About Me

Friday, June 26, 2009

Carson McCullers - Flowering Dream

Carson McCullers (1917-1967) published her first short story at the age of nineteen, and her first novel, the highly acclaimed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, at the age of twenty-three. These are excerpts of some of her thoughts on writing, expressed in The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing, first published by Esquire in 1959:

"The dimensions of a work of art are seldom realized by the author until the work is accomplished. It is like a flowering dream. Ideas grow, budding silently, and there are a thousand illuminations coming day by day as the work progresses. A seed grows in writing as in nature. The seed of the idea is developed by both labor and the unconscious, and the struggle that goes on between them." ~ Carson McCullers

"I understand only particles. I understand the characters, but the novel itself is not in focus. The focus comes at random moments which no one can understand, least of all the author. For me, they usually follow great effort. To me, these illuminations are the grace of labor. All of my work has happened this way. It is at once the hazard and the beauty that a writer has to depend on such illuminations. After months of confusion and labor, when the idea has flowered, the collusion is Divine. It always comes from the subconscious and cannot be controlled." ~ Carson McCullers

"A writer's main asset is intuition; too many facts impede intuition. A writer needs to know so many things, but there are so many things he doesn't need to know -- he needs to know human things even if they aren't "wholesome," as they call it... I become the characters I write. I am so immersed in them that their motives are my own." ~ Carson McCullers

"It is only with imagination and reality that you get to know the thing a novel requires. Reality alone has never been that important to me. A teacher once said that one should write about one's own back yard; and by this, I suppose, she meant one should write about the things that one knows most intimately. But what is more intimate than one's own imagination? The imagination combines memory with insight, combines reality with the dream." ~ Carson McCullers

"The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love?" ~ Carson McCullers

The quotes are excerpted from the essay, as published in The Mortgaged Heart (Houghton Mifflin, c1971, c2005). To fully appreciate Carson McCullers' ideas, they should be read in their complete context, so I highly recommend locating a copy of this book at your bookstore or local library.

I find her ideas particularly compelling, because they validate my methods and my contention that a true writer is an actor, inhabiting the characters she/he creates. I do not plan my work, but I think about it incessantly, imagining each scene as it progresses, breathing and living for each of my characters, letting them tell me what they will do next. Then, of course, comes all the revision, reliving each line, until you feel you've told your character's stories and all about their world in the best way you can, cutting out the repetition, revealing the core. I can honestly say, in my novels, I love all of my major characters, every one of them, with all of their flaws and their mistakes, and their great capacity for love. I am in that happy place where I am revisiting a novel-in-progress, and moving forward.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Carson McCullers - On Writers and Writing

I've been reading Carson McCullers' The Mortgaged Heart: Selected Writings (Houghton Mifflin, c1971, c2005), starting with a section under Essays and Articles titled: Writers and Writing. I devoured these essays and noted a few choice quotes:

"An observer should not criticize a work of art on the grounds that it lacks certain qualities that the artist himself never intended to include. The writer has the prerogative of limiting his own scope, of staking the boundaries of his own kingdom."
~ Carson McCullers from The Russian Realists and Southern Literature, 1941

About the sting of rejection:

"The function of the artist is to execute his own indigenous vision, and having done that, to keep faith with this vision... Once a creative writer is convinced of his own intentions, he must protect his work from alien persuasion. And it is often a solitary position. We are afraid when we feel ourselves alone. And there is another special fear that torments the creator when he is too long assailed. For the parallel function of a work of art is to be communicable. Of what value is a creation that cannot be shared? The vision that blazes in a madman's eye is valueless to us. So when the artist finds a creation rejected there is the fear that his own mind has retreated to a solitary uncommunicable state."
~ Carson McCullers from The Vision Shared, c1950

From a discussion about her play, A Member of the Wedding:

"... Any form of art can only develop by means of single mutations by individual creators. If only traditional conventions are used an art will die, and the widening of an art form is bound to seem strange at first, and awkward. Any growing thing must go through awkward stages. The creator who is misunderstood because of his breach of convention may say to himself, 'I seem strange to you, but anyway I am alive.' "
~ Carson McCullers from The Vision Shared, c1950

There is another wonderful essay: The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing. I'll excerpt a bit from it next, but I highly recommend reading The Mortgaged Heart in its entirety, for these essays, as well as Carson McCullers' early stories, her first published story, a sampling of her later work, and the introductions written by her sister, and by Joyce Carol Oates.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Research and Story Starts

I've been working on revising a short short story, an experimental piece I've been required to cut from about 1,165 words to 1,000, to stay under the maximum word limit. It's been an unsatisfying 995. It's been 1,oo1. It's been 1,034, and 1,056. But, it has gotten stronger with each re-read. I've recombined dialogue into more meaningful units; dropped the unnecessary line, so the odd dialogue flows more naturally from the mouth of each of two characters, with the mystery and charisma of a play, and the added bonus of minimal narrative, characterizing for the reader how the speaker would say it, cluing them to the story's backstory and the speaker's motivation. I've improved the ending.

If it were to become a longer short story, I would pick back up a thread or two I chose to delete. I don't ordinarily like writing to length. I believe a story is the number of words required to tell it. However, this little story has benefited from a tighter focus.

It is a complete scene; but it is not a complete short story. In order to write it, I've had to research cerebral palsy, it's prevalence in twins, what spastic bilateral CP means, types of leg braces, and horse therapy. It all started with the words: Rita gainsaid walking... (I don't know why. There's more to the line, and the opening line keeps changing as I tweak it.) The story is still evolving. It will always be a short, and never a novel. I started it about a year ago, revised it once and abandoned it as an interesting kernel, and now, I'm polishing its potential for Glimmer Train's new category: Best Start, planning to gamble my $10.00 for the possibility of recognition.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bargain Book Finds and Intriguing Reads

This is one of my every other weekends, when I work Saturday and Sunday, and then I work Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. When you work part-time, five days in a row feels like a long stretch. So what did I do Saturday evening, after leaving the busy and hectic library world? I went to a bookstore, browsed the shelves and tables with my husband, and bought two bargain books and Guitar World magazine. (The August 2009 issue has a lengthy Green Day article focusing on Billie Joe Armstrong's songwriting process, and his "working" collection of classic guitars.)

My first bargain book find is Carson McCullers's The Mortgaged Heart: Selected Writings, with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates (Houghton Mifflin, c1971, c2005). I've owned Collected Stories of Carson McCullers (Houghton Mifflin, c1987) for many years, which also includes The Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. I went through a time in high school, where I read most of everything she'd ever written. Mortgaged Heart includes her early and later short stories, essays and articles, her thoughts on writers and writing, and a selection of five poems. I count The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter among my favorite books of all time, and Carson McCullers as one of my favorite authors, but it's been so long since I've read her, I'd like to be reminded of why I was impressed. At $3.00, already bargain priced and discounted an additional 25%, this will be a great book to get me going.

My second $3.00 bargain is J. R. R. Tolkien's Roverandom (Houghton Mifflin, c1992, c1995, c1998), including a thorough introduction, definitions, and notes. I'd never heard of Roverandom. So far, I've only had a chance to read the first few scenes. Told much like a traditional fairytale, in appealing language with modern sensibilities, it begins with the words: Once upon a time...

Here's a quote from the back cover to give you some idea of what the fantasy is about, and why Tolkien wrote it: In 1925, four-year-old Michael Tolkien lost his beloved toy dog on the beach. To console him, his father, J.R.R. Tolkien, improvised a story about Rover, a real dog who is magically transformed into a toy and is forced to seek out the wizard who wronged him in order to be returned to normal. This charming tale, peopled by a sand-sorceror and a terrible dragon, by the king of the sea and the Man-in-the-Moon, went through several drafts over the years. Now, more than seventy years later, the adventures of Rover (rich in wit and wordplay) have been published for the first time... and illustrated with Tolkien's own delightful drawings.

Another book store find, from a few weeks ago, is an intriguing, dry, and challenging book. I found it in the writing and publication section, but it could properly be included in psychology, or language and linguistics. It's cataloged by the Library of Congress under the subject headings: Language and Languages - Philosophy, Metaphors, Concepts, and Truth. Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (University of Chicago Press, c2003) was first published in 1980, and updated by the authors with an afterword, in 2003. As I read more of the book, I'll post more about it. The authors propose and support the position that metaphors are not just a construct of language; metaphors are representative of the way humans think.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Pigs by Craig Hartglass

What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever gotten?

One thing I find really helpful when I'm stuck and nothing will come, is to play a piece of music that evokes the same feeling as the scene or section I'm stuck on. I'll play a song over and over, almost insanely so, until I am drowning in that feeling—and often that will be the secret passageway back into the story. ~ Craig Hartglass

You can read Craig Hartglass's full interview about his short story, Pigs, Issue #120, at One Story, and an engaging essay by Elliott Holt about why One Story published it.

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One Story
is a wonderful publication. A subscription gets you a new short story approximately every three weeks in your mailbox (your real mailbox- not your inbox!). I'm paraphrasing and borrowing this line from someone else's blog: Every three weeks you get a good short story, and sometimes a great short story. Actually, just like Glimmer Train, most of the stories are great; they make you think, impress you with the author's ability to weave a tale, or grab you with an emotion. Craig Hartglass's Pigs does all three and will leave you feeling satisfied.

Life is all about connection. It's great when a connection is made.