Category Archives: writing

Fiction and Truth

I was in a writer’s group some years ago, an extraordinary group because except for me it was composed entirely of women–and they were elderly, seventy, eighty, ninety years old. At first I thought, “What am I doing with this bunch of old ladies?” But I quickly changed my tune.

They were tremendously talented and clever, sharp, and knowledgeable, and taken all together had hundreds of years of Typewriter, paper, glasses, pen, book on a wooden surfaceprofessional or amateur experience. It was a great, exciting group, the most pleasant and worthwhile I’ve known. The atmosphere every time was warm, radiant, cordial, and safe–a most productive creative environment. I often think of them fondly. At a session I read aloud a short story I’d written.  When I was reading I heard one woman–an award-winning journalist–say to her friend with a tone of discovery, “This really happened. You can tell.”

Well it had really happened. I hadn’t changed a single thing from the actual events and the actual setting and mood and people, except the names.  Even then I used their correct initials–“Wayne Collins” became “William Carruthers,” etc. In writing it I had to make everything accurate. If I wrote, “She had grey eyes,” I wouldn’t let myself get away with it. I just had to change it back to the real color, blue. Then the group turned to the question everyone seemed interested in that my reading had raised: “Can obviously autobiographical material–meaning it had really happened, the detail told you that–qualify as fiction?”

The eight people in the group were evenly divided. Four said, “Fiction is fiction and non-fiction is non-fiction. There’s a big difference.” I once asked my wife, an excellent writing teacher, “What is a short story these days,” and she replied “Currently, a short story is anything you want it to be.” That liberal view was basically the attitude of the other four members of the group, including me, so in our minds my strictly and admittedly autobiographical story more than held its own as fiction.

It goes without saying that when they are creating, all writers–all people in the arts–depend heavily on their own past experiences. But while most writers create characters and plots using their imagination as the dominant shaper of the work, some writers–such as those cited in this post–adhere slavishly to their own experiences and knowledge.

Truth is what the writer, painter, actor sincerely believes in his/her own heart. Everything in the work of art must be convincing for the artist and for the audience. The artist is often not striving for literal truth, but is inventing too, saying to the reader, “I’m trying to convince you that if this were happening, this is how it would be. If characters were people, this is how they would feel, talk, and behave.” But some writers invent far less than remember.

In college and in graduate school I was trained in “The New Criticism” that says all that matters when studying a literary work is the work itself: the author’s personality should not enter into it. I had a knack for sticking to the text and ferreting out patterns of images and symbols.

But I am a writer of fiction and poetry and I know from my own long experience and that of many other writers that the author’s personality and experiences are everywhere present in the creative process and permeate the content of everything the writer commits to the page, every feature, major or minor. Critics may not know that or may act as though they don’t, but every writer does. A writer can look at a passage in her work and say, “That character sounds so bitter because I had a bad tooth ache that day and so I was in the perfect mood to write that dialogue.”

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

There is a long precedence for obviously autobiographical content being put into fictional form and being accepted as fiction even though it really happened. Short story master/playwright, Russian Anton Chekhov, said “Art has this one great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood…There is absolutely no lying in art,” and in a letter to his brother, “Don’t write about anything you haven’t experienced yourself.”

That’s much easier to do when you are writing about yourself because you know yourself better than you know any character you can imagine and you know better than anyone else what happened to you if you have a clear and accurate memory. Autobiographical fiction writers obviously need exceptional memories–and most have one. Their most important creative routine is to stimulate their memory. I may look at photo albums as a way of doing this.  I’ve said about myself–hopefully not bragging–that I can remember every blade of grass on the street I lived on when I was eight.

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge advised to “write from recollection; [but} trust more to your imagination than to your memory.” Most writers are liars–they invent. But some writers write their best fiction, poetry, drama, and screenplays when they are writing the literal truth–or almost the literal truth–and not lying.

American Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, for example, said,  “I have never written anything which did not come directly or indirectly from some event or impression of my own,” and “I shall never be influenced by any consideration but one; Is it the truth as I know it, or better still, feel it,” and “I am a dramatist. What I see everywhere in life is drama. I just set down what I feel in terms of life and let the facts speak whatever language they may to an audience,” and “Writing plays was the easiest thing in the world for me. I wasn’t making anything up.”

Some famous autobiographical authors who could be obsessive about not lying or writing about things they hadn’t experienced themselves include:

Katherine Anne Porter

Saul Bellow

Ernest Hemingway

Sherwood Anderson

Marcel Proust

Thomas Wolfe

Eugene O’ Neill

Henry Miller

Anton Chekhov

James Joyce

D.H. Lawrence

Sylvia Plath

Malcolm Lowry

Scott Fitzgerald

Raymond Carver

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, another Nobel Prize winner, could invent with the best of imaginative writers, but was obsessed with telling the truth, the importance of telling the truth, in his words, “the straight statement without moralizing or elaborating or decoration”–what “is not messed with.” He was asked what the job of the artist is, and he said it is to put down what you see and what you feel in the best and simplest way you can. What he had personally done and knew most about was what he was interested in telling about. “His standard of truth-telling remained…so high and so rigorous that he was ordinarily unwilling to admit secondary evidence…picked up from other sources than his own experience” (Carlos Baker.) Whenever I read the wonderful Hemingway short story “Indian Camp” I know that boy sitting in the rowboat was once the real Hemingway and the man with him was his real father just as in the boy in the story I read to the group was my best recollection of how I was as a boy.

Thomas Wolfe had an enormously retentive memory, as autobiographical writers generally do, and engaged in exhausting, sustained, many-hours-long periods of writing. (Research shows that the most productive writers and painters usually work in long, protracted bouts of creation and not in brief, choppy spurts. For maximum effectiveness you would preferably have or develop the ability to concentrate your attention for long periods, and if possible, find long uninterrupted, unimpeded periods of time for work.)  The artist’s highest goal is to make conflict-free, habitual use of the urge to create that dominates him or her, with no one and nothing interfering. It is not just interference that so aggravates the creator, but even the threat of interference.

Wolfe’s aspiration was to put into his writing precise descriptions of every experience and every impression and every sight and sound he had ever known. He wanted to put all the experiences in his life into written language, and had every confidence that was possible. His life had to be “looted clean.” “Everything had to be used; nothing could be implied” (The Norton Anthology of American Literature).

Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe, Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress

Like many creatives whether in the arts or the sciences, Wolfe was governed almost wholly by the compulsion to work, to be as productive as he could possibly be. Words came out of him straight from his memory as water comes from a spigot–hundreds of thousands of words, thousands every night, manuscripts of a million words, his never having any concept of the requirements of a publishable book. Whenever he was deterred from working, this tall, handsome, tremendously gifted man from North Carolina would fall into a black mood. Then he would brood, drink, and pace the streets all night until he was able to work again, starting in the evening and working past the break of dawn.

Malcolm Lowry was the English author of the wonderful virtuoso-performance novel Under the Volcano. It’s generally considered one of the great works of the twentieth century. It is possibly the most accurate description of a man’s alcoholism ever written. (He wrote, “One dreaded the arrival of anyone unless they were bringing alcohol.”). Lowry almost never tried to invent characters or events because he didn’t know enough about any other person to be able to do that. His subject was himself and he could not focus on anybody outside himself. When he tried to, the writing went flat. He didn’t know anything about world events or anything else either. Everything revolved around his thoughts.

James Joyce

James Joyce

James Joyce had such a need for authenticity and accuracy that he believed he didn’t possess an imagination at all: he couldn’t make things up. When writing Ulysses he sent a letter home to Dublin asking a friend to go see if it was possible for a man in average physical condition to jump from this place to another at a specific address, or was it impossible. He had to know or he couldn’t finish the book. He was depressed when after the book was published a retired sea captain wrote him telling there was a mistake in the book in that with wind blowing the way he described, the boat wouldn’t have behaved in the way he had it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with Hemingway, is arguably the most dramatic example in American literary history of an author whose private life is reflected consciously or otherwise in virtually everything he wrote. Fitzgerald’s language, his prose, his voice, tell us what he was going through at any given moment in his career, from his early extraordinary successes through his crack-up. Saul Bellow’s fiction is strongly biographical fiction. Its focus on the workings of a brilliant mind help explain why his writings are in essence long monologues. Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar is also strongly autobiographical.

T.S. Eliot said, “We all have to choose whatever subject matter allows us the most powerful and most secret release; and that is a personal affair.” Literary critic Gilbert Murray wrote, “It seems to me that the writers who have the power of revelation are just those who, in some particular part of life, have seen or felt considerably more than the average run of intelligent beings.” It is not a random choice, but a discriminating, highly selective instinct, a particular order of things that has an outstanding appeal to that particular writer. Painter Julian Levi said, “It seems to me that almost every artist finds some subdivision of nature or experience more congenial to his temperament than any other.” The subject matter, the subdivision of experience that all these writers mentioned here found, and that autobiographical writers today find, is not what they can imagine, but themselves and the recollection of the lives they’ve lived.

It’s generally thought among critics that Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past were the two greatest novels of the twentieth century. The subject of Proust’s book was Proust as much as the subject of Lowry’s works was Lowry. Wolfe’s subject was Wolfe, Fitzgerald’s was Fitzgerald, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller, Plath’s was Plath, Hemingway’s was Hemingway, etc.

The answer to the question, “Can a true story be communicated as fiction?” is “Of course.”

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

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Filed under creativity, Ernest Hemingway, Fiction, Literature, Malcom Lowry, Memory, Thomas Wolfe, Work Production, Writers, writing

Something Has Gone Out of Publishing

In my oh-so-very-pleasant work room upstairs, where I spend so much time hacking away at this machine whose letters on keys are disappearing fast from overuse, and my wife Diana leaves me alone to bleed and brood when the thinking and writing aren’t going well and to be stricken with ecstasy when they are, I am surrounded by books–many volumes about the arts and the immensely gifted people in them.

This morning I had a busy schedule of things to do that I’ve wanted to do for weeks but haven’t. I’m Chicago born and bred, Spartan tough, so I told myself that today was “time to get serious, buster. Enough of this uncharacteristic self-indulgence.” Today would be different; I’d “dig in,” “put a dent in things,” “make progress,” “do my thing.” I checked over my list of current projects, every single one of which oddly is “top priority.”

Old booksI was eager to start, but then I made the mistake of looking over my left shoulder and having my eye caught by an old “Advance Uncorrected Proofs–Not for Sale” copy of a biography of William Golding. “Who?” you say. Golding was a prolific English novelist, essayist, and playwright, author of Lord of the Flies, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature who was knighted for his achievements.

I ask literate people, “Who was William Golding?” and they don’t know. I ask, “Have you read Lord of the Flies, and they say, “Three times.” Far, far more people have read or heard about Lord of the Flies than remember the name of its author.  I see Golding as representative of a breed of artists and writers who were once acclaimed and now are forgotten.

The biography I’m looking at has an attractive, cheap light green paper cover, and I like the print. So I think of what I know about Golding, and the impression I come up with is that he was an odd bird, though I don’t know where I got that impression, and that his Nobel Prize was controversial.

Obviously, I had no choice but to ditch everything else immediately and start reading the book to try to understand Golding’s story as told in John Carey’s William Golding: A Life.

Golding was a strange, shy, private, reclusive depressive who didn’t want publicity or a biography written in his lifetime, and a virtuoso pianist in his early years. He was a victim of many fears and phobias, a World War II Royal Navy officer who participated in the D-Day invasion and other famous battles. During the war he discovered that the only way he could control his fear was by grinning. The men who served with him misinterpreted that as a love of violence. For many years he was a bored school teacher who was so inept and uninterested that he had no business teaching. He said he never knew what education was about.

He had trouble getting published. He wrote three books during his lunch hours, breaks, and holidays. No publisher was interested in them. Then he started the one that would change his life and enter the lives of millions of us: Lord of the Flies. The books he and his wife Ann read to their little son and daughter, such as Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson, were often about islands. One night when Golding and Ann were resting after putting the children to bed, he had a brainchild. He said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if I wrote a book about children who behave in the way children really would behave?” Ann was a formidable person, strong-willed, forceful, tough, and determined. So it made sense that she said, “Get on with it.” Golding said once he began working on the book, “It came very easily.”

He felt as if his three unsuccessful books that were circulating in the English publishing world and regularly being returned to him with rejection letters were “written by other people.” But he saw right away that the book about boys on an island was his book.

The manuscript of the book that eventually was given the title Lord of the Flies by an editor was originally panned by publisher Faber and Faber, Britain’s leading publisher, a reader calling it “absurd and uninteresting.” But it was rescued by a Faber editor who had been with the publisher for less than a month–Charles Monteith. Golding was Monteith’s first catch. Monteith would have many more. He was handsome, refined, polished, and sophisticated–qualities that were not true of Golding. That was the start of a lifelong association, with Monteith his editor, adviser, confidant, and friend.

The manuscript had made the rounds and been submitted to many publishers unsuccessfully. It was dog-eared, shop worn, and had pages yellowed at their edges, showing that it had been read and rejected countless times.

The book started out strangely, but Monteith was gripped as he continued reading. He took it home to finish. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. It had many flaws, some of them serious, but at the next meeting of the Faber Book Committee he said he thought the book was “odd and imperfect, but potentially very powerful,” and that he would like to discuss it with the author.” But the Sales Director, W.J. Crawley, whose judgment about if a book would sell was considered infallible, said the book was unpublishable. An argument ensued. When things calmed down, it was decided that since Monteith was very junior, others in the firm should read the manuscript before anything was decided.

Monteith then wrote to Golding, apologizing for keeping the manuscript for “rather a long time,” explaining that while they were interested, they had not made a decision. That was the most encouraging letter Golding had ever received from a publisher. He wrote back, saying he was glad they were interested and hoped they would publish the book.  Other Faber editors read the book, agreed with Monteith, and shared his enthusiasm.

The Faber chairman Geoffrey Faber read the book and liked it, but had doubts. But he didn’t wish to dampen a new young editor’s enthusiasm, and it was decided that Monteith would meet Golding and discuss possible changes but make no promises about publishing the book. At the meeting over lunch at a restaurant, both men were nervous. Because of the book’s religious content Monteith thought the author would be a clergyman, but then thought, “a teacher of children! Of course!” Changes were discussed. Golding would go home and consider them.

The changes Golding made quickly and sent to Monteith were even better than Monteith had hoped for. What Monteith had wanted shortened, Golding had completely eliminated, improving the book. The two men worked hand in hand on the book. On January 10, 1954, Golding submitted a complete draft. He had pieced together all the separate sections the now-friends had sweated over. Golding said now that the book was finished, he could hardly bear to look at it mainly because of the effort of “patching, so much more wearing than bashing straight ahead at a story.”

On February 11 Faber announced that it was prepared to publish the novel. The book went into production in March. Golding read the proofs and could see that Monteith’s “patching” had improved the book considerably.  Golding wrote to Monteith, “I think you have done a very clever and helpful piece of work…The novel is swift now, with a measure of subtlety and tautness. If it achieves any measure of success now it will be due to your severe but healthy pruning.”

On the 17h of September, 1954, Lord of the Flies was published, one year and three days after Golding had sent it to Faber. The tone of reviews that would follow was set by the first review that appeared that same day in the Daily Mail: “Most compelling–I fell under the spell of this book and so will many others,” The following day was even better. The Evening News called it “vivid and enthralling.” To the Times it was “most absorbing.” Time and Tide said, “A work of universal significance;” its author was “a truly imaginative writer who is also a deep thinker.” In the Observer poet Stevie Smith wrote, “This beautiful and desperate book, something quite out of the ordinary.”

Biographer Carey writes, “Faber and Faber were to remain Golding’s agent as well as his publisher for the rest of his life, an arrangement” of great profit to both of them, “and the achievement of this goal was entirely the result of Monteith’s understanding, patience and literary judgment. He spotted Golding’s potential when no one else did, and his faith in his extraordinary gifts did not waver.”

Books on shelvesMany Golding books followed. The Golding-Monteith symbiotic relationship between author and editor, the author with the genius and the editor with the judgment, cannot help but remind one of that same special and rare type of association between American novelist Thomas Wolfe, a physically immense man with an equally immense talent from which a torrent of gorgeous language flowed, and the editor who discovered him, Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s. (Perkins was also the editor of greats Ernest Hemingway, author of The Sun Also Rises, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby.) The Wolfe-Perkins combination is considered the greatest author-editor relationship in the history of literature.

No writer, painter, or performer in any age was ever given a blank check. They all had to accept certain conditions imposed from the powerful gatekeepers in the field.  But the conditions imposed on the creative center of everything in the arts–the artist himself–are harsher and more brutal today than they once were, and something has gone out of publishing, enough that it’s legitimate to ask if the publisher is the author’s friend–as the theory goes.  The author now has to supply all the this-and-thats that once were the responsibility of the publisher. That was the deal. When did the changes start and how did they happen? Were they justified and in any way equitable?

Given publishing as it is today, such a relationship is now unheard of: two supremely talented people as Golding and Monteith, experts in their own specialties, but one on the payroll of the publisher, working together with one goal of textual perfection.  Most all publisher’s editors today are acquisition “editors,” not textual editors. Authors must find their own editors, and that is an expense that authors did not have when publishers were expected to provide editors.

Most writers with one ear tuned to the stories they’ve heard of the-once-upon-a–time legendary author-editor combinations consider the loss of publisher’s textual editors and that kind of relationship unfortunate. When I was writing Waging Business Warfare for Scribner’s thirty years ago, not one, not two, but three editors at the same time in the employ of the publisher were editing my work for different things.

Red pen editing writing

Where are today’s writers to go to find someone good and capable, trustworthy and encouraging, who will give them valuable feedback and expert guidance that will refine, hone, and perfect the finished, remarkable products–the novels, the plays, the poems people will stop to admire and will never forget? Where are the Charles Monteiths to find the most talented writers to share their expertise with?

Many new gifted authors with tremendous talents are waiting to be discovered and set on the right track by someone with the solid, unwavering faith in them, the expertise, and the vision of a Charles Monteith, without whom, quite possibly, we never would have heard of William Golding.

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

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Filed under Charles Monteith, Editor, Feedback, Publishing, William Golding, Writers, writing

Inspiration and Information for People in the Arts (Part 1 of 3 Parts)

Here are some of my favorite quotations to inspire and inform people in the arts.

 

ARTISTS ARE POWERFULLY MOTIVATED

  • “Painters and poets alike have always had license to dare anything.” (Horace)
  • “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon one can never resist or understand.” (George Orwell)
  • “Art is a kind of illness.” (Giacomo Puccini)
  • “The excellency of every art is its intensity.” (John Keats)
  • “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” (Walter Pater)
  • “Art is the only thing that can goes on mattering once it has stopped hurting.” (Elizabeth Bowen)
  • “Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart go together.” (John Ruskin)
  • “Gifts like genius, I often think, means only an infinite capacity for taking pains.” (Jane E. Hopkins)
  • “The incurable itch of writing possesses many.” (Juvenal)
  • The composer’s principal problem is that of recapturing in every phase of his work …the energy which keeps it going…of bringing, in other words, the requisite amount of energy to bear on every detail, as well as constantly on his vision of the whole.” (Roger Sessions)
  • “The artist does not see things as they are, but as he is.” (Arthur Tonnelle)

 

THE OVERRIDING PURPOSES OF ART HAVE BEEN THE SAME SINCE THE CAVE PAINTERS–OR BEFORE

  • “It is art that makes life, makes intensity, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” (Henry James)
  • “Art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.” (Walter Pater)
  • “Art is not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity.” (Mussorgsky)
  • The artist “speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives, to our sense of pity and beauty, and pain.” (Joseph Conrad)
  • “Art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen.” (Leo Tolstoy)
  • “The art of dancing stands at the source of all the arts that express themselves first in the human person.” (Havelock Ellis)
  • “It is through art and through art only, that we realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” (Oscar Wilde)
  • “The most truly satisfactory reward a writer ever gets is the moment he holds that book in his hand and says, ‘This is my baby”….It is an accomplished fact and it is yours. (John O’Hara).
  • “Great art is as irrational as great music. It is made with its own loveliness.” (George Jean Nathan)
  • A writer must leave “no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed–love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” (William Faulkner)
  • “All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.” (Walter Pater)

 

A WORK OF ART SHOULD BE CONSISTENTLY GOOD THROUGHOUT

  • “A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.” (Joseph Conrad)

 

LIKE WHAT YOU’RE WORKING ON

  • I was working on a story and it was very difficult for me to go on and I dawdled and dawdled. Then I realized I didn’t like the characters, didn’t like the plot, didn’t like anything about the piece though the quality of the writing was good. I stopped when I read: “One may do whatever one likes in art: the only thing is to make sure that one does like it.” (Robert Browning)
  • “Until the artist is satisfied with what he is doing, he continues shaping and reshaping. He stops when he thinks it’s good.” (John Dewey)

 

Among the topics to come in the next posts:

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SMALL ART AND GREAT ART

UNDERSTAND THAT IT IS NOT POSSIBE TO DESCRIBE THE COMPLETE, COMPLEX STRUCTURE OF KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS AN EXPERT ARTIST HAS ACQUIRED

THE VALUE IN ALL ARTS OF SUCCINCTNESS, INCLUDING ONLY WHAT IS ESSENTIAL

ARTISTS ARE BY NATURE INDEPENDENT, RESTLESS, AND CONFIDENT OF THEIR TALENT

MOST ARTISTS HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR

HOW ART WORKS: THE ROLE OF THE ARTIST

And more.

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

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Filed under Artistic Quality, Artists, creativity, Elizabeth Bowen, George Orwell, Henri Matisse, Henry James, John Keats, Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy, Motivation, Oscar Wilde, Quotations, William Faulkner, writing