Wednesday, October 21, 2009

East of Eden: Part 1

First of all I think I should start this blog by mentioning that the picture you see below is printed on the back of the book. When I first saw it, I turned to the inside pages and read that the Latin inscription means "To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig" and that John Steinbeck described himself as a "lumbering soul, but trying to fly." Immediately I loved this, and considered it as a tattoo idea. I could only hope that I would like Steinbeck's work, so that the tattoo would be justifiable. Now that I'm 400 pages in, it seems like an even better idea.

Holy shit this book is good.
But it's really long.

I don't know if I could ever write a really long book because I have been trained to have such a focused story-line structure. Most ideas I come up with would best be represented by about 300 pages, or the equivalent of a two hour movie. I think I know why this is, too. It's because I read more short books than long books (because I find them to be easier to digest in a short period of time, and I find that more gratifying) and I've watched way more movies than I've read books.

Don't get me wrong, I've read a lot of books. I'm actually somewhat amazed by how much my reading history weighs whenever I have to pack it up and move it around. What if that's how people talked about how well read they were? What if it was totally normal for me to say, "I like to read, I've read about 1,000 lbs of books." You'd be like, damn, that's pretty heavy, he must be a smart guy. And you'd be right.

I think the reason East of Eden gets away with weighing eight pounds is that it spans a really long amount of time and chronicles the lives of many protagonists, who you stay with for 50-100 pages each and then leave. Multiple protagonists really appeal to me (like Megamorphs, that shit was awesome) and I really like books that give me as many perspectives as possible. As I Lay Dying is a great example of that. The reader gets about 40 different first-person narrators over the span of like 250 pages (roughly two pounds.) East of Eden isn't exactly like that, though. You have John Steinbeck (narrating as himself, which I think is at once strange and incredibly cool) looking back on what I assume is a fictional account of his family history. He is hardly in the book at all as a character so far, and when he does show up he's just a kid. Mostly the story of his family history focuses on his grandfather, his eight aunts and uncles and the Trask family.
Now, I haven't got all the meaning of Steinbeck's lineage worked out, and it might not be too exciting to read about anyways if you haven't read the book, so I won't bother with that. What I will bother with is the Trask family.

East of Eden is, as the title may hint towards, a retelling of the book of Genisis. As time in the story progresses, the roles to be played are shifted, which I think is a really interesting concept. Say a man's purpose in the story is to represent God. When he gets old and dies, that's a big deal, but the story still has hundreds of pages left, and it moves on. Then it finds another God figure. The same goes for the characters that represent Cain and Able. Charlie and Adam Trask at first represent Cain and Able, down to the character traits and Cain's marked forehead. After Charlie dies, it's Adam's sons Aron and Cal who continue on the legacy, and it seems that the family is doomed to repeat this pattern. There are, of course, Adam and Eve characters as well, and a lot more stuff I'm sure I'm missing because one book I haven't read is the Bible. That's probably like an 18 pounder, if it's printed on normal paper and not that impossibly thin stuff I always see it on.

One thing about writers, they love to read. And reading does things to a writer. Obviously it makes them better, as it conditions them to an amazing use of language, but it also infests them with epic greatness. T.S. Eliot said something to this affect: Not only can you stand on the shoulders of giants as a writer, but you should. In fact, you must.
That's not really very close to what he said, but it's the idea. In this field it's important to understand your background. It's important to understand the greats, and it's important to draw on that greatness and use it to your advantage. I can't name a single person more avid about this than Eliot, who name-dropped Shakespeare tragedies and characters from the Bible like it was going out of style. But he was good, that's the point. It works. As Steinbeck says in East of Eden, "I believe mankind only has one story." And that story is the classic retelling of good vs. evil. So what makes you think you can make up a brand new story, when really all anybody wants is to see conflict and conflict resolution, the clean, hard questions as Steinbeck puts it. The great stories are told, you can't invent them, you have to make them your own. You have to embrace the giants, stand on their shoulders, and make them into something unique.

Note: I might not do a part two of East of Eden if I feel like I've rambled all I can ramble. If the ending is awesome I'll let you know.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

College For Free 8: Writing

It's been a while since my last update. Almost three weeks, a record for this blog, and an amount of time I never intended to go without an update. There were a lot of factors in my reluctance to update. I've been pretty busy with different jobs and projects, and the blog sort of takes a back seat to the things in my life that pay or are most centrally important to my existence as I define it. This is sort of an off-handed thing I do, and while I enjoy it, I don't feel compelled to it like I do to other aspects of my life.
Also, I wasn't really sure what to write about. I knew in the beginning I should have parceled out the good subjects I had in mind for the College For Free section, and now, only eight installments in, I'm grasping for things to talk about. Unfortunately, a lot of little things that I thought could make their own entries have already been covered because I discovered that they fit better under the umbrella of a larger idea. So, I might have to change the face of the blog altogether once I run out of stuff to talk about.
Fortunately, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't yet talked about a few things that I know a good deal about. Namely, writing, which is what my degree is in and what should probably have been the first thing I discussed on this blog.

For those of you who read my review of America's public school system, it will come as no shock to learn that I was mostly disappointed with my college experience. Well, in some aspects. There is a side of me that wishes it would've been more intensive, more challenging, more worth the money. Of course, there's also a side that would've hated that challenge and may not have been up to it, so who knows what would've happened had that been the case.
Anyways, my disappointment comes mostly from the structure of the program itself. In four years at Western Michigan University, took five writing classes. I took Writing Fiction and Poetry (basically just a simple intro class,) Advanced Fiction (in which we read Annie Proulx and discussed craft minimally,) Advanced Poetry (I'm not a poet, so I got nothing out of this class,) and the top undergrad level Creative Writing Workshop (twice.)
Some of you may be missing the point here, so let me back up real quick. This is what my degree is in. My whole degree. And I took five classes on the actual subject. And WMU is supposed to have a good writing program.
I won't go through and bitch about each of these classes individually, but I will tell you that I can't even make a list of the things I learned from these classes. Maybe the reason it's taken me so long to get around to this particular subject is because, unlike colonization and human evolution and the formation of a star, I can't recall very much actual information when I look back on my writing classes.
Now, to be fair, writing is extremely difficult to teach. The lines of right and wrong in writing, as in any other art, are extremely difficult to see, let alone teach. Everyone brings their own opinions to the table, so when you assemble a group of writers your bound to see people butting heads and disagreeing with each other over what is acceptable and what isn't. There are no fundamental truths of writing. As a young man, Kurt Vonnegut taught fiction, and as the teacher he would pass around a list of 14 rules for writing at the beginning of each semester. These were rules that Vonnegut believed were fundamental to the craft. Yet, when discussing them, Vonnegut admits that he himself has broken a few of these rules, and that many of his favorite writers continuously break all of them.
Because there are no fundamental truths, it seems to me that most of my writing teachers stayed away from strict lecture and left the class to discussion, in which disagreements often ended with the two opposing parties agreeing to disagree. While this is useful to some extent, a bunch of kids waxing intellectual about shit they would love to understand but kind of don't is just about the most infuriating thing in the world to me. When I know that there's someone in the room who knows an awful lot about writing but isn't saying so because it may not be an absolute "truth," I can't stand it. Writing teachers, while incapable of being correct by definition, should stand their ground when it comes to lecture and pass along the truths that they have come to believe in and live by. If a student doesn't like it, that's fine. I've always found that the English language is better when the rules are broken, but in order to break the rules you have to understand them. The more rules you understand, the more you can break.

So, unfortunately, I can't set about listing a great deal of things that I learned about writing in college. But, now you know what it's like to pass easily through an underdeveloped writing program, and College For Free is all about giving you the full experience.
Here are some things that I did learn about writing while in college. I learned a lot, but I don't know how much from class. I hear pretty often that the best way to become a writer is to read, or that writers are readers who occasionally write, and things of that nature. Well, I've found it to be mostly true. If you want to write, I think the best way to do it is to read a lot, pay attention to what works for you as a reader, and replicate it in your writing. As a young writer, it also helps to be dating Lindsay Holbrook. I certainly learned more from her than I did from any classrooms.
Take these tips or leave them, because they're probably wrong anyways.
I think it's a really natural impulse to make everything over the top when it comes to fiction. At the end of 90% of all undergrad short fiction, there is a death. It used to be a joke that the story wasn't over until someone was dead or married. The alternative to that ending, which became popular at the last half of the twentieth century, is the epiphany ending. What I've found in writing is that, while these things are interesting topics, they're not always the best. One example of subtle writing that I particularly like is an ending called a "false epiphany," in which the narrator is creating his own meaning out of the circumstances of the story, while it's clear to the reader that this epiphany is incorrect. This is like the ending of Native Son. Also, while death is an interesting topic, I find it's actually less interesting to focus on the gory details of the death itself. That's what horror movies are for. The real intrigue for me comes in the contemplation, speculation, and more complex emotions and reactions that follow death.
Cliches, as concepts and as phrases, are always a bad idea. Cliches are boring, tired, and lazy in a writer. Don't do it. Don't ever do it. Using cliche phrases to describe your characters and get your reader through your story will suck all the genuine goodness out of your writing. Real writers stand above the rest because they don't have to be cliche, they find ways around old words and find new ways to express familiar ideas. So, if you wouldn't ever want to describe a character as having a face "only a mother could love." We've all heard it a million times, and while your reader may not exactly yawn over this quick little phrase, it's certainly not going to grab their attention. In fiction, every word has to be custom. Every sentence has to drip with originality, your originality, because if your voice and wit and full concentration aren't coming through on every page, then why would anyone bother to read your work?
I once heard an author say that writer's block doesn't actually exist, it's actually just a form of not trying. I have found that to be absolutely true. The story doesn't just come to you, it doesn't just flow out of you like you're Stephen King in The Dark Tower Series. You have to work for it, you have to think about it all the time and roll it around in your mind. Most importantly, you have to write.
Just as great ideas can seem impossible to set down on paper, a mind with no ideas to be found inside will let greatness leak out onto the page every now and then if you just keep your fingers moving on the keyboard. As any writer will tell you, sometimes it takes six pages to get one good page, or just one good idea, but when you have it you have it and you can expand on it.
Because of this, a lot of things you write are going to have to be thrown out. I've always found that a full re-write is always best. Certainly it's less tedious than going through the original line by line and deciding what to cut and what to keep. I like to keep the original copy next to me and start with a fresh Word document when I do revisions. Also, I've found that it's important not to get attached to every line, every scene, or even every character. Sometimes whole sections of your work need to go, and if it's for the better of the story overall, that's what has to happen. Don't get hung up on losing the pieces that don't quite fit. You can always use them later.
I find it extremely useful to compare myself to greatness with incredible harshness. A little daunting at first, but how else are you ever going to get better? As I said earlier, if you read a lot and keep in mind the techniques that you like, you'll be a better writer. One thing I've always noticed is that, because so much of the story exists within the writer's head, it's almost impossible for a writer to know if the story is doing what he wants it to do. I've found that stealing techniques of particular effectiveness from other writers is a great way to ensure that you are getting your point across even when it might feel that it isn't working. Also, reading fiction of Pulitzer Prize standard (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) or classic works of fiction (East of Eden) will help you understand that you can never be as good as these authors, and will thusly make you try harder. At least, it's always worked for me.

That's all I've got right off the top of my head. That seems to about cover it. Really, writing is just all about writing. Just like everything else in the world, you have to do it a lot to get good at it. I think that may be the most important thing I learned about writing while in college. If you want to be a writer, you've got to write.