Independent Writing from an Independent Mind

Open discussion about writing and reading

The idea of wasting words: Bukowski, Thompson and Hemingway

I’m about halfway through with Charles Bukowski’s ‘Women’. Years ago, when living in Venice, California, I read several Bukowski tomes of both fiction and poetry, though I felt his fiction to be almost non-fiction due to the highly autobiographical nature of it. It was easy to do. Bukowski was a local writer and there was lots of Los Angeles tied up in his writing. What strikes me about Bukowski now is his sparse use of words. His subject matter aside, the writing style to me is reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway. No wasted words with any of these guys.

Commonalities, not so oddly, go beyond style. If I were to compare the lives of these three writers I see that there were many shared traits. Machismo is there. Heavy alcohol abuse is there (and heavy drugs in the case of Thompson). Love of guns and shooting (minus Bukowksi). Wanderlust. Suicide (again, minus Bukowski). Famous Hollywood friends and groupies. Multiple women throughout their lives. Strained relationships with women and loved ones. All three were known to write under the influence of alcohol. Much of their writings were, again, highly autobiographical. The lines of morality and immorality blur with Bukowski and Thompson as well, though not so much with Hemingway. I think realism does this.

Of course, as far as success as a writer goes I would have to say that Ernest Hemingway was the most successful. He became wealthy on his writings early. He claimed both a Pulitzer and a Nobel, which very few people can claim. Bukowski probably was the least successful as he had to wait much later in life to become an "established" name. Thompson was, well, Thompson. However it cannot be stated that any of the three did not live life on their own terms. Be it rugged individualist in the case of Hemingway to hedonist in the cases of Thompson and Bukowski, they made their own ways. Nobody wrote their life scripts for them.

Is this what you get by not wasting words? On the surface at least it would seem that there is some correlation between the writing style and the lifestyle.

These men were direct. These men said what they meant. These writers were more often than not reckless with their lives and with their relationships but their writing style was pure and simple. There was a loud masculinity to their writings that brashly walked the fine line between proclamation and personal history. When I read them I feel like I am being spoken to by an older uncle who imparts not necessarily the wisdom of life but its truth.

What I take away from reading all three men is that when you write bare bones, when you write what you mean, you don’t have to chose your words so much. They are just there. You use them to tell your story.

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Gary Dale Cearley

Part way through Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays by Christopher Hitchens

First of all, I am not

yet
finished with this book but there is a bit that I would like to share about it. Yesterday I was reading Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays by Christopher Hitchens on the flight from Doha, Qatar, to Bangkok. This book is an excellent tome of essays and reviews. The writing is smart and thorough. While reading I came upon a chapter entitled ‘Scenes from and Execution’ which was originally an essay written about the witnessing of an execution in the state of Missouri. But this one struck me between the eyes in that it was written by Hitchens, probably my favoritie contemporay essayist but he’d written it from Potosi, Missouri, the childhood home of Michael Parks who was my classmate at the Defense Language Institute and is a life long brother to me. This I saw from the outset. But further into the chapter I see that Hitchens discusses the sixty minute stay of execution for my high school classmate, Kirt Wainwright. Yes, I grew up and went to school with that guy – as did everyone else in the Prescott High School class of 1985.

I’ve been haunted by this chapter since reading it.

Focus. How illusive art thou?

One of the issues that I constantly struggle with is interruptions. I guess I would be like others who might lose their place or their thought or even worse, their inspiration. When I am at home I face a bit more of a lack of focus but in my office, when left alone, I can generally focus quite well. As I look forward in my life I can see the need for focus so much more even than before. I also see that my writing skills, or lack thereof, will be that which boosts me or hinders me. This is why focus is important. I don’t deny it.

I read so much about cluttered desks and how that takes away from focus. I have not one but two cluttered desks and I can say that this isn’t really much of a distraction for me. My distractions are the two legged kind. People. Although I leave messages that from such-and-such hour to such-and-such hour I am not to be disturbed most people either completely ignore it or they feel that they have something with an urgency superseding my need for quiet and privacy. I guess I could start bashing people’s brains in. Perhaps I think, since people are all creatures of habit, that I could set a time every day that would make it a captial offense to disturb me. This might be better than having an ad hoc timing.

I guess the key to all this is organization. Something I have struggled with my entire life.

A continued discussion on what can be defined as a literary classic

Since I brought up the question about how to define a literary classic I was given a rule of thumb that books should be at least twenty years old and was shown a sample list that begins in antiquity (it included Gilgamesh) yet came right up to modern times. I was a bit surprised to see Isaac Asimov, Ken Kesey, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker all had one book there. So I see that at least some consider the test if time not to be a huge factor, though the twenty years struck me as quite soon for a book to be considered a classic. Even cars must wait until forty years.

I say this because I would suppose to be a classic a book would have to have resonance with a successive generations, not just the generation in which the book reach its fame. I know this isn’t air tight as some books are “rediscovered” for various reasons and some books make it through generations, I’m convinced, because they are required reading in some programs. (Think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle here.)

And wouldn’t classics have to be such by general consensus? As an example I’m going back to a book that I’ve mentioned before, Joseph Conrad’s Gaspar Ruiz. I have tried discussing this book with a few literature types none of whom had read it and only one claimed to have known of it. So it is arguable that even though it was written by one if the best known authors if his time and was probably a best seller in its day, and even though I enjoyed reading the book if your average ‘literary types’ hadn’t a clue about the book how could we agree that it is a classic?

I do realize that there are classics in national literatures that your average reader may not have heard of. For instance the Vietnamese consider Nguyen Du to be their Shakespeare yet how many outside of Vietnam have heard of, let alone read, his magnum opus, Kieu? And likewise there are unknown books that can constitute classics within genres. In these two examples it is hard to argue against a book being a classic.

I guess there are many parallels between this question and the Great Books arguments that go on in academic circles.

My diversion for the day: Guest bloggers

Sorry folks. I’m holding back a rant here. I promise to try to keep it simple though.

So often I got to a blog that I like only to read a post from a guest blogger. Don’t get me wrong, many times this person is interesting and I still read what they have to say. And sometimes I pick up their blog. But something just doesn’t sit really well with me on this guest blogger thing.

Firstly, I feel that most blogs are meant to be personal. It is the word from you. (Isn’t it?) I have a bit of a relationship with you. I read the blog because of that.

Secondly, even though I read loads of blogs, there are only so many blogs I can read. If your guest post has a better one, I might follow that one instead.

Thirdly, if I see enough guest bloggers who aren’t spot on a topic that I am interested in then I am outta there. I might be back. I might not.

Ray Bradbury: Good exercise from a master?

Earlier this year we lost Ray Bradbury. It just so happened thought that this past weekend I came across a talk that he gave at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Writer’s Symposium by the Sea. He spoke for about ninety minutes. The time got away from me but I was quite intrigued. For one, it would seem that he was actually spending his whole time speaking extemporaneously, with no prepared speech. That did seem easy for him to do, if that was indeed what he was doing. He told stories of his long career. His stories were quite frank and quite honest and above all, they were damned interesting.

Ray Bradbury, over the course of his talk, gave the following recommendations for writers:

1) Before you sleep, read one essay, one short story and a poem;
2) Write one short story per week; and
3) Write essays often.

According to Ray this should help you to hone your overall writing skills and prepare those who are looking to be novelists at a later stage. He was pretty clear that he felt novelists should start out as short story writers. Maybe those of us who are serious should consider this advice.

If you’d like to watch Ray Bradbury’s talk yourself. Enjoy!:

You’re not just what you write… You are the way you write.

I know that boat loads has been said already about grammar and punctuation going all to hell with the rise of the internet. I might as well put my two cents worth in here too…

Never in my life have I seen a language degenerate like our beloved English has not that "virtually" (pardon the pun – though none was intended) everyone is now online is some way, shape or form. Before, when virtually all of our written language was on paper, be it in print, typing or simply someone’s scribble on a piece of paper, it would be fair game to make judgments on things like punctuation and grammar. Now, it is virtually against the law to correct the laziness that is all around.

Back in the 1980′s, when rap exploded onto the scene, poor grammar and pronunciation became "okay" and even enviable. The rise of the internet – and we can’t pin this down to a generation – has made it possible to write an entire book without capitalizing any proper nouns or words at the beginning of a sentence. This is more than a tip of the hat to e.e. cummings as I would assume that 99.99% of those who are doing this haven’t the fainest idea who he is. AND THEN THERE IS THE ‘ALL CAPS’ CROWD. To me this sucks just as badly. One of my secret pet peeves is to see western Europeans who will put their family names or the name of their hometown or company in all caps. They have a huge habit of that and many haven’t the faintest clue why they do it if you ask them. If you ask me, and nobody is, I still say it is most uncalled for.

Though I don’t believe in all certainty that people who are typing this way are always poor thinkers. Many believe they are only taking shortcuts. But these short cuts are just laziness. And it leads to laziness in other things as well. The way your think. The way you double check. The way your write.

I haven’t met anyone above the age of twelve years old who hasn’t heard the old adage about first impressions. Well, why do so few people tend to care when it comes to their writing? It really beats me, to be quite honest. I also know that I seem to be in a minority here. I have mentioned this to several fellow writers and people who are just friends. Many of them think that this is one of the ways that language is simply changing. If this is the case then I want to be on record to say that this is a negative change.

If you are one of the ones who are guilty of dropping your guard on proper capitalization and punctuation then I urge you to re-think what you are doing. I dare say you are making a poor choice with your writing, your thought process and your all important public image.

Re-reading: A lesson I learned from French

A few years ago I flew from Bangkok to Dakar, Sénégal, via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This was pretty much in the day that you couldn’t bring an iPad along to read (they didn’t exist – remember those days?) so we were down to books, newspapers and magazines. Normally in lengthy international flights I bring a minimum of two books but this time I mistakenly packed one in my luggage. It did me no good in the belly of the plane when I finished reading the first book in the business class lounge in Addis. When we’d boarded the leg of the flight that was to stop in Bamako, Mali, prior to continuing on to Dakar I was getting pretty damned bored. The movies didn’t catch me and I was out of reading material. One of the stewardesses offered me the one remaining magazine that wasn’t passed around to the other passengers: Paris Match!

I have studied French as an autodidact off and on for years. But let me stress that this has been truly “off and on”. For the time actually put in maybe I have had a decent return on investment but in no way do I set the house in fire en français. But I liked the challenge. I occupied my mind with French for the next two hours or so then stuffed the magazine away in my bag. I do recall at being very disappointed in the amount that I did not understand. I felt like an infant.

During the week I was busy at work and so I was out of my hotel room pretty much night and day. But on the last day prior to my departure I was informed that I was bumped from my flight. I wouldn’t be leaving the next morning as planned. I didn’t feel like going out anymore so I stayed in. But instead of pulling out my second book that I brought along (people who know me know I’m not a television person) I yanked out that French magazine and tried to make another go of it. This time I felt better re-reading the magazine. Each article I read now had a context. When I put the magazine down before shutting off the light I felt better about my abilities in French.

When I finally did get back in the air, and after spending a short while in Mali and a few days in Ethiopia, I grabbed the magazine again. I thought I would use it to burn up the hours between Addis Ababa and Thailand. But a funny thing happened… I breezed through the magazine as if it were written in English! I had comprehended the longer articles with little trouble at all, and sans dictionaire, as I didn’t have one on the trip.

Language educator Stephen Krashen would have called my perusal of this French magazine as “comprehensive input” and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree on a language acquisition level. But I think that is not all that was going on either. I think the brain somehow passes over that which it already knows in order to take in something new. It is why doing something again and again is the key to mastery and expertise. But at the same time doing something again and again, if done with purpose, can actually be a shortcut. The initial struggle is part of the process so if you accept this at the outset your mind’s eye will catch the things you missed before and turn that into skill, into knowledge, and if we are lucky, eventually into wisdom.

Practically, it also means to me that I’m better off to re-read several times and re-write much less. And also that I can learn some French by myself from Paris Match!

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