Swans Commentary » swans.com March 10, 2014  



Writing It Right In All Weather


by Peter Byrne


For Jan Baughman



(Swans - March 10, 2014)   I wanted to tell you how Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii. But Elmore Leonard said never to begin a story with the weather.

Then suddenly he added a twist.

"Avoid prologues" he said, confusingly.

My confusion was wrongheaded. Stephen King said never to use an adverb after "he said." And Elmore Leonard did not speak suddenly, but abruptly. "Suddenly," he said never ever to use. To use it was like writing "all hell broke loose." That happened too often, apparently.

Ernest Hemingway would like those last four sentences. They are all short, as he prescribed, and before them my first paragraph is short, Hemingway's prescription for first paragraphs, leaving me in agreement with him but not with George Orwell, who said to keep asking, as I haven't done here, "Could I put it more shortly?" Moreover, perhaps my first paragraph is so short as not to be a paragraph at all. Is the one I'm writing a paragraph? If not I ought to begin all over again, because I have failed E.B. White's injunction to make the paragraph my unit of composition.

The hell with it! Jack Kerouac said to scrub "literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition." He also said, "You're a Genius all the time!" Cool! But I must count those exclamation points. Elmore Leonard said I have the right to only two or three per hundred-thousand words.

"It is always prudent to remember that one is not Tolstoy or Dickens," said Tracey Kidd and Richard Todd. I wouldn't presume to forget. But Alphonse Allais had only one rule, always to measure up to Honoré de Balzac in drinking a lot of coffee. When he took up the pen, however, Alphonse Allais was always three sheets to the wind on a sea of Calvados. He needed a full coffee pot.

Strike out those wind-blown sheets. They are what Martin Amis clashed with in The War Against Cliché. George Orwell went further and said never to use any phrase you have seen in print.

Alphonse Allais wrote in a café, but Jack Kerouac said, "Try never to get drunk outside your own house." That was ambiguous. He didn't listen to Stendhal: "I see but one rule: to be clear. If I am not clear, all my world crumbles to nothing."

Jack Kerouac, who took Stephen King's advice and didn't "obsess over perfect grammar" urged us to "Be crazy dumbsaint [sic] of the mind." That's pretty hard to do drunk at home or sober out on the town. Henry Miller saw it differently, "Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it."

But we mustn't go to extremes and should remember what Friedrich Nietzsche said about being, "Human, all too human." Kurt Vonnegut forgot and said, "Be a sadist." Stephen King changed that to masochist, saying it was best to write in a windowless room. "If there's a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall."

Peter De Vries had it both ways. "Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation -- the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline."

Ernest Hemingway did some drinking but never, he said, while writing. He denied gossip that had him taking a pitcher of martinis to his desk every morning. He said, "Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You're thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes -- and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he's had his first one. Besides, who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time?"

Do or don't, drunk or sober, who can manage to win through and write right and not wrong? I have been floored by the rules and regulations and forced to grab on to the wimpy passive voice that is so decried in the active by Stephen King. In desperation I'm tempted by Michael Moorcock's "Ignore all proffered rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say."

Or is there somewhere all the rules and their negation are imbibable in an uncompounded symphonious concoction?

Apologies to George Orwell. Feeling transgressive I have used long words where short ones would have done. And here are more of his taboos to put in his pipe and smoke (hackneyed phrase); honi soit qui mal y pense (foreign phrase); Sairy! A'm sairy! (dialect phrase, Scots). And while I'm at it, the demands of the law-givers have given me chronic fatigue syndrome/ME. That's myalgic encephalomyelitis (forbidden scientific language) and post-exertional malaise (jargon, equally forbidden.)

Rachel Cusk, writer, said that there is such a place where rules preside at peace with the ruled. It's a creative writing course with attached workshop. The novelist John Barth, twenty-two years in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, said so too, cautiously, in many more words.

But Hanif Kureishi, who has an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his writing career, didn't think highly of such courses of study although he taught one. "I think an [undergraduate] degree in creative writing is totally worthless....There's no guarantee that if you have a degree, that you're an artist, that you can write....you might as well give them a swimming certificate." He's not the only teacher of the discipline to deride it. The poet and critic Allen Tate, long on the payroll of a Princeton program, said, "The academically certified Creative Writer goes out to teach Creative Writing, and produces other Creative Writers who are not writers, but who produce still other Creative Writers who are not writers." The novelist Kay Boyle, who taught creative writing for sixteen years at San Francisco State, said, "all creative-writing programs ought to be abolished by law."

Flannery O'Connor was an author of outstanding stories. She participated in a university program but never got on to the podium to teach. When asked if writing workshops discouraged young writers, she said, "Not enough of them." The essayist Pico Iyer offered a plausible summary of the question that fit Flannery O'Connor's experience. He said, "Writing can be learned, but not taught."


* * * * *


People in a consistent, sunny, mild climate don't go on about the weather. They take it as a given, like their bald heads or dainty feet. Only folks who live in volatile atmospheric conditions discuss them no end. It may be the only drama in their lives. We can be sure that the Roman citizens of Londinium chomped on about what the clouds stirred by Atlantic breezes had in store for them on August 24, 79 AD.

In Pompeii, just then, on the Gulf of Naples, there was no weather at all, only the usual blue sky and sunshine. Seventeen years before a powerful earthquake struck. But it was a prologue only in retrospect and for us. Pompeiians thought it the last act of an unfortunate sequence, no opening curtain. They still hadn't put right the mess it left.

Four days before August 24, small tremors occurred. But the whole area of the Campania was so accustomed to strange happenings underground that they were not taken as a prelude to anything. After all, at Pozzuoli northwest of Naples were the Campi Flegrei, or fields of fire. The earth there never stopped rising and falling, sending spouts of hot water and sulfurous gas into the sky. The huge eruption of Vesuvius that began at one p.m. on August 24 and would go on for two days found Pompeiians in the midst of their daily routines. Under the lava that would cover them a startling model of life at the time would be revealed.

The description of the catastrophe has been rehashed over the centuries in enough pages to smother the somnolent volcano in verbiage. However, the report made at the time by Pliny the Younger is by far the best. His two letters on the subject are as much a model for writers as Pompeii is for historians. Their English translation should silence with pure admiration all our knowing tipsters on writing.

Young Pliny at seventeen was staying with his mother and her brother, Pliny the Elder, at Misenum, a projection into the sea on the other side of Naples. The family group watched smoke rising from the volcano twenty-two miles away. The uncle, a commander of the Roman fleet, decided to investigate, first out of scientific curiosity and then in answer to a message of distress. Young Pliny stayed behind to finish a written exercise his uncle had set him. The youth was clearly a bookworm, more taken with the written word than heroism before the mast. Later his uncle's friends would reproach him with his absorption in reading Livy while the Elder Pliny confronted the horror of Vesuvius.

Slacker the young man may have been, but in these two letters written afterward to the historian Tacitus he founded a new genre of literature, the relaxed and intimate epistolary form. His uncle died on the beach, a fat unhealthy man robbed of air by the volcano's stronger lungs. Young Pliny, ever the writer, noted that the obese Elder was supported by two small slaves. The nephew was just as precise in recording how his uncle had deceived the distraught public, but insisted it was for their own good. When they tied pillows to their heads as protection against the downpour of stones, Pliny the Elder feigned unconcern. He dawdled at the baths and dined amply. When people pointed out burning homes he told them the householders had left without dousing their kitchen fires. Then he went to bed. His snores, loud because of his girth, reassured listeners at his door. His pleasures, tall tales and snoring served the common good. He was a Roman hero.

And Pliny the Younger? He was a Roman ideologue of course, but also a writer born. In the shadow of his pious portrait we espy two other figures. The first is one of our politicians engaged in damage control to save his skin and his party. The other is a stupid old man who can't imagine his life at the top is over. They don't teach ambiguity that fertile in creative writing classes.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 10, 2014