How to Be a Writer: Hemingway’s Advice to Aspiring Authors

This excerpt is from a the magnificent Brain Pickings, a favorite blog and inspiration to Bear Skin. If you have an article to share on Bear Skin please don’t hesitate to submit to jennifer@rsn8.org.

__________________________________________________

How to Be a Writer: Hemingway’s Advice to Aspiring Authors

by

“As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.”

Some of Ernest Hemingway’s most insightful meditations on the craft of writing lies in his 1967 nonfiction piece By-Line, found within the collection Hemingway on Writing

Writing as “Your Correspondent,” abbreviated to “Y.C.,” Hemingway addresses the archetypal aspiring author, nicknamed “Mice,” and offers this characteristically wise-in-a-no-bullshit-way advice on becoming a writer:

 

ernesthemingwayonwriting

 

MICE: How can a writer train himself?

Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.

 

You can read the full article at Brain Pickings here.

How to create a fictional world

This blog often questions “What makes a good story?” and “Why can some stories absolutely entrance, bewtich and transform us?”

How can human-made squiggles on a page, reflect lights into our eyes, that sends signals to our brains, that we logically and emotionally decode as complex narratives, that move us to fight, cry, sing and think, that are strong enough to hold up a world that is completely invented by the author, but also to change the readers perspective on the real world that resumes only when the final squiggle is reached ?

This short video explains how writers weave their magic. Writers can paint fantastical fictional worlds with intricate rules, maps, lineages, languages, cultures, universes, alternate universes within universes.

_________________

The key is believability. If your characters understand their world and its rules your readers will – and will inhabit it with them. Taking the fictional world utterly seriously is the first step to architecting the narrative that follows.

The truth is your imagination and a willingness to figuratively live in your own world are all you need to get started writing a novel.

fictional world 2

Kurt Vonnegut Graphs Stories

This post is written by Ana Swanson and published in The Washington Post February 9th, 2015. Shared with gratitude to Ketan Shah.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Kurt Vonnegut claimed that his prettiest contribution to culture wasn’t a popular novel like “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but a largely forgotten master’s thesis he wrote while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. The thesis argued that a main character has ups and downs that can be graphed to reveal the taxonomy of a story, as well as something about the culture it comes from. “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads,” Vonnegut said.

In addition to churning out novels, Vonnegut was deeply interested in the practice of writing. The tips he wrote for other writers – including “How to write with style” and “Eight rules for writing fiction” — are concise, funny, and still very useful. The thesis shows that Vonnegut’s preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of writing started early in his career.

Vonnegut spelled out the main argument of his thesis in a hilarious lecture, where he also graphed some of the more common story types. (Vonnegut was famously funny and irreverent, and you can hear the audience losing it throughout.) He published the transcript of this talk in his memoir, “A Man Without a Country,” which includes his own drawings of the graphs.

Vonnegut plotted stories on a vertical “G-I axis,” representing the good or ill fortunes of the main character, and a horizontal “B-E” axis that represented the course of the story from beginning to end.

One of the most popular story types is what Vonnegut called “Man in Hole,” graphed here by designer Maya Eilam. Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again, and ends up better off than where they started. “You see this story again and again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted,” Vonnegut says in his lecture. A close variant is “Boy Loses Girl,” in which a person gets something amazing, loses it, and then gets it back again.

Creation and religious stories follow a different arc, one that feels unfamiliar to modern readers. In most creation stories, a deity delivers incremental gifts that build to form the world. The Old Testament features the same pattern, except it ends with humans getting the rug pulled out from under them.

The New Testament follows a more modern story path, according to Vonnegut. He was delighted by the similarity of that story arc with Cinderella, which he called, “The most popular story in our civilization. Every time it’s retold, someone makes a million dollars.”

Some of the most notable works of literature are more ambiguous – like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” which starts off bad and gets infinitely worse, and “Hamlet,” in which story developments are deeply ambiguous.

In his lecture, Vonnegut explains why we consider Hamlet, with this ambiguous and uncomfortable story type, to be a masterpiece:

“Cinderella or Kafka’s cockroach? I don’t think Shakespeare believed in a heaven or hell any more than I do. And so we don’t know whether it’s good news or bad news.

“I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.

“But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

“And if I die — God forbid — I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’”

Ana Swanston via Know More 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/02/09/kurt-vonnegut-graphed-the-worlds-most-popular-stories/

The Myth of Thamus and Theuth

In the writings of Phaedrus, Socrates tells his disciples this story.

Among the ancient Egyptian gods, there was one called Theuth who discovered “number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of draughts and dice, and above all else, writing” (Phaedrus, 274d). One day, Theuth visited Thamus, King of Egypt, urging him to disseminate the arts around Egypt. For each art that Theuth presented, Thamus offered his praise and criticism. When it came to writing, Theuth said:

O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom. (Phaedrus, 274e)

But Thamus replied that, as the “father of writing,” Theuth’s affection for writing had kept him from acknowledging the truth about writing. In fact, Thamus asserted, writing increases forgetfulness rather than memory. Instead of internalizing and understanding things, students will rely on writing as a potion for reminding. Moreover, students will be exposed to many ideas without properly thinking about them. Thus, they will have an “appearance of wisdom” while “for the most part they will know nothing” (Phaedrus, 275a-b).

myth of theuth 3

Socrates used the illustration to point out that writing alone has no understanding of itself and “continues to signify just the same thing forever” (Phaedrus, 275d-e). Nor does it discern its audience nor offer self explanation. Socrates instead favoured conversation, “the living, breathing discourse of a man who knows, of which the written one can be fairly called an image” (Phaedrus, 276a). Socrates praised dialectic:

The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows . . . Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be. (277a)

As a lover of good writing and an advocate of literacy as key to community development and human emancipation, I find this conversation  interesting for a few reassons.

  1. First, it comes to us via text. We enjoy it and think about it purely because it is recorded in writing.
  2. Second, Socrates highlights that “meaning” is the soul of communication, and the rendering of the human heart and mind, its greatest good. The absence of human interaction, leaves a vacuum, giving space for the empty pursuit of knowledge, disconnection of thought from feeling, and the subjectification of meaning altogether.

myth of theuth 2

Much like contemporary complaints of electronic forms of communication “killing conversation”, we can view first hand an ancient discussion of the same problem. The key it seems, is that humans must talk “to” each other and not “about” each other.  Reading “about love” is not the same as “behaving lovingly”.

Nevertheless, the power of this analogy even today, shows that writing has its place. Phaedrus accused Socrates of inventing the myth to support his point and Socrates did not disagree.  Word pictures, poems and stories particularly have an ability to capture timeless truths, and carry meaning throughout the ages.

A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe,
helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him
—Dylan Thomas

When all is said and done, nothing beats human relationships, dialogue, discourse, dialectic and discussion. Turn off our e-devices, close the books and have a chat.

The Voice

Here is a personal post for my 7 readers.

For those who know me, I’ve spoken for years about writing. Perhaps even since primary school I have wanted to write but have not. I’ve loved books so much I would hug them as though they were good friends and take them to bed or to the bath.   For me happiness is a good story that transports me along its journey and makes me feel life is bearable.

My hesitation in writing has not only been laziness. It’s been fear. When I write I don’t like what I say or how it comes out. It’s hard work to chase down an idea and convert it into a paragraph, an essay and mostly a story. If it doesn’t come out perfectly then it’s not worth writing. And so I don’t write.

From senior high school I lost my voice. By this I mean I’ve trembled everytime I get up to speak in front of others. My head is brimming with ideas but I cannot articulate them. I stay quiet but feel abused by extroverts who speak every thought and overlook the quiet ones. For some,  quietness equals lack of personality or intellect.  I feel ignored for my lack of flair, fashion, finances and for many years, lack of romantic other.

So writing now, though small, is an effort to tap into my voice. It’s an effort to squeak out my thoughts. It’s an effort to express something of what is inside. It’s an effort to grow up and move beyond the high school kid scared of speaking in public.

I’m still afraid, as though exposed and naked, as though putting my heart on a plate and to still find that I’m ignored and ignoble.  I’m not Shakespeare so why try, right ? This is where you can help. To help, you can dialogue with me.  You can reply to anything I write with comments, whether it’s that something made sense, or didn’t make sense, whether an idea was interesting or not interesting. That you hear me and bounce back ideas will be immensely helpful.  If commenting isn’t possible you can always send me an email to jennifer@rsn8.org.

Thank you !

Poetic Inspiration

Where do great stories come from and why do some people have the knack to tell consistently amazing stories, and others – hit and miss?

According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge,  Kubla Khan, was composed one night after he experienced an opium-nfluenced dream. He had read a work describing Xanadu the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China. Upon waking, he set about writing lines of poetry that came to him from the dream until he was interrupted by a visitor. The poem could not be completed as the interruption caused him to forget the lines. Out of despair from losing the inspiration, Coleridge left it unpublished and kept it for private readings for his friends until 1816 when, on the prompting by Byron it was published.

Roald Dahl depicts dreams as small cloudlike puffs, to be caught in a net, bundled into a sack and blown through a pipe into sleeping children’s ears. Other writers speak of being visited by a muse or suffering mysterious writer’s block as though an external source had stemmed the flow of a stream.  Elizabeth Gilbert, writer of “Eat, Pray, Love” discusses this phenomenon to a contemporary audience, an audience steeped in a scientific-rational context. She manages to package the mystery of poetic inspiration in modern terms.

My take home thought from Gilbert’s speech is that by holding external to self, the artists’ gift of inspiration – as though through a muse or genius – the writer is free to be a humble human. One of the many results of the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the rational humanism of the 19th century, has been an existential despair in the 20th century as humanity contemplates solitude in the universe. For us all meaning rests within. All success or failure, meaning or purpose, stems from the individual will. The crushing paralysis that comes with such belief, can be eased by artists who can frame themselves in a dance with the universe, the Spirit, a muse. This simple surrender can be the release for an artist to let inspiration and industry flow.

The Truth of Fiction

This delightful video by Mac Barnett on “Why a good book is a secret door”  brilliantly depicts the power of narrative – wonder, joy and beneath the fiction – TRUTH.  Citing Pablo Picasso, he reads,

“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth, at least the truth we are given to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

To add my thoughts to Picasso, we have the ability to engage in poetic belief, because narrative is so closely aligned with our dreams and our dreams spring from our deepest being.  If we allow ourselves, we can read stories with the automatic comprehension of one who dreams. An artist needs no more to convince others of their lies, as to convince other they are dreaming.

Fear and Exhillaration

It’s curious that our most heightened feelings as humans – exhilliaration – is so closely tied to our most dreaded emotions – fear. The facing of fear then is one of the most profound experiences of the human condition.

I for one do not fear spiders, snakes, deep water, darkness or death – but I do fear failure. The fear of failure has crippled me from completing or even attempting tasks. This writing alone is the product of me addressing the fear of failure – to produce a text that others read.

Love is the most undoing of all human emotions and activities – yet the most exhillarating too. How can someone undo us so completely, unravel our unity, break apart our identity and yet we enjoy it ? How can a child destroy our lives as we know it, and yet make us so happy? How can we be so willingly enslaved to another through love?

The exhillaration one feels at the top of the roller coaster tower, upon gazing down, incredulous that the carriage we are in will plummet us to the earth, is invigorating. Let me climb the tower and throw myself off. Let me seize my fears.