Friday, October 30, 2009

Bad poetry

My son, a junior in high school, has developed strong but uninformed opinions about poetry. If a poem doesn't have rhythm and rhyme, he has decreed, it is not poetry. So his definition of poetry is minimalistic: "Words laid down with rhythm and rhyme."

Poetry is, admittedly, difficult to define. But Samuel Taylor Coleridge has provided the best definition of poetry I know of: "The best words in the best order."

Rhythm and rhyme at least demonstrate that the writer selected the words carefully. But that can be demonstrated in many ways. Some poetry can be appreciated only by a practiced ear.

If you as a writer take as much time selecting the right word or rearranging a phrase as other writers take to churn out 1,000 words, you just might be a poet.

My son is a critic, but the harshest critics of writers are other writers. Fortunately for readers, the criticism can be quite amusing.

Will Rogers:
"In Hollywood the woods are full of people that learned to write but evidently can't read. If they could read their stuff, they'd stop writing."

Yeah, and not just in Hollywood.

T.S. Eliot:
"Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers."

And the editors who have been there are the quickest to recognize writing that is just beyond fixing.

Flannery O'Conner:
"Everywhere I go, I'm asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."

True enough, but if you don't stroke those young egos the university will lose paying customers. The professor's first job is not to teach but to keep the customers happy.

Dear writer, don't let those negative comments discourage you. Take the advice of Lillian Hellman: "If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talking about writing or themselves."

Especially if that advice comes from T.S. Eliot or Flannery O'Conner. But what if that advice comes from Lillian Hellman? Do you take her advice by ignoring it, or ignore her advice by taking it?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Randy Wayne White

My friend Jack pointed me to the Web site of crime fiction author Randy Wayne White, which contains some writing exercises that might push you toward writing the book you've been mulling. Exercise 1 begins:

"Write the dust jacket copy for the book you hope to write. Write as if your book has already been accepted, as if you've already received your advance payment, and as if what you write will appear on the book when it is published." The copy should emphasize "key why-you-must-read-this-book elements that will put you, the author, in better touch with your novel or work of non-fiction."

White recommends that you begin by reading, "over and over," the dust jacket copy of some favorite books. The copy "should establish key characters and plot elements." And it must be between 225 and 250 words — "no exceptions."

Web site,, contains plenty more exercises to get your creative juices flowing.

White quotes Elmore Leonard: "My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip."

White has had 23 novels published since 1981, including seven under the pen name Randy Striker, and seven non-fiction books.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dickens in Kentucky

Ever wonder how your favorite author might describe the place where you live? The most famous English author of the 19th century, Charles Dickens, was known for his descriptions, so vivid that you can almost smell the coal fires and rotting food, almost hear the wheezing coughs and the clattering hoofprints on the cobblestones of London's streets. But how would he describe, say, Kentucky? Or Illinois?

In his "American Notes," Charles Dickens recounted his only visit to the United States in 1842. Part of the journey took him down the Ohio River aboard a riverboat from Cininnati to Louisville, then past present-day Paducah to Cairo and up the Mississippi to St. Louis. He describes a lengthy conversation with a Choctaw chief who was on his way home, presumably to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), after meeting with government officials in Washington. This was about 10 years after the Choctaw were forcibly relocated from the Southeast to Indian Territory along what became known as the Trail of Tears. The Choctaw were the first of the five civilized Native American tribes to be removed from its homeland. Dickens wrote:

"He spoke English perfectly well, though he had not begun to learn the language, he told me, until he was a young man grown. He had read many books; and Scott’s poetry appeared to have left a strong impression on his mind: especially the opening of The Lady of the Lake, and the great battle scene in Marmion, in which, no doubt from the congeniality of the subjects to his own pursuits and tastes, he had great interest and delight. He appeared to understand correctly all he had read; and whatever fiction had enlisted his sympathy in its belief, had done so keenly and earnestly. ...
"He was a remarkably handsome man; some years past forty, I should judge; with long black hair, an aquiline nose, broad cheek-bones, a sunburnt complexion, and a very bright, keen, dark, and piercing eye. There were but twenty thousand of the Choctaws left, he said, and their number was decreasing every day. A few of his brother chiefs had been obliged to become civilised, and to make themselves acquainted with what the whites knew, for it was their only chance of existence. But they were not many; and the rest were as they always had been. He dwelt on this: and said several times that unless they tried to assimilate themselves to their conquerors, they must be swept away before the strides of civilised society."

Dickens also desribed meeting "a certain Kentucky Giant whose name is Porter, and who is of the moderate height of seven feet eight inches, in his stockings. ... There never was a race of people who so completely gave the lie to history as these giants, or whom all the chroniclers have so cruelly libelled. Instead of roaring and ravaging about the world, constantly catering for their cannibal larders, and perpetually going to market in an unlawful manner, they are the meekest people in any man’s acquaintance: rather inclining to milk and vegetable diet, and bearing anything for a quiet life."

Dickens' account of the region around Paducah was not complimentary:

"Nor was the scenery, as we approached the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, at all inspiriting in its influence. The trees were stunted in their growth; the banks were low and flat; the settlements and log cabins fewer in number: their inhabitants more wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet. No songs of birds were in the air, no pleasant scents, no moving lights and shadows from swift passing clouds. Hour after hour, the changeless glare of the hot, unwinking sky, shone upon the same monotonous objects. Hour after hour, the river rolled along, as wearily and slowly as the time itself."

Dickens was particuarly nasty in his description of Cairo, which I have quoted before:

"At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld, that the forlornest places we had passed, were, in comparison with it, full of interest. At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so flat and low and marshy, that at certain seasons of the year it is inundated to the house-tops, lies a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death; vaunted in England as a mine of Golden Hope, and speculated in, on the faith of monstrous representations, to many people’s ruin. A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away: cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and teeming, then, with rank unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die, and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo."

Had Dickens visited Cairo in the 1920s, he would have seen a thriving, bustling city of 25,000. But today, 167 years after Dickens' brief stop, his description is eerily accurate again. The city has lost two-thirds of its population, and it has the highest concentration of poverty in Illinois. Abandoned buildings — homes, downtown storefronts, churches — sit rotting away, overgrown with vegetation.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Buckley's big words

Readers often criticized the late William F. Buckley's vocabulary, complaining that one couldn't read his books, or even his columns, without a dictionary handy. Buckley found himself constantly defending his use of words unfamiliar to most readers. In fact, he eventually wrote a book on the subject. It was called, appropriately, "The Right Word."

He wrote: "I am often accused of an inordinate reliance on unusual words, and desire to defend myself against the insinuation that I write as I do simply to prove that I have returned recently from the bowels of a dictionary with a fish in my mouth."

Instead, he said, he looked for the word that best fit. He just happened to operate with a greater vocabulary than — well, just about everyone else in the English-speaking world.

In a 1996 interview, he found himself again defending his use of obscure words: "So, in defending the use of these words, I begin by asking the question: why were they invented? They must have been invented because there was, as the economist put it, 'a felt need' for them. That is to say, there came a moment at which a writer felt that the existing inventory didn’t quite do what he wanted it to do. These words were originally used because somebody with a sensitive ear felt the need for them. Do you therefore, because it’s very seldom that one hears an A-flat diminished tenth, say to yourself, I won’t use that chord, notwithstanding the pleasure it gives to people whose ears are educated enough to hear that little difference? People don’t say to a musician, please don’t use any unusual chords."

An accomplished musician, Buckley had a keen ear for the rhythm and tone of words placed together. He wrote in a style that, when read aloud, would be pleasing to the ear, or at least to his ear, which were the only ears he had to work with.

In National Review, the magazine he founded, he wrote: "In language, rhythm is an act of timing. 'Why did you use the "irenic" when you say it means "peaceful"?' a talk show host once asked indignantly. To which the answer given was: 'I desired the extra syllable.' In all circumstances? No, for God's sake."

In a New York Times interview, Buckley said a writer should be "sensitive to cadence, variety, marksmanship, accent, nuance and drama."

What do you do when you come upon a word, in Buckley's writing or elsewhere, that you don't know?

Buckley said, "That reader has the usual choices: he can ignore the word; (he can) attempt, from the context, to divine its meaning precisely or roughly; or he can look it up."

More comments from Buckley can be found at:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Brookhiser on writing

From Richard Brookhiser's blog, "Right Time, Right Place" on National Review Online:

Secrets of Writing, Revealed
One of the questions that came up in Claremont, Calif., on my Left Coast swing was, How does one become a (better) writer? I gave three practical exercises.

Writing. Practice does not make perfect, unless you are Keats, but it makes you better. Write and write and write, to deadline if possible (that compels you to write faster).

Reading. Read good writers. Steal shamelessly. In time, and with luck, the dross of imitation will fall away, and you will be left with your own alloy. (William F. Buckley Jr. was a model to all who wrote for him, though we couldn't — and shouldn't — have become junior WFBs ourselves).

Editing. (Don't you mean being edited? — Ed.) Having your flourishes struck away is a necessary experience. It is good to have to take one hundred words out of a piece because an ad got bigger; better to have to put the words back and add another hundred because the ad went away.