Monday, September 08, 2008

Literature and the Writer as Teacher

I found the following comments by John Updike very interesting and want to talk about it. Updike says:

The writer as hero, as Hemingway or Saint-Exupery or D’Annunzio, a tradition of which Camus was perhaps the last example, has been replaced in America by the writer as educationist. Most writers teach, a great many teach writing; writing is furiously taught in colleges even as the death knell of the book and the written word is monotonously tolled; any writer, it is assumed, can give a lecture, and the purer products of his academic mind, the “writings” themselves, are sifted and, if found of sufficient quality, installed in their places on the assembly belt of study, as objects of educational contemplation.

I find this interesting, as a writer and an educator. In classes, especially college classes, students want to know why certain stories are studied in class and what makes something literature. I think Updike answers those questions. For something to be considered “literature,” academics have to sift through the story, pick it apart, and find deeper levels. If it stands up to that, it can then be canonized. If it is not found of “sufficient quality,” then it’s considered popular writing and not worthy of academia. One thing that Updike doesn’t mention that is part of the process today is worldview. Living in a postmodern age, critics want the story to reflect their beliefs.

Some may ask, what does it mean to be postmodern? The best definition I can find is from PBS. “Postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.” Everything is relative. There are no absolutes. What’s right for you may not be right for me. For religion, this means that there is no one truth. All religions have some truth and we should pick and choose which parts of the religion fit the way we see the world. So, for a story today to be considered literature, it needs to be skeptical of any claims and focus on the relative truths of the characters.

Another part of the quote deals with the writer as educator. Now a lot of us are in the education field, which is a nice fit for a writer who isn’t able to write full-time. People today don’t want to read a story just for the sake of the story. This is the information age; they want to be taught something. This is one of the reasons Crichton is one of my favorite authors. He teaches while he tells the story. However, inevitably, readers want to know that an author is saying, what is the point, why did he/she write it? Publishers want us to be an expert on the topic we are writing about. Once at a writer’s conference I pitched a young adult novel to an agent. Her first question was: why are you the person to write this book? The question threw me off a little bit, and had I known she was going to reject the book, I might have said what I thought - BECAUSE I WROTE IT. It’s not non-fiction. I don’t have to be an expert. My job is to tell a good story. In her defense, she was just asking the question of the time. You hear a lot of talk in author circles about platform. The bigger and stronger the platform, the more likely a publisher and reader will take a look at you.

Here’s a last thing to think about: you have to be an expert in your field, but in a postmodern world, everything is relative, so it’s okay to think you’re an expert when you’re really not; you just have to make people think you are. And as a fiction writer, isn’t that what we do? We create a world that is believable, we speak with authority about that world, and we let people see the world through the eyes of our characters. So through that writing our worldview should come out and when people ask us what the story is about or what we meant by this-or-that, we can answer them and perhaps give them an understanding of some absolute truths in a provisional world.

The excerpted is from “Why Write?” by John Updike, from Picked-Up Pieces Copyright 1975 by John Updike and published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Could You Be Emily Bronte?

In 1847 Emily Bronte published Wuthering Heights. This novel has been studies and proclaimed for the last 150 years and her place among the greats is established. Her life was cut short when she died a year later from a tubercular condition. She was definitely raised in a home that promoted the arts, just look at her sisters Charlotte and Anne, and she wrote poetry. So, she probably could have created more novels had her life not been cut short. The question that this brings to mind is - could you be happy with a writing career like Emily Bronte’s? When your life come to an end - whenever that is - would you be satisfied writing just one novel that is remembered for all time, or would you feel cheated?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Writing What You Know

James Baldwin in his “Autobiographical Notes” said, “One writes out of one thing only - one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”

This mantra has been taught over and over to writers - write what you know. While I mostly agree with this, I don’t completely buy into it. Of course, it’s easier to write what you know. The topic is something familiar to you, you know the ins-and-outs, and you can speak with authority. I think this also goes toward your interests. If you want to write science fiction, then you need to read science fiction.

However, I differ from this mantra on this point: if I write fiction, I have the right to write about things that are not part of my personal experience. As a male writer, I have to get into the heads of female characters. I am never going to be a female, and it’s not something I can readily experience, especially the thought processes and emotions. Right now I have a serial killer in my story. I’m not going to kill someone so I can write with more authority. My point is that writing only what you know takes away from the imagination. The imagination is what truly creates art. Without the imagination, we would only have non-fiction stories.

I’m not saying that an artist never uses his or her own experiences. We do in every way that we can. I can’t be a woman, but I may have a female character based on a woman I know. We’ve all seen enough violence on TV and in the movies that we have experienced it enough. Also those emotions I put with the character ultimately come from deep within me. That, I think, is what Baldwin is getting at. We dig at those emotions and give the story everything we can to create a piece of art. To be true art, to have a deeper, lasting effect, we must force from our experiences everything we can give, to give the reader something that is at the same time familiar to them and yet foreign.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Creating a Work Space

We are going to be moving into a new home in a couple of weeks and I get to have my own study for the first time in six years. The plan is to have my library and writings things all together in one place. So, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how I want things set up and how I want the study to be functional and help me get the most out of my writing time. I know it’s going to be better because I can shut my door and be alone to write. No more distractions, except for the fact that the study is just off the living room. But that shouldn’t be too big of a problem since I do most of my writing after everyone has gone to bed.

I came across part of an article by Annie Dillard. The article actually came from her book The Writing Life. I’m going to buy the book because it sounds like something every writer needs to read. In this article, Dillard talks about her study (at the time) - a pine shed. She says, “The study affords ample room for one. One who is supposed to be writing books. You can read in the space of a coffin, and you can write in the space of a toolshed meant for mowers and spades.” Interesting that the study in my old house, until we turned it into a room for the kids, wasn’t much bigger than a toolshed. Then again, neither was the house. Anyway, Dillard goes on to say, “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window.”

While my new study is much bigger than a toolshed, I can see some of the points Dillard is making. My desk will face the wall, so I have fewer distractions. I may hang some of my published works in front of me for motivation and moral supports. Still, I want to be surrounded by books, to be inspired by those who have traveled this road before me. If I need to reference something, or review how a certain author tackled a plot issue, I can just walk over and pluck the book from the shelf. If things go as planned, I will have two desks in the study - one for the computer and one for the writing. I’m excited about this new workspace that is away from the normal traffic of the house where I can have papers and notes all over as I work toward finishing my works. Hopefully, I’ll be able to complete Alter of Death over the next two months, then move into something different and fresh for the National Novel Writing Month frenzy.

So, what is your workspace like? What are some of the things you like to have around you?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Stephen King on the Importance of Reading

This is something I learned a long time ago, but why listen to me when you can hear it from the king. No, not Jesus or even Elvis. Mr. Stephen King. This is a clip from a Q&A session at Yale on 4/21/03. He talks about the importance of reading to a writer. He says you can't do it. You have to be a reader and read a lot to be writer. They go hand in hand. There are two things you must do as a writer - write and read. Everything else is extra-curricular. I have been reading like crazy since college, but even more so in the last few years with all of the blog tours. That's why I broke up my blogs into writing and reading wings. As writers we need to know what's out there - both good and bad. We have to know why some stories work and others don't. I especially like the last comment King makes about reading a bad book. So, without further ado, here the video.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Lifestyle for a Healthy Brain

Everyone should be concerned about their brain lifestyle. By that, I mean we should be worried about taking care of our minds. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other mind related diseases are prevalent today. We need to do as much as we can to hold those problems at bay as we get older. We want to remain vital for as long as our lives will allow it, especially as writers. You might say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. Alzheimer’s is inherited, or nothing stops it,” etc. Actually, there are things you can do and I want to lay it out there for you with five critical factors.

The first factor is physical activity. If you’re like me, you don’t have a whole lot of time to do something on a regular basis. So, let’s try to be a little more practical. If you can do aerobic exercises and swimming, then go for it. You will be much better off for it. Here are some other things you can do. Walk as much as possible. Don’t look for the closest parking spot to the door. Park way out and walk through the parking lot. Instead of taking the elevator, take the stairs. Also, take a dance class with your partner or friends. Classes are very popular now since shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” If you’re lucky enough to be in a town where there are classes, sign-up. Others may find suitable classes at the YMCA or community center. Some other suggestions are knitting, gardening, and writing with non-dominant hand.

Next, socialization is very important. You need to remain integrated and involved. One of my college students who is now retired commented that she didn’t really care much about talking to other people until she retired and now she longs for that. We all need that interaction. We were created to be social, so don’t think you have to live the life of a hermit to be a writer. Get out and mingle. What's more, develop hobbies. As a kid I collected baseball cards and would spend hours on end playing and organizing them. Even though I still have the cards and have started my son with collecting, I don’t really do anything with them. I could start that up again or I could find other things to do. Writing is a hobby, I guess, but I think it’s become more than that for those of us trying to do it for a living. You can take up painting, drawing, photography, and so on. The possibilities are limitless. In addition, you need to build friendships and family networks. If you’re out reading blogs, then you are probably out networking and making friends online. That is great, but don’t forget to get out and network among people around you. Expand your boundaries and get to know people you normally wouldn’t get to know. Lastly, do not retire from life - maintain meaning. Even if you retire from your job, find other things to do that are meaningful. Don’t just disappear into your home and become a recluse. For a healthy brain, you must maintain meaning.

Thirdly, find ways to stimulate your brain. The more active your brain is, the better off you will be. We’ve all heard the brain-numbing affects of watching too much TV, so find other things to do. To begin, you can learn a second language. You’re never too old to try. Sign language is considered a second language. Secondly, travel. Get out and see the world. If you don’t have the funds to travel far, then go near. See what your city, county, and state have to offer. There are historical markers everywhere. Thirdly, play board games and puzzles. Children love playing games, so get out some of their board games and play with them. If you know of other adults who play chess or checkers, challenge them to matches. My grandmother played checkers well into her eighties. Fourthly, this may be a little too obvious, but I still need to mention it: read and write. Nothing stimulates the brain like reading a good book or taking part in writing exercises. Write letters, create a blog, write your memoirs, get one of those books that you pass down to later generations and answer those questions, and so on. There are a lot of possibilities. You could also take a literature class at a local university. Fifthly, learn to play a musical instrument. Maybe you’ve always wanted to play the violin but didn’t have the time or money. It’s never too late to start. Go buy a used one and get started. If you don’t want to pay for lessons, get a book to help you. Last, but not least, you can listen to classical music. There is something about this type of music that stimulates the brain. There were doctors years ago who suggested that we should play classical music in the nursery of newborns and that would make them smarter. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true or not, it may just make them appreciate classical music. At any rate, the music does stimulate the brain and you should listen to it when you have the chance.

The fourth factor is spirituality. You know that I’m a Christian writer, so you know where I want to go with this, but if you’re not a Christian, having faith and a regular place of worship is part of keeping your brain healthy. It may not do much for you after this life is over, but it will make your time on earth better. One thing you need to do is pray daily. Not only is confession good for the soul, but you need that interaction with the creator. Earlier I said we were made to be social. We were made to worship God and to interact first with Him, then with mankind. So, prayer is part of our worship and, obviously, interaction. Also, you should attend formal places of worship regularly. There are a lot of reasons why one should assemble with other believers. There is the social aspect as well as the connection you feel with others. The discussions of the Bible and the learning of new things are also healthy. Last of all, everyone should strive for one family/group meal daily. You may ask why this is part of spirituality instead of socialization. You have a deeper connection with family and you need that time to remain connected.

The last factor is nutrition. We hear a lot about losing weight and taking care of our hearts. But nutrition has a lot to do with our brain health, too. We should increase OMEGA-3 fatty acids. Instead of me explaining what this is, look here (if you don’t have time to read the entire article, read the health benefits section). If you think about it, this really makes sense. Since the beginning of time, fish have been the staples of human diets. There was no need to take vitamins because we got the right kinds of nutrients from the food we ate. Things are not like that today. Today most of our eating habits are not that good and even if we do try to eat right, the food isn’t as pure as it used to be. So, unless you can fix more fish for meals, you should really consider taking fish oil. Other things you can do for nutrition is decrease processed foods and bad fat. We used to fix the frozen family dinners, like the big things of turkey, but we have stopped using them and actually try not to eat as much processed foods. One last thing to increase is anti-oxidants, which basically means we need to eat more fruits and vegetables.

I know I’ve given you a lot to think about here, but I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable. Your brain deserves a healthy lifestyle so that it can function longer at a higher level. Physical activity, socialization, mental stimulation, spirituality, and nutrition are essential to maintaining a strong mind.

Monday, August 18, 2008

CBN Interview with Ted Dekkar

Can you tell I'm enjoying YouTube and GodTube? In continuing my study of other Christian writers and how they do what they do, I came across a CBN interview with Ted Dekkar. I think the interview aired last year, but there is still a lot there. Dekkar talks about why he writes about such topics and he answers his critics that say he is too edgy for Christian fiction. Let's get a good discussion going, so let me know what you think after watching the video.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Model T Convention Hits Hagerstown

Okay, I promised more from the Model T Convention. Here are some pictures from Hagerstown.
Model T's took over the streets on Tuesday July 22.

Kaleb and Marissa enjoyed seeing these vintage cars.
We even had music on the streets, like this piano player in front of Welliver's Smorgashboard.

There were all types for all people.

We even took a break to sit on an old-time trolly.

This Model T just happened to park next to a "For Rent" sign. At first I thought the sign was for the car, but it was for an apartment. But it does make for a good photo. Maybe I'll send it to Jay Leno.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The World Gets a Little Smaller - And Better.

This week we had the opportunity to meet some very fine people from Australia. The Model T Ford's 100th Year Celebration & Swap Meet is going on and people from all over the world are here. A year ago my father-in-law sold his model T to a gentleman from Australia. Saturday, my father-in-law (George) came in and we met up with the gentleman, Jack, and his wife, Betty. There were four others with them - I think son, daughter-in-law, daughter, and son-in-law. They told us about their adventures since coming to the United States and how beautiful and friendly our country is. They were also thankful for Goodwill stores and all of the great finds there. They've also frequented antique shops, museums, national parks, and anywhere else they could find. Jack has been in contact with George for the last year and it was great for them to finally meet face to face.
This is Jack, Betty, and George. They actually named the Model T after George. The Model T was made for a doctor. There is even a compartment in it that held the medical bag the doctor used for house calls.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Trip to James Whitcomb Riley's House

The picture is of my oldest and youngest daughters on the porch of James Whitcomb Riley's museum in Greenfield, Indiana. One of the things I would like to do as we begin to do more traveling is to visit the home places of American authors. I want to see where they sat as they composed their works. I want to envision what their life was like. Just as I have been reading author biographies for years to try and glean information about the craft, these sights and tours also give some information. And it's just fun. My guess is that there are historic places close to you that you could visit, or have visited. Why don't you share some of your favorite spots with me? You might check out the National Historic Landmark site to find some in your area, or even the areas you are visiting.

So, what did I learn from my visit to James Whitcomb Riley's Birthplace? One of the main things that sticks out is that some of the things that happened in his poems were taken from his life. I know that's a shock for anyone who writes, but it's still neat to see the connections. The tour guide would have us look at a certain area, or stand in a certain part of the room, and she would recite some lines from one of Riley's poems that went with it. Ideas for writing are all around us, if we just keep our eyes and minds open.

There is a festival in Greenfield every October in honor of Riley, and it's called (drum roll) Riley Festival. Even though he's not very well known today, he was the most popular poet of his day. At the turn of the last century, he was a best-selling author and speaker. Today he has been labeled as a children's author and local color author and probably isn't as well known outside of Indiana. No matter how we categorize him, because we have to fit our authors into their niches, he will live forever through his writings, and isn't that what all authors are truly striving for - a legacy?