Saturday, August 25, 2012

Naïve and Sentimental Writer

Orhan Pamuk’s book introduces interesting concepts on the craft of writing. It is possibly the loftiest essay on writing that I have ever read. It is fruitful that I am reading his book now, during the writing course I am attending online. Pamuk has reflectively and analytically drawn a distinctive view on writing that is unique and thoroughly modern. Referring to Schiller’s primary essay as a source of his views, Pamuk distinguishes between naive and sentimental (or reflective) writers and readers. He also makes interesting distinctions between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, between visual and verbal writers, between spatial arts like painting or sculpture and time based art like novels.  It is probably one of the most academic and insightful works on writing from a great writer; whereas one would usually expect this type of analysis from a professor or academician or literary theorist and not from a Nobel prize awarded in Literature. Therefore, he knows of what he speaks, applying his insights into his art to great acclaim


According to his essays, he is a writer who is deliberate; a reflective writer who does a lot of plotting and planning before beginning the actual act of writing the book itself. Therefore he is the antithesis of the ‘naïve’ writer who rushes out and begins writing, driven by an enthusiasm that he thinks will carry him all the way to the completion of the work. There are writers who can achieve this ‘burst’ of effort effectively, perhaps writers like Stendhal, Dumas, Goethe or the recent example of the late Jack Kerouac with his automatic writing. I thought I was of this ilk, only realizing lately, after attending writing courses that this avenue often ends in a ‘writer’s’ block. He is the first writer I have read who has effectively explained the link between painting and writing; he is like a nexus or sweet spot located between the realm of literary and visual art, able to assimilate the lessons of each realm and explain their virtues which is why it provides a thoroughly modern perspective.

Pamuk also describes the way the mind reacts when reading or listening to a story, the way words would formulate on the brain, forming visual images as the words enter the brain page by page, the art of the novel proceeding in time as the reader works his way to the end of the book. Perhaps he is the first writer who has unlocked the secret of writing and explains the secrets in a simple and easy to understand manner. Overall it’s like delving into the mind of a great artist; plus the interesting fact that he is a Muslim Turk, a beneficiary of the ancient Arabian technology of the Middle East, of Persian and Ottoman influences, of the confluence of East and West, of Byzantium and the other ancient empires along the Silk Road; that he represents a rebirth of Ottoman renaissance, heralding the rise of modern Turkey in a European union bankrupted by Western excess. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but he does have a whiff of modernity, high education and brilliance in his analysis.

I woke up early this morning, preparing for an early meeting, where we passed a milestone and approved to move to the next stage. It was a culmination of a tough week, with friends over last night where I cooked ‘cioppino’ – a tomato based stew of shrimps, clams and fish, an Italian dish popular along the docks in the Adriatic coast,  where the remaining leftovers of the day’s catch tossed into a soup by tired fishermen.  My wife has gone home to attend her mother’s funeral, staying away for a month; my youngest son is away in college and my eldest at home working on his college entrance. I am in my sixth week at the writing course reading lectures and working on my writing assignments, tasked to thoroughly revise my submitted story, perhaps following Pamuk’s advice on writing, while I prepare to move to my new house, looking forward to critiquing short stories and playing golf in the weekend.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Becoming a Writer

In Ray Bradbury’s book on writing, he mentioned the work ‘Becoming a Writer’ in the very last page, praising the lessons as helping him in his journey. The premise of this work is that one needs a ‘personality change’ to become a writer and those lessons on adapting one’s personality is the key, not just technical knowledge of craft. This premise conforms to my own view that being a writer is a holistic journey that involves not only the learning of techniques or accumulation of writing experiences but also the whole development of a person.  This means traveling, reading, experiencing life and possibly things like learning meditation and cultivating public speaking skills in clubs like Toastmaster. The goal is to perfect one’s voice which will reflect on the writer’s point of view in the stories he is writing. Hence, being a writer does not mean a solitary journey of introspective writing but a holistic endeavor that covers the full development of the person.

I have not read the book yet, not having the time to squeeze into my busy schedule. But the premise was intriguing enough for me to purchase the book in Amazon, where it is billed as a ‘classic bestseller’. My weeks are filled with writing and reading assignments, participating in the writing classes and critiquing the work of my classmates. It is an online version of the Toastmaster experience, where a group of people help each other via constructive feedback. The group activity is especially useful as one learns the background and work of others in the class, helping one assess his current ability by comparing it with the rest of the other students or would be authors, who are mostly adults, retirees, and a few young people and office employees looking for another career or pursuing a child hood dream. An interesting mix that is similar to Toastmasters where one develops his public speaking skills within a club environment.

This is my second class in the online course which is not cheap but more thorough than the previous workshops I have attended last year. The main benefits are the reading assignments, sharing and critiquing of work plus the feedback from experienced teachers who are also established authors. One is exposed to humility as one reads the work of others and receives useful criticism that one should take as a constructive feedback. For example, a short story I wrote in my first fiction class was praised after extensive editing, but my teacher in my second class, advised me to start all over again. The students from my second class are more exact and seemed at a more experienced level than my first class. I feel like stepping into a higher stage with more exacting people. After this class, I will take a break and reflect on my experience. I plan to read the book ‘Becoming a Writer’ after this course.

Currently, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Naïve and Sentimental Writer’, which is based on a series of lectures in Harvard. The book introduced a concept derived from a celebrated essay by the German writer Schiller. Writers and readers are categorized as either naive or sentimental and Pamuk’s describes the difference between the two. I fall into the naive category and the learning of craft has led me towards the sentimental or reflective category. These months feel like a revolution to me, after thinking that one has already learned all he can that one finds that he must throw away all his knowledge and start afresh. A young French man I worked with back in Asia preferred to work with young people, remarking about the old saying that an old dog cannot learn new tricks. Therein lies the challenge, that one’s past training and experiences would help one move to an entirely different field of battle, ready to work with new weapons and skills.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Zen and the Art of Writing

In my last writing workshop, Ray Bradbury’s book on writing was often cited. So I borrowed the book from the library, slightly aware of Bradbury’s work especially in science fiction having seen François Truffaut’s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 and having heard but not read ‘The Martian Chronicles,’ a work talked about with awe by other noted writers. I also recently watched John Huston’s film ‘Moby Dick’ starring Gregory Peck and was surprised to see Ray Bradbury in the credits, being the writer in Huston’s film who adapted Herman Melville’s book for the screen.  Obviously, Ray Bradbury is a man of many talents, straddling the multiple genres of science fiction and fantasy, adapting a literary classic for the cinema and, as I later found out, both poetry and free-lance nonfiction writing. It also seems that his stories have inspired cult films that involve colonies in outer space or aliens burrowed deep in Antarctica.

His book is an exuberant paean to writing, of the variety that is homemade and learned by instinct, having avoided college education or formal writing courses, instead dashing out to write a story and learning the craft through sheer hard work, sending out stories to magazine publishers, getting rejected, and persevering until being published by pulp magazines and eventually achieving success. It’s not only the writing gusto that is impressive; it’s the exercise of his imagination and creativity, to delve into worlds beyond normal human experience, in outer space and other fantastic realms but never losing sight of a core truth; delivering a basic drama and not focusing on the special effects. One wonders how someone could exist like that, to evolve as a writer with innate confidence, bypassing any self-doubt or neurotic impulses, allowing his imagination to run free to explore new realities and having the discipline to write about it, forever trimming and editing until the work is ready.

He is an unsentimental writer, perhaps like another science fiction writer William Gibson, who never wastes a word or sentence unless it has some commercial value, making sure their labor is aimed towards a publisher unlike someone like me who constantly procrastinates and writes in self-indulgent journals. Interestingly, Bradbury uses word association to get ideas and help him write, something like mind-mapping, or cluster writing to help him finish his work. It’s the first time I have seen a successful author admit using this technique – a subject that was elaborately described in a famous book about word clustering. Bradbury also cited an author who has helped him – Dorothea Brande, author of the book ‘Becoming a Writer’ an old book published in the 1940’s. Last night, I bought the book from Amazon after reading a synopsis. Her thesis is that to become a writer one must address the psychology or personality of the person, not focusing on aspects like learning the writing craft as usually done.

It looks like an interesting book to read; the premise is something that I instinctively feel is my major stumbling block, not the learning of craft which seems easy to surmount after attending the right classes and doing the right exercises. Rather it is the underlying motivation and confidence that drives the individual that must be improved, turned towards being a writer. If her work was enough to motivate Ray Bradbury then it’s good enough for me. Hopefully this will turn out to be a work like Steven Pressman’s ‘The War of Art’ a book that focuses on motivation and being a professional in outlook in order to be a writer. In the end, writing should be like achieving ‘Zen’, a meditative state where writing becomes a joy and not a chore, something that’s achieved when work becomes love and one just writes for the pleasure of the activity. Hence, it is a psychological state that a writer must achieve as he proceeds to work in the writing craft.