Writer vs. Reader

Truman Capote 1981 Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989 ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00212

Here’s the deal, readers. 

I have read. I have a fucking masters in literature. And before that? A bachelor’s in literature. I’ve written hundreds of papers about literature, a masters thesis, papers for academic conferences and I’ve taught literature. I don’t have a PhD in literature because, honestly, at that point it’s literary criticism and I don’t see the point of that. Enough was enough for the MA and it would have cost me $28k and three years of my life to pursue something that wouldn’t have improved my chances to get a good job.

There’s a moment in life when that is the important consideration. 

In 1981 a friend gave me a book of Chinese poetry and inscribed it saying, “Maybe this is something you HAVEN’T read.” And I hadn’t, but I did and found the most informative poem of my life. It’s “Don’t Go Out of that Door” by Li ho.

In the article I linked to my earlier post today is a pretty funny statement. I’ll quote it here.

Jean-Claude Carrière: There are books on our shelves we haven’t read and doubtless never will, that each of us has probably put to one side in the belief that we will read them later on, perhaps even in another life. The terrible grief of the dying as they realise their last hour is upon them and they still haven’t read Proust.”

I’ve read Proust. Heaven help me, but I have. That’s WHY I found Carriére’s statement so funny. How did I find Proust? University library, oh, you mean, well honestly, how would you know you died? Proust’s prose is as slow as death.

Stream of tedium.

There are important questions writers need to answer about themselves that no reader has to think about, most important (to me) is, “Is this the way I WANT to write?” You have to read your own work with the eyes of a WRITER to answer that question. 

There was a day, a moment, when that hit home. I was on a blind date some 10 years ago. I had driven to the Panikin in La Jolla to meet a man with whom I’d corresponded online (yes, a dating site, OKC). I took a draft of Martin of Gfenn with me. Unfortunately for him? For both of us? He was late. By the time he arrived, I was immersed in my manuscript and sickened by it. Every irrelevant motion of Martin’s life was expounded in laborious detail, almost “Martin turned right, and walked down the corridor putting one foot in front of the other, left right left right left right left right left right until he reached the refectory at which point he stopped putting one foot in front of the other and stood still thinking about whether he should put his right or his left foot over the threshold.”

Almost like that. The book (at that time) was 520 manuscript pages long. Once I’d read it like a writer, it was about half that. 

Seriously. Do you, as a reader, need to realize anything like that in YOUR writing and go, “Fuck, this is so bad, I want to die”? You might react to a book that way, but it won’t be YOUR book.

I never had to think that thought back when I was a reader. I was unaware that writers make choices about who they are in a paragraph or sentence or (yeah, sometimes it’s this small) word. Why? Oh baby, let me tell you. 

Words have sounds and implications. They have the power to resound, imply, and allude. A word can destroy a sentence and, like falling dominoes, take the paragraph with it.

I was facing a really poorly written novel (mine) with a good story and what could I do about it?

I’d written it not as a writer, but as a reader thinking of the story. A writer has to think about conveying the story so the reader can surrender, not noticing the conveyance, feeling only that the world in which he or she momentarily exists is real. A writer has to provide an experience. The reader has to be able to enter the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and forget they’re there.

It was at that moment — on that blind date — that I became a writer not a reader. As for the date, it went like this.

“What’s that?”
“My novel. It’s so bad. I don’t know what to do.”
“Do you want a coffee?”
“I think I have to go home.”

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

Truman Capote

Luckily, I found a teacher — or he came to me in my sleep. I dreamed of Truman Capote and he told me I was a good writer. I wasn’t a good writer. I was shit. I didn’t know what to do, but here was Capote appearing repeatedly in my dreams and here I was. 

I read everything Capote wrote and I read it not as a reader, but as a writer. ❤


Freedom in Obscurity

I woke up this morning dreaming of taking some Tylenol and thinking about the Novel-that-I-do-not-write; “working” title, The Schneebelis Go to America. I thought of all the writers who stopped writing after one book. Those who died with a work in progress. All of them. I enjoyed Hemingway’s “posthumous” novel, Islands in the Streamvery much. It was published in 1970. Hemingway worked on it in 1950/1951. He killed himself in 1961.

Capote’s story is similar. After In Cold Blood, he basically never got his shit together adequately to finish Answered Prayers (which I also liked). In fact, he lost his shit big time.

As did Hemingway.

I’m sure not Hemingway or Capote, but right now, I feel sorry for those two guys. Their lives (and livelihood!) depended on writing bestsellers. I wonder if — when they began their lives as writers — they felt like I did when I began Martin of Gfenn. Enraptured, intoxicated, carried away on the sweet river of inspiration. I think they did. I’ve read pretty much everything they’ve written — fiction and nonfiction, including interviews where they talked about writing. Both of them were in love with it. Looking at their lives post-success, the love faded into desperation. Everything depended on something beyond them, other people, the sea of eyes and pocketbooks called “the public.”

I wonder (I suspect, I believe) if they ever wanted just to go away somewhere and write without a public, without a publisher, without external demands, even those in their own minds.

But even for someone like me, not a famous writer with a public clamoring for more of The Sun Also Rises or more In Cold Blood, it’s hard to stay “in love” with writing a story, with a story. Ideas incubate. I thought that, too, as I woke up this morning. Maybe the story of the Schneebelis coming to America is incubating, but I don’t think so. Personally, I think it’s just boring to write. I know where it has to go, I know what needs to happen between the people, and it doesn’t interest me much. The question now is do I serve the story or not? It’s a compelling tale, but, at the moment, it involves two people who need to fall back in love, get married and raise a family.

Honestly, I could not care less about falling in love and raising a family, but I recognize the imperative. There’s always a moment when a writer has to step back and serve the story. Or not. Luckily, it doesn’t matter to me or anyone else if my characters manage to mend their ruptured love, procreate, and board the Francis and Elizabeth at the port city of Cowes and head into the sunset.

“There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” – Saint Teresa of Avila 


Truman Capote Dreams

What is the best dream you’ve ever had? 

Well, there is more to dreams than good dreams and bad dreams. Some dreams are prescient; some dreams are teachers, conveying important information — at least mine are. In 2009, I had dreams of Truman Capote. It was quite bizarre because I had not read his work since the ’80s. I liked it then, very much. I guess it had lain quietly in my subconscious mind until, after a hiatus of five years, I took up my novel, Martin of Gfenn again and read through it, grimmacing all the way.

In the first dream, he just appeared. I was startled and woke up. That was that. But “he” came back…

I was in a huge room, like a gym or shopping mall. All around were stores (strange). I had rolls of butcher paper on the floor, cups of tempera, colored pencils. There was a commotion in the distance, so I got up and went to see what was going on. A man came in, wearing black clothes, a trench coat and so on like a photo of Bob Dylan taken by Richard Avedon; I had recently seen. This was NOT Dylan and this man wore a brimmed hat. It was a short, chubby guy in his fifties. He came right up to me and put his arms around me. I knew it was Truman Capote.

“It should be you,” I said, “this place couldn’t do better than to hire you as Writer in Residence.” Ah, my mall was a school.

“It could be you, honey.”

“No,” I said, “my work is invisible.”

“Not to me,” he said. He went off to work in his corner and I continued working in front of some stores.

Later, it was time for us to go to the homes where we were being “housed.” Mine was horrible. It was an upper and lower room. The lower room was peopled by an immensely cranky and obese woman, her severely retarded, nearly vegetable daughter, and her son/husband — and a lion. When I went down to this room — after being assured I’d be able to live with the lion — the first thing that happened was that the lion grabbed my arm and bit into it; not hard, not all the way, but it didn’t let go. I looked at it; it was smaller than a tiger and I thought to myself, “Why are you worried? You’re a tiger.” It was a smart thought to have because at that moment I was no longer worried about the lion at all, in fact,  I loved it.

At some point the family took the daughter up for dinner — they did this by grabbing her by the hair and dragging her around.

And so in the dream I continued to paint and think about writing. I was surprised by Capote. Everyone there — in the mall — was both writer and painter. He was very kind and protective of me and constantly treated me as if I were something precious both to him in a subjective sense and in an objective sense; as if my work were worth attention for its own sake.

When I woke up I was surprised Capote had appeared in a second dream.

I did some thinking about this. “A Christmas Memory” is the most perfect story I’ve ever read. I’d recently seen the documentary of Hunter Thompson  showing him copying The Great Gatsby over and over again. I thought of that in relation to my problems with Martin of Gfenn. Maybe I needed to do something like that; learn to write by copying a truly good story, perfectly written, like practicing a piano score. Maybe that diligent attention to technique is what I was missing.

But I was not sure. What was Truman Capote trying to tell me??? I wondered if it could it be this? “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

The upshot was that I spent that summer reading everything Capote wrote. I had more dreams and an experience that shed some light on the context. I went to my 40th high school reunion. I had only gone to one other reunion, my tenth where I was hit on by the hottest girl in school, an experience that — since I’m straight — was nothing but surreal. I was being offered the fantasy of every guy in my class. One event was returning to our school. It was so intense for me — it brought back not memories but realities of those years, that experience. At a certain point I walked to the hallway where my locker had been. I was stunned; the “mall” in my Capote dream had not been a mall. It had been my high school. I remembered feeling like a failure back then when we put on “The Grass Harp” and I neither got a part in the play or the chance to do the publicity graphics. I did get to spread butcher paper out on the floor and paint banners… Whoa. I got a copy of The Grass Harp and read it. I was stunned by its beauty. My dreams had given me the teacher I needed and I set to drastically edit Martin of Gfenn, cutting its length by half.

Wind surprised, peeled the leaves, parted night clouds; showers of starlight were let loose: our candle, as though intimidated by the incandescence of the opening, star-stabbed sky, toppled, and we could see, unwrapped above us, a late wayaway wintery moon: it was like a slice of snow, near and far creatures called to it, hunched moon-eyed frogs, a claw-voiced wildcat. Catherine hauled out the rose scrapquilt, insisting Dolly wrap it around herself; then she tucked her arms around me and scratched my head until I let it relax on her bosom–You cold? she said, and I wiggled closer: she was good and warm as the old kitchen. The Grass Harp

Resonant (for me) Capote quotations:

A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.

Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.

I was eleven, then I was sixteen. Though no honors came my way, those were the lovely years.

Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe.