Monday, December 26, 2011
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Write Till You Drop
By ANNIE DILLARD
People love pretty much the same things best. A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all. Strange seizures beset us. Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl's drawers visible when she's up a pear tree. ''Each student of the ferns,'' I once read, ''will have his own list of plants that for some reason or another stir his emotions.''
Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.
Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
Write about winter in the summer. Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris. Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote ''Huckleberry Finn'' in Hartford. Recently scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room.
The writer studies literature, not the world. She lives in the world; she cannot miss it. If she has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, she spares her readers a report of her experience. She is careful of what she reads, for that is what she will write. She is careful of what she learns, because that is what she will know.
The writer knows her field - what has been done, what could be done, the limits - the way a tennis player knows the court. And like that expert, she, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. She hits up the line. In writing, she can push the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps; some madness enters, or strain. Now gingerly, can she enlarge it, can she nudge the bounds? And enclose what wild power?
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ''Do you think I could be a writer?''
''Well,'' the writer said, ''I don't know. . . . Do you like sentences?''
The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ''I liked the smell of the paint.''
Hemingway studied, as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hamsun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Thoreau loved Homer; Eudora Welty loved Chekhov. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce; E. M. Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust. By contrast, if you ask a 21-year-old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushing, ''Nobody's.'' He has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat. Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Bohr and Gauguin, possessed powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work's possibilities excited them; the field's complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world harassed them with some sort of wretched hat, which, if they were still living, they knocked away as well as they could, to keep at their tasks.
It makes more sense to write one big book - a novel or nonfiction narrative - than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years' inventions and richnesses. Much of those years' reading will feed the work. Further, writing sentences is difficult whatever their subject. It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in ''Moby-Dick.'' So you might as well write ''Moby-Dick.'' Similarly, since every original work requires a unique form, it is more prudent to struggle with the outcome of only one form - that of a long work - than to struggle with the many forms of a collection.
Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too - the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air and it holds. Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hopes for literary forms? Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. If we are reading for these things, why would anyone read books with advertising slogans and brand names in them? Why would anyone write such books? We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.
No manipulation is possible in a work of art, but every miracle is. Those artists who dabble in eternity, or who aim never to manipulate but only to lay out hard truths, grow accustomed to miracles. Their sureness is hard won. ''Given a large canvas,'' said Veronese, ''I enriched it as I saw fit.''
The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring. It is the sensation of a stunt pilot's turning barrel rolls, or an inchworm's blind rearing from a stem in search of a route. At its worst, it feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence.
At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then - and only then -it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk's.
One line of a poem, the poet said - only one line, but thank God for that one line - drops from the ceiling. Thornton Wilder cited this unnamed writer of sonnets: one line of a sonnet falls from the ceiling, and you tap in the others around it with a jeweler's hammer. Nobody whispers it in your ear. It is like something you memorized once and forgot. Now it comes back and rips away your breath. You find and finger a phrase at a time; you lay it down as if with tongs, restraining your strength, and wait suspended and fierce until the next one finds you: yes, this; and yes, praise be, then this.
Einstein likened the generation of a new idea to a chicken's laying an egg: ''Kieks - auf einmal ist es da.'' Cheep - and all at once there it is. Of course, Einstein was not above playing to the crowd.
Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art; do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. Giacometti's drawings and paintings show his bewilderment and persistence. If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted. A master of drawing, Rico Lebrun, discovered that ''the draftsman must aggress; only by persistent assault will the live image capitulate and give up its secret to an unrelenting line.'' Who but an artist fierce to know - not fierce to seem to know - would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe any way but with the instruments' faint tracks.
Admire the world for never ending on you as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes off him, or walking away.
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ''Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.''
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Monday, August 29, 2011
Sunday, August 28, 2011
I don’t know why I think about that moment so much, why it means anything to me, why I even remember it. I guess it's just a bit of nostalgia, regret, something I miss, a moment I'd like to change and while there are many of those, this one, for some reason, stuck. I often wonder, though, if my mom knew that I wouldn’t keep my word. It’s not fair to ask a seven year old to stick to a long term promise- especially one so hard to keep- and I can’t seem to decide if she knew that and wanted only to be comforted by my response, even if she could anticipate that it wasn’t true. Or if she really did believe me, no matter my age or maturity level. Either scenario kind of breaks my heart to dwell on.
Now I’m fourteen- I don’t sleep in my moms bed anymore and I think that I have done something like turned against her. I don’t remember the moment this happened, and I wish I did, because maybe that could help me pinpoint what the problem was, even if I had no way to reverse it. But despite it all, I still have those moments where I want to run to her massive bed and crawl into her safe arms, where I'm convinced that if I did so, things would be ok- even if only for that small moment in time. But, somehow, I can’t seem to do it anymore. I want to think that if I could only be Rory Gilmore- if I could only have that relationship, if I could allow myself weak moments, be a bit less stubborn, then I’d be happy. If I could only have good priorities and dark hair and big blue eyes and determination and a best friend of a mother, then I’d be just fine.
I’ve realised that there are no ‘Rory Gilmore’s. It’s taken me far too long, but I have realised it. And while there are girls with dreams and aspirations, girls with pretty hair and big blue eyes, girls who go to fancy colleges, girls who are proud and confident but modest and honest and sweet, girls who do what need to be done and don’t forget to enjoy themselves, even girls who have an (almost) perfect relationship with their mother and aren't afraid to admit it, I think it’s fair to say that there aren’t many who are all of that, who have all of that. And despite loving this show more than maybe life itself, I resent the Gilmore’s for putting me through so much before I could find the reality out for myself.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
I don't usually write about Harry Potter because I tend to think that it's too brilliant for my words... but I guess this is more about life than him.
The childish question had fallen from Harry’s lips before he could stop it.
I know you've read the book, because I put a spoiler alert for those who haven't (and they should've immediately quit out of the page before their eyes accidentally slipped over a few words). But if you've forgotten, this is what Harry asks his parents about death in the Dark Forest when he is on his way to give himself up to Voldemort towards the end of the seventh book.
It took me a long time to figure out what exactly made this line stick with me. Often the kind of sentence that wedges itself into my brain like that is 'deep' or beautifully metaphorical or will inspire me in some way. Often these kinds of lines are obvious in what made them stick to me. But this wasn't. This was so plain. This seemed topical, no hidden layers- it was just a simple question. A pretty fair question, really. Why did this stick out more than a sentence during Snape's last memories or part of Dumbledore's past? Why did it double my tear production, keep me up at night, make me think and think and think about I-don't-know-what.
It didn't hit me until a few weeks ago. Sitting on a plane with a finished book, a dead ipod , and a computer with no internet, I began to type. I wrote three little entries about nothing much really, just about my life or about moments that I thought needed to be captured, theories that needed further developing. I wrote about things that seemed more fitting to be in the pretty notebook lying at the bottom of my bag, but, somehow, came out better when I typed. One such moment that I tried to recreate and think slightly deeper about was this, you won't understand what exactly it is or who exactly I'm talking to, but I don't think that I'm going to try to explain:
-I just want it all to go away.Harry Potter lives in a world and a time where he is the most wanted boy/man/person alive. His parents are killed before he can remember them, years later he find out about and is reunited with his last remaining family member only to see him killed shortly after. The teacher who he thought to be his biggest supporter and defender, the only man he thought could understand him and protect him was now dead as well. He couldn't be with the girl he loved for so many reasons a teenager shouldn't have to face, had been hiding and running for months, had put his closest friends in danger. They'd all ricked their lives for him and, just moments ago, three had died, in part, because of him. Now he was walking into the forest to surrender and be killed. All before he's even eighteen. And though I often felt that Harry got annoying and slightly big-headed at times throughout the series, I think we can all agree that he has a lot on his plate. Yet he always seems to be brave, tough, persistent, and filled with answers- if not in the inside, in his actual thoughts, then at least on the surface for everyone else to see. He always played that part, depicted that image.
It was a whisper of an answer that slipped through my lips before I could stop it. Like when 17-year-old Harry asks his parents- at the end of the seventh book- if death will hurt. A childish question. A childish answer that happened all too quickly. It was a thought that made itself into audible sounds forming words without my permission- something I thought only happened in movies and books to characters who weren't real. It left my mind and then my mouth before I had the chance to realise it. Before I had the chance to take that thought and disect it- keeping only the vaguely acceptable parts as though to have some traces of truth left behind- and mix it with what she wanted to hear. Before I had the chance to carve and chisel and polish it into something that was not a thought in the rough, but a mature, insightful, and smart answer. Before I had the chance to create an articulate, adult-like response that showed the growth and acceptance I had been faking.
That was what I did with questions and answers and comments. That was how I talked, communicated, lived. I took every instinct and changed it to what I instinct I was supposed to have, and then into what I was expected to think or say. I remodeled my words to match the face that I was wearing, the wall I had put up, the other girl I was pretending to be. What would she say? What would she think? Then suddenly with one sentence, seemingly simple in wording and length, my cover was broken. I was suddenly vulnerable because this was my real answer. Not my fake response that the other girl inside my head had fabricated. This was my raw and true and honest answer. It was stupid, foolish and immature, irrational and far too hopeful. And it was mine. It was real. It showed that I was not mature, not insightful, not articulate- but, rather I was childish and weak and cowardly. It allowed a peek inside of me, into who I was, how I worked- something that was never meant to be seen or heard. I had, for the first time in what must have been forever, let someone in. Not to say that I hadn't let people in, because I had- friends and such- but this was letting her in on an entirely different level, in an entirely different way. And that, in and of itself, was terrifying.
I'm not trying to say that Harry Potter is fake, because I don't believe he is. And in that small moment, I'm not even trying to say that I'm fake, because I don't believe I am either. But I think that, as humans, we often put up walls to protect ourselves or to protect others or for any number of reasons we come up with. And that could mean having a brave face so that the people around you can feel safe. It could mean telling someone what they want to hear so that things are easier, cleaner for them and for you. So that you can be the person you want to be, the person they want you to be, even if only on the surface. It could mean not letting yourself cry to prove to god-knows-who that you are not and never will be weak. But then I think, as humans, we also all have a breaking point. I think that we all, at some point, have a moment where the wall falls down- when you just need to cry or you feel so fake that you can't stand another moment of it or, if nothing else, you just forget and it happens before you can remember. We let our guard down, or it comes down without our permission. For some people, probably, it can happen in a bigger way- an outburst, or a breakdown. For Harry and I, it came in a short line, a simple spoken sentence that could, to others, almost go unnoticed. He, like me, had built up an image and a character for everyone to see- a personality that he had gotten himself into and was now committed to keeping up. Then suddenly in a simple question, he had (maybe even accidentally) shown a different side- perhaps a truer side- which wasn't weak or immature or cowardly. It was only human.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
I don't know why I never read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak- I'd certainly heard a lot about it. Maybe it was my being guilty of judging the book by its cover that wasn't exactly suggesting "my type" of book or maybe it was the specific people that had recommended it to me whose opinion I didn't trust or value or believe that I'd agree with or the concept of death as a narrator I'd heard about that implied an ironic black humor sort of book- definitely not my taste. But then with about a month left before starting high school, I had the novel idea of going online to check for any summer assignments that should have been already completed. And lo and behold, I was supposed to have read The Book Theif. At first, this was a burden seeing as though I wasn't keen on the idea of the book in the first place and being long, it rather interupted my other nerdy reading plans for the last few weeks of summer. However, though I expected to have to force myself to pick it up and read in order to ever finish, it turned out that I rather had to to force myself to put it down for a a 20-minute meal break every once in a while. I devoured the book, often reading a few hundred pages in one sitting. This may have had something to do with the fact that, while reading it, I had two nine hour flights between Alaska and New York on which I couldn't fall asleep and only read/wrote for hours on end. But whatever the reason, those 552 pages flew by far faster than I ever could have imagined.
Set in Germany during the 1940's, you know that this book hurts without me even having to even say it. It revolves around Liesel Meminger- a young German girl- and her learning about, then shortly after falling in love with words, books, writing. She is a girl who goes through more in ten years than anyone should have to endure in a lifetime. Her story is narrated by death- a character who helps you see into people in a way that no one else could. He, while collecting souls of the dead throughout the world in a time when there seems to be more to collect than ever before, follows Liesel through her childhood, often revealing what will happen or who he will visit next, long before it takes place in the story. The language is beautiful, every moment is poetic, and each image is strong.
So I have forewarned you- this book hurts. It hurts simply because of its setting and its protagonists struggles. It hurts because death is the narrator who tells you what will happen before it does which makes a different kind of pain. It is no longer a quick shock that stabs your heart. No, it's suddenly slow and excruciating. It is waiting for what you know is coming, watching around every corner of every page for it to come. It is standing by and knowing what the characters you love don't, it is wanting to tell them and not being able to, wishing to scoop them up out of the story and save them, but you can't. Like things so often are, though, what makes this hurt the most is also why it's so beautiful- the characters and how you are able to see into them. Because this isn't an ordinary book with 2-dimensional, rather undefined supporting characters. There is so much depth, not only in Liesel, but in her mama who curses like no ones business and her papa who plays the accordian better than anyone ever could and in the young jewish man that they hide in their basement who lives to hear her weather reports and her friend Rudy who wants to be Jesse Owens and in the mayor's wife and the angry woman next door who spits on her door step. There is depth even in the boy that they steal apples with and a kid from school named Tommy and the stern nazi who owns the candy store. Every single character is endearing and good somewhere, every single characters finds a little crack in your heart to wedge themselves into. Even death. And that hurts so much, somehow, because when you find yourself loving so much, you suddenly have worlds more to loose, immense amounts of more potential pain to be caused.
This post has done the book no justice and barely began to organize or complete my thoughts on it, but I don't think that I'll ever really be able to do that. It is one of the most endearing, original, haunting, and heartbreaking books that I have ever read. I cannot find words for it.