Saturday, December 19, 2009

"It feels more comfortable to think you know what you're doing,

or at least to get other people to think you know what you're doing.

"People know what they're doing in the same way that a little
guppy in a cove knows the ocean.

"You can't write a novel while you're thinking that you don't
know what you're doing. So you figure out a way to convince
yourself you know what you're doing. It's only natural.

"You eat a sandwich. What does your body do with it? If you don't
know, who does? Whose body is it?

"It's like walking in total darkness except for a little spotlight
that's illuminating the stone you're going to step on in a
stream just before you step on it.

"If you could stay in a dream long enough to get lucid, long
enough to begin to operate with some consciousness and choice,
still--where did the dream come from? You can interpret the
dream, but what led you to choose that specific way of
interpreting, out of all the ways? What led you to have
that dream, with those "symbols," those "ants", that "way
of flying"?

"Is it you arguing with me, or your mom and dad? Is your mom and
dad arguing with me, or with my mom and dad?

"What is wrong with saying you don't know what you're doing?
Even if you know what you're doing, the part that you know
compared with the part you don't know is about 1:50000, at

"It's good to know what you're doing, as long as you realize
you really don't.

"In every part of every thing there is a part that is unknown,
and unknowable. That is the most important part. How do I
know? How did you know right away that it's true? Knowing
something is different than knowing how you know. Knowing
is different than proving is different than having to prove.

"All of growing up is designed to sell you one idea:
You know what you're doing.

"The only way you can know something is to find out. There are
lots of things we know that don't matter. I'm only talking
about the things that are important to know that we don't
know and maybe never will. That's why they're here. What stories
are for. Words and stories are to say things that we can't
say. Saying something is not the same as knowing it. To know
is to own. To say is to see."

Ishii Ougourou, from WHAT (out of print)

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Can't get enough of James Wood's HOW FICTION WORKS.

I like a book on writing that makes me feel more free
about writing, that inspires me to write the way I want
to write, that names things that I do but didn't even know
there was a name for, that makes writing simpler & clearer
(by describing its complexity), that, mainly, reminds me
& invites me to enjoy myself writing.

Even when he is saying what has been said, Wood does it
with a freshness and vitality that make it seem as if it's
being said for the first time.

Some teasers, because I recommend the whole book:

On third person, the omniscient narrator, and "free indirect style":

"So-called omniscience is almost impossible.
As soon as someone tells a story about a character,
narrative seems to want to bend itself around that
character, to merge with that character, to take on
his or her way of thinking and speaking. An author's
omniscience soon becomes a kind of secret sharing;
this is called 'free indirect style,' a term writers
have lots of different nicknames for--'close third person,'
or 'going into character.'"

On the sentence: "Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears":

"What is so useful about free indirect style is that . . .
a word like 'stupid' somehow belongs both to the author
and the character; we are not entirely sure who 'owns'
the word. Might 'stupid' reflect a slight asperity or
distance on the part of the author? Or does the word belong
wholly to the character, with the author, in a rush of sympathy,
having 'handed' it . . . to the tearful fellow?"

"Thanks to free indirect style, we see things
through the character's eyes and language but also
through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit
omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens
between author and character, and the bridge--which is
free indirect style itself--between them simultaneously
closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.

"There is a final refinement in free indirect style . . .
when the gap between an author's voice and a character's
voice seems to collapse altogether; when a character's voice
does indeed seem rebelliously to have taken over the narration

'The town was small, worse than a village, and in it lived almost
none but old people, who died so rarely it was even annoying.'

"What an amazing opening! It is the first sentence of Chekhov's
story 'Rothschild's Fiddle.' The next sentences are:

'And in the hospital and jail there was very little demand for coffins.
In short, business was bad.'

"The rest of the paragraph introduces us to an extremely mean coffin-
maker, and we realize that the story has opened in the middle of free
indirect style. We are in the midst of the coffin-maker's mind,
for whom longevity is an economic nuisance.

"Chekhov begins his use of (free indirect style) before
his character has even been identified.

"Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the story
is written from a point of view closer to a village chorus
than to one man. The village chorus sees life pretty much
as brutally as the coffin-maker would . . . , but continues
to see this world after the coffin-maker has died."


I love that he sets up the coffin-maker as the indirect narrator, then
goes, on the other hand, maybe it's the village chorus!

But don't we have to nail this down??!!

No. As long as it's consistent, and if it's not consistent, as long
as it's consistently inconsistent. In other words, whatever you can
get away with. Every accepted narrative technique was once an innovation
that set off howls of protest from the conventional mob. I'm not much
of a technical experimenter myself in writing, but it is liberating
to know that whatever quirks I might introduce into my writing, I am
quite free to do it, as long as I know what I'm doing, which I can only
know by going ahead and learning how to do it, right.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

J.D. Salinger: "Holden Caulfield is unactable."

Mr. Salinger writes to a producer:

R. D. 2
Windsor, Vt.
July 19, 1957

Dear Mr. Herbert,

I'll try to tell you what my attitude is to the stage and screen rights of The Catcher in the Rye. I've sung this tune quite a few times, so if my heart doesn't seem to be in it, try to be tolerant....Firstly, it is possible that one day the rights will be sold. Since there's an ever-looming possibility that I won't die rich, I toy very seriously with the idea of leaving the unsold rights to my wife and daughter as a kind of insurance policy. It pleasures me no end, though, I might quickly add, to know that I won't have to see the results of the transaction. I keep saying this and nobody seems to agree, but The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade "scenes" - only a fool would deny that - but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator's voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons - in a word, his thoughts. He can't legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique. True, if the separation is forcibly made, there is enough material left over for something called an Exciting (or maybe just Interesting) Evening in the Theater. But I find that idea if not odious, at least odious enough to keep me from selling the rights. There are many of his thoughts, of course, that could be labored into dialogue - or into some sort of stream-of-consciousness loud-speaker device - but labored is exactly the right word. What he thinks and does so naturally in his solitude in the novel, on the stage could at best only be pseudo-simulated, if there is such a word (and I hope not). Not to mention, God help us all, the immeasurably risky business of using actors. Have you ever seen a child actress sitting crosslegged on a bed and looking right? I'm sure not. And Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biassed opinion, is essentially unactable. A Sensitive, Intelligent, Talented Young Actor in a Reversible Coat wouldn't nearly be enough. It would take someone with X to bring it off, and no very young man even if he has X quite knows what to do with it. And, I might add, I don't think any director can tell him.

I'll stop there. I'm afraid I can only tell you, to end with, that I feel very firm about all this, if you haven't already guessed.

Thank you, though, for your friendly and highly readable letter. My mail from producers has mostly been hell.


(Signed, 'J. D. Salinger')

J. D. Salinger
The original letter is for sale for $54,000 here:

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

I'm swearing off opinions today.

I'm not going to have any opinions today.
Yesterday I had an opinion that opinions might be the problem.
So today I'm going to have an adventure in opinionlessness.
I'll let you know how it goes, although, depending,
that may not include any opinions about it.

Tomorrow (the day after the above):
It did not go well, in my opinion.
In fact, I had 172 more opinions than I had the day before.
Back to the drawing board

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Quiet City"

I like this movie genre of "mumblecore," as it's derogatorily
called. Young people in their 20s hang around and talk, is the
basic gist, and don't do much, like work, or get worked
up about much of anything.

I saw "Hannah Takes the Stairs" earlier, which I was taken
some by, but "Quiet City" got to me more, because it seems
to be even purer in its vision of these folks, or this
generation. Hannah was more hectic and games-playing.

The people who populate this genre remind me some of both
hippies and slackers, but they are really neither, and I'm
focusing on Quiet City now. They aren't hippies (of which I
was sort of one) because they don't drug & booze it up much,
and because they make hippies look ambitious and aggressive.

They aren't slackers because what I know of slackers is that
they're more sloppy and drug-angled, and even they have an
aggression that just ain't there with the people in Quiet City.

Why I like them is that their response, or answer, to the
prevailing violent, fearful, greedy and insane world
as it is today, hits me as totally authentic, yet with an
innate gentleness that is itself a kind of passive ambition
of the heart.

The two lead actors are gentle, passive (but conscious and connected
and honest), without worldly ambition, interested in one another,
playful, agreeable, not quick to be upset by upsetting things.
My God, it's like I'm describing monks of some sort, and, you
know, I think I might be.

The main thing is, their response to modern reality is authentic.
The guy at one point, in a conversation with the girl about
relationships and how difficult they are, says something like,
"I don't want my feelings to affect other people," meaning that
he doesn't want to hurt anybody, but also he doesn't want to be
responsible for how somebody else feels.

They talk about where they are in the evolution of their
ability to relate, to be with another person, and see how
their being young has so much to do with how they feel and
relate. I NEVER thought about such things when I was 20.

I don't feel like I'm capturing what I like about this
movie, the way they're so passive, so at the mercy of
events and coincidences (the way they met in the train
station) and yet how they become involved seems so true
about love, or about caring, which is the point of life
to me. Are they empty wisps, or have they achieved,
or bumbled into, an enlightenment that's so fitting of
this time, yet transcendent because they don't care
enough to take action to change anything? They have
some figment of that spiritual quality about being in
the world but not of the world.

The one part where friction and upset entered was at
an art gallery where this one kid has an aggression that
seems to stand for the world at large--aggression in words,
a fake playfulness that masks meanness, a pokey-jokey
small-scale cruelty that underscores the main characters'
gentleness and lovingness. The artist whose show it is
at the gallery says to him finally but gently, something
like, "Did I tell you to be rude to my friends?"

I did get impatient at first when I saw that wow really
"nothing" was going to happen in this movie, but then I
started feeling a wavelength that was good and true and
peaceful watching them, listening to them, and I thought,
what is going on here? And I saw mainly that their loveliness
was authentic, their lack of ambition a spiritual quality
as much as disengagement from the violent madness of the
world, as well as an honorable response to it.

You may see this movie and go, "What the hell is he
talking about?" or "Yeah, I see," but in any case I
liked it, and I like it more the more I think about it.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How Fiction Works.

"The chapters of this book have a way of collapsing
into one another, because each is motivated
by the same aesthetic:

when I talk about free indirect style
I am really talking about point of view,

and when I am talking about point of view
I am really talking about the perception of detail,

and when I am talking about detail
I am really talking about character,

and when I am talking about character
I am really talking about the real,
which is at the bottom of my inquiries."

--James Wood How Fiction Works

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Poetry, Silence, Noise.

"Poetry today has lost its relationship with silence.

The word is searching and hunting for something to convey.

But the real poet starts in possession of the object,
and goes in search of the words, and not vice versa.

Today the poet's words go to all words. It can combine
with many things, attract many things to itself,
seem more than it really is.

In fact the word seems to be sent out to catch other words.

And so it comes about that the writer today presents
far more than he actually possesses himself.

His person is less than what he writes;
he is not identical with his work.

And he therefore tends to undergo frequent crises
on account of this discrepancy.

It is even demanded of poetry today that it
should represent the world of noise; that noise
should be audible in poetry as it is everywhere else.

It is imagined that the noise could be overcome
by forcing it into verse.

But it is not possible to overcome the noise
of the external world with the noise of poetry,
for the noise of poetry starts competing
with the noise of the external world, and the
two noises rattle along beside each other.

Noise can be overcome only by something
that is utterly different.

Orpheus did not overcome the underworld
by becoming as dark as the underworld
but by the wholly different
bright sound of his song."

-Max Picard, The World of Silence

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