Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

The Weakness Many Writers Don’t Know They Have: Ideas and Models for Describing Places in Your Writing

Many writers have a weakness, but are not aware of it. They fall short when they describe places. Their places don’t seem real and are not vivid Small wooden farm buildings behind a wooden fence on the side of a road with grass and autumn treesor accurate. They are not interesting. Because of an inadequate handling of places, a work that may be superb in every other respect is without convincingly-described locations, scenes, and settings. Descriptions of places are not window dressing that a writer need pay little attention to, but a feature of writing fiction, nonfiction, and drama that is indispensable. Poorly written descriptions of places detract from the quality of the written piece.

When you read a description of place by someone such as Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway, who has elevated that skill to the level of art, you are impressed. You read the description more than once. You think, “This person can really write.” You realize that giving attention to skillfully composing your book’s or story’s places will enhance the works that you are striving so hard to make readable, enjoyable, salable.

Rust-colored field in front of rust-colored barn and silo with blue sky and pinkish cloudsAward-winning short story specialist Eudora Welty did more than anyone else to point out how central to effective fiction place is. She said that the story’s place affects “all currents” of the work, all of its emotions, beliefs, and moral convictions that “charge out from the story” as the author unfolds it. She said the places should always be identified, and adds that they should be described in a particular way that requires significant writing skills.

They should be described concretely.

They should be described exactly.

To describe places concretely and exactly requires the writer to be patient and take time writing about the places and not dismiss them with a few vague words. It is worthwhile to pay attention to places in works you read so you might learn from them. Don’t hurry through them. Study them. See how they are so skillfully put together.

Look at the places in writing you are working on, especially the work you are submitting to publishers or intend to publish yourself, and make sure places are both concrete and exact.

Some Writers, Poets, and Artists Are Known for Their Places

View of Chicago skyscrapers behind a bridge over the Chicago RiverPlace has been particularly important to some noted authors. You cannot imagine the story’s characters without the place where the author has put them:  Dublin  to James Joyce, small town and rural Mississippi to Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, Paris,  Spain, and Africa to Ernest Hemingway, Camden, Ohio to Sherwood Anderson, southern United States to Truman Capote, James Agee, Reynolds Price, Pat Conroy, and many other “Southern writers,“ the plains of Nebraska to Willa Cather, Chicago to Saul Bellow, the Mississippi River to Mark Twain, the English moors to Charlotte Bronte and sister Emily,  eighteenth century London to Charles Dickens, Mexico and the state of Texas to Katherine Anne Porter,  Los Angeles to mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and so on.

Places are very important to poets too: America is Walt Whitman’s subject, and Patterson, New Jersey is special to William Carlos Williams. And a place may be a favorite subject of painters: his gardens to Claude Monet, the hill visible from his window to Paul Cezanne.

Models

Below are places from my life I have described in stories I’ve written:

A Chicago Alley Late On a Rainy Night When I Was Five

Bungalows on a neighbborhood street with lawns and a sidewalk(My father was an air raid warden during World War II, and once he took me with him during an air raid practice when the lights of the city were turned off and the skies were filled with search lights) “My father and I turned and came up behind the church where a delivery truck was parked. We walked down the alley, keeping our eyes trained on the apartment buildings’ windows, past the empty lot overgrown with weeds and covered with tin cans and newspapers, and past the bent-in-half, arthritic and reclusive witch’s bleak house. Her ferociously unfriendly German shepherds were oddly quiet. We passed the drowsy homes and apartment buildings of neighbors, only some of whose names we knew. Behind the walls of those buildings were people not unlike us, simple people, all with the stories of their lives never to be written.  All shades were drawn, and so the night was perfect, with no more reminders necessary.

My father stopped to look straight up through the drizzle again and then so did I. Between the sweeping beams of the search lights, white stars Wet road with starry-looking street lamps at nightand a full moon dangled in the sky. On the back porches in neat array, like miniature glass sentinels, stood the empty bottles left out for the milk man.  Branches of trees laden with rain bent low over back fences like old women on canes. When the wind blew, the leaves showered the two of us with water, and we laughed. On the ground lay deep puddles that we had no choice but to step through, which was fine with me because I was wearing boots. My father’s shoes made squishing sounds and he said,” Another pair down the drain” and we laughed at that, and I splashed through, heavy-footed.”

Chicago on a Summer Night

“It was a typical August night in the city, a moonlit night that if you lived in that part of the country you knew intuitively would witness a drop in temperature that would turn a blistering hot day cold almost precisely one minute after the stroke of twelve. In the air circulating on a breeze were fish smells from the beaches of Lake Michigan that were coming into view as we walked through a park that had a merry-go-round and Park bench between two trees and sunsetswings. The night had taken on an indefinable splendor and given me a feeling of exquisite peace that I hadn’t felt since childhood. I saw a white yacht that was illuminated by deck lights out on the lake.  Small waves rocked a rowboat that was not very far from me. With a whoosh, waves tumbled over themselves onto a beach.  A bell chimed somewhere on the water. There was a splash and then another. The vivacious woman I was with took off her shirt and bra and swung them over her head like a lasso. She said, “Guess what I do for a living.” I said, “I’ll bet you four million dollars that you are an actress.”

A Bar in a Town in Montana, United States

After we graduated from high school my good friend Nick and I–he eighteen, I seventeen–decided to ride freight trains for a while.  A train heading west came along and we hopped it.

“Down the wide main street and prominently visible from our freight train that had just pulled in, the alluring green neon sign of the Welcome Inn burned brightly. It was a small, squat, one-story square log building that night and day hummed and trembled with pulsing music and in which who knew what went on. But we were curious to find out. We entered that tumult of sweat and whiskey, amidst the glow of the red bar lights and clouds of floating cigarette smoke, and stood at the bar next to a tattooed woman snapping a bull whip and wearing a black satin cape with shining red lining, and saw a man with a chin scar and an eye-patch get angry and pull a pistol on another man. The second man took the gun away from the first and slugged him over the head. He turned to us disgusted with his friend, who lay dazed and prone on the floor, people stepping over him, and said, not in any way angry, “He’s always doing that,” and that was the end of that.

Pale blue and brown old cars lined up on grassOld cars with dented fenders and gaudy garters dangling on their rear-view mirrors and pick-up trucks with rifle racks cradling ominous shotguns and carbines were parked four deep in the lot. When the door of the Inn swung open, muscular men, their shirt sleeves rolled up above the bicep, sauntered out arrogantly, their arms tight around the waists of conspicuously made-up women, their heads thrown back in exaltation and abandon, and the chime of laughter spilled into the night like flowing wine.”

The College Town Where I Lived

“… a small drowsy college set in a little town of narrow, winding cobblestone streets crowded with lovely old gnarled oaks, maples, and sycamores and wild, untrimmed hedges. Pinnacles, domes, and spires of church towers, like the great cathedrals of Europe, rose gradually and wonderfully and were visible everywhere. In the yards, along crumbling stone fences sprouting moss, lichens, and ferns, were an abundance of rose gardens that were sadly withered at that time of year. The town was surrounded on all sides by tractors and threshers left overnight by farmers in wheat fields, and the campus was split in two by a river with an Indian name.”

 

A street with shopsExcellent writers should be able to describe places that they have experienced or have heard or read about and can clearly envision as they compose. They should be able to create vivid descriptions that enliven the text and appeal to the reader’s senses.

 

© 2022 David J. Rogers

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

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Filed under Descriptive Writing, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Place, Writing, Writing improvement, Writing models

The Authentic Voice of Creative People

Creatives’ On-Going Quest for an Authentic Presence

Painting of a tree with birds

Inspiration by Regina Valluzzi

We homo sapiens are marvels, aren’t we? Since the dawn of our species, through every era, among us have been extraordinarily artistically gifted people. They are blessed or burdened with an unquenchable need to express, to grow, to explore, to create, and to embellish their existence by communicating in their own voice–which is not precisely like any other voice–a presence they wish, rather urgently, to share.

The first subject our artistic forebears chose to leave behind for us to see are impressions of their hands on the walls of caves. There at that site thirty thousand years ago, a man or woman–much shorter than us, with faces different than ours, working alone as artists do–put aside chores, squatted down in darkness, and blew colored pigment through a rod onto their hand, leaving no other trace of their days and nights but that hand. Yet through that hand–that painter’s medium, that subject–we feel their presence, and with it a bond, a caring for them, a love. We hear their voice.

Blue waves with pink and blue sky

Rose Dusk Beach by Regina Valluzzi

The late composer Marvin Hamlisch–a three-time Academy Award winner, and Pulitzer Prize winner for the composition for the play A Chorus Line–was a friend. Once I told him I’d been watching a movie and a few bars into the music, I knew he had written it.  He said, “Is that true?” I said yes, every distinctive piece of music, writing, art, acting, and composing is marked by the recognizable voice of the person who created it.

Pink and white thread-like flowers on a branch

Alive by Regina Valluzzi

It is often because of that clear voice that we go on reading the poem, or viewing the painting, or listening to the actor or to the music, and are attentive and respectful. It’s only inferior work that doesn’t take us back to an interesting, stimulating, flexible, and complex mind of the person behind the work.  Who a creative is intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually radiates from the creative’s presence in the work and cannot be hidden. Many creatives have recognizable voices because they return again and again to painting or writing about a particular subject matter.  Some creatives, such as Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, discovered their authentic voice when they were young; others, such as self-taught American poet Walt Whitman, not until later in life.

So if we’re looking for prescriptions to the creative for finding or authentic voice and presence, the first would be: “Reveal yourself. Let your true identity permeate the work—your sincerity, your honesty, your mind in action, your originality, abilities, and uniqueness, the ‘I’ who you are–for it’s that, above and beyond the other content that your audience will be attracted  to. Be interesting, be clever, be skilled, be alive, be true, and be authentic.

 

Learning to Write In a More Satisfying Voice

Painting of plue water with brown sand

Rhapsody on the Sea by Regina Valluzzi

American novelist John Hersey said, “The voice is the element over which you have no control.”

Contrary to Hersey’s belief that writers have no control over their voice, they definitely do. Yet many writers have searched their texts for their authentic voice and can’t find it. So they sometimes conclude that while there may be such a thing as a voice, they do not have one, or they might have one but they don’t know what it is, and couldn’t describe it if they were asked to. But their voice is right there in the text, or the right voice can be added to the text. Always be thinking of the voice you want your work to project.

Misty pastel hills

Hills and Fog by Regina Valluzzi

A writer was dissatisfied with the voices she found in her writing. They didn’t seem to be “her.” They were different from what she felt should be the voice of a mature, thirty-five year old mother of two, an assertive, experienced writer of essays and short stories. A few of her stories had been published in a local literary magazine. She hoped to continue writing and seeing her work appear in better magazines. She didn’t like the syntax in her writing. She thought the writing was too formal and stilted, too cold, humorless, bland, business-like, academic, dull, lifeless, and not inviting for readers.

If you have a similar problem, here is an approach you might find helpful: ask experienced writer friends to look through a piece you’ve written. Ask them to identify sentences or passages that sound most like you. Then analyze what they think sounds most like you and identify the salient elements that gave them that impression-when they say, “Right there you were doing something very good. You should get more of that into your writing, you may be onto something.”

Then write a piece in that voice. Then show a draft of the piece to a supportive writer. Ask them what they think. Does it work? If it doesn’t work, write the piece again. If it does sound like you, you’ll be encouraged.

Twisted brown trees with aqua sky

Undulating Wood by Regina Valluzzi

If in your craft you are trying to communicate a particular voice or to avoid communicating another one, you might tell your friends what you would like them to look for as they look at your work. Once when I was working on a book, I left some pages on my desk and went to bed. The next day I noticed my teenage daughter had circled a couple of sentences and written, “Write more like this, Dad. Sounds like you,” and it was my voice loud and clear.

Avoid steering their perceptions in a particular direction, as saying to them, for example, “Is my writing dull?” “Is it too complicated and unclear?” Leave them alone to make their own observations. Be sure to tell them that you want their opinions and that you are giving them your permission to be honest and open.

A competent writer should be able to write in more than one voice, as required by the work at hand, a competent painter to paint in more than one. Who could paint in as many voices as Picasso? But in the creatives’ way of producing works there is one voice that is the most powerful, natural, and suitable to what creatives are trying to accomplish, what author Peter Elbow calls the “juice.” When the quest for an authentic voice is successful, creatives come into their own and do their art better than ever before.

I can’t think of better teachers of voice than writers who have the kind of voice that appeals to you and you would like to learn from.  I find the voices of James Agee’s A Death in the Family, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, some passages of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With a Dog,”  full of instruction for me as I look for the voice I want, thinking, “I’d like my writing to sound that way consistently.” To better understand how Hemingway created the effects he did, I analyzed his work and read what critics and teachers had to say about it, then wrote an essay on techniques he employed to create his voice. It is a voice that in the 1920s marked the start of the “Hemingway Voice” that revolutionized how, ever since, Americans have written and spoken. Whose voices do you admire most?

Branches with blossoms and birds leaning toward each other

The Sentries by Regina Valluzzi

The lovely art featured in this post is by Regina Valluzzi, a trained scientist and researcher in the Chemical , Physical, and Biological Sciences. The influence of her scientific experience permeates her approach to painting as both an art and a science, and gives her a unique voice. The pieces she has kindly allowed me to display here, she has informed me, “feature mixed media and a combination of “classic” painting techniques, controlled fluid pouring techniques and acrylic extrusion using cake decorating tools to control the three dimensional line shape and forms.  In most cases [she has] developed [her] own techniques or versions of techniques through a variety of controlled experiments.”

 

© 2018 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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Self-Taught Artists and Writers

I’m guessing that very few of you reading this post graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and  many did not graduate from any graduate writing program, and possibly you were not even an English or journalism major in college. You might have had a major that was totally unrelated to writing, like Nobel novelist Saul Sorbonne634035_640Bellow, an anthropology major, or innovative French novelist/ screenwriter/essayist Alain Robbe-Grillet, an agronomist, or may not have attended college at all. Many great writers, like Nobel winner Ernest Hemingway, had no interest in attending college, and many others, like Nobel winners William Faulkner and playwright Eugene O’Neill didn’t take college seriously (well that’s probably true of 30 or 40% of all college students), and quit it because they thought it was not only not helping them, but holding them back. And I’m guessing that not more than, let’s see, two of you painters attended the Sorbonne, and some possibly never attended any art school. Yet you’re capable and have had writing and painting success. Your work has been published and art works have been shown. Some of you are professionals earning a substantial living.

The majority of you are autodidacts—mainly self-taught–and many of you autodidacts, you formally “untutored” creative people, have surpassed and achieved more success than many if not most Iowa writers, and Sorbonne painters. When most of what you know about how to paint or write creatively is a result of what you have taught yourself, of knowledge and experience you’ve acquired on your own, there is directness, freshness, and truthfulness in your work that you might not have achieved had you followed a more conventional developmental route that “everyone else” seems to be following.

French painter Henri Rousseau (1840-1910) was a self-taught autodidact too. An official with the French customs office, he began painting as a late-blooming amateur “Sunday painter” who might take his cheap paint box out into the park for an afternoon’s relaxation. He signed Rousseauhis first picture at the age of 36 and exhibited in his first show at 40. His earliest paintings were technically incorrect and unsophisticated as the work of a beginner usually is. The forms were stiff and simple; the proportions were inaccurate, and the perspectives were wrong. But in his work there was “something” that drew the attention of critics and the public—the honesty in the works, a directness that came right out of his obvious joy in the act of creation. He was an advanced autodidact and did things that other unschooled artists did not usually do, and conventionally trained painters did not do. Paint which in a run-of-the-mill painting of a beginner would be thin and dry is applied with rich body. Colors that would be anemic or muddy in the ordinary newcomer’s work were clear in Rousseau. His work continued to grow in popularity. His paintings created a world of enchantment.

This was a dangerous point for Rousseau because he had to strike a balance of learning to be more technically proficient, but not to the point that technical qualities would obliterate the originality that came to him naturally, just as I hope however technically advanced you become, you never lose your natural and authentic voice.  Rousseau had to guard his naiveté and so he created for himself a personal style based on the forms that had been spontaneous to him as a beginner—a highly cultivated style that at the same time was rooted in an untutored simplicity. And that is Rousseau’s special charm.

Although seriously technically limited by conventional standards, a painting or a story, poem, or novel, or any creative product, may be a work of art even if the work’s quality is half-accidental, as it was with Henri Rousseau.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), another thoroughly self-taught autodidact, ended his formal education at eleven. During the six years between 1849 and 1855 he turned himself from a lazy second-rate journalist and less than average creative walt-whitman-391107_640writer who couldn’t hold a job into–through a “liberation of language” never seen before on earth—one of the greatest poets the world has ever known. Prior to his first book– Leaves of Grass–he seemed to be a very untalented man. Before becoming the” father of American poetry,” he worked as a carpenter (building his own home) and as an elementary school teacher, printer, editor, shopkeeper, and in the world of newspapers, paled around with artists and sculptors, attended operas (said he learned more about writing from operas than from anything else), studied history and astronomy on his own, read voraciously, and believed in self-help and self-education. He said that during those years before Leaves of Grass when he was writing “conventional verse” he was “simmering, simmering, simmering.” This man who wrote, “I have not once had the least idea who or what I am” developed in those mystical six years a vision and style that no one since has been able to duplicate. His poetry startled the literary world and started a new direction in poetry. Readers were astonished.

Living not far from Whitman at the time, and working in solitude, unknown to the literary world, was quiet, subdued poet Emily Dickinson. Do you think it is a coincidence that those two untutored autodidacts who worked alone, were unknown, taught themselves, and never met,  would become America’s finest poets and produce work the likes of which no one had ever seen before?

Most often the reason a writer, artist, composer, etc. is not yet accomplished is not because she’s unintelligent or not talented, but because she isn’t knowledgeable enough yet. In writing and every other art, every other discipline, knowledge isn’t everything, but almost everything. The more you know, the more you can achieve—the greater your reach. The self-taught creator knows that and follows an atypical but most productive route to the knowledge she needs to excel. She looks for it wherever it may be and acquires it on her own. She has high motivation and a thirst for learning about her craft that cannot be quenched.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was reading Whitman in 1886 around the time he was painting the apocalyptic “Starry Night.” If you know your Whitman that makes perfect sense. A solitary who worked outside of any school or tradition, vincent-van-gogh-89422_640van Gogh was self-made. He had only one year’s total training from instructors, but studied ceaselessly on his own, the autodidact of autodidacts. He had tremendous faith in the future of his work, and felt it was worth sacrificing everything for it. He was a harsh self-critic, considering many of his paintings now accepted as masterpieces mere studies. At the time of his death he had sold one painting and traded another for brushes, had been represented by just a few dealers, had participated in a half-dozen shows, and had dissuaded critics from writing about his work. Few artists of any kind have made themselves as knowledgeable or clear-sighted about their art, or have a more developed understanding of painting. He rarely signed his works, believing that to do so was arrogant, and that an artist should work humbly. He had a short but prodigious career, leaving behind a legacy of more than 2,000 paintings and drawings at his death at thirty-seven.

Artists and writers and people in general who don’t follow a traditional route to expertise and beyond that to excellence–who go off on their own–may produce direct, fresh, original work they might not have been able to produce had they followed a traditional path. They are original often because they see that the traditional rules don’t suit them, or they don’t know the rules and aren’t limited by them. It may take them longer. By necessity they may have to be late-bloomers like Rousseau, van Gogh, and Whitman. But what does time matter if time is needed for you to come into your own? When writing Leaves of Grass, Whitman told himself, “Make it new.” and he did.

What we learn from autodidacts is to be original, be true to ourselves, be honest, be direct, don’t hide from ourselves, and find our own truth though it may be different from everyone else’s. You are not like other artists or writers. In Leaves of Grass Whitman writes, “I celebrate myself” which seems to me not a bad place for creative people to start.

(For further reading, you may wish to see the excellent Van Gogh: A Retrospective, edited by Susan Alyson Stein, and Geoffrey Dutton’s Whitman)

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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