Monday, June 16, 2008

To Write Well

The blogosphere is not the place to search for great writing, though…
by Charlie Leck

Since about 1973, over thirty-five years ago, there has been nothing I would rather do with my quiet, private time than write. Around me, here in my study, are volumes and volumes of my letters, essays and both short and long stories. They amount to thousands and thousands of pages. I can't imagine that they are anything but an average sort of literary accomplishment; however, I can say the production of these pages has brought me enormous happiness.

Thousands of pages of my work, from between 1966 and 1977, including over one-hundred poems and 135 essays were lost during a hectic time in my life. They are not to be mourned by anyone other than myself; however, I would love to retrieve a few of those poems that were particularly meaningful to me.

A friend was visiting us a few weeks ago and shook her head in amazement at the volume of blogs I have been producing. She said that she couldn't keep up.

Blog writing is simple compared to my other efforts. A blog gets about two or three revisions – that's it. A serious essay may get written a dozen times or more before I am satisfied and put it aside as accomplished (only I would likely use that adjective to describe my final products). Yet, there is some brilliant writing on the blogosphere; Stan Fish is one example; Blair Hurley has a creative writing blog and he produces some good essays. I'm also pleased with the work of Cynthia Harrison. A blog called Writing Fiction supplies a lot of good advice for writers wanting to be published. Here's an extraordinary list of links for writers.

Years ago I read a book by John Braine, Writing a Novel, which emphasized the importance of reading great novels as a foundation for attempting to write one. He listed dozens of titles that one who is attempting to write must read in order to write well. Gullibly, I copied the list and began to read each one that I hadn't already read. I got hooked on reading and worked my way quickly through each one of them in less than a year. Was I ready to write the great American novel? Not by a long shot!

More recently I read Jane Smiley's intriguing work, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Smiley talks about confronting 'writer's block' and deciding that she would defeat it by reading 100 of the great novels in one year. I mentioned that to a friend and expressed my amazement. His reply was that this wasn't such a great feat, but an easy exploit. Now wait! In 365 days that means she would be reading a novel each 3.5 days. That's okay, I suppose, if we're talking about The Old Man and the Sea. However, Smiley was talking about a more extensive, classic list of great novels. She displays her list in the front of her book; it includes authors like Shikibu, Boccaccio, Fielding, Balzac, Melville, Wilde, Joyce, Kafka, Proust and Nabokov. One doesn't casually rush through some of these authors in just a few days unless one is a genius. I'm not. Interestingly, one of Garrison Keillor's novels was on Smiley's reading list.

Frankly, it took me more than two weeks to read Smiley's work; though, of course, I had plenty of other things to get done during that two week period.

What admiration I have for extraordinary writers! These are among my current list of favorites. The list also gets regularly revised.

  • John Updike
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • Mark Helprin
  • Richard Russo
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Saul Bellow
  • Gabriel García Márquez
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Willa Cather
  • William Faulkner
  • Charles Dickens
  • Feodor Dostevsky
  • Garrison Keillor
  • P.G. Wodehouse
  • Tim O'Brien
  • James Dickey
  • Marilynne Robinson

These are coming just off the top of my head as I tap on the keys beneath my fingers. If I gave it thought, the list could go on and on. I am aware that there are not enough women on the list. I'm not sure that's my fault.

I just finished reading two books by women and both were brilliant and meaningful. They probably belong on the list. Patricia Hampl is a Minnesota woman – from St. Paul – and a brilliant, nationally recognized author. Her book, A Romantic Education, is one of the finest memoir volumes I've ever read. Her newest, The Florist's Daughter, is an absolute delight. One can tell that hours upon hours of writing and rewriting and revising each chapter were involved in this final product.

"Still holding her hand now, I glance away from the figurine my mother has become. I turn to the big window that is black and gives me nothing but my own face. Then I turn to the walls, the cartoon clock, the square calendar – the full compass of these days in the shadowy room. I'm waiting for light to break. It'll be another long night. The last one, probably."

My word processor doesn't like the above paragraph. It is filled with little green, squiggly underlinings that suggest revisions are necessary. Brilliant writing doesn't follow the rules of business letters or journalism editors. Great writing has heart, feeling and life.

The best two novels I've read in recent years?
Easy! Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo.

The years are dashing by quickly; yet I continue to work on my writing skills. Nothing fascinates me quite so much as writing. In terms of reading, I've been stuck on non-fiction for quite some time. Now I must get back to the novel.

Is there a perfect sentence?
Gertrude Stein thought so and she pointed to one written by Hemingway.

"In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more."

Oh, gosh! I am filled with envy – and admiration!

"In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains." [Ernest Hemingway: In Another Country]

Oh, gosh! Look how Hemingway repeated himself about the coldness of season. The newspaper editor would red-line it for deletion. For Hemingway the repetition was essential to emphasize the chill that overwhelmed him. The reader begins to feel the chill also and is penetrated by it.

What next?
Resting here on my reading table, I have a copy of Willa Cather's Sapphira and the Slave Girl. I shall crack the cover today and begin reading it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Charles! We have lots in common, including our passion for writing, blogging, and Bridge of Sighs!!