from them as an odd couple.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reading to Sleep

It's not keeping me awake, but I've been looking for a quote by Daniel Pinkwater. I've scoured his books of essays, Fish Whistle: Commentaries, Uncommentaries, and Vulgar Excesses and Chicago Days/Hoboken Nights (since repackaged as Hoboken Fish and Chicago Whistle) and I cannot find it. Rereading the essays has been enjoyable, though; they are funny and informative as well as short (mostly devised as commentary for NPR's All Things Considered). If no one has slipped you a copy of the picture books The Big Orange Splot (nonconformity and art) or Tooth-Gnasher Superflash (surprising magic car) or Bongo Larry (beatnik bear), Borgel (which appears in 4 : Fantastic Novels) or any of his other 101 (you can count for yourself at this list) books, really, now is a good time for a hilarious summer treat.

Aha. The quote may be found online in a Powell's Books interview. In it Pinkwater mentions that he likes writing for children because they are really excited about reading and "…most adults read as a means of getting off to sleep."

Ouch! Ouch! That's not the reason we read! But sometimes we do. Read to get to sleep, I mean. Maybe it is to air the mind, smooth out the worry wrinkles, unclench the jaws from the day's anxieties.

Currently by my bed is Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov. I am reading this book to get to sleep, not because it is boring, but because it contains material that is familiar. The book is compiled from his notes and the lectures he gave at Wellesley (1941-48) and at Cornell University (began in 1948, left teaching in 1958). His style is entertaining, often over the top, but he did careful, close readings of books and he was very concerned with language and style, not so much with symbolism and interpretation. He focused on the author's perceptions and on tiny but interesting details such as in Bleak House: how the normally unremarkable green eyes of a cat vividly come to the foreground because a lighted candle is reflected in them (121). It helps if you have already read the books he covered, but he gave thorough summaries, so perhaps you will be inspired to read them. The only warning I have is that he did not seem to like women writers much and his take on Mansfield Park was somewhat dismissive of Jane Austen. So you might want to skip that one, which is first. Or read it, but be prepared. You don't have to like everything about an author or everything an author writes. Still, there is something comforting about someone telling you a story you already know.

Books discussed

To get an entertaining feel for Nabokov as a professor, you can read an article by Edward Jay Epstein who was a student of Nabokov's at Cornell. If you haven't read any of Nabokov's novels (not Lolita?) I'd recommend Speak, Memory; Transparent Things; and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Pale Fire and Look at the Harlequins! are other possibilities.

We have so many reasons why we read: to be entertained, to learn, to pass the time, to discuss with others, to sleep…. Now, how do we get back to Pinkwater who you really must read? In  "Mmmm! That's Prose!" Pinkwater mentions Vladimir Nabokov as both a good teacher and a good writer (Fish Whistle, 159). In their essays, both Pinkwater and Nabokov are quite opinionated. But they are also quite funny, which is the best reason to read them. That said, read their creative works in the daylight. And once you are familiar with their work you can reread them, and then relax and get some sleep.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Salted Stars on a Painted Sky

Feeling blue? Is your mood indigo? Maybe you adore the midnight blue Crayola crayon or just the night sky in general. Anyway, if you feel like seeing stars and want to try out or develop your painted paper skills, here's a painted project idea for you that can become a galaxy book.

Here are some tools and materials as well as ideas for how you might approach the painting (detailed instructions for washes, wet-on-wet, layering, sgraffito, and other techniques may be found in Painted Paper: Techniques & Projects for Handmade Books & Cards). Blue is a great pigment to use for this since it is a color that spreads rapidly in water.

Paper: Rising Stonehenge, 22 x 30, white OR 90 lb. watercolor paper
Inks: Daler-Rowney FW acrylic inks, Matisse (Australia), or equivalent—Indigo,  Prussian Blue, Payne's Gray, White, one pearlescent color such as blue or white or silver; white gesso
Tools: 3-4" wash brush; eye dropper (if inks don't have dropper tips); toothbrush; spray bottle; kosher (coarse) salt; skewer, toothpick or pencil; water container; vinyl tablecloth or similar to protect work surface; hair dryer

General painting instructions
Using the wash brush and plain water, dampen your paper so it is wet but not puddly. In a circular motion, squirt drops of ink over the dampened paper. Use the brush to spread the color randomly, leaving some unpainted areas. Add other colors and move the ink around. Use the spray bottle as needed to add water and to create water spots. Sprinkle the salt over the page. Wait and watch: little bursts will begin to appear and the salt will dissolve. 

When the page seems saturated with ink, color, and/or water, use the hair dryer to dry it out. You can layer more color, more salt bursts, more ink drops, and more water spots here. Spraying water over dry ink spot will make the color expand like crystals. Dry it again with the hair dryer, then put a few drops of white or pearlescent ink on a dry toothbrush. Holding the inky toothbrush over the paper, pull the bristles back quickly to spatter randomly. When the paper is completely dry, turn it over and repeat for the back, if desired. After cutting the painted paper into strips for pages you may choose to paint over one strip with gesso for the cover as I did for the Crossed-Structure Binding shown.

Salt bursts (I don't think this is a technical term)

Salt bursts, Spatter with white ink, Blue ink drops sprayed with water

Water drops, White ink spatter

Crossed-Structure Book

Detail of Cover: strips woven in, painted with gesso, sgraffito, sewn

Sewing tip: Draw shapes in pencil with a circle (or other shape) template, poke holes with an awl or needle, and then begin to sew once the holes are in place. You will need an even number of holes if you want to start with a knot on the back and end with a knot on the back. (More sewing ideas at the previous sashiko post.)

Some Binding Suggestions
(paint both sides of paper)

(paint one side of paper)

Fun fact for the day in this article and the Crayola website: the midnight blue crayon was called Prussian blue until 1958 when it was changed since educators felt that children did not identify the blue color with the Prussian military uniforms and it was hard to explain the Thirty Years' War (1733-1763). As of today, it ranks as favorite color #4.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Untitled Library or How Titles Work

All the covers are white. You have to flip through each book to find out what it's about. As chores go, this is a pleasant one because you have plenty of time and you are looking for something that will grab your attention. Eventually you find one, take it to a comfortable chair, read it, and replace it on the shelf. A friend asks if you've read any good books lately. You say yes and go on and on about the book you just read. When your friend asks the name of the book you are stumped. You got it from the Untitled Library, you say. You don't know. It didn't have a title.

In this scenario, what you need is a label to distinguish the book you read from all the others.

But a title can have several functions. It can be direct so you know exactly what to expect or it can give you a hint of the contents, alerting you but not explaining completely. A title can also contribute to the meaning, add a layer. You might call your painting, story, poem, collage, "The White Squares," for example, and it could be about the origin of confetti, places in predominantly Caucasian cities, a look at chess, a visit to the Untitled Library, or a kind of pastry. A title can evoke an image, idea, concept. It can be a pun, a play on words, a metaphor or simile. A title can add depth and/or clarify the context. For artwork, particularly, a title can situate the viewer, give the viewer a starting point, or add a new thought. A long title and/or a seeming non-sequitar might reveal the maker's attitude or sense of humor.

In the book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (a very clear title) by Whitney Chadwick, you can find titles of painting and drawings that do not take away from the viewing experience but that either clarify or enhance what you are looking at. A fantastical drawing (9) that looks like part princess, part twin birds is listed as Exquisite Corpse; it helps to know that this drawing was done as a game and was composed by four artists. You can still enjoy its oddness, even with this information. A 1940 sculpture that appears to be a head wrapped in fabric and feathers by Eileen Agar (VI) is titled Angel of Anarchy. We can feel the mood of the piece by looking at it without the title, but the title adds a new idea and gives us a fresh starting point. 

A quick glance through the book yields no work titled, "Untitled." Many of the works are so mysterious that "Untitled" would make them opaque, setting up a wall between the art and the viewer. Some mystery is intriguing. It can spark feelings, moods, reactions. Too much is confusing. It is nice to be able to both feel and understand a work. (See the previous post: The Mirror Business.)

A third way a title can work doesn't necessarily hint at the subject or theme, but it builds on the concept. If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, for instance, has a fragment for a title. The book isn't quite about a winter's night, but it is kind of about a traveler. Really, it's about fragments and writing and gathering stories and reading and the suspense that builds and what we expect from a book and on and on…

When you make a work of art (and I'm including writing as well as visual arts),  consider a title. Try making lists of everything you were thinking when you created the piece. What it reminds you of. The subjects involved. The mood. How you want the reader to react. Play with the concepts and play with words. Look at words that have double meanings, particularly those that can be both nouns and verbs like "envelope" or "link." A title can distinguish, clarify, and add dimension. It is the frame and context, and can be an integral part of the creative process and of the final creative work.

A side comment: 
I was more than halfway through the Calvino book when I looked more carefully at the montaged image by Shelton Walsmith on the cover. The lines are made up of lines from the novel. But you have to see this up close, and although his wonderful images have graced other Calvino books and can be seen online, this one is not on his website.