- In your next incarnation, be born in Colombia, or anywhere that the beliefs of a traditional culture clash with those of western rationalism.
- Work as a journalist. Learn the importance of close observation. Learn how everything has political causes and repercussions. Understand that however extravagantly unique an individual may seem to be, he is as typical of his society as an animal is of its herd.
- Steep yourself in great literature: the Greek tragedians, for their belief in the implacability of fate; the great North Americans, especially Faulkner and Hemingway, for their disciplined, tightly-controlled storytelling; and the modernist masters like Joyce and Woolf, for their streams-of-consciousness and lyricism.
- Forget everything you’ve ever heard about how to write fiction. Tell, don’t show.
The Writer as Superman or Superwoman
Naturally I also admire artists and writers who are unexceptional at anything but their art. Nevertheless, the lives of people who do nothing but write or paint or make music, often seem barren or bleak. Who would want to live Kafka’s life, or Woolf’s, or Joyce’s? I have long been fascinated by multi-faceted geniuses like Leonardo, Michelangelo or Goethe, and those who performed great physical feats. Heroes live full lives. And by ‘heroes’ I don’t mean that we must approve of everything they did. But it’s useful to reflect on those artists who live on a grander scale, who consciously or unconsciously try to live as supermen or superwomen.
6/4/16 – YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN: VISITING WRITERS’ HOMES
Touring Thomas Wolfe’s childhood home in Asheville, NC recently, I saw, like many others before me, how his childhood translated into his novels. I also saw how growing up here had in many ways been perfect soil for a budding writer.
A kid separated from his siblings to grow up in a boardinghouse, share bedrooms with guests, and help his enterprising mama serve up stews would have plenty of material to ponder, and time to ponder it. Having a maverick but grief-stricken mother and the temper and passion of his father on hand didn’t hurt either. I wondered whether I might find equally conductive conditions in the childhood homes of other writers.
4/26/16 — A Philosopher on Writing
One of my favourite philosophers, Schopenhauer is especially interesting for writers because he has a cogent Aesthetics and addresses writing specifically, which few other philosophers do. For instance, he declares that there are three kinds of author. The first are those who write without thinking; this is the largest group. Who can doubt this, even among writers of so-called literary fiction? Most tell stories merely for the sake of it, so as to “express themselves.” The second group consists of those who think while writing, in order to write. These too are common, according to him. Lastly, there are those authors who think before writing, and write because they have thought. Rare, says Schopenhauer.
9/26/15 – Tell, Don’t Show
Show, don’t tell is such an axiom of creative writing programs, and indeed of advice given to writers in general, that it is rarely questioned. The most recent author to visit the university program where I teach, for example, gave this advice to our students—and of course it’s sound, especially for the beginning writer, who is much more likely to err on the wrong side, of summary and exposition, including so few scenes that the writing remains dull. No less a master of fiction than Joseph Conrad said that the novelist’s task was to make the reader see, and who can doubt that that entails writing dramatic scenes most of the time? All the same, I have been pondering this question a good deal lately, and would like to share my reflections on why “show, don’t tell” has become such an unchallenged axiom—indeed an almost sacred Commandment—particularly in the United States, and what interesting alternatives to this strategy there might be.
3/26/15 IN PRAISE OF WOMEN OF GENIUS After my last essay, “On Talent and Genius”, whose examples of genius were mostly or—ahem—entirely male, one of my readers archly asked if I might be biased, even subconsciously. Of course one can affirm confidently that one is not biased consciously, but the charge of subconscious bias is unanswerable. The only way I could disprove it is by taking a psychological test. (And even then…) However, I do have a couple of responses to the accusation: first, my examples were male not because I believe that no women of genius could have been exercising those arts, but that in fact few did, until quite recently, because of societal pressures.