musings, thoughts, and writings of Barbara W. Klaser


February 6, 2009

On not being in such a hurry

It doesn’t seem possible that we can already be one month and six days into 2009. I’ve been posting so infrequently that the blog barely has a pulse. But it is alive I assure you. It’s just been sleeping, dreaming if you will.

It’s raining and stormy today and I’m grateful for that. I think this is only our fourth big rain of the season so far. My cat Tara had a bath a few days ago on a warm, sunny, dry day that got to 80 degrees and seems to have become typical weather this winter. At least it’s been easy on the heating bill. Not so easy on the water bill or my sinuses.

I’ve been away from blogs except to post my ramblings about Tarot at Spirit Blooms. I’ve worked off-line at my other computer on artwork, read or posted on a couple of favorite Internet forums (more than I should), and searched out alternatives on- and off-line to spending money that I don’t have on books that I dearly want. I started out reading about Carl Gustav Jung; now I’m reading the writings of Jung himself, beginning with his autobiography written late in life, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Still deep in my J. R. R. Tolkien adventure, I recently finished reading The Annotated Hobbit, and now I’m savoring The Lord of the Rings. I’m a little shocked by how much watching the movies in the interim has botched my memory of the original story. Still they’re excellent movies. One should appreciate each on its own merits, the novel and the movies as separate creative entities. To do the written story complete justice there would’ve had to be nine or more movies instead of three. Not that I would complain, but not everyone is the Tolkien fiend that I am. Up ahead I plan to continue with The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin. Perhaps others, who knows? I’m taking my time, reading mostly late in the evening before sleep, if I’m not too tired by then.

Eric Mayer mentioned, in his comment on my earlier post about rereading favorites, that he almost never rereads books. I’ve been the same way most of my adult life. I reread a lot when I was a teen and young adult, but at some point I realized there was plenty in print to read the first time around, and life was short. I felt that I’d miss out on too many other things if I spent my time rereading favorites.

I’ve changed my attitude about that again only recently. This has to do partly with some of the newer fiction that I’ve been dissatisfied with, partly with my budget, and partly with the tiny library here in town where the tastes of the librarians don’t seem to mesh with my own — or I’m just quirky in my reading tastes. I’m sure they have some Tolkien and maybe some Jung, but I’ve come to prefer to take my time and not feel constrained by a return date anyway. I tried writing reviews here for a while, and I found that if the book was a library book I had to return it too quickly, and if I tried to write a review after that, I kept wanting to refer to the book. If I like it, I want it to stay around for a while. I also tried our library’s on-line interconnection with an ebook download system, but that didn’t work for me. Old computer or aging human brain inside user? Either way it didn’t work and I didn’t want to waste time fussing with it. I wanted to read the book. You know, just open a cover and start reading. If something is going to slow me down I want it to be the savor of words.

That brings me to the fourth reason I’ve gotten back into rereading. Mostly it has to do with wanting to read slowly. I’ve given up on reading everything out there. I’ve finally accepted that’s impossible. I’ve decided to hone down my reading list and read what I love — slowly, and as many times as I want.

When I reread an old favorite I don’t have to be in such a hurry to get to the end. I already know how it ends. There is something to the first bloom of a new story, that first time through when it’s a path of discovery, recognition, and suspense. But this time I can pause and enjoy the language along the way, let the suspense build again slowly. My old favorites have language worth pausing for. The more commercial books today tend to be heavy on suspense and bizarre plots and twists, while they seem too often short on the kind of writing I savor. Many feel to me as if they’re written in too much of a hurry, or as if the writer didn’t even like the story he was writing. The secret to great writing, I think, is for the writer to so love the story that he’s reluctant to leave it. Chances are the reader won’t want to leave it either.

But then I’m not a hurrier, never have been. I think it’s too easy to get into an “I’ll miss something if I slow down” mindset in our day and age, though it’s a valid concern to some degree. In the work world, one must hurry enough to show up when needed, and if one slows down one is in danger of not getting important work done, of missing opportunities, or of not being able to do one’s job anymore because one hasn’t kept up with hyperactive technology. There are sometimes valid reasons to hurry. I don’t want the emergency room team to dawdle, or firefighters to take their time arriving at a fire. For readers who want to keep up, there’s such a huge amount being published, in spite of aspiring writers’ concerns that no one is publishing what they write, that it’s easy to think one has no time to reread or to read slowly the first time. There are also such a great number of people who want to be writers that it doesn’t appear we’ll ever have a shortage of reading material, even very good reading material leaving out the bad. It’s a crowded world full of people with something to say, many of them excellent writers.

Still I think we miss out on too much by trying to do or read everything. I’m not well-read, mainly because I’m a slow reader. Maybe that’s why I appreciate books that take a long time to produce. I can sense the love and time that was put into them. I can linger, relish, and wonder why. I can spend a relatively equal time enjoying them, and feel gratitude that the authors took the time to do it right.

Tolkien took something like 13 years to write The Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1949. He took longer, when one considers all the thought prior to beginning it that he put into creating the world of Middle-Earth, from the time he was a boy, and the time between 1949 and 1954 that he worked with his publisher to get everything just right. That time shows. And it’s not as if by taking that long he missed out on sales, which seem these days so unforgiving of anyone lagging behind. The only time any of his books went out of print was during Word War II and the after-war years, when paper was rationed in England. Oh, and there was the problem of some proofs being destroyed in a bombing or a fire (I don’t remember which) that caused further delay in getting one edition of The Hobbit back into print. Of course one important factor in his print longevity was in being Tolkien. There have been many imitators and, as Eric seemed to hint in his comment, most imitations have not held up very well. Time is, I think, one reason.

I’m certain that the biggest problems with many books is that they’re devised and written in too much of a hurry, and because they aren’t true to the writer’s own creative promptings. I can see some publisher urging a writer to create something like Tolkien wrote, but to do it right now. Imitation done in a hurry can rarely hold up to the proper process of creation. Sometimes, but not usually. Imitation as a whole is an iffy and questionable practice. Readers may say they want another story like The Lord of the Rings, but they’re not saying they want an imitation. They want more Tolkien, and that’s simply the best possible compliment to the original creator, not to any would-be imitator. Perhaps we sometimes, as readers, make the mistake of confusing the two ideas ourselves and go looking for another Tolkien when we should be looking for something else that’s new and fresh, and over which someone labored long and lovingly.

It’s been said that most of a writer’s work doesn’t take place at the typewriter or keyboard, or even necessarily with paper in hand. It happens inside the mind of the writer. I personally think every writer’s workspace needs a comfy couch, or a bed, and a window with a view of a natural setting or garden, as well as an immense library. I also think it’s safe to say that most great fiction writers have lived what they write. By that I don’t mean they’ve experienced it in physical reality. I mean they have a fertile and active imagination, an ability to visualize the experiences they haven’t actually lived. A relentless imagination at that. We use our imaginations to read, but the writer uses his imagination far more, over and over again, actively reliving the scenes he writes in his mind, working them out until they feel right, until he’s ready to translate them into written language. They get to know their own unconscious realms and facets of their own characters, as well as the archetypes of the collective unconscious, even more than we do ordinarily when we dream at night.

Now I know that some writers create at the keyboard on the fly. I’ve done that too. But the stories I’ve written that I felt best about were usually those that I had in mind for a long time before I dared to put any words down. They were an integrated collection of many things that occurred to me, including some fantasies, day dreams, things I wondered about, and even whole scenes, characters, or settings that occupied my mind well before I realized they’d formed anything close to a story worth sharing or writing down. Some were ideas I couldn’t put away because they begged to be told.

Fast writing may be part of the problem. I once rewrote a novel (Snow Angels) in the course of a few weeks, retyped the whole thing from scratch, from my head. But that story had been in my mind for a long time, in various forms, and even on paper in a few forms, before I did that. I’ve never taken part in NaNoWriMo, but I think it is possible for it to produce something of value, provided there’s something already percolating in the writer’s mind before they begin, perhaps for years before they begin typing it out. I’ve done fast writing exercises, and I know they have their value. But I wonder if the trend in fast writing is the reason so many new books I read leave me flat these days.

There is fast writing that’s great, and there have been many great prolific writers. But if we make the mistake of thinking their greatness lay in their proliferation, we do them a disservice. The secret to great writing also doesn’t lie in taking forever to produce something. I’m sure there are plenty of slowly written pieces of rubbish passing for fiction. But prolific writers are the exceptions to the slow writing rule, I think, and like Mozart’s music, great fast writing is great for other reasons than its speed of production or lack of revision. Of course everyone should write at their own speed, but fast writing of a single draft usually requires slow thinking up front, and long, slow revisions afterward. If one doesn’t take the time to do it right, to follow through, to consider it worth some effort, then even that smaller portion of fast writing time is wasted, not to mention the time anyone else takes to read the result. If it’s not worth spending lots of time writing, then maybe it’s not worth reading either.

In spite of how long Tolkien’s work has remained in print, it’s still possible that work of this kind is best done for oneself, with any idea or intent of publishing as a mere afterthought. One should, after all, consider oneself worth writing well and respectfully for. From what I understand of Tolkien, he only shared what he created with a few colleagues, friends, and his children, until the friend of a friend mentioned the possibility of publishing The Hobbit. Maybe that’s why it’s so good. He took time to shape and polish it to be what he wanted for himself and those he loved. Only after that did he shape and polish it for publication. Surely that provided him a great deal of satisfaction in what he wrote, regardless of whether strangers in his own land or across the pond liked it later on. He was also a real-life expert regarding myths of a world similar to the one he created and regarding the language he used to create it. But was he an expert who happened to come up with a story he was best suited to write, or was he a writer in the making, even as a child, who lived in his head creating a world first and who worked all his life to become expert at just what he needed to recreate that world on paper? Either way, he took his loving time about it, and that’s a good thing for all of us. After all, what’s the rush?

— Barbara @ rudimentary 1:55 pm PST, 02/06/09

February 25, 2007

More poetry

Aside from the novel, I’ve been reading, writing, learning about, and pretty much immersing myself in poetry. I’ve posted some bits and pieces, mostly practice and works in progress, over at Spirit Blooms in the Poetry Sketchbook category. Feel free to drop by there if you’re curious. Though I’ve taken creative writing workshops in the past, I’ve never taken a poetry workshop, and I think I have a lot to learn before I go even that far. Right now I’m refreshing my memory with basics that I learned when I was young but are now a bit fuzzy.

Beverly Jackson has been an inspiration with her poetry posts, (not to mention her abstract paintings — wow!). She recently shared her experiences at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway – Cape May N.J. and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival on her blog. She also provided examples and book recommendations she got from poets there. Dig into her January archive to read the first of those posts, beginning here.

Right now I’m reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, which I mentioned in a previous post.

HW Longfellow Postage Stamp

My renewed interest in poetry arrives just in time for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s bicentennial, which the United States Postal Service is commemorating with a special stamp — the second to bear his likeness. Longfellow is one of only two writers to be immortalized on more than one US postage stamp. Herman Melville was the other, a distinction he earned, in my estimation, with The Encantadas alone — his sketchbook about the Galapagos Islands.

The stamp displays a portrait of Longfellow, as well as a depiction of Paul Revere’s famous ride. The Smithsonian Magazine’s online biography, Famous Once Again provides lots of interesting details about Longfellow’s life. I never knew, for instance, that he was proficient in so many languages — ten altogether, at one point in his life. He’s considered the “uncrowned poet laureate” of the 19th-century US, and February 27 will be his 200th birthday.

I’m out of touch with today’s curriculums, but when I was young, just hearing or reading the first line, “Listen my children and you shall hear,” could set the cadence of Paul Revere’s Ride beating in my mind. Do kids still learn Longfellow in school? I was older when I read Evangeline, but the first verse is just as deeply embedded in my mind. I’ve since gone back for a taste, drawn in by the same first lines:

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers –
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?
(read poem)

I had no idea what a Druid was when I first read that, but the poet drew me into that forest and I was hooked. I wanted to know everything about it. I wanted to know what happened to the Acadians who once lived there.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 6:23 pm PST, 02/25/07

October 25, 2005

Why continue writing fiction?

Mark Terry wrote An Open Letter to Aspiring Writers on his blog, This Writing Life. I can’t say I agree with every point he made, and there are some I don’t qualify to offer any opinion on. His post got me thinking about why we write, which I’ve explored here before, and more specifically why I continue. Especially his first point. (Read Mark’s post for his words.)

It’s probably healthiest for the aspiring writer to look at fiction writing one of two ways. 1) As an after-work side job or business that one is willing to give up on if it doesn’t pay off, or 2) as a beloved hobby to pursue in one’s spare time—after time with family, after taking care of responsibilities, and perhaps even after just goofing off. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 9:03 pm PST, 10/25/05


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