Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Letter Writing

David McCullough’s new book ‘The Greater Journey’ has received mostly good notices in recent months. I have not read the book but I have read some of his previous ones particularly the abridged version of ‘Truman’ and ‘Path between the Seas’ about the Panama canal. I also enjoyed the HBO miniseries ‘John Adams’ which is based on his Pulitzer Prize winning book. I also enjoyed the film about Harry Truman starring Gary Sinise which was also based on his award winning work. Research for his recent novel is based on letters of the main characters on their experiences in Paris. In a Time magazine interview, David McCullough laments the decline of letter writing in recent years and marveled at the way people wrote letters in the past. To write is to think. He said letter writing is a good way to refine your thoughts – a way of thinking out loud and expressing them to the letter’s recipients. He doubts today’s emails or blogging can provide the traditional benefits of letter writing as practiced in the past.

From one’s perspective, writing a blog can clarify one’s thoughts which a diary or journal could do as well. But writing to another human being is a different form of expression – something that requires one to be circumspect and real. After all it’s not a debate or a rant (maybe sometimes) or an intellectual treatise (perhaps) but a story about one’s present circumstances. How is one doing at work or how the wife and kids are doing and stories of one’s new life situation. I guess that is the difference when comparing the different types of writing. A blogger or journal writer would have the means of refining their thought process so the thinking experience exists. But the authenticity of expression is lost as intimate communication is not the goal of blogging or journal writing.  There is no other person that one is communicating to; only a general public or one’s inner conscience.

Being a true writer in the form of a novelist requires a transition. One wonders whether the past experience was a boon on thinking or writing. I guess it’s both - writing is an expression in written (pen to paper) language. Speaking is another form of expression where one verbalizes the thinking process when one declares one’s thoughts.  Those folks who have practiced their thinking via writing may have difficulties speaking as his mind is too fast for his mouth. His verbal skills cannot catch up with the thinking mind. But speaking is closer to letter writing because there is a recipient of one’s verbal message. So one should keep his diction and style at a level understood by the listener. The difference is being conscious of an audience and their capacity to understand. Indeed, listening to oneself speak or listening to audio books is a different learning experience than reading. The spoken word is processed differently by the mind.

Reading is more a visual process as compared to listening which is an auditory process.  Recently, I have been listening to Philip Roth’s ‘Everyman’. I know he is a great writer because his stories remain in my mind like a popular song. His voice is clear and simple with an elegant dexterity. He is a better writer than John Updike because of his simplicity of voice. He does not write with the ascetic style of recent Cormac McCarthy or Don Delillo but with the understated verbosity of Saul Bellow; more concise without the elegant flourish of Updike or even Thomas Pynchon. The story and authentic voice remain and one is not lost in elegant phrasing. Listening to books is a much easier way to ‘read’ but lacks the intensity and focus of actual reading. Ideally one should visually read major works and keep the listening to the lesser works. But unfortunately one does not have time. To illustrate the problem, I also listen to audio books in investment and finance but miss the technical details.

Important investment advice (or non-fiction works) may be lost if one relies on listening. One must take notes, perhaps doodling or visual note taking to remember the important details. Just like attending class or a lecture. But audio books may be right for general literature.  But is it enough to be a writer? One must read books to be a good writer; can this requirement be met by listening to audio books? Similarly, writing in whatever form is also important; but logging many hours in blogs or journal writing enough? Is public speaking helping in the process of creative writing? For example, like making speeches in Toastmaster. One hopes these activities are not shortcuts but truly help achieve the goal of being a writer. In fact, one achieves a level of comfort and confidence in expressing oneself. There is an ease of communication and expression. Hence, the only remaining task is learning the craft of creative writing.

Last year I attended 4 one hour sessions on creative writing. But much has been achieved this year.  I attended a 2 month course on novel writing (a 2 hour class once a week) based on a text book by the NYC Writer’s Workshop. I attended a 2 day writer’s workshop over a weekend at a nearby college. I attended some literary talks like the recent one sponsored by the local library with author Sue Monk Kidd. I watched videos in YouTube and other sites with writers speaking about writing. I worked on my short story and completed some writing exercises which got some critiques in the workshops. Most importantly, I networked and talked with fellow writers or would be authors on getting their work published. One has a good sense of creative writing after attending these events. For the remainder of the year, I plan to attend the local Scribbler’s session in the library and join the SC writer’s workshop where one can share and get constructive criticism of one’s work. I will also participate in the NANOWRIMO novel writing event in November.

Hence, one continues blogging, listening to audio books (or actually reading one), watching videos on writing, watching DVDs, participating in Toastmasters, writing and evaluating speeches, attending speech contests and workshops.  All the while, making a living, working on one’s career and projects, going to the gym, settling to new circumstances and establishing a semblance of family life. For instance, this weekend was Labor Day. I spent the long 3 day weekend at home, eating, going to the gym, watching DVDs (Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Robert Redford and Ken Burns) listening to music CDs and reading a Civil War picture book. I wanted to go to Robinson Lake but it rained. I wanted to call my brother and parents back home but was lazy. I also promised to write a letter to my mom but have not done so.  Instead, I listened to an investment book called ‘The Great Reflation’ and Roth’s ‘Everyman’ and thought about the protagonist’s lament on old age, loss of family, loss of friends and his youthful vigor.  I also made Thai Mango salad and Thai Cucumber salad and thought about past visits to exotic Thailand.

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