Here is some good advice, but be sure to read the entire article. “Suddenly Jamie” is not advocating boozing as a means of opening the doors of perception (as the Beat Generation and others tried long ago), but attaining a certain mindset, a certain perspective, without altering the senses chemically.
Personally, I have tried writing while drinking, and for me it doesn’t work. I can’t focus on ideas for very long. My coordination is off making typing impossible. My handwriting (my first drafts and initial ideas are usually by hand) becomes increasingly sloppy. And I soon fall asleep. I do get ideas, but I can manage little more than to jot them down on a cocktail napkin.
For me, writing requires clarity of mind and I do my best work while sitting in a coffee shop in a hard chair at a table while drinking black coffee or soda or iced black tea and writing in a notebook. Sometimes, I write well, as today, on my laptop at home with the TV off, but sometimes I become distracted or my mind wanders. Sometimes, not as often as I should though, I take some time to simply contemplate where I want to take a story and go smoke a pipe of good tobacco under the tree in my front yard or at the picnic table in the back, depending on where the shade is best. Those places and non-alcoholic beverages I find help my mindset, but coffee shops (like at the Barnes and Noble in Midland, TX, or at the now defunct Hastings in Farmington, NM) tend to be my favorites. Anyway, I digress. I will let you get on with the article.
Source: Write Drunk. Edit Sober.
The primary influences on my writing have always been Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Based on what I have read, neither was a fan of metaphors. Somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to recall Hemingway once calling metaphors “the weakest of animals” or “the “weakest of literary devices” or something like that (I have searched for this quote and haven’t found it yet). Ergo, I have always shied away from metaphors and I have found that it has helped my writing immensely by forcing me to be creative in my comparisons and analogies. While searching in vain for Hemingway’s quotation on metaphors tonight, I ran across this quotation from George Orwell which makes a few good points:
“By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash [sic] … it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.”
Metaphors are a bridge to another idea; they take the reader onto a tangent. If I say, “The hunter stumbled through the woods like a wounded bear,” I am shifting the reader’s visual image from that of the hunter to that of a bear. Yes, I give the reader a concise description of how the hunter was stumbling, and the reader can probably visualize the stumbling rather accurately, but wouldn’t the reader become more involved with the hunter and be able to visualize the scene more precisely if the hunter is described as if he were a wounded bear stumbling. Wouldn’t it also be a bit more of an intriguing psychological puzzle for the reader to solve and come to his own sudden epiphany of something like “Oh, he’s moving like a wounded bear!” For example:
The hunter, half-dazed from a blow to the head, his dark eyes fixed on some point on the dim horizon, staggered back and forth, bumping into trees, sometimes leaning against them to keep from collapsing into the hard-packed snow, dropping to one knee then rising slowly, painfully catching his breath, limping, often groaning, sometimes bellowing out in a desperate hope that someone passing through the distant shadows might come to his aid.
Isn’t that more dramatic? Doesn’t that involve the reader more into the actions and situation of the main character? Yes, it’s considerably longer, but now the reader can visualize precisely the hunter’s agonizing movements. Now, instead of having to visualize a bear, all attention is focused entirely on visualizing the hunter. Now you are forced to be creative, to use something other than Orwell’s “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” and have to use something more dynamic. No one can accuse you of not really thinking or of being lazy in your descriptions.
In short, if I want to compare two objects, I describe one using the characteristics and attributes of the other. If I have done it well, the reader will see the likeness between the two, but will still remained focused, and maybe even more intensely, on the subject.
I have used this method for some time now, and I believe it has strengthened my works considerably.
For more on this method of describing objects, see my article on the Tao of Writing Part 3: Talking about Dogs.
A thought occurred to me tonight as I was watching another episode of the X-Files. I was “reading between the lines” of a dialog between Scully and Mulder, when it dawned on me that part of the art of writing is to write between the lines, i.e. to construct a dialog so that the reader will be able to read between the lines what you want him/her to read. I always think of Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” when I think about talking around something or reading between the lines, because is the classic example. One of my earlier posts, “Talking about Dogs” is on this same subject, when I say that part of the art of writing is like talking about a dog, without using the word “dog”. Anyway, that’s my thought for the night.
There is a story that Ernest Hemingway wrote the following to win a bet with other writers that he could write the shortest story:
“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”
Even a little research on the Internet shows that there is considerable doubt that Hemingway wrote this story, with the earliest reference to it as a Hemingway work not appearing until 1991. There is also considerable evidence that the story existed in various forms as early as 1910, when Hemingway was 11 and well before his writing career began. Whatever the facts, it is an extreme example of the lean, muscular writing for which Hemingway was famous.
In an interview with The Paris Review (see The Writer’s Chapbook, 1989, pp. 120-121), Hemingway did say:
“If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story…First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.”
So “Baby Shoes” is a good example of Hemingway’s iceberg principle, even if he didn’t write it.
“Baby Shoes” is also a good example of what I like to think of as the Tao of writing (see my earlier posts): creating a story by a careful, strategic use of what is not said. No where in the story does it state that a couple had apparently been expecting a baby, that they bought shoes for it, but then something happened to the baby to cause its death, and now the parents want to sell the shoes. None of that is stated. It is all implied, but yet we know what happened–or at least we have a good idea of what happened, even if we do not know the concrete facts of the matter.
There are also other facets of the story that we can infer, albeit tenuously. From the fact that they bought baby shoes we can infer that the parents were probably eager to have the child. From the fact that the parents want to sell the shoes we can infer that they probably don’t want them around any more as a remainder of a painful experience, but at the same time they may want to see someone else make good use of them or that they are hard up for money.
But one question I have that concerns human psychology is why is it that most people can read these same six words and come away with the same perception of what occurred? Does it have to do with Jungian Archetypes floating around in each of us or is it that each of us has had the same broad experience(s) so that we can interpret these six words in a very similar way?
In the art of sculpture, those areas of a work that are empty, yet give the work its form, are called “negative space”. An example is the space between each of your fingers. If there were no space, there would be no individual fingers. In that sense, a story like “Baby Shoes” makes maximum use of what might be termed “literary negative space”.
It is not really the words that give this story its power, but how we psychologically connect the ideas behind the words that fuel this extremely brief, but epic and poignant tale.
This is part of the magic of writing: conjuring worlds out of nothing.
I was in the Farmington public library yesterday trying to pull together some ideas for a story, but I could not concentrate long enough to formulate many good thoughts, because I felt more in a mood to receive information rather than to transmit.
Within the last few days I have started reading a collection of Lovecraft stories entitled The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death (an excellent work; read it if you get the chance), edited by Neil Gaiman. While wandering through the stacks, I pulled out a copy of Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 and took it back to my seat. I had started reading it several years ago, but never finished it. I thought I would review it and maybe start on it again soon. As I read it, I noticed an interesting difference between King’s style and Lovecraft’s. Lovecraft gives a lot more of the backstory of a work in a few pages than King does.
As it so happens, I had also passed by the John Updike section a little earlier in the library and I have a few of his novels, which I have never read. I went back and picked up his Rabbit, Run for comparison. I thought about the differences between these three and a couple of other famous writers and came up with what I consider to be an interesting observation (though it might bore those of you who are more advanced in the craft of writing than I am): it is fascinating to see how much information about a work’s backstory or the larger setting of a story an author can put in the first 2-3 pages or so of a work. For what it’s worth, here are my initial subjective impressions of the five writers under consideration yesterday.
In the first few pages of Rabbit, Run Updike details how Rabbit Angstrom happens to walk upon a basketball game among six kids in an alleyway (circa 1960). He watches and then joins the game, and impresses them with his basketball prowess, having been a high school basketball star about 8-9 years earlier. He then goes home to where his wife is contemplating cooking dinner. Updike takes us through this step by step and we don’t learn a lot other than Rabbit was a basketball star in high school several years back and at 26 he has a middle class life now with a job for which he wears a suit to work. I know that Updike is a very respected writer with two Pulitzers to his credit, but this story gets off to a very slow start for me and I learn very little about Rabbit Angstrom in the opening pages. There is also very little emotional pull in these opening pages to draw me into the story.
In the opening chapter of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway describes the scene from the window of an Italian house used as a hospital as troops pass en route to the Austrian front over the course of about a year. He also describes how the leaves fall from a nearby tree and how the dust during the summers turns everything bone white, both of which (to me) symbolize the deaths of myriad troops on the front. In maybe 2-3 pages, Hemingway not only gives us the overall setting of being at the Italo-Austrian front, he also draws us in with considerable emotional impact of the tragedy of the watching thousands of weary troops slogging through rain and mud or trudging through dust and heat on their way to their deaths.
In Quiet Flows the Don (1940), Soviet author Mikhail Sholokhov (winner of the 1965 Nobel prize for literature) describes the lives of Don Cossacks from before the First World War up to the Russian Revolution. In its first few pages, Sholokhov describes life in a village of Cossacks, describes the relationship between father and son, shows how the son is having an affair with another Cossack’s wife, and shows the history and underlying peccadilloes of the family back for circa 200 years. While his style is non-emotional, one cannot help but to feel for the family and to be drawn into the story. It is a hard book to put down.
In From a Buick 8, Stephen King tells the story of a mysterious car that is kept in storage at a Pennsylvania State Troopers’ post. In his first few pages, King describes the main characters and how they interrelate and how they all fit into the world of that post. King makes the reader feel as if he were seeing the post from the perspective from one of its members. You know the same things about all the members of that tight-knit community as if you were one of them. Though the opening is not on the grand scale of A Farewell to Arms or Quiet Flows the Don, one feels the story on a much more intimate level while on a larger scale than in Rabbit, Run. In the opening pages of From a Buick 8, King makes the reader feel as if he were part of a small community, while Sholokhov makes the reader feel as if he were part of a village, and Hemingway makes the reader feel a part of an entire battle front.
Dreams of Terror and Death is a collection of short stories, but in it the unfinished tale “The Descendant” stands out as an example of Lovecraft’s ability to an enormous backstory/setting into a few pages. In these few pages, Lovecraft describes how a young man brings a copy of the dread Necronomicon to an aging scholar and how the scholar begins to relate the history of a millennia-old castle on the Yorkshire coast that hides the entrance to the elder world. The story, even in its few pages touches on black magic; ancient, forgotten civilizations; other dimensions; and probably a dozen other mysterious subjects that instill the sort of eerie curiosity into a reader that compels a person into the black recesses of an unexplored cave. You sense something dangerous is lurking just out of sight, but you cannot contain the urge to find out what it is.
The instilling of this eerie curiosity that keeps one on the edge of the movie theater seat or turning the pages of the novel is a hallmark of all good horror and of all good horror writers.
As I was driving about town today, I started reflecting on the difference between mainstream, so-to-speak literary fiction and speculative fiction (usually defined as consisting of the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror genres). I recall reading somewhere, years ago, in the submissions guidelines for a mainstream fiction magazine, that mainstream fiction consisted of whatever did not fit into a genre. Then, I considered that accurate and reasonable; now I consider it somewhat snobbish. In fact, the more I think about it, the more short-sighted and narrow-minded that statement becomes.
Speculative fiction, including the horror genre, deals with fantastic, often surreal, situations. Mainstream fiction, if you go by the definition above, deals with anything not fantastic, not surreal, i.e. the real, events that could happen in the real world. It would seem to me that the truly gifted writer would be the one with the greater imagination, the one who can conjure entire civilizations and fantastic creatures out of his mind alone. My favorite authors for many years have been, and continue to be, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, based on their styles and how their stories can touch me. However, if had to state who had the greatest imagination out of the history of writers, Tolkien would be at the top, simply because he was able to create an entire world out of his imagination (granted most of the ideas were based in Nordic mythology) and make it and his characters believeable. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos would be a close second.
Reading the guidelines of horror publications, I find that many of them do not want werewolf/vampire/zombie (w/v/z)stories. They want something different, original. That is a difficult challenge. I could dream up w/v/z stories all day long, but creating something out of thin air, like Stephen King or Clive Barker does, and to do it consistenly, is truly admirable. I have written one or two stories along the w/v/z line, but now I am taking up the challenge of writing something truly imaginative. I have no good ideas just yet, but I am examining how horror authors of the past came up with ideas and what were their inspirations.
So now here is a question of the night: if you are trying to write material outside the w/v/z tradition, how are you coming up with ideas? Have you put any new slant on horror? Do your inspirations come from dreams or from looking at real-world object and then allowing yourself to explore the possibities if something about that scene was just a little bit different?
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:..” Ecclesiastes 3:1 (New International Version)
So when is the right time for profanity in literature? I have my beliefs, but I thought it would be interesting in finding some quotations from more respected writers (and entertainers) other than myself, so I went quote-shopping through BrainyQuotes.com and Goodreads.com.
“Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” –Mark Twain
“I’ve tried to reduce profanity but I reduced so much profanity when writing the book that I’m afraid not much could come out. Perhaps we will have to consider it simply as a profane book and hope that the next book will be less profane or perhaps more sacred.” –Ernest Hemingway
“There was certainly less profanity in the Godfather than in the Sopranos. There was a kind of respect. It’s not that I totally agreed with it, but it was a great piece of art.” –Danny Aiello
“profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus
“Never use a big word when a little filthy one will do.” ― Johnny Carson
“What I’m saying might be profane, but it’s also profound.” ― Richard Pryor, Pryor Convictions: and Other Life Sentences
All make excellent points.
My personal belief is best summarized by Ecclesiastes 3:1 above, with the following addenda:
- A word is either the expression of an idea or of an emotion and should be used accordingly. Profanity is therefore the expression of profane ideas or of intense emotions and should be used accordingly.
- Profanity is by nature shocking to most of the general public. If used too frequently, it loses its effect and becomes tiresome. I have known people who have used profanity to excess and although they shock and offend on first meeting, they quickly become tiresome and annoying and their limited vocabulary quickly shows their narrow intellect (with few exceptions–I have heard some respected authors have had colorful vocabularies). Thus profanity is useful as a literary device only if it is used to show a person of that low character or to indicate irony. An example of the latter would be a person who is superficially of low character, but on closer examination is more profound and intelligent than expected–there are a few people like that. If profanity is to retain its shock value within a story, its use must be limited (the more limited the better), otherwise the story becomes tiresome and annoying.
- Vonnegut makes an excellent point above. The more profanity one uses in a story, the less readers one will have–for whatever reason. This parallels Stephen Hawking’s experience as a writer. In the introduction of A Brief History of Time, Hawking says that someone told him that for every number used in a book, he would lose one reader. Therefore, in A Brief History of Time Hawking uses only one number in describing one of the most profound and complex scientific theories of history. An example from cinema would be the single profanity used in Gone with the Wind. That profanity was used at a critical moment and because it expressed so much at the right time, it was memorable and powerful. That moment would have lost much of its impact, if the movie had been as laced with profanity as Pulp Fiction (admittedly, I am a big fan of Pulp Fiction). For those reasons, I believe profanity in literature should be kept to an absolute minimum.
- When used, profanity should have a definite purpose: to say something about a character, their emotional state, their state of mind, or their environment (e.g. in my story “A Tale of Hell”, the main character has problems with intense anger and actually ends up in hell. Profanity is part of his character on earth and part of his surroundings in hell, where, understandably, it would be constant and ubiquitous.
- Profanity has only been commonly accepted in literature since the early Twentieth Century at best. Probably the foremost example of this would be Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which was first published in France in 1934, but which was banned in the U.S. Its publication by Grove Press in 1961 led to a series of obscenity trials ending in the Supreme Court finally declaring it non-obscene in 1964. Many, if not most, of the recognized masters of the horror genre wrote around or prior to 1934 and never used a single profanity, e.g. Lovecraft, Poe, Machen, Lord Dunsany, M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, et cetera. Profanity is not necessary to achieve a horrifying effect. In fact, it becomes more of an artistic challenge to write something horrifying without profanity. Shock may be part of horror, but horror is much more than shock.
The upshot of all this for the contemporary writer is that, like everything else, profanity has its place, but its use must be balanced against what the author wishes to achieve while bearing in mind that its careless overuse can severely damage the reader’s experience and taint that reader’s perception of the author.
Some time back I was writing a story, thinking about how to be more mysterious in my writing, how to be less direct, yet provide more details in my narrative, when it occurred to me that (probably because I am a “dog person”) writing is often like talking about a dog without saying that you are talking about a dog.
Often, I have an idea or a feeling that I want to express, but if I try to express it directly and concisely, the reader will probably not apprehend the nuances I see in the idea. At the same time, much of the enjoyment in reading is trying to perceive the meaning behind the author’s words while experiencing the world of the work’s narrator vicariously. Therefore, as a writer, I want to get my ideas across without being so direct that the reader loses much of the fun of reading. For example, look at the first chapter of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway was known for his lean, muscular style, so you know he isn’t going to use any more words than necessary to express his ideas.
In the first chapter, he describes soldiers marching off to the front over the course of several months as he views them from a nearby house. As he watches the soldiers, the leaves fall from the trees, the vineyards dry up, the mountains turn brown and bare, and the dust the soldiers kick up turn everything bare and white–the color of bone. All these hint at death. Hemingway could have said simply, “Frederic Henry [the main character] watched the soldiers march off to their deaths”, but the reader would have lost the experience of living that time with Frederic and he would have lost sharing Frederic’s experience of witnessing an event and puzzling out its greater meaning for himself. All the artistic beauty of that chapter would have been lost.
I recall reading somewhere several years ago this idea described as the principle of contraction and expansion. That is no doubt true. Yet, to describe it so unemotionally as “contraction and expansion” seems aesthetically too clinical, too sterile, too confining a term for an idea concerning the breadth and depth of literary intellectual and emotional perception.
I think I prefer to think of this idea in terms of a dog, a living, breathing being full of warmth, love, loyalty, joy, anger, fear, tenderness, intelligence, stupidity, pain, and all the other abstract qualities sentient creatures have. Yes, I can simply say “dog” and hope my readers see all the nuances of a dog’s existence that I do, but they might not and I would be depriving them of the experience of sharing my perception and all the intimated nuances and emotions that come with it. So sometimes it is best just to describe the nuances of a dog’s life and let my readers enjoy drawing their own conclusions and along with these conclusions enjoy the subsequent discussions and debates among them as to who was right, who was wrong, who knew what he was talking about, who did not, and so on.
There are times when it is necessary to be concise, to pick a single word you hope is as pregnant with meaning for the reader as it is for you, but those times must be balanced against the times when the reader needs to experience an event and all its nuances. The writer, as artist, must decide how to balance out those moments. The writer strives to achieve a balance of ideas and perceptions. Balance is part of the art of writing. Balance is part of the Tao of writing.
Sometimes it is best to simply say “dog.” At other times it is best to talk about a dog without actually saying that you are talking about a dog.
Once in a while, I come across some gem of the writer’s art that almost strikes me breathless with its beauty. The poems of John Donne are one example. The poignant first chapter of A Farewell to Arms is another. Recently, I began reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and every time I pick it up, I am nearly struck breathless with his simple, understated eloquence that touches one’s very core. Today I read a post at winebbler.wordpress.com and her simple, fun voice and flowing, relaxed style combined with playful use of the English language made for very entertaining and enjoyable reading beneath which I thought I could sense an undercurrent of growing artistic beauty.
That article made me start to think about what makes a work of writing aesthetically beautiful. After some thought, I reached the conclusion that every work of literary beauty has the same qualities as a powerful but smoothly flowing mountain stream: clarity, power, and an uninterrupted flow. But unlike a stream, a work of literary beauty must also be reasonably brief.
In every literary work I consider beautiful, the first universal characteristic that comes to mind is that the author uses a simple voice comprising simple, everyday words that anyone can understand. Writing is communication. Communication is one person disseminating ideas to others by using words, which are collections of sounds representing ideas. By using simple words everyone understands easily, the writer makes his ideas easier to disseminate. Why use a word that few can understand, when you can use a simpler word with the same meaning that everyone can understand? Therefore, our stream must be crystal clear and free of mud or anything that would hinder insight and perception.
If ideas equate to the water in our allegorical mountain stream, the precision of the component ideas, the words, give the stream its force. As I mentioned in my post “Slattery’s Tao of Writing, Part I”, words chosen for their precise meanings have power. As I said earlier in this article, words are ideas. Precise words are precise ideas. Precise ideas are powerful ideas, powerful emotionally and intellectually. Like all other forces in the universe, powerful ideas become more powerful if combined and organized with one idea leading logically, flowingly to the next. This facilitates understanding and the reading experience.
When my stream of thought is uninterrupted and powerful, I become immersed in the work. I can be swept away and can lose track of time and of everything happening around me. To my mind, every writer should aspire to instill this experience into his readers. When this happens, the writer has made an emotional and intellectual connection with his reader and the reader is grasping the writer’s ideas.
If organization is lacking, ideas are scattered like boulders in the stream and on the banks, creating rapids and breaking up the smooth flow. A powerful, disorganized stream is a torrent, destructive of everything along its banks, stiking out at random, benefiting no one. In communication, disorganization is the source of misunderstanding, the antithesis of understanding. The stream becomes destructive.
If a writer uses words his readers do not understand and they have to turn to a dictionary to find out what the writer intends, the clarity of the ideas is lost and the reading experience is muddied. Furthermore, the reading experience flows even less smoothly. Even if the reader can reason out the meanings of the words from the context, the stream of thought is still disrupted and muddied, even if to a lesser degree. The words will also lose much of their power, because the reader cannot appreciate the nuances of what he or she does not fully understand.
Lastly, every beautiful work has been reasonably brief. Reading anything exasperatingly long becomes tiresome for everyone. When readers become weary (word-weary so to speak), they can lose focus on what the writer is trying to communicate. This detracts from the reading experience just as if someone who enjoys swimming in a mountain stream can no longer enjoy their swim if they become overly fatigued with exertion.
That said, I will now close tonight’s blog before I wear you out with my ramblings.
A quick Google search reveals there are a lot of web articles entitled “The Tao of Writing”. This is mine. Let me begin by explaining what I perceive to be the Tao (others may view it differently and have equally valid perceptions).
The Chinese character above translates as Tao, the way, and is pronounced as “dow”, as in “The Dow-Jones Industrial Average”. Taoism is an ancient Chinese religion rooted in the teachings of the legenday Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (sometimes transliterated as “Lao Tze” or in a number of other ways) as expressed in his book, the Tao Teh Ching (The Book of the Way). The Taoist religion, as I understand it, is far removed from Lao Tzu’s original philosophy, because the religion incorporates demons, gods, demigods, spirits, and other things that are not mentioned in the Tao Teh Ching or in the teachings of the original masters such as Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, or the Huainan Masters (at least in the translations I have read).
What the Tao is, is hard to express. “The Way”, as I understand it, refers to the the way of the universe, basically how the universe works in a general sense. In the American vernacular, we would probably express it as “the way things are”. Some reader might respond to that as, “Sure. I understand. You’re saying the Tao is why toast always falls buttered side down. Gotcha.”
No, I am talking about something a bit more profound. It’s more like this:
You work hard at trying to find a publisher for a story and are consistently rejected by what you perceived to be all the most suitable choices. So, one night when you are battling insomnia and have just started the first glass of your second bottle of wine, out of frustration you send it off as a shot in the dark to some big name magazine who will never accept it, and lo and behold it is accepted. So, sometimes it seems that you work your butt off for something and get nowhere, but you give up trying and you succeed. Basically, the Tao is then like learning the way the universe works, then learning to succeed by adapting to that way. Confused yet? Have I oversimplified my point or have I made it overly complex?
Understanding how the Tao works is not something anyone can express in words; it is something one can understand only subjectively, i.e., one must have a feel for it. In fact, the first sentence of the Tao Teh Ching is “The Way that can be spoken is not the true Way.” For most people, reading the Tao Teh Ching will probably be an exercise in confusion and frustration and contradiction. In the Tao Teh Ching, nothing is exact; everything is metaphor and allusion, about how water flows into a valley and then the sea, how wood is shaped, the balance of the universe, and so on.
To complicate matters even more, because the Tao Teh Ching was written in Chinese about 2,500 years ago, and the translation of the original Chinese characters may have changed significantly since then, translation of the Tao Teh Ching into modern languages is frustratingly imprecise, often relying on traditional or customary translations as opposed to knowing exactly what Lao Tzu was saying. For today’s modern, exact, Socratic-tradition-based society, this is maddening. Our scholars argue about the meanings of works written in modern English, how are they going to agree on something as nebulous as the Tao Teh Ching?
So, what are the important ponts of the Tao that everyone should remember?
As I perceive the Tao, one critical aspect of existence is balance; the universe consists of opposites that must balance out or problems arise. At the same time, all existence arises from the conflict of opposites. An example of this is the old Zen Buddhist rhetorical question of “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” I do not know the official or traditional answer to this, but from my Taoist perception, the answer is that there is no sound. The sound of clapping is produced only when the opposing forces of the hands meet. Thus it is with everything in the universe. Two opposites have to come together to produce anything: light and dark, man and woman, left and right, up and down, hot and cold, etc.
Another critical aspect of existence is that emptiness can be as important as substance and non-action can be as important as action. There are other aspects, of course, but I will stick to these for now and address those at a later date.
Take a look at your hand for an example of the first principle. If there were no spaces between your fingers, you would not have a hand, you would have something else, maybe a flipper. Likewise, a sculptor can create a sculpture only by cutting away pieces of material so that the now-empty spaces create a form. So a sculpture, or any object for that matter, comprises both substance and emptiness.
For an example of the non-action versus action principle, think about problems you faced in the past. Could you have solved any of them by simply doing nothing? Not every problem can be solved by doing nothing, but some can.
These principles are symbolized by what is know in our society as the Yin-Yang as shown here:
In the yin-yang, as I perceive it, the eternal circle of the universe is formed by the interaction of opposites, here symbolized by light and dark, but while they are opposites, a little of each exists in the other.
For a very short book, the Tao Teh Ching is filled with incredible depth and meaning. For me, in the few translations I have read, the Tao makes perfect sense, and I understand the world a little better each time I read it. However, others may read it and just be confused or frustrated. The Tao Teh Ching is something that will either speak to you personally and enlighten your world, or it will not.
But what has all this to do with writing?
I see the Tao at work whenever I write anything. I see it in what I consider to be some of the basic principles of writing: less is more, what is not said is often more important than what is said, and so forth. For me, this makes writing almost a form of magic, not in the sense of illusion, but true magic where one creates something out of nothing by using as few components as possible, by making something complex by keeping everything as simple as possible.
I will give one example and then I will close this article for the day and pick it up when I can sometime in the hopefully near future.
One of the first principles of writing I learned was to use as few words as possible. Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style, say to “Omit unnecessary words”, which in itself is a perfect example of omitting unnecessary words. How much more concise can that one sentence be? It contains absolutely no unnecessary words. If one word is omitted, the sentence ceases to have meaning. The virtue of this is that, if done properly, the work becomes much more powerful because each word carries more weight.
To do this, a writer needs to use words precisely. Try to find a word that captures the exact meaning of the idea you are trying to express–and the shorter the word the better. After all, you are trying to communicate an idea to the largest possible audience. Why use big words that will send readers scurrying to the nearest dictionary, thus interrupting their chain of thought and perhaps tainting their reading experience, when you can use words that everyone understands and keep their experience free from interruptions?
An example of using words precisely would be revising the sentence “A man went quickly to the store.”
Now, shorten it by replacing “went quickly” with “ran”. While you are at it, replace the other general terms with more precise ones. The sentence becomes “John ran to Walmart.” Now, if you have had any background information on John, you know who he is, what he is like, his possible motivations, and that he is in a hurry for some reason to get something from Walmart, knowing the kind of products Walmart has, you may have an idea of why he is going there. If we changed the sentence to “John ran to the Red Dot Liquor Store” we have an even better idea of his motivation. If we said, “John sped to Red Dot Liquors in his brand-new corvette”, we know even more about John: we know he can afford a brand-new corvette. If you have ever been in Red Dot Liquors, you know something of the products they carry and that may say something to you about John’s decision to purchase them.
So, how much more excitement and power does the sentence “John sped to Red Dot Liquors in his brand-new corvette” have versus “a man went quickly to the store”. The final version packs a lot more information in almost the same space.
So that is part of the magic of writing for me: using as few words as possible to create a work. On the surface, it seem to go against logic. How can you build something by using as few components as possible and deleting the ones you do have whenever possible?
Try an experiment, take the first page of any run of the mill romance novel and draw a line through every word you consider unnecessary while keeping the meaning of the sentence. Then take your final product and do it again. Do it a third time if you like. How much were you able to reduce without changing its meaning?
Now take the first page of a novel by Hemingway, someone known for his lean, muscular writing. How far were you able to reduce it before changing the meaning?
Someone once said, “draw a line through every third word and you will be surprised at how much it improves your writing.” I have tried that and it works wonderfully. Of course, you can’t arbitrarily omit every third word, or the work may become nonsense, but it does cause one to question whether that word is necessary.
I have always marveled at the idea that one can write something by omitting words. It goes against my standard, American, public school education, where teachers give a mininum number of words to an assignment and one is forced to insert as many words as possible just to meet the requirement. But can you blame them? If you told the average American high school student to tell what he did over the summer in as few words as possible, he would say, “I had fun” or “I worked.” Good luck teaching him to write.
Anyway, I am rambling once again. I will close for now and pick this up at some later date.
Some writers have interesting habits.
I have always found one of the most interesting aspects of studying the lives of famous writers to be the personal habits they have while writing. The habits show the writer’s personal side and perhaps give an insight into how their creativity is ingrained in their natures. Following are some examples of the better known habits of mainstream authors (the few examples I have collected of “horror habits” follow these).
Hemingway said that he, at least in his Paris years, wrote for four hours each day before going to work at the Kansas City Star office, he wrote using pencils and a spiral bound notebook, and he started each days writing by sharpening twenty pencis.
F. Scott Fitzgerald never rewrote anything less than nine times.
Thomas Mann was very disciplined and rose and dressed in a suit each day as if he were going to work at a bank (even though he was going only so far as his living room), started each day at the same time (I think 8:00 a.m.), wrote for four hours, broke for lunch for an hour, wrote for another four hours, and then ended his day, by going back to his bedroom and taking off his suit.
Hunter Thompson and Henry Miller were at the opposite end of the discipline scale and might write for days, then not write again for days or weeks, before going on another binge of writing. Thompson might write some lines on a napkin while having lunch at a restaurant, then take the napkin and force it through a fax to get the work to his editors at Rolling Stone.
Here are the tidbits on writing habits by authors of horror.
Thomas Cotterill, another WordPress member, wrote this interesting article on the habits of Stephen King. I have read elsewhere that Stephen King normally writes a first draft, which he runs past his wife, Tabitha, makes some changes and then sends it out to friends for their inputs, and then writes a final draft, which he sends to the publisher.
I have yet to find anything detailed about Poe’s habits, but I did find this general description on the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.
“Edgar A. Poe, one of the Editors of the Broadway Journal. He never rests. There is a small steam-engine in his brain, which not only sets the cerebral mass in motion, but keeps the owner in hot water. His face is a fine one, and well gifted with intellectual beauty. Ideality, with the power of analysis, is shown in his very broad, high and massive forehead — a forehead which would have delighted Gall beyond measure. He would have have [[sic]] made a capital lawyer — not a very good advocate, perhaps, but a famous unraveller of all subtleties. He can thread his way through a labyrinth of absurdities, and pick out the sound thread of sense from the tangled skein with which it is connected. He means to be candid, and labours under the strange hallucination that he is so; but he has strong prejudices, and, without the least intention of irreverence, would wage war with the Deity, if the divine canons militated against his notions. His sarcasm is subtle and searching. He can do nothing in the common way; and buttons his coat after a fashion peculiarly his own. If we ever caught him doing a thing like any body else, or found him reading a book any other way than upside down, we should implore his friends to send for a straitjacket, and a Bedlam doctor. He were mad, then, to a certtainty.” — (Thomas Dunn English, “Notes About Men of Note,” The Aristidean, April 1845, p. 153. At this time, Poe and English were still friends, and the tone of this item is happy and jocular. In reviewing this issue of the Aristidean in his own Broadway Journal, for May 3, 1845, Poe comments “. . . the ‘Notes about Men of Note’ are amusing” (BJ, 1845, p. 285, col. 1).)
Dean Koontz says this about his own writing habits on his website:
“I work 10- and 11-hour days because in long sessions I fall away more completely into story and characters than I would in, say, a six-hour day. On good days, I might wind up with five or six pages of finished work; on bad days, a third of a page. Even five or six is not a high rate of production for a 10- or 11-hour day, but there are more good days than bad. And the secret is doing it day after day, committing to it and avoiding distractions. A month–perhaps 22 to 25 work days–goes by and, as a slow drip of water can fill a huge cauldron in a month, so you discover that you have 75 polished pages. The process is slow, but that’s a good thing. Because I don’t do a quick first draft and then revise it, I have plenty of time to let the subconscious work; therefore, I am led to surprise after surprise that enriches story and deepens character. I have a low boredom threshold, and in part I suspect I fell into this method of working in order to keep myself mystified about the direction of the piece–and therefore entertained. A very long novel, like FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE can take a year. A book like THE GOOD GUY, six months.”
Here is an interesting interview by M.R. Hunter with Richard Matheson in Lastheplace.com. Apparently, Mr. Matheson does not have a computer, but writes everything in longhand and then has it typed up.
I have yet to find anything on Lovecraft’s writing habits, but here is a link to HPLovecraft.com that details his personal interests including his unusual dietary habits.
Lord Dunsany had the most eccentric habits of which I have heard. The Wikipedia article on Lord Dunsany states:
“Dunsany’s writing habits were considered peculiar by some. Lady Beatrice said that “He always sat on a crumpled old hat while composing his tales.” (The hat was eventually stolen by a visitor to Dunsany Castle.) Dunsany almost never rewrote anything; everything he ever published was a first draft. Much of his work was penned with quill pens, which he made himself; Lady Beatrice was usually the first to see the writings, and would help type them. It has been said that Lord Dunsany would sometimes conceive stories while hunting, and would return to the Castle and draw in his family and servants to re-enact his visions before he set them on paper.”
If you know of a source for information on the work habits of one or more horror writers, please share it. If you are searching for a topic of an article to write, I would like to suggest writing on the work habits (or interests) of horror writers. It would be fascinating to see if there is a common thread among them or if they vary from the habits of mainstream authors. For example, I have found out that Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Bram Stoker were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Anyway, I am now officially rambling.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, please share them.
Most writers think of modeling their style after that of a famous writer. A large part of any writer’s style is his use of grammar. For example, Hemingway’s lean, muscular, sparse, style is well-known. His use of punctuation (which I am including under grammar) is also spare, using and where most writers would use commas in a rhetorical technique known as syndeton. Whereas Hemingway’s minimalist approach is masterful, somewhere in the middle of the scale is Mario Puzo (The Godfather) whose mediocre grammar skills often show up in comma splices and dangling prepositions. The writer I consider a master of both style and grammar is F.Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby).
My question to you is: whom do you consider to be a master grammarian/stylist?