Here’s a bit of winning advice from Ryan Lanz over at A Writer’s Path:
A lot of new writers–I was certainly guilty of this, myself–think that every sentence needs to be a colorful tapestry of words strung together, and that everything needs to “pop” to hold the reader’s attention. Why else do most new writers try to think of anything other than the simple “said” as a dialogue tag (more on dialogue tags here)? I was quick to discover that there is beauty in a short, bleak sentence. In fact, after a string of medium to long sentences, they are often my favorite ones to write.
Ryan is right on target. Consider Rembrandt’s Man in a Golden Helmet. The stark background not only sets off the dazzling helmet, but subtly highlights a face full of equally dark memories. The contrast actually supplements the unity of the composition.
This is a lesson I have to keep learning over and over. Back in my early days as a fiction scribbler, I couldn’t get published. After making a perfect pest of myself quizzing editors why they didn’t accept my submissions, one finally told me my descriptions were getting in the way of the plot and characterization. (Maybe that came from overdosing on T.C. Boyle and H.P. Lovecraft.) Anyway, the perfect tonic for my affliction was in reading lots of Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway. I even typed out Hemingway’s texts to see what it felt like to produce such sentences, and started trying to write the next sentence. My acceptance rate bloomed – though I still get occasional rejections. That’s just the way it is.
I’m fascinated by tales of devotion to others, or risking all for a cause or a loved one, which inspires much of my fiction. Dr. Edward O. Wilson has made a career out of studying that mysterious, burning force that drives heroes and martyrs of all shapes and sizes — and species.
Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s a bug man. That’s what he calls himself. But he’s not an exterminator. He’s a scientist who studies bugs. Dr. Wilson is a Harvard professor who founded the study of sociobiology, which focuses on the biological basis of behavior. Wilson wanted to explain altruism, that is, the sacrifice of oneself for others. Why do soldier ants fight and die for their colony? Why do parents risk their lives for their children? Why do warriors risk their lives for their tribe? Wilson’s research has influenced not only the fields of biology and ecology, but also psychology, sociology, and political theory.
In Naturalist, Wilson’s autobiography, he confesses that his scientific study of altruism is spurred by deep emotional reactions to unexpected displays of valor:
I have a special regard for altruism and devotion to duty, believing them virtues that exist independent of approval and validation. I am stirred by accounts of soldiers, policemen, and firemen who have died in the line of duty. I can be brought to tears with embarrassing quickness by the solemn ceremonies honoring those heroes. The sight of Iwo Jima and Vietnam Memorials pierces me for the witness they bear of men who gave so much, and who expected so little in life, and the strength ordinary people possess that held civilization together in dangerous times. (p. 25)
I will confess to the same. My eyes stubbornly go misty when I watch Saving Private Ryan. Same with 300. Heck, even Bruce Willis puts me to tears every time I see the scene in Armageddon when he realizes he must sacrifice himself to save the human race.
Anyway, here’s to the real heroes. God bless, fellas.
Last week, I noted the similarity between acting and writing. In this interview with the New York Times book review, Bruce Springsteen discusses the literary influences on his songwriting and his life:
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.
For more insight into Springsteen’s worldview, check out Sins Unatoned: The Gothic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen.
“Writing is where the real center of my integrity lies. I never write for money. I only act for money.” Robert Shaw
A member of the critique group I’m in was recently in a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. That got me to thinking about the relationship between acting and writing. After all, when you’re concentrating on describing a character’s feelings or writing authentic dialog, you’re channeling a character the same way an actor would. It takes me time and effort to “get into” a character’s head, even if I’ve been working on a piece for some time.
Robert Shaw, shown above as Captain Quint from Jaws, was one of my favorites. Like George C. Scott (a failed writer who became an actor!), Shaw always brought a titanic and menacing presence to the characters he portrayed. Who could forget his role as Grant, the ultimate cold-blooded assassin in From Russia With Love? In addition to Shaw’s all-too-short acting career, he also penned some fine novels and plays.
Other writers who were also actors include William Shakespeare, Yukio Mishima, and Orson Scott Card. And Tom Hanks just released a book of short stories. I’m sure there are others.
Over at Electric Lit, Amber Sparks argues that while writers usually claim one of the highbrow greats as their stylistic model, they often fail to give proper due to the lowbrow authors who inspired them to become writers. She cites authors willing to admit to the influence of pulp writers in their early careers:
“Romance novels, horror novels, thrillers. Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, everything V.C. Andrews wrote, Danielle Steel: I devoured it all,” says Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth. “Those ‘trashy’ books taught me how to write story, character, and created my lifelong need for drama, conflict, and my belief that every story, no matter what genre or style, needs to make the reader feel as if a lot is ‘at stake.’” And Peter Tieryas, author of Bald New World, says, “I devour and gorge on lowbrow entertainment, from the maligned Waterworld and the original Dawn of the Dead, to comics like Legends of the Dark Knight and X-Force, to K-pop and Tupac, and of course video games. They play with the tropes, or establish all new ones, and being unhinged from traditional restrictions, push the medium, teaching me that I can do the same.”
After all, says Sparks, “we’re all of us storytellers, trying to retell that first and perfect tale that started it all.”
I couldn’t agree more. In grade school, my vocabulary was three grades ahead of my classmates thanks to Marvel Comics. (Don’t ask about my math skills!) And as an English major, I continued to enjoy Robert E. Howard, H.R. Wakefield, and Robert Heinlein as much as Hemingway and Shakespeare.
As Sparks says, they’re all storytellers. And that’s what I want to be.
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” ― Flannery O’Connor