Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Loooong Sentences

Holy crap this is hard. Taking a page from the Epiphanizing blog, I set out to write a response to this prompt, from The 3 AM Epiphany: Take a sentence from a writer you admire or who provokes strong feelings in your gut. Preferably, this should be a fairly long sentence with a lot of different words in it. Use any of the words and only those words (repeating words from the sentence as often as you want) to make up fifteen sentences of your own—adhering around a character or situation that seems related to the author of this sentence, but it need not be a direct response to the author. This is a very difficult exercise, but you may find a handful of crucial ideas about your character from the struggle of coming up with these sentences.

Very difficult indeed. I tried the exercise with one sentence, then gave up and looked for an easier sentence. Next thing I knew, an hour had passed and I was still reading and re-reading my favorite long sentences from my favorite authors. So forget the exercise. I'm just going to share with you a couple of my favorite long sentences. This one, from All the Pretty Horses, just might be my favorite sentence of all time:

"They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing."

And here is my favorite "love scene" sentence, from For Whom the Bell Tolls:

"Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color.

Here is the guy's perspective of that same scene:

"For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them."

Wow. Remember, this was written before "feeling the earth move" was cliche. I think Hemingway -- the old softie -- actually coined the term.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Where have you gone, idleness?

Today marked the longest stretch I've gone without writing in over a year. Sure, I did some fiction exercises last week in my workshop, but I was so drained from a gruelling workday that I just went through the motions. And this past weekend was my bachelor party -- hardly conducive to writing. I'm not complaining, really; these are good reasons for not writing. I'm just longing for the time when I had, well, time.

If I'm disciplined, I can always eek out a few pages, no matter how insane my schedule gets. But I'm not missing time to write so much as time to not write. I miss the idle time, where I didn't do much of anything. Not because I'm lazy; idle time is where the ideas incubate. It's where poetry lives, in the moments you're not grasping at it. Because when you're too busy "doing," your soul, as Brenda Ueland put it, "gets frightfully sterile and dry" and "you have not time for your own ideas to come in and develop and gently shine."

I don't know what to do about this problem, other than win the lottery. And now I worry I'm falling into the cycle of thinking that has erased so many would-be writers: I'll wait until work calms down. I'll wait until after the wedding. I'll wait until the kids are grown.
I'll wait.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Novella Runs Through It

I just finished reading I Am Legend, the novella on which the Will Smith movie is loosely based. It's a brilliant (and influential) short story, especially considering it was written 55 years ago -- before the surfeit of vampire-ness in books and movies.

Not that I am Legend is a great movie, but it got me thinking about how the best adapted screenplays are often based on short stories rather than novels. I guess a full-length novel is simply too long and complex to squeeze into a two-hour movie, and it always leaves the viewer (and the reader, if he's read the book) feeling like something's missing.

Here are just a few noteworthy movies I can think of that were based on short stories or novellas: The Shawshank Redemption (Stephen King), Stand by Me (Stephen King), Brokeback Mountain (Annie Proulx), A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean), Apocalypse Now (Joseph Conrad).

Occasionally, a full-length novel spawns a movie that is as good or better than the book. One such movie is The Silence of the Lambs. Can you think of any others?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Group Therapy

It's an age-old question: do writers' workshops help or hurt? A writers' workshop is a group of people who review each others' writing and discuss it. In a recent New Yorker article, Louis Menand described such gatherings as "a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart. There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught."

In his book How to Write a Damn Good Novel (which, frankly, is just damn okay), James Frey argues that writers' workshops have their purpose, but only the kind he calls "destructive." In these groups, members ruthlessly criticize your work, and you come away with a bruised ego -- but also with a thicker skin and a list of specific things to fix in your piece. The worst kind of writers' groups, Frey says, are the "puff" ones, where everyone sits around and talks about your wonderful description of the sunset on page four, because they're afraid to tell you that your story is atrocious.

I've participated in several workshops over the past year, and I have found them helpful to a degree. If nothing else, they force you to write. If you have pages due, you're going to finish something. And since people will be reading and commenting in public, you'll be motivated to try and make the pages decent. As for criticism, I think it should fall somewhere between puff and destructive, depending on what point you are at in your writing career. In the beginning, it's nerve racking enough just to have someone read and respond to your work; no brand-new writer is ready for brutal criticism. But as you gain some confidence in your writing, then by all means bring out the red pen; otherwise, it's a waste of time.

Most importantly, writers' workshops give you a sense of community. For those of us who have busy day jobs, these groups carve out a space to hang out with other people who write. And, occasionally, someone who I think is talented calls me talented. And that's enough to keep me going.