Rag Tag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading roundup

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).

I am procrastinating writing about my trip to Seattle for this year’s AWP conference. There’s a lot to process, a lot to think about. I learned a lot.

And in the spirit of ever and always learning…

Quel wonderful!

The Writing University is offering free, online courses in creative writing and literary analysis. Associated with and supported by the University of Iowa, classes are a combination of readings and audio/visual recordings.

I just signed up for their first course, a close reading of the wonderful poem, Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman. The course officially started in February but, as there are no assignments or other requirements, I believe it’s not too late for you to sign up too!

Walt Whitman

Another exciting discovery (and by discovery I mean that I just found out about something everyone else already knows) is the Writing Lessons feature on The American Scholar website.

Each Monday a poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, or a scholar recalls a piece of advice or an experience that was most helpful to their writing career. I like this tiny essay On Weirdness by Nathaniel Rich.

“Life is extraordinarily weird. Art must be weirder.”

And on a completely unrelated note (or maybe not), this GoPro video of a pelican learning to fly is the best. The best!



“You seem to want to write, so write.”

What are your favourite books about writing and craft? Last week, in an effort to focus and get back on track – not only with this blog but my writing-life in general – I picked up a few books on the subject, beginning with Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Lifeas it was recommended to me at least twice this year.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was  ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he’d had three months to  write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds,  immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my  father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'”

This sweet excerpt exemplifies the book in general, but it is also atypical. Bird by Bird is part writing instruction and practical example, part memoir and personal anecdotes. It pays particular attention to the feelings of fear and immobilization writers often face, and offers tips on dismantling the process, bit by bit, bird by bird. But it is also too much about the tears and the tantrums, the jealousies and anxieties and emotional dramas of the writing life – Lamott’s writing life, though she seems to write as if her experience is characteristic.

I didn’t like it much.

The scene between father and son at the kitchen table is one of the only successful anecdotes in the book, in terms of relating an incident back to writing and extrapolating a clear lesson from it. The majority cross the line into uncomfortable or cringeworthy over-share, which are supposed to be amusing and illuminating but I just didn’t get it.

A lot of people love and find Lamott hilariously funny and insightful but her style is not for me and I found myself skimming past the personal dramas, petty jealousies and histrionics, searching for something more concrete and instructive about how to write – and well.

Perhaps this impatience is the problem, and Lamott does address it in the book when she talks about her students who look to her for the secrets of success – or shortcuts, which is what we really mean.

Why is it that we refuse to accept the simple advice in life, are convinced things are more complicated than they really are?

“You seem to want to write,” she tells them in a final class. “So write.”

Of course, it is more complicated than that and I’m not ashamed to say that I am in need of instruction and have so much to learn: want is different than do, and how. It was frustrating, then, to slog through so many cliches and weak wisdom: “Write straight into the emotional center of things… Write towards vulnerability.” How does one do that? What does that even mean?

When I stripped away the well-worn platitudes and personal dramas, there was little I hadn’t heard before or could not be said in a short piece on the subject:

  • Write, and write often.
  • Write at approximately the same time every day: this trains your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.
  • Break things down with small assignments: start with your childhood or, smaller than that, start with your school lunch. Write down as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame.
  • Keep a lot of index cards and keep them everywhere. Everything you see and hear and come across is potential material for a story.
  • Move beyond perfectionism – it will ruin your writing and block inventiveness. Learn to accept those shitty first drafts.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Edit, edit, edit.
  • Understand that you may never be published and, if you are so lucky, it is not going to solve all of your problems and be the neat and tidy dream you imagined.
  • Write because you want to and not for any ends that just aren’t guaranteed. Write for the love and joy of it not for external success or money.

All fine advice but, for me, nothing so novel or enlightening that made the rest of the book worth reading. A better and succinct list of rules is Colson Whitehead’s ‘How To Write’ in the New York Times last week.

This may sound disrespectful – especially coming from a novice – but I find it difficult to take writing advice from someone who’s writing I don’t enjoy or appreciate. (By the by, I’m with Salon and Molly E Johnson this week: folks are too fearful of negative reviews; niceness isn’t necessarily constructive.)

Like I say, though, a lot of people love and recommend this book so, if you’re new to writing or like her style, you may well get more from it than I did. A good start – or timesaver – might be to check out some isolated quotes from the book on Goodreads: they contain the essence of her message without having to deal with the rest!

Where to go from here then? I want to read more books and meditations on the craft and would love some suggestions. I’m just settling into How to Write a Sentence, And How to Read One by Stanley Fish and I already like it so much more. Who do you take your advice from? And, perhaps more importantly, do you actually take it? Or are you like me, searching for something more complicated than the age-old adage: “You seem to want to write, so write.”

Is The Great Gatsby Unfilmable?

The trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby was previewed today and initial reactions are ambivalent to say the least. Lots of “Hmmmms…” circulating the interwebs right now. Of course, this is always the case when a much-loved novel is adapted into film but is The Great Gatsby forever destined to elude the silver screen and disappoint its viewers?

When I was in India this year I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival and looked in on ‘Adaptations’ – a panel of writers and playwrights, including Tom Stoppard and Lionel Shriver, discussing the process and merits of translating words on a page into sounds and moving images. Interestingly, the subject of Gatsby came up and Stoppard was unequivocal: The Great Gatsby is “unfilmable” he declared and offered no space for disagreement. The audience burst into a spontaneous and long applause of approval so I guess there’s consensus out there. But why?

The Huffington Post listed 15 Great Books Never Coming to a Theater Near YouFinnegans Wake and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves were among them but no mention of Gatsby. Of course, Luhrmann’s film brings the novel’s adaptations to a total of seven so this is a moot point but should it be included on the list?

Surely, cinema is a perfect medium to capture the heady atmosphere and opulence of the day? The music, the glamour, the balmy summer. Tragedy, intrigue and heartache are the industry’s bread and butter; there is little in the plot or content of the novel to prevent a compelling adaptation, and its preoccupation with social climbing (networking?) and the end of the American dream would appear to be timely themes. The Great Gatsby has a lot of relevance for modern America.

But a novel is more than its plot and preoccupations, more than its themes. Writing is form and construct and Fitzgerald’s work is a masterful example of this, particularly his use of perspective and narrative structure.

It’s interesting that my main reaction to the trailer concerned the casting of Tobey Maguire in the role of Nick Carraway (quite perfect I think). For the title The Great Gatsby is a ruse. This is Nick Carraway’s novel. Every word written about the great Gatsby is circumscribed by the eyes of Mr Carraway, a limited and often unreliable narrator. “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues,” he says, “and this is mine. I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” There is an abundance of literature on the problematics of Nick as the narrator of this story and the author of Gatsby’s life and it will be interesting to see how this new film version deals with perspective.

Luhrmann loved the 1974 version starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. Redford was the coolest thing in the world, he’s said, but the film didn’t really tell him “who Gatsby was.” Many people feel that way but it may well be that Luhrmann’s version will be no closer to showing us who Gatsby really is either.

For there is no Gatsby. Gatsby is an illusion, a simulacrum.  He is completely obscured by conjecture and gossip and Nick’s version of him is no more authoritative than any other. Gatsby is a creation – his own and others – and that is Fitzgerald’s point. Nobody knows who Gatsby is or was and this is the brilliance of the novel. The imaginative act inherent in reading includes us in the crowd of tattlers and postulators: for every person who reads the novel, another unique aspect of Gatsby is born.

This is permissible in the novel – it is, in fact, what makes the novel so enthralling and enduring – but cinema requires that Gatsby be rendered in a single form. There are aspects of the novel that cinema can expand and bring to more sensual life but it cannot circumvent this reduction of ‘Gatsby’ into the body of an actor (a man playing a role, curiously). This is why Gatsby is unfilmable, I think. He is a million contradictory things and he is nothing at all. He doesn’t exist.