31 January 2010

Studying Writing (3)

An interview with Mary Karr in Paris Review 191 makes the case for writers' programs. She certainly benefited from hers, both from the instructors and from her fellow students. In the same issue, there's an interview with Ha Jin in which he says that if he had to write for money, he'd never have become the writer he is. Mary Karr set out to be a writer, whereas Ha Jin studied to be a translator and then, coming to America, "made a living" until someone read his work and helped him get published (in the Paris Review). His account of how he teaches writing also shows the value of working with a writer like him. If you can find someone like him, go for it.

29 January 2010

Writing sonnets

After reading Mary Oliver's book on poetic structure, Invitation to the Dance, I started writing sonnets. I picked a rhyming pattern from one by Shakespeare, noting that his patterns vary. (In one, almost all the lines rhyme.) To my surprise, the process of rhyming came easily to me, and the sonnet form seemed to sharpen rather than hinder my thoughts. It reminded me of giving talks in Japan in which I was asked to pause after three or four sentences for the translation. I once gave one more or less extemporaneously, using each pause to come up with the next brief increment. Some modern sonnets don't rhyme. (Frederick Seidel has an example in My Tokyo, for instance.) Rhyming, to me, is the point - or one point - of writing sonnets.

28 January 2010

Editing two books

Since before the break, I've been editing two monographs. The last few weeks, it's become more intense, working with the texts (and their respective writers, one of which is helping out with the editing) in relation to the evolving layouts. There are a lot of moving parts. Today's adventures included giving one text a new ending and reorganizing the other to give it a new opening and, partly to make it fit and partly to eliminate repetition, to cut it in half, roughly. At the end of the day, I felt like steam was pouring out of my ears. And there are still several more rounds of editing until everything goes to the copy editor in mid-February. It's a necessarily incremental process: I think I'm catching everything, but actually I'm just focused on the standout issues, so much else gets by me.

16 January 2010

Studying writing (2)

I am skeptical of writing programs, despite their obvious appeal. I don't think it's a good idea to make writing a field of study. I realize that the whole idea of fields has been completely transformed since I went to university - indeed, it was changing while I was in graduate school as specialization took hold of the curriculum, even in architecture, and so-called fields arose around academic entrepreneurs (as we might charitably call them). Just to say it, I think that writing is an accompaniment to work and life, even for a writer. Studying with a writer may have some value, but it seems crazy to call that a field and give degrees in it.

Richardson on Emerson

As noted previously, I read Richardson's new book on Emerson and writing last weekend. While the book has some good moments, I was surprised how badly edited it is. It's clearly a compendium of pieces that Richardson wrote on other occasions, but there's no evidence of an editorial hand pulling them together and eliminating the substantial overlap that crops up in the published edition. The same Emerson quotes reappear from section to section. While they're interesting, they're less so on second or third encounter. For such a short book, especially one on writing, the forgetful quality of the text, like being in the company of someone whose memory is going, is unfortunate. One reason for editors is to save writers (and readers) from that affliction.

Studying writing

Fresh from reading an issue of Poets & Writers: Can writing be taught? Discuss.

10 January 2010

Emerson on writing

Earlier today, I bought Robert D. Richardson's slim volume, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (University of Iowa - 2009). A writing tip from the master: "The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say." And some advice about getting it done: "The only path of escape...is performance. You must do your work before you shall be released."

02 January 2010

A gardener's year

Looking ahead, I took away (from the hours in a year) the time spent on subsistence, errands, commuting, and paid work. That left about the same number of hours for "other" as for work. This made me think about what falls in the category of "other," and how, because a job, like school, provides a built-in structure, what falls out of it is "time off," often unstructured for this reason. Not everything has to have a structure, of course, nor is "other" always work, but there's a benefit to thinking about it. The gardener's year is one analogy that came to mind. Another is the liturgical year, which has its seasons, its saints' days and feast days. Something of a mix, I thought, might be helpful to shape time, a dimension that grows more valuable as I get older.

The aesthetic

Terry Eagleton: "As artistic production is gradually separated from other kinds of social production in the modern period, the discourse of the aesthetic becomes correspondingly narrow. In the twentieth century, after modernism, it ceased to be a concept of political relevance. In fact, modernism is the last moment when the aesthetic can still be political. After that, the discourse passes into the hands of the academics and the specialists ... It has become a technical concept, but that's not the way it started. The aesthetic began in the broadest possible way as a concept covering the whole of our bodily, sensual life. Indeed, it was not about art at all when it first appeared." (From Eagleton and Beaumont, The Task of the Critic, Verso, 2009, pages 225-226, condensed/reordered)