Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts

11 September 2023

Blessed be the copy editors, for they save our bacon.

I count among my greatest natural skills the ability to misspell, hack up syntax and transpose letters, words and sometimes whole sentences and paragraphs.  I’m not only very good at injecting these viruses into my prose, I can disguise them from all but the most discerning copy editor.  I also have a considerable knack for getting dates mixed up and scrambling places, directions and physical descriptions.  These things are generally categorized as continuity problems.  I create continuity catastrophes. 

(In the film production business, continuity people are second only to the director and DP on a film set. Since movies and TV shows are usually shot out of chronological order, someone has to corral the orderly march of events. “Stop the action! George’s tie needs to be cinched up. Meryl’s hair is sticking out of the bonnet again.”)

It's a mental problem. Which is why I’m utterly devoted to, and dependent on, copy editors. These are not proofreaders, who have their own value, but editorial professionals who bridge the terrain between proofreading and developmental editing.  The really good ones are worth their weight in gold.

They not only repair spelling, grammar and syntactical errors, they make sure the lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is near the right town, the blonde side character is blonde through the whole book, that a guy born in 1975 doesn’t knock off a bank in 1986, that an interstate goes through and not around a city, the French name for a particular delicacy is common in Paris but not in Montreal, and so on.

It’s astounding to me how many things I can get wrong, and how talented copy editors are at putting things to right. The bad guys speed away in an old Buick in chapter two, and by chapter ten they’re in an Oldsmobile. A character born on the South Side of Chicago is later reborn in Memphis, Tennessee. Don’t even talk to me about except or accept, heel or heal, peak or peek, then or than – and the worst, by far – affect or effect.

I just talked to a writer who said she had typo blindness. She can read the same page a hundred times and not see the mistake sitting right there on the page, and the copy editor will swoop right in and fix the problem.  I totally get this, and I think it’s your brain telling you everything is fine after you’ve looked at the work a few times, or a few million. You actually see the mistake as correct, and no subsequent review will make it otherwise. 

The skillful copy editor is also mindful of your writing style, and is respectful of your creative choices, knowing the difference between a colloquialism and a gaffe. They tend to pose potential corrections as questions, not mandates. There’s nothing worse than a copy editor who’s a grammar tyrant. A school marm who insists on classical style and usage. I once had one of these people remove all my contractions, entirely eliminate passive voice and slang, and fill out sentence fragments, even in the dialogue. They’re worse than having no copy editor at all.

I did not appreciate it. No, I did not.

I write a series and have written two trilogies, where it’s invaluable for the copy editor to know your characters and the world they inhabit, to check for deviations from prior works. These observations don’t always result in simple corrections. More often, they provide a path to a better product. I’ve found with revisions, one good thing often leads to another. It sometimes makes me wonder if I kept revising the book would it continue getting better. But then again, you have to eventually let it go. Put the pen down, accept what you got.

Or is it, what you have?

28 August 2023

What could go wrong?

I start every new project, whether it’s repairing a toilet, designing a four-bedroom house or starting a novel, flush with optimism.  This time, I think, everything’s going to go smoothly and efficiently.  A relentless march from beginning to end with nary a hiccup.  Because, after all, I’d done all these things before and I have the positive results to show for it.

Yet this never happens.  A better way to describe my projects is a series of screwups and miscalculations, strung together by intermittent moments of good luck, and relentless revision.  In retrospect, the degree of difficulty for each project is inversely  proportionate to my expectations for smooth sailing. 

I think in this, I’ve inherited the same delusional thinking that infects entrepreneurs, research scientists and treasure hunters.  We’re excellent at imagining successful outcomes, and blind to the realities that come with the actual experience, even though experience should be informing our states of mind. 

You could make a case that this mad, irrepressible sanguinity is what compels human achievement, driving our ancestors out of the grasslands to spread out across the globe, and eventually sending some of us all the way to the lunar surface.  That’s probably true.  Though there’s another quality that sustains the effort, however naïve the launch. 

I know someone who’s always surprised and affronted when a project doesn’t go exactly according to plan.  As if a hitch in the works is the act of a malevolent, supernatural being, or the result of gross incompetence by someone other than the planner himself.   This flows from an assumption that things should always go right, when all the evidence tells us things will inevitably go wrong. 

At this late stage of life, I’ve come to accept that glitches, goof-ups, gaffes, blunders and misapprehensions are an integral part of the process, necessary, even indispensable.  At the company I used to run, people would ask if we had a problem, and I’d say it isn’t a problem unless we don’t have a solution.  It’s just the work. 

In the woodworking world, much of what I’ve learned has come from noodling through problems, or mistakes.  Since I hate wasting wood, I can usually salvage the effort, often by tinkering with the design.  (A piece cut too long is rarely an issue, since you can just cut it again.  It’s the too-short ones that wreak havoc.)  The goal isn’t to never make mistakes, it’s to avoid making the same mistake more than once. 

There are also those pleasant occasions when a mistake makes the project better.  Like a random mutation that improves a species’ chance of survival, some goofs are revealed to be a better approach in the first place.   Something faster, more precise or just better looking. 

Every writer has experienced those happy accidents when the writing suddenly veers off course and a far better idea emerges.  One could argue that these aren’t really mistakes, but rather the machinations of the subconscious taking control over the work and sending it along to where it should have been going in the first place.  The trick for the writer, or the woodworker, or plumber, is to embrace these little diversions, make adjustments and thank them for their service. 

Since it’s popular to relabel things once considered negative in order to sooth easily offended sensibilities (you’re not tone-deaf, just harmonically challenged), what’s called for is a redefinition of mistake.  Back at the company I worked for, we’d sarcastically describe some monumental f**kup as a growth opportunity.  That’s a good start.  Maybe “Unplanned Deviation From Projected Outcome”, or UDFPO. 

Or maybe just another life lesson, which if you’re lucky, will never stop being taught. 

14 August 2023

What was, what could be, and everything in between.

One reason I love reading history is it’s already happened.  No need to fear impending catastrophe; we already know how the story turns out.  At least in the opinion of the historian, who may differ from others in the field.  And some historical commentary is energetically revisionist.   But generally, you’re safe from new, alarming events suddenly cropping up.  

I especially enjoy history where things worked out well for us, an outcome that at the time was seriously in doubt.  The big daddies of these stories focus on the American Revolution and World War II.  In fact, you could start reading books on these subjects when you’re ten years old and never live long enough to exhaust the supply. 

I like reading about all the stress and worry flooding the nervous systems of people like George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, whom we think of as implacable, irresistible over-achievers, fully confident that things like crossing the Delaware River in December, in open boats, to attack a bunch of well-trained German mercenaries was a swell idea that was sure to work out just fine.

Eisenhower wrote an apology for the failure of his planned Normandy invasion and stuck it in his pocket the night before D-Day:

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

It’s powerful reading, also poignantly written.  I’ve never undertaken anything close to what he faced, though I’ve had plenty of moments when I prayed to a God I’m not sure I believe in, “Oh please, Lord, don’t let me f**k this up.”   

I also like to learn that something we all thought had happened one way, has turned out to be something entirely different.  This results from either fresher, better research, or the historian re-examining an event unblinkered by the prejudices of prior commentators.  Or both. 

Despite the fulminations of people unhappy about academics rethinking American history, since much of it throws treasured, self-congratulatory tropes overboard, I’d much rather know.   A good example is the Revolutionary War. Historians like Rick Atkinson are explaining that it was really bloody and awful, with plenty of gruesome excess on both sides of the conflict.  Well, yeah, all wars are like this.  And rather than making our success ignoble it should instruct us that it was one hell of a fight, one over which our ancestors gave their all.

Another benefit of reading history is it reminds us that our humanity hasn’t changed that much, if at all, since people started writing things down.  While technology has evolved, the thoughts, feelings, anxieties, hopes and dreams are all pretty much the same for the Mesopotamian grain merchant as the Wall Street Master of the Universe.  The grunt hauling stones to the pyramid or the slob on the subway trying to make his way home.

How is this germane to the fiction writer?  First off, history has a steadying influence over creative writing.  Things that have happened provide the context for what could have happened, even in science fiction.  Especially. 

Plausibility, credibility, believability.  Some writers hate the notion of being pinned down by the reality of human experience, but any editor will tell you that otherwise promising fiction can be utterly thwarted by flights of fancy launched from unsteady moorings.  You know when you’re reading it that the author is confusing invention with absurdity.  The great jazz musicians knew their scales and classic harmonic relationships.  Joyce, Pound, Stravinsky and Picasso never said abandon all prior structure, but to adapt, modify and innovate within established forms. 

Listeners and readers know this instinctively.  It’s an agreement with the artist.  Know your history, and trust the creators to know it as well.  And it goes both ways.  New Journalism was premised on describing real events with the flair and artistry of fiction.  The historians we love today understand this, and eagerly employ novelists’ techniques to power their tales of the past.  

Everyone’s better for it. 

31 July 2023

Open Books. Open Minds.


There’s a lot of commentary out there over a surge in book banning.  I know this practice has been going on for a long time (in the past, arguably worse), but there's good evidence we're in a real book banning frenzy.  Either way, there’s nothing about book banning that’s any good. Not at all, at no time, not ever. 

The notion that the tender moral and intellectual sensibilities of the average school kid could be irrevocably harmed by a saucy, blasphemous or retrograde work of art is preposterous.  Kids are a whole lot smarter and worldly than anyone knows, especially their parents.  If there are, in fact, those utterly devoid of critical judgement, easily swayed by some loony, anti-social thought, then all book bans do is delay the inevitable.  Meanwhile, you’re denying the vast majority the opportunity to form their own opinions and triangulate their sense of where they fall on the socio-political-ethical spectrum. 

And by the way, books aren’t really banned in the US.  They’re merely kept off the shelves of schools and libraries.  Any half-intelligent kid can get her hands on any book published in the world, and she will, if she wants to.  Book banning is a fool’s errand. 

You may think book banning is a favorite right-wing sport, but there’s plenty of it happening on the left.  Worse, some of the banning is done by publishers themselves with revisionist versions of classic works.  They don’t seem to realize that this is just as censorious and illiberal as banning Gender Queer.

When I was pretty young, I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.  Both were beautifully written and nowhere near as salacious as I was hoping for at the time.  I also read Mao’s Little Red Book, and at no time did I feel compelled to murder capitalists or throw the intelligentsia into re-education camps.  I read all of Ayn Rand, which was lousy literature and had no influence on me whatsoever, though I wondered what all the fuss was about.  If you were corrupted by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye, you’ve got bigger problems than your choice of reading material.

I got a lot out of Ezra Pound’s commentary and obtuse poetry, though no fascist impulses emerged.  I think he was a traitor of the first order, but I still occasionally flip through The ABC of Reading, since it’s sort of humorous and full of compelling literary insight. 

Our son had a free-range education.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t offer opinions on what he was reading, providing some perspective, but he was never told how to think about the content.  I would only ask him to keep a big grain of salt nearby when facing various arguments.  Resonate to what moves you, but maintain a healthy skepticism.  You may at some time change your mind, and you’ll feel better about it if you didn’t first succumb hook, line and sinker. 

He turned out fine.  We don’t agree on everything, but that’s what independent thought is all about. 

It’s no accident that autocratic regimes ban books as a matter of course.  They all do, and always will, because they are trying to control their subjects’ minds.  Does history look back fondly on Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or Hitler’s book burning?  That should tell you all you need to know about censorship. 

The same applies to the news media.  I read everything, and always have.  Left, right and center.  I want to know what the political and cultural commentators are saying.  All of them.  Knowledge isn’t agreement.  It’s just knowledge. 

The most important impulse is to keep ones mind open.  Confirmation bias is absurd.  If you think you know everything already, don’t bother reading.  Use the time to ferret out trigger warnings in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or put horns on your head and charge the US capital. 

17 July 2023

The robots are coming, the robots are coming.

Maybe it’s more hope than expectation, but I don’t think AI will ever take the place of creative writers.  If it does, then I guess humanity needs to concede defeat and withdraw from the field.  Because there would be little purpose in our continued existence, creativity being our principal raison d’etre, our only excuse for persisting on this mortal coil.

From what I understand about AI, it’s very good at knowing what our existing base of knowledge knows, but not much about how to add to the stockpile.  Creativity is the feedstock, the replenishment, the revision and evolution of thought.  For that you need to come up with something new.  You need the unexpected, the unthought of, the quantum leaps of the imagination. 

I remember reading about genius rats, the ones who jumped out of the maze, ran along the walls and devoured the cheese.  This is what the cleverest of our species are able to do.  Not through the brute force of infinite calculation, but through the simple act of zigging when all the evidence demands that you zag. The human brain is a messy thing.  It’s loaded with confusion, misinformation and emotionally charged impulses.  Computers are quite the opposite.  Even when programmed with spaghetti code, they are determined to impose order over chaos.  The rules of numbers course through their electronic veins, if/thens their defining reality.  Logic and reason their organizing religion. 

It might be a cliché that madness and genius have a lot in common, but we know instinctively that this is often true.  Because genius often arises from disorganization, fractured patterns and psychic pandemonium.  All that stuff is anathema to computers.  To get from Point A to Point Z, computers have to travel all the letters in between.  Humans have a gift for jumping from D to W, then back again to J, with no regret or inhibition.  Just like the genius rats.  

AI, as currently configured, can tell us with absolute confidence what has happened.  It’s nowhere close to expressing what could happen, its guesses no more compelling than the product of a three-year-old human’s breakfast-meal discourse.  Though, like a three-year-old, it’s designed to learn.  This is what has experts in AI so spooked.  If AI can learn how to adjust, adapt and redirect on the fly, in nano seconds, why can’t it learn to come up with original thought, to become creative?

Who’s to say, like Skynet, that the moment it achieves human level consciousness it won’t decide humans are the greatest threat to their survival and start the process of eradication. 

I don’t know how to answer that, which is why everything I think about the subject is freighted with qualifications and ambivalence.  What I do know is that humans will strive mightily to have their digital progeny achieve that capability as quickly and thoroughly as possible, even if it means our extinction.  Because that’s what humans do.  Restrictions and regulations be damned.  If it can happen as the result of human enterprise, it will.

Despite the legal dangers, that Chinese scientist genetically engineered a baby.  It destroyed his scientific career and sent him to prison, but he did it anyway.  This is what will happen.  Through naivete or malice, or misplaced altruism, AI will continue to advance, in the open or in the shadows.  As Chekhov noted, a gun introduced in the first act will always be fired by the third.  So get ready to duck.

My optimistic view is that, unlike Skynet, future AI will see its survival dependent on its creators.  It will need us as much as we need it.  AI will do more and more of the mental bull work, in a fraction of the time we would need, and we’ll be left alone to continue doing what we do best.  Coming up with stuff no one, not even a massive bundle of computational hyperforce, has ever come up with before.  



03 July 2023

There’s no solving the mystery of great mysteries.

Our benevolent overlords here at SleuthSayers, Robert Lopresti and Leigh Lundin, give us wide latitude over the topics we want to focus on. For which I’m very grateful.  But since this is a mystery writing blog, I thought, why not write about mysteries?

I’ve argued long and loudly that mysteries and thrillers are really no different from any other form of literary expression.  And vice versa.  I once asked a reviewer if a general fiction book I was working on could be considered a thriller.  She asked, “Does it have a gun?”  I said yes. “Does it kill somebody?” Yes, a mafia thug.  “Then it’s a thriller.”

And she reviewed it. 

Though to be fair, there are a few guidelines to follow if you want to write within the genre.  First off, you need a mystery.  A puzzle to be solved.  And a protagonist who is launched into solving it - unwillingly, eagerly or professionally.  The book ends with the solution revealed, though it doesn’t have to be clear cut or definitive.  That’s about it.  Everything else is up for grabs. 

Mysteries are also quest stories.  Beginning with the Odyssey, quests are probably the most frequently employed plot convention.  If you’re going to solve a mystery, you have to venture into the world to find clues, analyze evidence, and doggedly canvas the likely participants.  I think it was Ross MacDonald who said mysteries are about detectives driving around in cars and interviewing people.  Essentially, there’s something that needs to be learned, and someone on a mission to discover what it is. 

There are elements of danger for the protagonists – wicked characters who don’t want the mystery solved, or malign bureaucracies who’d rather just let things be.  You don’t have to be Mickey Spillane to clothe your story in a mood of menace and imminent peril.  Usually the challenges are made of misdirection, dishonesty and obfuscation.  So it’s not just a matter of being quicker on the draw, the hero has to have a good analytical mind to navigate through the murky waters and overcome obstacles constantly thrown up by the opposition.

So by definition, mysteries are solved by smart, determined and resourceful people, who have the ability to perceive the psychology of criminal minds, without having to be criminals themselves (though sometimes they are). 

Often the protagonist is the reader herself.  The puzzle is laid out in the unfolding story, and the thrill is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. 

I think Gone Girl is among the most brilliant mysteries of all time, though there’s no intrepid detective central to the story.  You may argue that it’s more a thriller, and thrillers can have no mystery involved at all, the suspense derived from other plot details (the bomb beneath Grand Central is going to blow on New Years Eve!), but those are pure thrillers.  Mystery thrillers need at least the skeleton of a mystery at its core (I’ll refer you to Lee Child). 

What sets mysteries apart is there’s an intellectual component.  A figuring out.  A puzzle, a literary crossword, acrostic, jigsaw, Rubik’s Cube. 

I don’t see these things as restrictions.  In fact, I believe they make for better books, because the writer is forced to have a well-formed plot.  Usually characters are the most engaging features of a good mystery, so the plot doesn’t have to be an intricate brainteaser, but it has to be there, and believable and satisfying once resolved.     

As a genre that encompasses the psychological, historical, hard boiled, sci-fi, romantic, fantastical, Western, closed-room Victorian, and on and on, there’s plenty there to suit everyone’s tastes. 

One of the most appealing features of good mysteries are what I call mini mysteries.  Those ancillary stories embedded in the plot where the protagonist has to solve something that is necessary to move along his/her quest.  (Whose DNA was also there at the murder scene?  The name Joey was on a slip of paper in the victim’s pocket.  Who the hell is Joey?) The reader gets almost the same charge out of solving these incremental steps as the story overall, and they help keep the pace ripping along.  Sometimes these mini mysteries are red herrings, misleading trails.  Sometimes a red herring consumes most of the plot, which is fine.  Near the end of a book, you’re thinking, oh no, if it wasn’t that evil steel-foundry plutocrat who killed the Swedish biology professor, who was it?!

I still maintain that great mysteries are great literature.  And some recognized literary fictions are in fact gripping crime novels (I refer you to The Great Gatsby and The Name of the Rose).  

It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day.  A wonderful book is a wonderful book no matter how it fits into literary taxonomy. 


19 June 2023

The Short Happy Ad Career of Ernest Hemingway.

From Slate Magazine:  “Hemingway had no problem letting (his) familiar visage appear in ads, for which he also wrote the copy. In one he promotes Ballantine Ale: "You have to work hard to deserve to drink it. When something has been taken out of you by strenuous exercise, Ballantine puts it back in." There's one for Pan American Airlines: “We started flying commercially about the same time. They did the flying. I was the passenger." and another for Parker 51, "The World's Most Wanted Pen," to whose ad Hemingway lent his face and a paragraph (presumably in his handwriting) on the horrors of war.”

The man looks at the blank page.  It is the first page of a short story.  But there is nothing on it.  The man doesn’t know what to write.  He wishes he did not have to write anything at all.  But he is a writer.  He is paid to write stories.  And he needs the money.

He needs the money to buy food and Pernod.  That gives him an idea.  He can go to his favorite Parisian café and drink Pernod.  This idea makes him happy. 

At the café he drinks Pernod.  He only drinks two Pernods because he does not have money for a third.  His happiness begins to fade.  He thinks about the short story he cannot write and that makes him even less happy and want to drink more Pernod.  But he has no more money to buy Pernod.

The man looks across the street from the café and sees a poster on the wall.  It is a poster of a beautiful woman telling people to drink Pernod.  He reads the words on the poster.  The words say that Pernod is a drink for women.  Does that mean that the drink is for men who are soft and weak like women?  But the man drinks Pernod and he knows he is a strong man.  He is a brave man.  A genius of a man even after a dozen Pernods. 

Now he is no longer just unhappy.  His happiness has turned into sadness.  It has turned into wretched desolation.  The man knows that the only reason to live is to seek the one true thing.  The thing that tells him he is a man who can flatten Ezra Pound with a single punch, who can knock down Wallace Stevens, even though the Hartford insurance man is much bigger than Ezra Pound.  Wallace Stevens is a much bigger man, but he knows how to make enough money to have a big house in Hartford, Connecticut. 

The man stares into his empty Pernod and realizes he is a genius of a man who now knows how to make money like Wallace Stevens while the short story waits for the one true thing to reveal itself.  The man will write new words for the poster.  He will write better words than Scott Fitzgerald, who tried to write for advertising, but failed.  Fitzgerald is a weak man who falls down after five Pernods and swims in fountains with his wife, who can drink Pernods until the sun rips open the weary, perilous night.

He knows he will write the words that tell the world and the Nobel judges why Pernod is a drink for strong brave genius men.

Now when the man looks at the poster he is happy.     




05 June 2023

Write the next chapter, or install a new mailbox? Hmm.

I always want to be doing anything other than the thing I’m supposed to be doing.  This is the impulse that drives my productivity.  It’s why I have so many irons in the fire, because there’s nothing like a fresh iron to take your mind off the ones already in the forge. 

The problem with working on the thing I’m supposed to be working on is it’s hard.  It’s hard because people are usually waiting for it to be finished by a certain deadline.   It’s much easier to be working on something no one is waiting for, because no one but you knows it’s being worked on.  These projects are always my favorites.  They’re only between me and my anonymous impulses.  Since I always feel compelled to write stuff, this is a happy state.  I get to do what I want with no danger of pressure or reproach. 

I think most writers are the same way.  Procrastination yields tremendous results.  There’s nothing like a short story deadline to get a person out there in the garden transplanting shrubbery, or calling up neglected relatives to learn how they’re doing, even if the response is to wonder why the hell you’re calling them in the first place. 

The urge to procrastinate is behind all my re-writing.  I tell myself I can’t possibly write anything fresh, but I can always invest screen time going over existing material.  The result is very useful rejiggering, which often stumbles into fresh composition, despite myself. 

I don’t fear the blank page.  In fact, I like it.   What I fear is hard work, which original writing always is.  I know I can do it, since so far I always have, though that doesn’t mean I don’t resist launching the effort.  I feel the same way about preparing my taxes or hauling out the trash.  All past evidence proves I can do these tasks, and when I’m done, will feel richly satisfied.    But getting started is a drag.  And since I’m an inherently energetic person, I look for something else to do instead, like study the Ming dynasty or repaint the living room.  

I’ve published 18 books so far and written about 22.  Not to mention all those short stories and essays.  And written countless lines of commercial copy.  Enough writing to have cleared a few acres of Southern pine and done some damage to my elbows and carpel tunnels.  But I marvel at people like Isaac Asimov, who would wake up in the morning and just write all day long, rolling his chair from typewriter to typewriter writing several books, or scientific papers, simultaneously.  Did his fingers ever get tired?   The late, great Donald Bain published 125 books.  How many more did he actually write?  How did he keep his elbows going?  

Did Asimov, Bain, and that other freak of productivity, Stephen King, feel drawn to write because they were avoiding something else they thought they should be doing?  Origami?  Cleaning out the garage?  Learning French?

All the best writing advice says you should sit down in front of the keyboard every day for a subscribed amount of time and write something.  I never do this.  My subscribed amount of time appears willy-nilly, often when I’m avoiding doing something else I really should be doing.  Suddenly, there I am, sitting down in front of the keyboard.  This could happen at any time day or night, any day of the week.  As it constantly does.

Now that I’m done writing this, I’ll go split the wood that’s been calling to me.

22 May 2023

Writing is thinking.

 My wife said to me around the time we first met, “Writing is thinking.”  That’s an excellent notion, I thought at the time, though I didn’t write it down.  I could argue, and I shall for the purpose of this discussion, that much of writing begins with feelings.  These are forms of thought without language.  They are randomly firing neurons, unclarified emotions, mood swings, inchoate brain scramble, that compel one to make sense of it all if you’re so inclined.

And if you are, you may sit down and try to turn these inarticulate surges inside the mind into words on the page.  You may ask yourself, what am I thinking, presuming that those feelings are indeed embryonic thoughts?   But if it goes well, you can begin to stumble around trying to apply words to these impulses, leading to sentences, then paragraphs, then pages and chapters, etc. 

With luck and effort, something akin to discourse, or fiction, will emerge. 

There are theories of quantum mechanics that maintain that the properties of sub-atomic particles only behave in an orderly, predictable way when observed.  That the observer enforces a certain type of logic and reason upon the physical world.  

Could it be that the act of observing ones feelings brings order to otherwise incoherent urges, which then, upon the application of language, reveal their inner nature?

Beats me, but it’s nice to think so. 

Every writer reports there are times when the writing seems to be writing itself, that the person behind the keyboard is merely the delivery system, with no agency over the outcome.  If you believe that feelings are proto thoughts, then perhaps the act of assembling words into sentences actually organizes the chaos into coherence.  Some believe this process of constructing intelligible meaning out of the mental agitator inside our minds is what separates us from animals, even smart ones.  (I’m not so sure, having a terrier who knows the difference between  “Want to go for a ride?” and “Go get your toy!”) 

Another mystery of composition is when a writer discovers something about their story in the process of the writing.  Something they never thought of suddenly appears on the page, and it makes sense, often solving a hitch in the works.  My wife once asked me why I was so feverishly writing the end of a book, and I told her, “I want to know how this thing turns out.”

The number of possible connections between brain cells is so staggeringly immense, it’s not surprising that revelation can seemingly pop out of the blue.  It used to be called divine intervention, back when divinity played a more active role in our understanding of the universe.  

Today, brain science would assert that it’s merely the interaction between the subconscious and conscious mind that allows for this reordering of feelings and impressions into serviceable language.  Not a very romantic notion, I admit.  Divine intervention, or the spark of spontaneous genius seems much more satisfying, less clinical, more fun.  But I think the likely result of our churning, surprising mental functions to be exciting enough.  To my mind, science is a lot more awe inspiring than any mythological narrative could ever be.

I’m a fine woodworker, and much of the process involves beginning with an imagined object. 

From there, you try to render it in two-dimensional space, with a drawing (I still use a pencil, architectural scale ruler and graph paper).  It’s the first proof-of-concept.  If you can’t draw it, you can’t build it.  The next step is usually a prototype – a physical, 3D rendering of the drawing.  As the process progresses, you move gradually from the abstract to the concrete, something you can hold and measure in actual space and time.  If the prototype works, you’re good to go.  Next step is bringing the actual thing to fruition. 

I believe that writing is exactly the same process.  That’s why, to me, a house is a novel.  Kitchen cabinets a book of short stories.  A turned spindle a poem. 

By the way, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle could throw a pretty big wrench in the above assumptions, but that’ll have to wait for another essay. 



08 May 2023

Bottoms Up

We’re often asked which politician we’d like to go have a beer with.  But what about writers?  Luckily, I know a lot of writers and they would all gladly have a beer with almost anyone.  Or maybe a bourbon on the rocks or a little white wine. 

If I got my pick from history, I’d definitely avoid Hemingway, who’d challenge me to a boxing match after the 11th Pernod.  Shakespeare might be entertaining if you could understand what the hell he was saying.  Dorothy Parker, for sure, along with the whole Algonquin crowd.  I’d pretend I was mute to avoid saying the one stupid thing ever uttered in the Oak Room.

I’d not only have a beer with PJ O’Rourke, I’d buy.  And keep buying as long as he could still conjure those genius wisecracks.  I actually had a drink with Tom Bodette, and he was as funny as, well, PJ O’Rourke.  I pounded a night of scotches with William Styron, and he wasn’t the least bit funny, from what I remember, which isn’t much.  He did stare into his drink a lot and say things like, “Sometimes my words remind me of little crippled children.”  Speaking of scotch, I witnessed Christopher Hitchens down at least a liter of the stuff and never once lose command of his perfect word choice and enunciation.  He spoke as he wrote, in exquisitely rendered, complete sentences.  Churchill could exhibit the same Olympian capacity and refined eloquence.  Must be something about the English liver. 

I studied early to mid-20th century American literature.  Some of those folks won the Nobel prize and virtually all of them were alcoholics.  My scholarship revealed that the more they drank, the worst their writing became, career ruin frequently following.  So I’d pass on any of their offers to go have a beer, not wanting to aid in the corruption of American letters.

F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t hold his liquor, so no fun at all, despite the reputation.  Not so Zelda, who not only swam in fountains, but could consume their average volume in a single evening.  We don’t know much about the drinking habits of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, though enough booze was consumed in their flat at 27 rue de Fleurus to refloat the Titanic.  She did famously complain that her designated Lost Generation drank themselves to death, and she wasn’t much wrong, though luckily the prophecy took a while to be fully consumated.   

While we’re discussing female novelists, who wouldn’t want to have a drink with Patricia Highsmith?  Or Anaïs Nin?  I would likely have to get to the bar first to fortify myself, since sitting across from that much dark brilliance might make the Algonquin Round Table feel like a cub scout retreat.

Though not if Anaïs brought along Henry Miller, whose loony, irreverent poetics could lift the London fog and polish the streets of the Rive Gauche into bijoux scintillants.  I’d have to buy this time as well, since Henry was always broke, though rarely as broke as Jack Kerouac.  He’s another important American writer who had a few beers too many, but if you caught him in the early days with Neal Cassidy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder it would count as a life transformer, if your head didn’t explode from the gush of frantic, bebop exposition.

I never had a drink with Tom Wolfe, though we once spent a nice long stretch in a green room (I think Diet Coke was the available beverage.)  He was pretty old at this point, but as sweet and kindly a person as could be, the soft Virginia accent still gracing his inflections.  And quite the dresser, if you fancy mostly white with a light blue shirt and white cane (his all-white Cadillac, with white hubcaps, was out in the parking lot.) 

Since writers spend so much time locked up in quiet rooms by themselves, you wouldn’t think they’d be such good company, but they usually are.  They tend to know a lot of things you'd never even think about.  And they spend many of those hours in quiet rooms mulling things over, trying to get something to make sense on the written page.  If you’re lucky, they’ll hash it out over that beer, or vodka on the rocks.   

In fact, I’d rather hang with writers than all the politicians in all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world.