Reading, more than writing

For a few months, this blog was identified as a writing site – except I almost never said anything on it about my writing. I don’t like writing about writing, any more than I like plays about the theater or poems about poetry. So I’ve renamed it a reading site, because I do enjoy writing about reading.

Right now? My first dip into Marcel Proust. My first impression? I will never read all of “À la recherche du temps perdu” – though the title makes a good rhythmic chant, like the nagging chorus of a song of which you know no other words.

Isabel Allende on Hollywood’s demands

I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been writing, not posting, and I’m well into a new book.

But this caught my attention online a few weeks ago, excerpted from an interview with Isabel Allende on NPR, when she was asked about adapting her latest novel, “Ripper,” for the movie screen:

Let’s not talk about Hollywood. … They want the rights to do the movie and everything else they can think of, forever. There’s no limit to the contract — ‘In this universe and universes to be discovered’ — I’m not making this up: This is in the contract. And they also want the copyright of the characters, so I lose my characters, and if I want to repeat them in another book I have to pay them a royalty. Give me a break.

1. Why is every author asked when her book is going to be made into a movie? A film adaptation is not some seal of approval. At best it’s some additional income, though apparently won at a terrible price, if Allende is to be believed.

2. Who would think an author would want to sell the copyright to her characters? And then demand the author pay them a royalty to write about her characters in the future? And in this case the author isn’t even some struggling newbie anxious for fame and fortune. This is one of the more popular novelists in the business. Let’s hope that after her outrage, she just laughed at them.

3. Most importantly, I like books that are just books. I don’t write to make movies, though my creative writing teacher told me years ago I was a fool not to. I write a book to be a book, and when I’m reading some other writer’s work that starts sounding like they’re angling for a Hollywood contract, I’m disappointed. Let Hollywood make a movie if it must (right now I’ve got a film version of “As I Lay Dying” in my Netflix queue), but first give me a writer who has a story he needs to tell in words – without pictures, sound or a box of Raisinets.

A goofy little note

The campfire debate of how Pluto and Goofy can both exist in the same cartoon universe provides a favorite moment in the movie “Stand By Me,” and has been going on ever since. I think I may be able to contribute a point in the discussion.

Goofy.svgBoth Pluto and Goofy are dogs, but the former is a fetch-and-pant pet to Mickey Mouse and the latter is a walking talking pants-wearing hound – that is, a dog transformed.

We know Walt Disney liked Southern folklore. He was a Missouri boy, exposed to these tales from childhood and obviously familiar with the Uncle Remus stories, since he later used them as the basis for his movie “Song of the South.”

Another popular set of stories from the Uncle Remus era were the late-19th century Conjure tales of Charles W. Chesnutt, where a frequent verb is “goopher.” A “conjure woman” or witch goophers something when she puts a spell on it. The modifier “goophered” or “goofy,” meaning odd or silly, became popular in the United States as African-American culture rose in influence in the first decades of the 20th century; the word’s first recorded instance is from that era.

The Disney studio, which already had created Pluto as a pet-style dog in 1930, came up with the Goofy character in 1932. Originally known as Dippy Dog, by the end of the decade he had become Goofy Goof. Like Pluto he is a dog, but he’s a “goophered” dog, transformed by some unknown spell (in reality the needs of the animation studio) to become a more fit companion for Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

I don’t know if Disney himself considered the dog “goophered,” but knowing the origins of the term goofy at least helps the rest of us get a handle on the difference between a Pluto Pup and a Goofy Goof. Now if we could only travel back in movie time and explain it to those kids around the campfire.


Credit is due

MusicPhilosophy2-16I saw this image in Redbook magazine and it touched on a pet peeve of mine.

Notice the credit: Judy Garland Over the Rainbow. As if she wrote these words.

Sorry, but Garland is famous for singing them, not creating them, and as a piece of print media, this poster is by nature a celebration of the words and sentiment by lyricist E.Y. Harburg. You want a celebration of the performance? See a movie clip. (And, by the way, the proper line should be “the dreams THAT you dare to dream…” which is not only how it’s written but how Garland sings it. Pay attention, folks.)

I’ve seen this kind of problem most often in movie quotes, where the credit is given not to the screenwriter, not to the person who actually created them, but to the character (Scarface, Alex DeLarge, etc.)  At best such mis-attributions can be a compliment to the writer, that he or she has come up with characters so memorable that they seem to be the creators of their words. But in even weirder instances, I’ve seen movie lines credit not even the characters, but the actors who speak them, as in the above image “quoting” Garland.

As I understand movie making (not very well, I admit) actors do sometimes create lines, so I can see how this can get a little complicated. But when the source is clear, lets give the writer the credit he or she observes.

The claws that catch

Rufhous Hummingbird female, Oregon, July 2013.

Rufous Hummingbird female, Oregon, July 2013.

I like found moments in photography nearly as much as I like finding things in my writing that I didn’t plan – when images or words come together and you think, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

Here’s a picture of a female Rufous Hummingbird in my garden. Over her head hovers a skeletal hand – nearly bird-like, nearly human – also seeming to reach for the flowers.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird (female), Oregon, June 2013.

Anna’s Hummingbird (female), Oregon, June 2013.

Not much to say about this, except that whenever I see a hummingbird in the backyard, I try to get a photo. This one came out OK, considering I have a low-end pocket camera and well, it was a hummingbird and they’re fast movers. I like the little feet.

Good advice from John Gardner

GardnerI never met John Gardner, the mid-20th century writer and teacher, but I talked to him on the phone once and we exchanged a few letters. I remember little of the phone call except that his voice was brighter than I expected and absolutely upbeat about the topic, which was writing in general and my short story in particular.

He made my effort to finish the work seem not only possible, but worthwhile, and many times since I’ve wished I had a recording of that conversation to spur me on. Fortunately I’ve kept his letters, and since they are writing itself (and he was foremost a writer) that’s probably a better thing.

From those letters, here are a few very Gardnerian quotes:

Stories must first be told for their own sake, because they’re good stories. The back-up stuff is fine (symbolism and all that) but only in its place.

Write from life, not in imitation of art you know. Life will not trick you; art is sure to.

Remember, fiction is a competitive business: people read the most interesting stories they can find. So you’ve got to prove your story interesting, and right away. (Interesting, that is, to the sensitive, smart reader….)

The cheapest thing a writer (I mean a good writer) can do is end with a symbolic shot. Symbolism at the end of a story is always an evasion of the end of a story.

Great art is thrillingly affirmative, recognizing all the darkness.

And then this clencher from his last letter, after he had helped me through several edits: The story is terrific!

It still makes me smile, and keeps me writing.


Footnotes and Norton Critical Editions

I have been enjoying the hell out of the Norton Critical Edition of the New Testament (what they call The English Bible), and finding it very inspiring in my writing. But it’s the footnotes more than the gospels that are moving me to ask questions and then create.

NCE-BibleThat amused me at first, but then I remembered that way back in 1978 it was a footnote in the Norton Critical Edition of “Faust” that inspired me to write “Sanctity,” a story that the novelist John Gardner admired. I still have that edition of “Faust” and that footnote page is still marked with a slip of dingy paper. And I see that I, being at that time a serious student, had underlined the text and in the margin written an exclamation point. From such little things…. Which is part of the joke that Mephistopheles is making in the poem: “In words belief is safely vested, From words no jot or tittle can be wrested.” The footnote references not only Matthew 5:18 but a debate about spelling from the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Etc. (You can look it up, of course: Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. Ed. Cyrus Hamlin. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1976, p. 316.)

I’ve long been interested in footnotes and read them carefully, believing they help me understand, while my partner hates them and finds them distracting – and yet she finds them hard to ignore when they’re right there on the page. It is that tension between knowing and unknowing, of how readers respond to a text, that led me to write “Sanctity” – a longish short story about footnotes and religious doubts that develop out of scholarly minutia.

Gardner picked it up and published it in his magazine “MSS” back in 1982, but only after recommending some changes and giving me a lecture on being an honest writer. The gist of his argument, not unique to him but vigorously argued (he called one of my plot points “bullshit”), was that I need to follow through on the character of my characters. It’s something I’ve pushed myself to remember for years – to develop the thoughts and actions of my characters as they would develop them, and not as I would have it or as a neat plot twist or easy ending might suggest.

“MSS” is long out of print, folding after Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. I’ll have to see if I can republish my story somehow.

Babylon shipment

babylon-5This old image apparently is meant to represent the port at Babylon, with slaves unloading cargo on the river. The main figure looks the way I imagined Inanatum from “A Feast in Babylon” looking, but I can’t imagine what he’d be getting in the box.

My first thought was that it would be a box of shit, but I don’t really think he would accept anything except what he gets from the Sirrush.