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Thursday, April 29, 2010

How Much Genius Do I Need?

"To deny that Shakespeare's plays could have been written by a man of relatively humble background is, after all, to deny the very possibility of genius itself--a sentiment increasingly attractive in a democratic culture where few harsh realities are so unpalatable as that of human inequality."

-- Terry Teachout

Teachout's article, "Denying Shakespeare" in The Wall Street Journal, has my full attention. I've nurtured my own private theory for a while: that the naysayers to Shakespeare's authorship dismiss genius residing in low-income communities. I have done no research on this topic; my expertise comes from teaching, where I've seen, heard, and contemplated brilliant children from all walks of life. It would not surprise me at all if a lower-middle-class guy from Stratford penned all those timeless plays.

Teachout is absolutely convinced that Shakespeare dunnit, and he leads us to James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare. I'm going to get a copy. Shapiro's premise is to research this question as objectively as possible, and I'm further intrigued. But what does this mean for us authors? Teachout thinks people question Shakespeare's authorship much more readily than any other author because "the world is full of innocents who sincerely believe in their secret hearts that they could write a best-selling novel if only they tried hard enough."


So I can't go off on American Idol here, can I, with the argument that everyone today wants to be a karaoke hero or a reality show star? Because every day I wake up to write at the crack of dark and tell myself, "You're talented, but what you don't have in genius, you make up for in sweat. The best-seller will come!"

Call me an innocent. I do subscribe to the Edisonian claim about the one percent of inspiration and the ninety-nine percent of perspiration. I looked this statement up, and apparently his full claim is this: "None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."

Looking at the context, I wonder if what Edison is really saying is that great accomplishment comes from constant practice and commitment by a person who, we have to assume, has some skill and insight, never mind paradigm-busting ability.

I'm very clear on one thing: I am not a paradigm-buster. Shakespeare was, Virginia Woolf was, ee cummings was.

And I think it's okay to want a best-seller that isn't genius, but just very, very good. Maybe even great. There's a place for good commercial fiction. And the ultimate goal is to make a living touching lots of minds and hearts...not to make a million doing so. That's a robust, shiny, healthy American dream.

I don't purport to offer a yardstick measuring skill and sweat. I don't have time to worry if other authors are rich or poor or impostors. I am happy to have some skill and the will to hone it, and I choose not to worry if I have enough. That's perhaps why a genius from the lower middle class doesn't disturb me; he may have been a slacker or a workhorse, but this one guy, whoever he was, wrote incredibly well.

What I do resent is when audiences cling to an artist because of looks, stature, money; when audiences don't have any idea what good art is because they'd rather watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians than read a good book; when artists step on each others' backs to get ahead; when artists work for free because they don't have to earn an income. I don't believe Shakespeare had the looks or stature, because even his one portrait is disputed, and his biography is so thin as to almost guarantee he wasn't a big kahuna. I don't know if Shakespeare was a backstabber or not, but he sure didn't elevate characters such as Iago and Polonius to great heights of respect. I'm going to guess that Shakespeare was what the records tell us; a working actor and playwright who needed every shilling, farthing, or pence he could scrape, since there were no such things as royalties on published plays.

The Shakespeare we honestly know so little about (see Bill Bryson's Shakespeare -- fantastic read!) left us great work. That's enough. And those of like me who continue to dream about a particular work we're crafting someday touching millions...Shakespeare doesn't offer us hope to be an equal as much as inspire. His words are more than one percent needed to persist, because literature enriches, uplifts, transcends...and ain't it fun to try and write it?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Write Hard, Write Fast

"Write hard, write fast, and the fire of creation will be yours."

-- James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers

Today's Word Count, New Novel: 350 pages

I don't believe in coincidence. I believe things happen for a reason. So when a friend handed me The Art of War for Writers (thank you, Kevin), it couldn't have come at a better time.

I was--and still am--in the midst of writing this YA novel quite fast. I began in December, and today I am writing the final big scene, where terror strikes and mayhem ensues. Soon after, the denouement, and then, as I swore to a writing group member, I shall be done by the end of May in time for a retreat.

My writers' group call me a "writing machine." I'm just doing what James Scott Bell advises: Acting like a professional. As he sees it, "A professional is someone who does his job, every day, even if he doesn't feel like it."

So if I am truly a professional, committed to this business of writing, let it be the first thing I do every day. After coffee is brewed, of course. The best time for me to write is before 6:30 AM. I am less judgmental at that hour; a bit loopy, so the recent dreams still hidden in my subconscious I believe work through the writing. What I'm allowed to dream I'm almost allowed to write. (My writing's not that bold.) It may be only 30 minutes at max, but things flow quickly at that hour. Freely, and that's the adverb a first draft needs.

Or, at least my first drafts. As a teacher, I understand how learning styles vary, which impacts writing style. As my friend Bob puts it: "I think I'd have you write extemporaneously, maybe with an idea of where it's going, get to that point, then stop and edit...the more you think about what you're writing, the more you'll put in peripheral details, and the longer the thing will be. My problem is the other way: I wrote poetry for a lot of years, then switched to prose. So now I have to fill in details to have the thing make sense after the first draft." Poets strike me as pearl makers; they birth each word like a gem. Stories and novels are birthed in all kinds of ways, but just as they are told and heard, for me, there must be a certain forward energy that accelerates to the finish.

There's another hidden step, and that's revision of the first draft. As Benjamin Percy advises in his "Home Improvement" article in Poets & Writers:

I used to consider editing something you did once a story was completed. I now begin each day by reading what I have already written. If it's a short story, I mean from the first line forward. If a novel, I mean from the start of the chapter I'm working on...So I'm essentially in a constant state of revision, and by the time I finish the story, I might have edited it two dozen times, turning it over and over in my hands, sanding it until it's free of slivers.

As the kids say, "True that." Or, if they're not saying that, I'll soon find out, because I don't want dorky slang pretending at hipness. Diction will be one of many aspect of my revisions: ensuring that slang is appropriate to the zeitgeist and the narrator's age but not so much clutter that my novel is like that big section of the Pacific floating with plastic. Overdone slang can't outlive its time, and a writer wants to produce something lasting. And to get to lasting, I rework every single morning before I produce new material. Start where I left off, get into the zone, and then begin the new. Doris Betts told me when I attended the North Carolina Writers' Network residency she taught that this was her preferred method as well.

Again, it's no random occurrence that everything--time, people, advice--point in one direction right now, the "Just do it!" direction. Perhaps because my energy and commitment have shifted to that of professionalism, and therefore, I magnetize the opportunity to act like one. As someone who's noodled over one particular novel longer than a decade, I can declare that this one, technically my third, feels like the one that is whole, more like one solid pearl, rather than a string of fake ones stretching deep as the ocean, going on and on beyond a reader's interest.

People talk about muses. Bell and Percy are talking about muses working like pros. Show up to the page and the Muse may visit for a few seconds, or not. That's okay, because she may be rousted from a twelfth draft of a certain page at a certain stage of revision. So what if the pages sometimes feel like sand between your fingers. Got to start with the hard grain that spurs the soft tissue to work its magic.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary Prompts:

-- What is your favorite thing you have written? Is it a letter, card, or email? Was it a thank you? Was it a note to a friend? Was it your first story? Is it a poem? Tell why it is still your favorite.
-- You have just landed on a planet where there is no writing, and the aliens there wish to begin an alphabet and a writing system. Give them a new alphabet and a writing system. Then give them some tips about what's hardest and what's easiest about being a writer.
-- What was the hardest thing you've ever written? Why was it so hard? Are you happy now that you did it? Why or why not?

Secondary & Adult Prompts:

-- Write down the ten hardest things about writing. Then write the ten easiest.
-- What's the hardest writing you've ever done? The easiest? Which gave you more satisfaction, now that you have perspective? Why?
-- How do you define "professional writer"? Or, how do you know when you can call yourself "writer"?
-- You have just been give the title of Writing Reformer. You get to change the rules for writing: how we teach it, when we do it, how we do it. You can start with how you were taught writing and how people talk about writing. Change anything, and create a list of new laws and rules to follow. Or, if you don't like laws, come up with suggestions.