Tuesday, September 29, 2009


How much do tragic personal circumstances contribute to artistic genius? Mark Twain certainly endured more than his share. Others, like Ernest Hemingway, created their own tragic circumstances.

Unlike Twain, whose life's work was filled with wit and humor despite the untimely deaths of most of his loved ones, Edgar Allan Poe's dark style and macabre stories reflected the tragedies of his own life. His parents, both actors, died when Edgar was a toddler, his mother at age 24, his father at 26. He was estranged from his foster father, and his foster mother died when he was 20. He was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but was dismissed after one year.
His older brother, with whom Edgar lived as a young adult, also died at 24 of tuberculosis. Edgar's wife, whom he married when she was 13, died at 25.
Although a prolific and commercially successful author, Poe was an alcoholic. He died at 40, possibly from alcohol poisoning.

The bicentennial of Poe's birth, Jan. 19, 1809, was this year. Next Wednesday, Oct. 7, marks the 160th anniversary of his death. Every year on his birthday, the mysterious Poe Toaster — clad in black with face obscured, with a hood or scarf, and carrying a silver-tipped cane — visits Poe's grave and leaves a partially full bottle of cognac and three red roses.

Trivia: The Baltimore Ravens are named for Poe's poem "The Raven."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Wolfe and Tan

From an Entertainment Weekly interview, bestselling author Tom Wolfe on his problem meeting deadlines:

"It has been a character defect of mine from early on. When I was unable to do The Bonfire of the Vanities, I had the title and everything, but I didn't know where to start. And I was almost catatonic for eight months. I'd sit in front of the typewriter and nothing happened. I read somewhere that writers as they get older become more and more perfectionist. Which may be because they think more highly of themselves and they worry about their reputations. I think there's some truth to that."

Asked, "It seems like you must enjoy writing. Do you?"

Wolfe replied: "No, I really don't. Every now and then, there's something I know is going well, but I wouldn't call it fun exactly."

From an Academy of Achievement interview with Amy Tan:

"I also grew up, thankfully, with a love of language. That may have happened because I was bilingual at an early age. I stopped speaking Chinese when I was five, but I loved words. Words to me were magic. You could say a word and it could conjure up all kinds of images or feelings or a chilly sensation or whatever. It was amazing to me that words had this power."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Writing blogs

Check out the following blogs:

ETO 22, The Dead Man in Yossarian's Tent
Old Tybee Ranger
Dot Common Sense

The first blog is my son's. A new blog, it offers humor pieces he has written based on his military experience, including his deployment to Iraq.

A sample:
“Sir, I was wondering what funding source you would like me to use in order to pay for all these projects,” he asked.
“The funding sources have all been cut off,” he quickly replied. “I told you, no money as a weapons system. You really need to take notes, LT.”
“Roger, sir, that’s why I was asking. If we have no way of paying these people, then I guess I’m not sure why we are starting these projects.” Lieutenant Ox was attempting to use reason, but Major Schmeis had long since built up an immunity to that nonsense.
“Because nonlethal is the main effort, LT. We do nonlethal, or people die. Is that what you want, LT? For people to die? People are dying every day, LT, and if we don’t do nonlethal, people are going to continue to die. You do love America, don’t you?” He asked.
“I do love America, sir.” LT Ox loved America so much that he volunteered to leave it for 15 months at a time to not do projects in Abu Dahbu. It was about a good a place as any to not do projects, when one thought about it. Why, just now, some of his friends were not doing projects in Afghanistan, others were not doing them in the Philippines, and he was sure that even now, there was some super-secret special forces in Iran or Pakistan right now, not doing projects in some small village, attempting to win the hearts and minds.

The second blog is my brother-in-law's. He's been at it for some time, writing daily on a host of topics from music to science to history to politics. He includes lots of links and visuals. He and my sister, along with another couple, are retracing Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery, and he is blogging daily on his observations.

A sample:
"Today was our first day in western Iowa and under a brilliant sun. We expected to see thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. We also knew the impact of bio fuel development caused farmers to increase their acreage in these crops over the last few years. How does one measure that increase? For those confined to the highways, it is the brilliant reflections of the sun off what must be thousands of new grain storage bins on farms both big and small. The new corrugated steel bins contrast sharply with their older, drab gray neighbors. With a bit of elevation and the correct sun angle, they glitter like gems set in a quilt of tan, green and yellow spreading to the horizon."

The third blogger is an Illinois reader who has decided, after a lifetime of thinking about it, to start writing.

A sample:
"It probably is now apparent that I know very little about Writing, having written nothing more original than Technical Reports for the past twenty five years or so, but I think I'm willing to learn, from experts in the field, those who earn their living on the keyboard, and with the agility of their mind.
"But therein lies the trick. I've said before that I have probably read Thousands of books in my life, so far, and usually add from two or three to six or seven, weekly, depending on the weather and my attention span. I do not regret for one moment reading anything, but I think one danger that I will have to learn to avoid, or at least manage, is letting any one writer influence me in my writing."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Art v. craft

On the art blog suite101.com, Mary Rayme writes:
"Art is a work that transcends its humble materials to create an original statement or expression in a meaningful and enduring way. Crafts CAN transcend their humble materials as well to become art but it takes an experienced and determined crafter to do this. The elegant and humble quilts of Gee's Bend transcend their craft origins to become modern masterpieces of color and shape. Enjoy looking at these magnificent examples of great art being created out of great necessity."

My sculpture professor in college defined the distinction between art and craft in simpler terms:
"A craftsmen weeps over his mistakes. An artist celebrates them."

Art provides for more of a dialogue between the creator and the creation, where the artist responds to what the work says to him. Craft is a one-way conversation in which the crafter imposes his will on the work, beats it into submission, knows before he begins what the final product will look like and does not deviate.
A fine piece of craftsmanship can be beautiful but is is less likely to be original. Developing into a craftsman requires repetition of the same process time and again.
Art is riskier. Art follows a less-trodden path. It is at least as likely to fail as succeed. But it has greater potential.
The greatest work combines the practiced skill of the craftsman to an original work. The artist who can do that is the true master.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Correct the error in this AP brief:

Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham will miss the rest of the season after having surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee against Brigham Young.

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Do you think it's too late to start writing? It's a good thing Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't think that way when, at her journalist daughter's urging, she started writing books at age 65. She wrote about her own adventures as a child in a series of nine children's novels, the Little House books, between 1932 and 1943. And then she lived to see them widely published before her death in 1957 at age 90.

Interestingly, Wilder got an unusually early start on another of her careers — teaching. She was hired to teach in a one-room school at age 15 and taught three years while continuing her own schooling. She quit teaching at age 18 when she married a young but already prosperous farmer, Almanzo Wilder, whose own childhood is featured in Wilder's "Farmer Boy."

Wilder's motivation was largely monetary. A series of misfortunes, culminating in the loss of the couple's investments in the stock market crash of 1929, had made them dependent on their daughter. But by the mid-1930s, both Wilder and her daughter Rose were successful authors, earning substantial income from book royalties.

Wilder's success was due to several factors, including Rose's editing of her manuscripts, but it was absolutely dependent on one of the most basic principles in writing — write what you know. Although she was well read and interested in many things, she did not try to go outside herself in her subject matter.

Friday, September 4, 2009

King on writing

Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft" is a guide for aspiring writers combined with a memoir on King's life and work.

Some excerpts:
"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it."

King's maxim suggests that if you don't observe the first part, you'll never get it written, and if you never observe the second part, you'll never get it published. Be protective in the first stage, be open in the second.

It makes me nervous when people ask me to critique their work, not in fear that they won't listen but but in fear that they will. I don't want the responsibility for spoiling someone's art because of my own biases. I always qualify my comments by suggesting that they ask at least three people to look it over and then pay close attention to suggestions they hear from at least two, but to feel free to ignore comments they hear from only one.

More King:
"In truth, I've found that any day's routine interruptions and distractions don't much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster's shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters."

I think that reflects the discipline of a seasoned writer. Many artists require isolation (Thoreau), and so they create late at night or physically separated from the confines of their everyday lives in a studio or attic or barn loft.

"The scariest moment is always just before you start."

That's true of every art. Painters are frightened by empty canvases. Actors are frightened just before the curtain opens. Writers are frightened by blank pages (or blank screens with pestering cursors pulsing their impatience). The important thing is to start, even if you start badly.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Elmer Kelton

Elmer Kelton died Aug. 22. He was 83. Although not well-known outside his native Texas, he was immensely popular in the Lone Star state.

Kelton, who maintained parallel careers as a journalist and a novelist, was the author of 62 books. The most famous was "The Good Old Boys," which was made into a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones. The Western Writers of America voted Kelton "Best Author of All Time." His novel "The Time It Never Rained," which literary critic Jon Tuska called "one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in the 20th century," is among my all-time favorite novels.

Kelton said he like to take a character, put him in a time of change and transition and see what he did.

Judy Alter, his long-time publisher at TCU Press and author of "Elmer Kelton and West Texas: A Literary Relationship," penned his obituary for the Dallas Morning News Sunday. She wrote: "Elmer's characters were complex, never Western stereotypes, but his authentic voice was the most distinctive aspect of his writing, along with the same wry humor that characterized him in conversation. He shied away from happy endings because, he said, life doesn't work out like that."