Escaping Influence

A few weeks ago I wrote about my most recent writing’s similarities to Cronenberg’s body-horror flicks from early in his career, and the thought, once I’d put it into words, wormed its way all the way down the street to the library, where it forced me to borrow The Brood, Videodrome, and Naked Lunch. I’d never seen the first film, but I’d seen the latter two, and I still found Videodrome the most satisfying of the three.

In quickly becoming a Cronenberg aficionado–in fully acknowledging my once-dormant fandom, that is–I read and watched everything about him that I could, mainly because that’s just what I do when something strikes my fancy. (Recently a local film retrospective and the return of Twin Peaks has flipped the Lynch switch as well.)

Anyway, Dave (one comment I read referred to him as Uncle Dave, which I appreciate for so many reasons) switched majors in college from Biochemistry to English and ventured into film after realizing that he could never shake his two biggest literary influences, Burroughs and Nabokov. I find it so difficult to imagine being so immersed in the style and subject matter of someone’s work that I could not distinguish my own aesthetic outside of it, and what does it say that most of the themes in Cronenberg’s films still completely mirror Burroughs? It’s natural to get caught up in the purity of originality–and in a certain respect it’s necessary to kill your artistic ancestors in order to carve out your own distinct niche–and one way to do this, I guess, would be to switch media.

All of which made me wonder what came first for me, the screen or the page? I have always loved reading, but I have also always loved movies and have probably spent about equal time appreciating both mediums.

In a class I was teaching yesterday, a student asked what it was I liked about writing, and I had to pause before I could offer an answer. She only asked because she explained how she was terrified of writing and the formalities of the writing process, especially since in our class the result of this process will be graded, but beyond allaying her fears I tried to answer the question honestly.

“Everything,” I said, and I left it at that because it was getting late, it was the first day of class, and I hesitated to proselytize.

Of course, I could have gone on. I could have passionately expounded for hours about the mystery of discovery and the chance connections that can be made when you begin to put words on the page and let your mind wander through its myriad associations, influences, feelings, beliefs, fears, doubts, and hopes–none of which, if you truly lock into that wide-open creative space that emerges, will be anything but your own.

Rhythm, Sound and Sense

Words are fun. In an interview with Kendrick Lamar, the rapper talked about the pleasure of molding words to his own purposes, twisting them so that they rhymed or almost rhymed. Internal rhyme, end rhyme and rhythm are the backbone of rap and have been the site of the genre’s most noticeable innovations beyond, of course, the sonics.

In my own work I find myself more attuned to the rhythm and sound of words, and finding new combinations that work in terms of rhythm, sound and sense has become one of my chief aesthetic pleasures. Words. What fun!

A writer–I believe it was Annie Dillard–wrote that in order to write you must love sentences, and I have read countless interviews with writers who express their love and devotion to the craft of the sentence. I’ve long been in that camp myself.

Below are a few recent sentences that I’m particularly proud of:

At first glance the knobs looked flawed, like a cluster of clumsily blown baubles, yet their labyrinthine striated creases pulsed with the regulated rhythm of even breathing. The creature sensed China’s nearness and contracted just before she tore off the topmost lump, which she held up by her nose so that she could peer into its puckered folds.

By concentrating on nothing but the correct door and the stairway down to the next floor, she forced them to ignore everything except her guiding actions even though her own thoughts unwittingly crept in and arranged themselves into something like a curated display that the others had somehow already seen. Her thoughts had become theirs. The entire edifice of her mind—its plans, its intricate construction, its countless renovations—were as familiar as their own, even as they still marveled at what Neun knew, the way she understood this place and seemed to foresee everything, including the fallen ceiling at the foot of the stairs and how fast their hair would grow back in the fresh air.

Masters possessed a magnetism that attracted lesser-thans reflexively, even those with substantial evasive practice, and once caught a master’s thoughts prompted an addled daze of admiration where even the most mundane stray notions spun themselves into strands of glittering genius for the prolonged moment before the lesser-thans were pitched into the subservient sphere.

 

Constant Revision

John Steinbeck once wrote that you should not get caught up in the language or style of a piece but should instead just plow through and worry about fixing everything up later. As a practical strategy for just getting ideas on the page, this is excellent advice. In order for a story to work you must find out what happens, and it’s easy to lose your way when you’re spending all of your time mending the path.

My own process usually involves writing ideas down by hand, and these are by no means neat or even very voluminous. I sketch out plot points, ideas, quotes from pieces I think might serve as fodder for further thought about my project, and then I keep that in the back of my mind and get to work.

Still, there is nothing like mending to bring you back to your work when you’ve been away from it for a few days. The entire project feels foreign and you’ve forgotten how to wrap your head around it, but the seeming tedium of re-working a sentence or two situates you in the world of your work, allowing you to remember why this particular phrase within this particular scene matters. You remember what is at stake, and you remember all of the reasons you began the story in the first place.

Original: He flexed his neck and chest, grunting with red-faced strain, and his effort aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extended head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the unwelcome limbs tearing his wounds open still wider. Stumbling, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, and the mess of flailing parts and fluids collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.

Revised: He flexed his neck and chest, grunting, his red face straining, and his efforts aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extending head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the superfluous limbs that ripped the wounds open still wider. Staggering, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, the flailing parts and pain being too much, and the whole fluidic mess collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.

What Words Can Do

I’m still reflecting on Ursula Le Guin’s speech at the National Book Awards last week. Because she’s an Oregon writer, it received even more attention here in Portland, and the standing ovation she received at the end of the speech was well-deserved. She threw in the barb that writers relegated to genres always throw in when welcomed into the literary fold, but beyond that she criticized the publishing industry and reminded the room about the duty of writers.

“We live in capitalism,” she said. “Its power seems inescapable.” She paused and looked up from her notes. “So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”

The market is no place for art, and Le Guin’s hopeful words about writers who create worlds to test truths roused my spirits. Isn’t this the ultimate goal of all of this scribbling on the page? The allure of freedom?

Yet sharing our work seems to be just as central. A writer must have readers.

Enter World. 

Publishing is usually referred to as an ‘industry,’ and increasingly the adjective ‘dying’ is affixed to it. To criticize Amazon for being a profiteer is like criticizing Walt Whitman for being long-winded. It’s in their nature. They dominate the digital market, and as the nascent self-publishing ‘industry’ grows, Amazon has a distribution network that no other company can offer–and if they could, Amazon would surely suffocate them through ‘competition.’

Exit World.

Invasive weeds choke the other plants in the garden, spreading their tendrils over the ground, plunging their roots into the soil, determined only to multiply. It’s life’s propagating force at its ugliest and most base, which is why we loathe them. A weed will be neither useful nor beautiful.

Beauty requires both body and soul. We respond to its order, its vibrant delicacy, its essential contradiction in balance with death.

Enter Whitman

“Urge and urge and urge,

Always the procreant urge of the world”

.

“All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

Walt_Whitman,_steel_engraving,_July_1854