“So You Want To Be a Writer”

Poet Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

I know he drank a lot and you probably wouldn’t let your sister go out with him, but the man was a real poet and he had something serious going with the muse. This is one of my favorites among his poems. It’s called “So You Want To Be a Writer.” Good stuff.

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

 

Pre-Columbian Writing

Detail from the Dresden Codex

At the time the Spanish landed in he New World, there was only one Pre-Columbian culture that had a written alphabet, and that was the Maya. Now I have heard that in earlier centuries, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of Northern Mexico had a written alphabet, but stopped using it after a certain point. Curiously, the Aztecs and Inca did not have their own alphabet, however advanced they may have been in other respects.

Right now, the only instances we have of writing in Mayan are glyphs at various Maya ruins and four surviving codices that escaped the religious zeal of the Spanish missionaries in destroying what they perceived to be heretical. And since the subject matter related to Maya religion, it was heretical insofar as Christianity was concerned.

The most famous destroyer of Mayan codices was Diego de Landa, the Franciscan Bishop of Yucatán in the 16th century. In a famed book burning conducted in 1562, de Landa had 27 codices burned at Mani. He described the Maya as being disconsolate at the destruction of so much of their culture at one time. Curiously, it was the same de Landa who wrote the Relación de Las Cosas de Yucatán, which preserved an astonishing amount of the culture and language, such that it is still studied by Maya scholars. It is still available in a Dover Publications paperback.

Do you see the dots and dashes in the above detail from the Dresden Codex just above the four seated figures? They are, in order, the numbers 16, 4, 9, 13, zero (yes, the Maya had discovered zero), 5, 12, 2, and 1. As you can probably surmise from this, the dashes represented the number five or a multiple of fives; and a dot, a one or multiple of ones up to four. It was a vigesimal system, meaning to the base 20 rather than base 10 like ours. Very likely, the numbers in the illustration represent a “long count” calendar date fixing a particular event in time. You can read more about Maya mathematics here.

The other interesting thing about the Mayan alphabet is that some symbols were hieroglyphic and stood for an entire word and others phonetic, standing for syllables. This confused scholars for years.

At the time I started visiting the Maya world, only the calendrical symbols had been decoded (mostly thanks to the selfsame good/bad Diego de Landa). In the last forty years, we have discovered that the Maya have a history. We have learned names of rulers and translated descriptions of events commemorated by Maya rulers.

 

Belief and Technique for Modern Prose

Jack Kerouac and Friend

Jack Kerouac and Friend

The following is an itemized list in its entirety of how to write modern prose like a beatnik by Jack Kerouac. It was published in The Evergreen Review, Volume 2, No. 8, in 1959. As usual, Jack varies between the profound and the mundane, all mixed up like:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house [a rule often violated by Jack]
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry, but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Dont [sic] think of words when you stop but to see the picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning [eh?]
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In Praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

The above is reprinted in Fred W. McDarrah’s book Kerouac & Friends: A Beat Generation Album, a not bad introduction to the movement together with photos of its main characters.

If there is a lot of unevenness in the whole beat vision, I think you can see why.

 

The Eight Rules of Writing

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

I admire the simplicity of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing, as set down below:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. [Maybe this is the best rule of them all.]
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Now these rules pertain almost exclusively to writing fiction. I wonder if I could adapt them to writing blogs. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

 

You Don’t Say … Please!

William Macy as the Car Salesman in Fargo

William H. Macy as the Car Salesman in Fargo

Whenever I hear one of the following words or phrases, I cringe. If you’re using them to try to sell me, you can see a “NO SALE!” pop up on my eyelids. They appear here in alphabetic order, together with a few comments:

  1. alright – Not really a word, so stop it all ready!
  2. amazeballs – Any expression invented by Perez Hilton deserves to be consigned to the nether regions, dunked in gasoline, and lit.
  3. bipolar – Usually this just means moody. The earth is bipolar, but I don’t know any people who are.
  4. embolden – This was a favorite Dubya term. Everything anyone did that he didn’t like would end up “emboldening” the terrorists. As if the terrorists, by their very nature, would accept anything as a setback! (They know all about spin.)
  5. give 110% – I would like to make that the income tax rate for people using this phrase.
  6. going forward – How about “from now on”? Is that too plain for you?
  7. irregardless – Try “regardless” instead. It doesn’t make you look like an idiot.
  8. let’s touch base – I don’t let salesmen touch my base or anything thereunto appertaining.
  9. like – If you’re not using this in a simile as a preposition, you’ll sound like a Valley Girl. (There, I used it in a simile.)
  10. LOL – Usually means you’re trying too hard. A simple smirk will usually do.
  11. OMG – Again with the Valley Girls?
  12. pwn – What’s this? A Welsh vowel? And the “p” is pronounced “o”? Give me a break!
  13. synergy – A word used in conjunction with mergers and acquisitions which means, in short, “It makes us look good for fifteen minutes, anyway.”
  14. 24/7 – You can contact us by phone at any time, but you will never get any degree of satisfaction from us! Myself, I’m an 8/5 person.

Do any of you have any terms to add to the list?

 

A Writer of Feuilletons and Causeries

Apparently, Writer’s Block Is Not Much of a Problem for Me

Apparently, Writer’s Block Is Not Much of a Problem for Me

When I was in high school, I thought I’d like to write the Great American Novel. I made several attempts at telling stories, but I found I just didn’t have the knack of inventing a character other than myself. In fact, I thought later of writing a series of short stories using a private investigator named Emeric Toth, patterned after me, of course; but the stories just did not take wing.

I have come to realize that I am what the French would call a writer of feuilletons, or to be even more exact, causeries. According to Wikipedia, the latter term refers to a piece that is:

generally short, light and humorous and is often published as a newspaper column (although it is not defined by its format). Often the causerie is a current-opinion piece, but it contains more verbal acrobatics and humor than a regular opinion or column. In English, causerie is commonly known as “personal story”, “funny story” or “column” instead.

The term feuilleton refers to a kind of op-ed newspaper piece, but can mean a whole lot of other things besides, such as (in today’s France) a soap opera.

Essentially, I write short essays on a multiplicity of topics that run the gamut from politics (though not so much any more, since politics in America got so dirty), religion, literature, film, travel, meditations, humor, science and the Internet, weekend excursions, to you name it. I’ll take on virtually any subject, though I am averse to Internet flame wars and quickly dump water on their beginnings. While I like to say what I feel, I am averse to back-and-forth debates. This is not so much because of any uncertainty in my convictions as an unwillingness to participate in the Grand Ego Theatre of the Internet.

As a literary medium, feuilletons and causeries are definitely writing in a minor key. My words will never be carved into stone or memorized by legions of school children. They are not detailed enough to change anyone’s mind about anything. They serve to entertain and inform, and perhaps point the way to other sources that do a better job in that area.

A few days ago, I re-read Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. I could have chosen instead to re-read one of the Bard’s better-known works, but I have a certain affection for his minor plays. Maybe that’s why I write the way I do.