For some, an evening of literature means the clothbound Penguin classics edition of Pride and Prejudice, a cup of hot tea, and a crocheted afghan. WRITE CLUB—while still an evening of literature—is emphatically not that. Its all caps title should be the first indication that it will, in fact, bear no similarity to Ms. Austen’s work.
The host of WRITE CLUB, Ian Belknap, describes his reading series as “bare knuckled lit” because it pits writers against one another in a throw down for the audience’s affection and applause. Each WRITE CLUB takes the same basic shape. There are three “bouts” consisting of two opposing ideas represented by different writers. The winner is chosen by applause and earns one third of the door money for his or her chosen charity.
While the performers vary from poets to fiction writers to comedians to bloggers/essayists, their objective is always the same—convince the audience that their topic trumps their opponent’s. This Christmas Naughty was pitted against Nice—Santa took on Jesus. When discussing how he chooses these binaries, Belknap says, “The opposing ideas of a good WRITE CLUB bout have requirements - they need to be broad enough to afford the writer/performer leeway to interpret it; they need to be specific enough to have teeth/constitute satisfactory oppositions; the best ones are also familiar-seeming, too; and they need to be a word or phrase around which ideas and associations can cluster.” Belkap’s keen eye for divisive pairings can instinctively rile his audience. Who is better Jesus or Santa? One has fun-sized indentured servants and a flying sleigh while the other has healing powers and millions of adoring fans.
The upcoming WRITE CLUB will take place Tuesday February 28th. (Consider it a pre-party for AWP). All three bouts focus on class warfare and if you’re familiar with live literature in Chicago, you may recognize Second Story’s Megan Stielstra and the Paper Machete’s Ali Weiss from its list of contributors.
I will leave you with one last comment from Belknap that fully encapsulates why I love performance-based literature. He argues, “there is no substitute for sharing space with other humans in real time and getting your socks knocked off by the a deft turn of phrase and a dazzling set of ideas.” It is for this reason that this Chicago reading series is expanding and holding regular events in San Francisco, Atlanta, and (soon) Los Angeles.
February is Black History Month, and Northwestern has a variety of notable events remaining. Artists and writers might be particularly interested in a screening and discussion of the movie Freedom Writers, based on the book The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. The event is hosted by the National Pen-Hellenic Council and is on February 23rd at 7 p.m. in Harris Hall. For lawyers, on February 23 at 7 p.m. at 1914 Sheridan Road, there will be a discussion of progressive legislation that has worked at ending discrimination.
On February 14, that heartiest of days, HBO will premiere the Loving Story, a documentary about Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple who faced a year in jail for the crime in Virginia of marrying interracially. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court held that such laws violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. June 12, the date of the Supreme Court’s decision, is now celebrated as Loving Day. It is hard to imagine a better name for the couple and the case. And it is hard to believe that we have not even reached the forty-fifth Loving Day.
On June 12, 2007, the fortieth anniversary of the decision, Mildred Loving issued a statement that ended like so: “I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.
Perhaps one of the most expansive literary events scheduled to take place in Chicago this year is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. If you’ve never been, you should note that there are three major aspects to AWP. The first is what you’d generally consider standard conference fare: magazine editors, writers, scholars, etc. hold panels designed to address all aspects of writing and publishing. This year AWP has added a feature to its website to help conference goers better plan which panels to attend, and I’ve already spent far too much time perfecting my schedule. I’m particularly interested in the multi-genre panel on apocalypse literature entitled “Apocalypse Now.”
The second major aspect of AWP is its utterly overwhelming book fair. Conference organizers create a complicated system of letters and numbers to arrange the mass of participating literary magazines, writing programs, and publishers. This system may be intuitive to other conference attendees—but not to me. Every year, I think that I will develop some plan of attack or some way to move effeciently through the rows, but I inevitably end up wandering around like a septuagenarian lost in a supermarket. The colossal number of participants isn’t even the most overwhelming part. If you’re like me and you get all woozy when you see one of your writerly idols, you’ll probably need to carry an industrial strength sedative because you will at some point see someone who will make you weak-kneed and loose-lipped. When I was in such a state, I may have (definitely) told Jordan Bass of McSweeney’s that I was just going to pick up a copy of Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation at one of the many floundering Borders instead of buying it from him at his booth.
The last segment of AWP does not require registration, so if you’ve been damning your crappy job or more specifically your crappy paycheck because you can’t afford the price of admission—fear not. Each night the conference boasts a series of off site events that are open to the public. These events are as close to true literary nightlife as you’re likely to find. In many ways the whole weekend functions like a national literary prom—and much like a high schooler, I’m just giddy about it.
I was going to write a post rounding up the recent obituaries about the life and work of Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska—who died February 1 at the age of 88—but since the Poetry Foundation’s already done an apt job of that, I’ll instead focus on what it was about Szymborska’s style that appealed to me.
It’s okay if you don’t know who I’m talking about. First, let’s get her name pronunciation down: It is vees-WAH-vah. As the Telegraph noted last week: "While she was arguably the most popular poet in Poland, most of the world had not heard of the shy, soft-spoken Szymborska before she won the Nobel prize [in 1996]."
What always drew me to her poetry was its deep and quiet meditative quality, which was often injected with doses of her dry humor. From a Guardian article: “Everyone needs solitude, especially a person who is used to thinking about what she experiences. Solitude is very important in my work as a mode of inspiration, but isolation is not good in this respect. I am not writing poetry about isolation,” she said, going on to wonder why anyone would want to interview her. “For the last few years my favourite phrase has been ‘I don’t know’. I’ve reached the age of self-knowledge, so I don’t know anything. People who claim that they know something are responsible for most of the fuss in the world.”
The Nobel committee described her as the "Mozart of poetry" but with "something of the fury of Beethoven” and the Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said on Twitter that her death was an "irreparable loss to Poland's culture."
Ms. Szymborska “looks at things from an angle you would never think of looking at for yourself in a million years,” Dr. Cavanagh said on the day of the Nobel announcement. She pointed to “one stunning poem that’s a eulogy.” That poem, “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” as translated by Dr. Cavanagh and Mr. Baranczak, opens:
Die — You can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Something that I learned while reading her obituaries is that Poland has a reputation for romanticizing its poets; (more than I can say of Americans, the vast majority of whom are indifferent to poetry). Per the Times: “She was popular in Poland, which tends to make romantic heroes of poets, but she was little known abroad. Her poems were clear in topic and language, but her playfulness and tendency to invent words made her work hard to translate.”
Back to that wry wit. In Szymborska’s Nobel lecture, she said this of poets’ lives, as compared to those of artists or musicians: “Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic…Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them 15 minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?”
The Cameras in the Courtroom Act – is it a slapstick vaudeville routine? No, it’s legislation Congress is considering that would require the Supreme Court to install television cameras and allow broadcasting of oral arguments. The Court already distributes transcripts of the arguments, which, by the way, are open to the public, with limited seating space. Whether Congress can and should force the Court to permit video of its open sessions is for another forum – what’s noteworthy for us is the implicit beliefs the Justices and supporters and critics of the CitCA have regarding the difference between words and video.
Remember, transcripts from the arguments are available on the internet, often the next day. Justice Kagan, a supporter of cameras in the Supreme Court, described her impressions before becoming a justice: “Everybody was so prepared, so smart, so obviously deeply concerned about getting to the right answer . . . . if everybody could see this, it would make people feel so good about this branch of government and how it’s operating.” So Justice Kagan believes that nobody can read? That the intelligence and preparation won’t be evident from the transcript? Or that words in general lack the power of video? Some combination of these, likely, from a member of the Court that writes opinions thousands of words long and has huge battles over what words mean and even what methods to use in interpretation.
Nancy Marder, a professor at Kent Law School here in Chicago and former Supreme Court clerk, opposes cameras because they will make attorneys and Justices more guarded, more concerned about their images, and that little snippets will “go viral.” Again, the assumptions seem to be that nobody bothers to read the transcripts, or the articles that quote from them, and that words are nothing to worry about anyway.
My own view is that it’s much ado about very little. The Illinois Supreme Court already has cameras in its courtroom, and not even my mom has watched my arguments there. Appellate arguments are just not very gripping. The U.S. Supreme Court has more high-profile cases, but beyond the brief clip here and there, cameras in the courtroom won’t change much. The People’s Court will get much better ratings. And if I’m wrong, well, it’s just words, right?
When I was twelve, I spent most of my time after school watching Darkwing Duck, a show about which I now remember nothing except that the opening credits featured a duck wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Time, I fully concede, spent poorly. I have been thinking about how I spent my time as a youth lately because there have been two recent incarnations of youths producing really high quality literature and literary commentary: the Louder than a Bomb Chicago youth poetry slam and the Newberry Film Festival, in which youths aged 0-18 submit their 90-second homemade videos summarizing/reenacting the plots of Newberry Medal winners.
The Newberry Film Festival is curated by Chicago-based writer James Kennedy. On his website, Kennedy promotes the project this way, “Teachers, here’s a fun project that will get your students reading Newbery winners. Students, here’s an excuse to mess around with video equipment. Librarians, here’s an activity to do with your teen advisory boards. Anyone can enter. Everyone wins!” He’s right. Everyone does seem to win. These videos are not only hysterical, they give me hope for the future of reading. The children making these videos are clearly having fun. To reiterate, they are making reading fun, a task that many with noble intentions and stout hearts attempt and fail, fail miserably, fail in a way that actually makes reading less fun. To see youths succeed and succeed with smiles is incredibly buoying.
Louder than a Bomb, a documentary about the youth poetry slam, premiered on January 5th on the Oprah Winfrey Network and follows the preparations of four students living in Chicago. LTAB is an amazing event that inspires great art. Watch the documentary. Attend this year’s event. Support the talented individuals who make LTAB happen. It will impress you.
I am jealous of these two sets of youths. I am jealous that they are more literary as children and teenagers than I was. If there were, in fact, a wrinkle in time (Newberry Medal winner) and I were a youth in Chicago today, I’d like to think that I’d have been different. I’d like to think that I’d be donning a wig and videotaping myself bridging my way to Terabithia. I’d like to think that I’d have the courage to stand on a stage and read incredibly raw poetry. But since time travel is still relegated to fiction, I will have to acknowledge that I spent my youth watching a fashion conscious duck—I think—fight crime.
Goldie Goldbloom, my current workshop instructor, has been urging us to really immerse ourselves in the tone and feeling of our fiction submissions. Meaning, she wants us to think deeply about place/location—even going so far as to draw a map of where our story is set. She’s also recommending that while we write, we listen to music that is relevant to our story. I’m conflicted about this advice. On the one hand, I think listening to music can help you set the tone of your work, and that tone may well come out beautifully in the writing. At the same time, I have difficulty writing alongside any music containing words, so my music go-tos are usually jazz or avant-garde classical: Edgar Varese, Thelonious Monk, Mum, Django Reinhardt, Cecilia Bartoli, Cesaria Evora (those last 2 are singers, but if I can’t understand the language, words are weirdly okay). But I admit, none of those musicians has anything remotely to do with my story. If I was going to listen to music pertinent to my manuscript, it’d likely be 70s country rock, which I find tough to write with.
Because I’ve been thinking about this lately, this article on The Millions literary magazine about book “soundtracks” really hit home. I agree with the author that the popularity of this idea has much to do with readers feeling as though it allows them to know the author more intimately and have insights into aspects of the work that might otherwise be hidden. And, I do love the idea of curating a soundtrack to my novel after it’s written.
This train of thought reminded me of an interview I did with author/teacher Elizabeth Merrick for Venus Zine a few years ago. Reading this again reminded me that although she loved to listen and write, for her, listening to music was only possible during certain phases of the writing process. So, maybe I just need to try out the 70s country rock while generating text rather than during the editing phase, as I’ve been doing. Fingers crossed.
Do you listen to music while you’re writing?
In the early phases, yes. I’ll drive and drive and drive and the stories will show up. And then at a certain point, the music will start jangling and I’ll hear the characters speaking, and I’ll have to turn the music off. What the music does is get me into my right brain-all of the intuition stuff-and then once I can access that and the story is there, I turn it off. The music for me is the way to feel unconstricted.
Syracuse City Court recently hosted a strange wedding proposal. Nicole Osbourne was in court facing felony assault charges. Her boyfriend, Theodore Murphy, watched from the gallery. Osbourne’s defense attorney informed the judge that she had an usual request. The attorney turned to her client and relayed a request from Murphy that she marry him. Osbourne began crying.
If this proposal seems unromantic, there is an explanation. Besides the assault charges, Osbourne faced a separate domestic violence case, pursuant to which she could have no direct or third-party contact with Murphy. Indeed, it would have violated the court order for the defense attorney to share Murphy’s answer with him. The prosecution moved to amend the order of protection to allow non-criminal contact between Osbourne and Murphy. Osbourne turned to Murphy and accepted.
Everyone was happy. Bail was set at $2,500 for each case, but Murphy apparently couldn’t come up with the money and Osbourne remained in custody.
In a past entry here, I admonished writers to make legal scenes realistic. I’ll admit, if I were reading a story with the above scene in a workshop or from a slush-pile, I would raise my eyebrows. Maybe I need to broaden my sense of the plausible. Weird things happen, even - or perhaps especially - in courts.
However, I note that the weird scene stems from the people, not from any arcane rule of law. The courtroom might provide a stage for people's dramas to unfold, but it is the people driving the scene, not legislation or court rules. It’s a good model for fiction. Perhaps the inevitable divorce proceedings would make a good short story.
I was listening to the Canadian Broadcasting Company yesterday and heard an interview with prolific writer Elmore Leonard (the novelist/screenwriter who penned Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma and current F/x series Justified), which referenced his widely circulated “10 rules of writing.”
As I’m digging back into Act 1 of my novel, it seems like a good time to revisit them. In brief, the logical but oft-broken rules are:
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Some of these are painful to absorb; it’s hard out here for an adverb-lover. But when critiquing a piece of writing with these rules in mind, it’s hard to disagree with a single one. The CBC is running a contest based on Leonard's rules: The winner must write a single sentence that breaks as many of them as possible.
“All you have to do is knock us out with a truly amazing sentence and you could be one of our five finalists. Winners will have their rule-breaking sentences featured on Day 6 and published in The National Post. We'll also send winners three great Elmore Leonard books courtesy of HarperCollins.”
When the Guardian covered Leonard’s rules, they asked other writers to contribute their own rules. I’ve pasted a few of the meatier gems below. Enjoy.
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.
Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph
Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer's a good idea. Don't have children. Don't read your reviews.
Read it aloud to yourself because that's the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).
The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than "The Metamorphosis"
Don't wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key. Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they'll know it too.
Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.
Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go. Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won't need to take notes.
Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don't really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, "how to" books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.
Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.
As the new car smell fades from 2012 and resolutions quickly drift into obscurity, I have decided to stand firm to mine. I am resolved. I will attend more of Chicago’s literary readings/events in 2012.
Sure, it’s easy to belittle literary readings, to mock the people who snap and the hipster-poets who shout “What!?” as an awkward affirmation of the writer’s work. But like all art (performance literature included), some is bad. Some poets rely too heavily on stock intonation. Some fiction writers don’t read their work aloud before performance, which results in a dryness to rival Charlie Rose. But some is not all, and I have been moved at literary events. They have challenged me to consider literature’s intersection with community and technologies (new and old)—I like that. The Chicago writer Jill Summers (accompanied by her sister, Susie Kirkwood) couples her fiction with intricate and impressive shadow puppet shows. Poet Shannon Maney uses a looper and plays a mandolin to create beautiful, captivating works. These writers’ performances are undeniably affecting; they touch some part of me that words on a page (or screen) can’t always reach.
Chicago plays host to nearly forty (!) reading series (a number which still excludes magazine launches, author readings/signings, conferences, pop up book stores, library events, etc.), so there is no reason to sit at home and watch a third consecutive episode of ABC’s Winter Wipeout. There is a community of writers and artists seeking an audience, seeking participants. The longest running poetry slam in the country takes place on Sunday nights at The Green Mill in Uptown. Most Sunday nights I sit in pajamas and eat until I’m nauseous. A poetry slam every now and then will be good medicine.
Basically—at the end of 2012 I don’t want to say that I skipped a Michael Chabon reading because TNT was airing The Fifth Element again—which I did, embarrassingly, once do. I want to remember this year as the year of great literary performance, of writers, writing, and being social—which is, of course, what readings are all about.