Sunday, June 21, 2009

On King's On Writing

"When a simile or a metaphor doesn't work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing. Recently I read this sentence in a forthcoming novel I prefer not to name: 'He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich.' If there is a clarifying connection here, I wasn't able to make it. I consequently closed the book without reading further. If a writer knows what he or she is doing, I'll go along for the ride. If he or she doesn't...well, I'm in my fifties now, and there are a lot of books out there. I don't have time to waste with the poorly written ones."

Stephen King's On Writing is just as the cover states: "A memoir of the craft." I became a fan of King's writing in college, when I read a paperback copy of Carrie, which to this day is still my favorite of his books. On Writing is a tip book for emerging writers. King gives insight into the writing world by giving insight into his writing world. But, how else could anyone talk about writing?

King talks of writing as an art and as a job, a 9-5er complete with a toolbox full of all the necessary style instruments. He begins the book with a 98 page bio, where he shows us how writing has woven itself into his life so completely that without it he could not be whole. The final section of the book, detailing his accident in 1999 when he was struck by a careless driver and nearly killed, reiterates this idea of life and writing tied together.

King describes writing as telepathy, magic, but most memorably to me as digging for a fossil. There's something already there, and we have to use the right tools to uncover it. A fossil indicates a suggestion of another world, a suggestion of story. I agree with King that writing is an act of discovering something already there, though I would argue on the detail of whether one is discovering a fossil or something more whole as in a woolly mammoth frozen in an ice block.

On Writing is touching, very funny, and very informative. If you're super stuffy, and refuse to acknowledge that King is truly a great writer, then you might see it as trash. But the truth of the matter is that no matter his subject matter, King is a writer. To quote Roger Ebert: "A lot of people were outraged that he (King) was honored at the National Book Awards, as if a popular writer could not be taken seriously. But after finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery." Author Cynthia Ozick said of King: "It dawned on me as I listened to him that, never mind all the best sellers and all the stereotypes - this man is a genuine, true-born writer, and that was a revelation." Who can argue with a man when his advice to writers is to read a lot and write a lot?

On that same note, I recommend this book to anyone who loves to write, or to anyone who loves to read. Finally, to give you an idea of the tone of On Writing, I leave you with this clip of Stephen King giving advice to beginning writers at Yale.

Monday, June 15, 2009

More Than an Adventure Story

The King returns to his home, only to find it is a wasteland, devoured by pretenders who drain his wealth and torment his family. With the aid of the gods, he fights and defeats them, and brings peace and unity to his kingdom.

This theme is so common I could be talking about countless stories, including such classic tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, or JRR Tolkien's The Return of the King. But long before those books, there was The Odyssey.

I came to this book looking for adventure, and it did not disappoint. However, what I thought I knew about The Odyssey, from a version I'd seen in school to the adaptation NBC and Hallmark did to the Coen brothers's fantastic film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was slightly off. The tale of Odysseus' struggle to reach home has a lot more to do with a lost life, the pain of mother and son as they grieve for their absent husband and father, and the struggle to take back what is rightfully yours. Very little of the story has to do with adventure on the high seas, and Homer places this right in the middle of the tale as a short but sweet intermission of sorts.

The Greeks would have been familiar with this aspect; they might not have been so in tune with the story of Penelope, who stayed virtuous until the end, or Telemachus who took a journey of his own in the quest to find his father. This is what Homer gives us in The Odyssey. The story is driven by the inner drama of Odysseus and his family, and there is a noticeable similarity in storytelling to The Iliad, also a story more about inner conflict than about war.

There is a great passage towards the end of the book, on the eve before Odysseus whoops some butt (so to speak). For twenty years, suitors have been harassing Penelope to pick a new husband, all the while eating all of Odysseus' food and drinking all of his wine. They are guests who have overstayed their welcome. As they prepare for another night of feasting at someone else's expense, stuffing their face with butchered pigs, they are completely unaware that they'll be dead by the following evening. Theocymenos, able to see the future, tries to warn them. Perhaps the gods wanted to give them one last chance:

"Their plates were messed with blood, tears streamed from their eyes, their minds foreboded mourning: Theoclymenos the seer cried aloud:

"Ah, miserable creatures, what is happening to you? Night is wrapt about your heads and your faces and your bodies down to the knees, there is a blaze of lamentation, tears roll down your cheeks, walls and panelings are bedabbled with blood; the porch is full of phantoms, the courtyard is full of phantoms, hurrying down to Erebos and the dark; the sun has perished out of the sky, and a thick fog spreads over all."

When I read this section, it sent chills down my spine. I saw these men in bloodstained clothes, laughing, making crude jokes, food and grease everywhere, blood and wine running from the corners of their mouths. They're warned of what's about to happen but they are having too much fun to believe the warning. They are animals, and they are savages, yet they are pitiable for how savage they have become.

As I said, I came to The Odyssey with expectations of a a fantasy adventure, but Homer delivers a lot more. He serves up a tale of a man never without a plan, a son who learns to be brave, and a wife who is the most loving and devoted woman any man could hope to marry.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Your body of knowledge seems slightly anemic...

My friend lent me a book she had just finished, called Body of Knowledge by Bryce W. Anderson. She wasn't sure how to take the book, and she wanted my opinion. I started it on Sunday, and finished it on Wednesday. It was a fast read! But sometimes that isn't a good thing...

Anderson tells us a fictional tale of a man (named, oddly enough, Bryce W. Anderson) who forms a friendship with his neighbor who has just moved in across the street. This neighbor, JP is his name, reveals to the narrator that he is an important historical figure who never died. I won't tell you any further details about the plot. I will say that the book gives us this fascinating premise, but not much more.

Slightly over 200 pages long, the book is composed of 46 chapters, meaning that each chapter is little over four pages long. For me, this was a big problem because each chapter is basically an encounter between Anderson and JP, and the encounters seem short and trivial.

Speaking of trivia, the book is full of it. JP bestows many fascinating facts on Anderson, and he grows as a human as a result. Or at least we're told he does. See, the problem is that we're told much more than we're shown. We don't really experience Anderson's growth, we just have to take his word for it. And the fascinating facts aren't nearly as fascinating as they purport to be.

Body of Knowledge is along the lines of the film Tuesdays with Morrie (and I'm assuming the book, though I haven't read it) or Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell in the television series The Power of Myth and subsequent book, but it doesn't have the power of either of those works. JP's character traits aren't strong enough to make him lovable like Jack Lemmon's portrayal of Morrie. Added to that, JP's so-called wisdom isn't as profound as it aims to be.

The book is composed of mini-conversations, which Anderson likens to threads. These tiny segments of knowledge could have made up for the lack of characters and descriptions, but they weren't strong enough. When Bill Moyers interviewed expert in mythology Joseph Campbell a few decades ago, Campbell talked about everything from human desire to life to death to heroism. That series is so fascinating because Campbell had so much wisdom and knowledge to share. JP, who has had 2000 years to accumulate knowledge, seems to have nothing but menial trivia, the same sort of trivia I've picked up in high school and college.

So at the end of the book I wasn't moved over the loss of JP the way I was when Morrie dies at the end of the film, or by the fact that Campbell passed away after his interviews, because JP's character wasn't particularly original and somewhat two-dimensional, and his wisdom wasn't very deep. Even if Bryce had experienced some sort of conflict in his life, and JP helped him (or failed to help him) that would have added something to the book. But nothing happens, and so the book is not very extraordinary.

I recommend watching The Power of Myth, or even buying the book, which is essentially a transcript of the conversations. The information contained in that work is amazing, and Campbell was a brilliant man.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The People Versus Strunk and White

"Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised."
- "An Approach to Style" in The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

The Elements of Style
by Strunk and White has been on the list of suggested reading in many of my previous college classes. I avoided purchasing the book for as long as I could because I felt that I was a strong enough writer. My understanding of grammar and the English language is good enough to get an A on an essay without trying too hard.

In my final English class at GVSU, the teacher not only required that we read Strunk and White, but she tested us on sections of the book. A couple of years later, I decided to sit down and read the book all the way through, covering about a chapter a night. I'm not sure if anyone has ever read Elements of Style straight through, since I think it's meant to be a reference book.

Let me say that the book exists on a strange, somewhat useless plane. The rules presented are aimed for the more grammatically inept, but the explanations and the demands are really aimed towards stronger writers. Who is this book supposed to appeal to? By the way, according to Strunk and White, it has become more acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, and often rearranging a sentence will just make it sound awkward: "To whom is this book supposed to appeal?"

This book has been criticized by those in the academic world as being out of touch and too stiff-necked, but I disagree. Strunk, or White, who knows, makes a few amusing jokes by breaking his own rules. While memorizing and living by a book like this would probably be fatal to any creative writing, I think knowing the rules is a key step to breaking them. Too many writers break rules willy nilly in an attempt to be unique or clever, and invariably they come off sounding like idiots. Learning the rules of proper grammar will help a great writer learn when it is okay, and even needed, to break them. Probably one of the greatest rules in the book is Rule 17: Omit Needless Words.

For me, the highlight of this book was the last chapter "An Approach to Style." Here Strunk (or was it White?) demonstrates that he can write, and shows us, to the best of his ability, what writing style is. He concedes that style can't really be taught, but he makes up for this by exposing us to his own style. The book is worth buying just for this chapter. I leave you with another excerpt, taken from Suggestion 9 in this wonderful chapter:

"The volume of writing is enormous these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. "Spontaneous me," sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of genereal interest and that unihibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An Odyssey through Literature

Could you imagine being a part of a journey so astounding, so memorable, that your name would forever be associated with adventure? The story of Odysseus as told to us by Homer is a hero story that has it all: monsters, wars, murder, treachery, miracles, love, sex, and a hero that is "never without a loss." This work is so important, its impact so profound, that it has become acceptable to call any great journey an Odyssey.

OK, so I like this book. I'm not particularly fond of the translation I have by W.H.D. Rouse (not the translation pictured here). I first read this book back in Middle School, but we read a version called Ulysses which was the basic story simplified with a focus on the adventure part and less on the Telemachus and revenge parts. When I sat down to read the Odyssey, I discovered that the adventure section with the Cyclops and Sirens, Calypso and Circe, was barely a third of the book. I'll admit that I read that third, placed at the center of the story, the fastest, and am still cruising through the last 100 pages or so of the book. But the story is still great. Homer makes Odysseus a likable character, and despite his liaisons with a few immortal women, we can tell that Odysseus truly misses his wife and longs to see her again.

Before this book, I read The Wastelands by Stephen King, which is part of his Dark Tower series. I've been interspersing the Dark Tower with more classic works, to make myself feel better King. Although, I think King doesn't get as much credit as he deserves for being a decent writer, not just a decent horror writer. No matter what his critics may say about his subject material, he has literary skill.

I read the Iliad before that, and that was a difficult book for me to get through. Again, I think that might have had a lot to do with the translation. Whereas my version of the Odyssey is written in way too simple language, the version of the Iliad I read was too stuffy. I get the significance of the story, the fact that Hector is really the character we feel sorry for, and Achilles is pretty self-centered until the end. I also appreciate the way Homer examines the gods in the Iliad, showing them as petty and irresponsible. Homer shows us what makes a man a hero. I think a different translation would have sat with me better.