Monday, October 20, 2014

The MFA-Industrial Complex

My fellow Americans,

It is time to come forward and speak of a terrible menace which is, uh, menacing this great country of ours.  On second thought, make that "a terrible menace that is threatening this country of ours," no, no, that should be "a terrible threat that menaces this country of ours."

I am speaking of the MFA-Industrial Complex.

Actually, before that last sentence, let's insert a rhetorical question, "What is this menace I speak of?"

Poetsandwriters.org lists 260 MFA Creative Writing Programs.  Assuming each program accepts a mere twelve candidates a year, that's over three thousand creative writers released into the world each year.

Rephrase the rhetorical question, to take off "I speak of" and leave it, "What is this menace?"

This number does not include the number of writers with bachelor's degrees, nor those with informal training from innumerable workshops and writers groups around the nation.  Conservatively, however, we can estimate over the last decade, thirty thousand creative writers have infiltrated society; they live next door to us, work alongside us, they may - on occasion - even be related to us.

On reconsideration, make the rhetorical question simply, "What menace?"

You have seen them, these writers, in coffee shops and subways - tapping on their little keyboards and iPads - sometimes even writing by hand on legal pads - creating an endless stream of prose and poetry.  Soon the world will be flooded - indeed it is flooded already - with over-stretched metaphors, convoluted syntax, and ponderous passages of purposely purple prose.

I confess, I am a writer myself, which is why it falls to one of their own kind to sound the clarion call.  Enough, enough with all these writers.  Everyone can't be a writer.  We need readers also.  And plumbers.  We also need plumbers.  My pipes are draining slower and my ability to writer anapestic tetrameter or explain the difference between a hyphen and an em-dash avails naught.  Put down your pens, writers!  (Or your keyboards, pen is metonymy, and you knew damn well what I meant.)

That is all I have to say.

But make the rhetorical question, "What is this menace, you ask." 

Or should that be, "'What is this menace?' you ask."  Or no, it should be, "What menace?"  No, better yet, just, "Menace?"

Yes, that's it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Narcissus and Echo


Last night, Zoe, who, let it be known, is a sweet dog, and a loving dog, and above all else, a good dog, woke me up at two o'clock and then again at three o'clock needing to go outside.  As I lay in bed in the predawn hours, trying, not very successfully, to get back to sleep, I thought about Dali's painting, "The Metamorphosis of Narcissus," which I'd looked at the day before as a possible writing prompt for my students.


What I noticed the other day, but never seen before is the figure on the left is the young man, Narcissus.  I'd always thought it was just a pile of rocks, but suddenly I could see quite clearly the golden-haired head bending downward, the slim and muscular limbs.  That, of course, is intentional: Dali is showing Narcissus in the midst of change, already "stone-still" gazing at his reflection.  The narcissus flower is sprouting from the egg-shaped rock in the gigantic lithic fingers on the right.


Dali adored those sorts of visual puns.  Notice how in this painting the breast and stomach of Venus de Milo becomes a woman's lower face.

Anyway, that set me to thinking that the stories of Narcissus and Echo are ghost stories.  Not what you would normally think of as ghost stories, but clearly that's what they are.  Both were transformed in death to a shadowy simulacrum of themselves, left behind as a reminder down to this day - just like that stain on the wall , which just won't wash out, and that resembles Aunt Agnes or the cold spot in the room where Gerald hanged himself.

Narcissus, as you may recall, saw his own reflection in the water and stared enraptured - literally seized by - his beauty until he was transformed into the flower that bears his name.  Echo, the hapless maiden who loved him, and followed him in sycophantic hopefulness, breathlessly trying to catch his attention and approval, died in a cave, and nothing is left of her but a disembodied voice that repeats anyone who will call out to her.

What occurred to me, lying in bed in the wee hours is that Narcissus and Echo both become reflections or echoes of what they were, and that moreover, the two stories, just like the rock formations in Dali's painting, echo each other.

Pretty slick, huh?  Worth reading the whole blog just to arrive at that one point, right?

Well, that's the sort of thing that comes to you when you're unable to sleep and have a chance to reflect.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Writer

Herman Melville is 352 pages into Moby Duck
before he realizes it ought to be about a whale.
I offer this post to fellow novelists, especially fledglings, who find the way unexpectedly rocky and hard and who wonder if they're even doing in right.

For at least a year and a half, I have been working on a new novel.  I won't give away any details, but suffice to say it is brilliant.  It has a secret government agency, a woman who's been struck three times by lightning, kidnappings, suspense, and frogs.  Can hardly wait to read it, right?

So since the first of September, I've been working on three consecutive scenes.  The scenes are short and interconnected and run about ten pages.  But you need to understand.  These were ten hard pages.  From keys that scorched the fingers I wrote and rewrote, re-rewrote, and re-re-rewrote them in the pre-dawn hours before going to my job.  I agonized over description and dialogue; I considered and weighed every word and comma.  I would go to sleep thinking about the phrasing of a single sentence, wake up and revise it, think about it on the drive to work, and revise again the next day.  

Then yesterday it hit me.  The scenes just weren't working.  I'd put the climax precisely in the wrong spot; I'd introduced at least two additional characters I could do without; I'd neglected to work with at least one indispensable character; I'd missed a valuable opportunity to build tension; and I needed at least two additional scenes I hadn't even considered.

So those ten pages I worked so hard on.  Scrapped.  I'll have to start afresh.  I can save a few shards and fragments here and there, but not much.  By the way, these new scenes promise to be even more difficult for me than the ones I'd already written.

Here is the message for my fellow novelists.  I have not wasted a month of my life.  What I have accomplished is valuable.  I am one massive wrong turn closer to my next masterpiece.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Faves

This morning I am eating a cup of strawberry-flavored Chobani yogurt and a cup of blueberry-flavored Chobani yogurt.   These are my two favorite yogurt flavors.  Although peach is perfectly fine, I don't care for it as much.  The fact I'm eating both my favorites makes this a special day.  My very favorite is blueberry, but I make it a rule never to eat two blueberries in one day, so I won't run out.  I also have to be careful to eat a peach yogurt two days out of three, or else I'll wind up with nothing left but peach, which as I've stated, I don't especially care for.

Now here's the thing.

They all taste exactly the same.

They taste like sweet goo because that's what they are.  Never once, have I eaten a spoonful of Chobani and thought, "Mmm, just like fresh blueberries."  In the midst of eating, I'd be at a loss to tell you what flavor it was, unless I were permitted to look at the label.

We buy Chobani at Costco in a big flat blue box which contains an assortment of peach, strawberry, and blueberry yogurt.  For a time, Costco also offered Chobani in a big orange box which contained blood orange, pineapple, and some other flavor - I forget which because they all tasted like identical anyway.  Nancy and I preferred the orange box of Chobani because we preferred eating sweet goo with an exotic label like "blood orange" to sweet goo labeled "blueberry."  Of course, we had to mix it up, and buy an equal number of orange and blue boxes so we wouldn't spoil ourselves and get jaded.  We were disappointed when Costco discontinued orange-box Chobani.  Obscurely, I blame the philistine tastes of Costco shoppers, who were too parochial to try eating sweet goo with a tropical-fruit label once in a while.

All this reminds me of my childhood.  (The older I get, the more often things remind me of my childhood.)  The spectrum of basic Popsicle flavors - red, purple, orange, and banana - had no correlation whatsoever to any fruit flavor, and indeed only two of them - orange and banana - were known by the fruits they represented, and in the case of orange, that was only coincidence, and in the case of banana was because even though banana Popsicles tasted only as similar to bananas as Gatorade does to gators, they tasted even less like yellow, so we called them "banana" by default.  But no one asking for a Popsicle would say, "Give me a cherry flavor," or "Give me a grape," rather, it was always, "I want a purple one."  Or, "I like red."  Orange was the flavor you only ate if there was nothing left.  Orange was the peach yogurt of Popsicles.

The conflation of flavor was further reinforced by the fact that Kool-Aid flavors had a corresponding color-scheme.  Sno-Cones and slushies, although these were harder to come by, also used the same color-coding, and a child at a state fair ordering a red Sno-Cone could be confident of what he was getting.

At this point in my essay, I'm expected to come back to my opening observation and somehow tie the whole thing together with some pithy observation, but frankly, I'm stumped how I'm going to do it.  It has something to do with the way we think are tastes and preferences are all sophisticated and idiosyncratic, but the reality is the colors purple and red strike us as more flavorful than orange-ish colors, but at the same time, we don't want everything to be purple and red because we feel the variety would stale and we would cease to appreciate them.  The reality, however, when we get down to eating, our taste buds are colorblind and like what they've always liked.  Sweet goo.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Lesser Novels of Jane Austen


CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810) hires.jpg

Jane Austen has endured as one of the great novelists in the English language, appealing not only to a broad popular audience who love her simply for her engaging stories, to middlebrows who praise her irony and realism, to an esoteric academic audience as well, who find her slyly "subversive" and "proto-feminist."  Her novels have been adapted for film, imitated by other writers, and loved and admired the world over.

Recently some of her early, unpublished works have come to light, promising a new treasure-trove for scholars and readers alike.

Fanny and Marianne - For years thought lost to posterity, this early novel was a precursor to Sense and Sensibility.  Written in epistolary form, it tells the story of Susan and her widowed mother who have been left nearly destitute after the late Mr. Dashwood leaves his fortune to Marianne's greedy half-sister Fanny.  Marianne meets the handsome and aloof Colonel Brandon who convinces her to repair the family fortunes by entering a "Dance-Off" in which she will challenge Fanny to a one-on-one dance competition where each will show off her skills.  But Fanny was all-county dance champion three years running, will Marianne be able to best her in the competition and follow her dream?

Lady Susan - Lady Susan is a sassy young vixen who knows what she wants and goes after it.  When the mob kidnaps a favorite uncle for repayment of a gambling debt, Susan must go undercover as an exotic dancer to rescue him.  Helped along the way by two very different by equally desirable men - Lieutenant Bamford, a nobleman of the Horse Guard, and bad-boy bandit and roustabout Dirks Dimplechin and aided by a wise-cracking lady's maid, Bomquisha, there are plenty of hijinks and high adventure leading to a high-octane conclusion.

Whazzam!  Formerly titled Whuzzup and before that, simply, 'Zup, the intellectual but nearly destitute Margaret is taken in by the wealthier branch of her family into Berkford Park, where she meets her handsome and aloof cousin Bertram, with whom she falls gradually in love.  But Bertram likes only "bad" girls, and bookish Margaret doesn't seem to have a chance until she meets a sassy wise-cracking man servant, Raul, who teaches her to "get down."  Can Margaret win the All-County Twerk-Off against three-time winner, the snooty and wealthy, Lady Beatrice who is affianced to Bertram, take the cash prize and the man?  And will she discover it's Raul whom she truly loves?  You'll have to read this page turner, with its dry wit and plot twists as well as an exciting helicopter chase to find out.