The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Writing Tips

Christmas Homily

No matter how much you fake it or pretend you’re different from your authentic self, it is impossible to control how someone will respond to you. You cannot make another person like you. Most of us are transparent whether we believe it or not. Men are a slower to see what is behind the image, of course, but it has been said that women know within 40 seconds whether the person they’ve just met will establish a relationship with them.

This is a painful lesson for most writers, particularly those whose writing is not overshadowed by their images (you know, writers like Bukowski whose image precedes them). When looking at words on a page or screen, judgment occurs even more quickly that a woman evaluating a man. It’s like tasting something you’ve never had before. Either you like it or you don’t.

It is a lesson I’m still absorbing, but one I love. Putting yourself out there and being perfectly all right with how someone responds to you (positively, negatively, or indifferently) is the writer’s path to god.

December 24, 2010   Comments Off on Christmas Homily

A language of one’s own

One of my college professors accused me of having a language of my own. He said that I assigned meanings to words and expressions that were intrinsically inaccurate (not the dictionary definitions). Although he intended this as a criticism, I took it as a compliment. Who among us does not value being unique? Especially a writer. I’ve since realized that his criticism was wildly off the mark. My language isn’t nearly unique enough. What a discovery, huh? Going from thinking I was one of the most interesting characters on the face of the earth to discovering that I was one of the most boring. The irony of it makes me guffaw with deep belly laughs. But wait, maybe there’s a story there.

March 16, 2010   Comments Off on A language of one’s own


Almost anyone can write inspired poetry in youth. After that, it is not so easy. Inspiration is hard to come by later on unless you happen to be a genius. The saddest poems are those written by those trying to be poets or poetesses. The effort and lack of inspiration are obvious and make reading or listening to them heavy going. It’s like slogging through a field of asparagus. Even someone like Eliot only wrote a few good poems. The rest were exercises based on wanting to write something. Of course, the good ones were truly great.

When I was in my early twenties, I wrote a couple of poems that continue to stay with me. Almost every day the words appear in my mind as a reminder that even I was capable of inspired writing at one point in my life. The first was written during a period when I meditated on the meaning of the famous Biblical passage, “In the beginning was the Word…” I was reading Ellman’s biography of James Joyce at the time and struggling through Ulysses, and realized that Joyce had the same obsession. The poem’s meaning is obvious if you parse it slowly.

The second poem was written early one morning when I awoke just before dawn. It appeared fully formed in my head. All I had to do was write it down. It was a difficult period—just back from New York City living with my young wife and cat in my parents’ home, waiting for my Conscientious Objector work assignment. The tension was so high that our cat, Hansi, attacked my father’s dog one night, trying to pull it to the floor. Dad screamed for the dog to kill the cat. Of course, it’s not hard to imagine what was going on, is it?

Here are the two poems:

Like Joyce’s gallant bird I
swallow drops of rain, excreting
no, I do not care for cat’s-eye’s, walleyes, pearls,
but solid colors please me.
I like the golden ones,
and one especially, one I gave away;
it was bright as brass and shiny.

When the power of the mime is mine,
really mine, to kick and throw, and if I please,
to dash against the backward side of God
forgive me, yes, it was the word,
the hyperbolic word, yes, it was
the gilded marble of the mind.

Now while stars are falling
like firelit dewdrops

and the ring of mist
like some belted milky way
casts shadows

of a mauve too purple
to lightly pass,

I forget
which sun’s too animate rays
have exploded pollen’s fragrant grasp, but I,
who wear no clothes but the ones I have on,
who sing no other songs but my own,

though magic is for fainter hearts
and echoes are my recompense,

like some noisy songbird sing singly
just before the breaking wave of dawn strikes
the already bruised heel of night.

October 6, 2009   1 Comment

Always look a gift horse in the mouth

A dear friend who often offers important advice at moments of crisis recently gave me a volume of poetry as a gift. She had been to one of the poet’s recitations and had been so impressed she bought it for me. She said the atmosphere in the hall was meditative. It was impossible to know when the poetry stopped and poet’s comments began. The implication was that he spoke the language of poetry in much the same way Dylan Thomas did. It was his natural way of talking.

I found the poetry atrocious. The guy (who shall remain nameless) used long strings of two- or three-word lines about stuff that happened in his life. The topics were as mundane as going to an outhouse, sitting down to take a crap, and studying the stars through the half-moon in the door (not a real example, though not unlike one of his “poems”). He could be talking to his dog.

I kept asking myself what was missing? Why didn’t I like the poems?

I thought of Aristotle and his thesis on aesthetics. I asked myself why Andy Warhol’s stuff was art and most hip-hop was not? Why professional athletes are artists and most amateurs are not? Why graffiti murals are beautiful and most tagging is not?

You may not agree with my categories and that’s fine. No two of us are going to have the same aesthetic. I’m sure many people consider the strings of words in the volume I read to be poetry, and I don’t mind if they do. But they weren’t to me. I want to be moved emotionally. I want to feel a sense of wonder. I want to look at something and know that it’s beautiful—even if it’s ugly. I want to see the world in a new way. I want to be enlightened.

In our time art is like fast food. There are no standards. Anyone can do it. Art school is not a requirement. Neither is education. More often than not, it is produced by hucksters who have not only fooled themselves but most everyone else. It isn’t hard. We like what the media tells us to like. We believe what the media tells us to believe. We see meaning only when someone important tells us there’s meaning.

Still, I love my friend. She means well. She wants to inspire me. What she doesn’t understand is that I’m already inspired.

July 18, 2009   Comments Off on Always look a gift horse in the mouth

Thank God for Genius!

After graduating from high school, I took a summer writing course from a surprisingly enlightened teacher in a nearby city. I wanted to be ready for freshman English in college. He insisted we study grammar for a couple of weeks before we began to write. That summer was the first time in my life I had ever diagrammed an English sentence. The teacher liked my writing and said I might be interested in reading Somerset Maugham, since our styles were similar. Between softball games, which were my passion at the time, swimming, my girlfriend, and working for my father, I read Maugham, starting with his short stories. I read all four volumes and then began working on his novels and his two autobiographies. I liked how cynical he was about those in positions of authority in the church, how he saw sexual relationships between men and women, and his knowledge and love for the Orient. Mostly, I liked his style, which was direct and expressive, though in an understated way. When I read Maugham’s The Summing Up that summer, it surprised me that he considered himself a writer of the second tier.

Now, of course, I can easily see his shortcomings. While reading The Painted Veil recently (about a woman who engages in a destructive clandestine affair), I could see all the high notes Maugham wanted to hit—having his heroine fall in love with her husband again after the affair, having her nurse him when he had cholera, and having her lose him in the end—but he couldn’t quite hit them. Of course, it’s fatal for a writer to set up expectations for the reader that he can’t reach. There is inevitable disappointment. Despite this, The Painted Veil is a quite wonderful novel, much better than the film of the same name with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.

It has been said of William Faulkner that he never achieved the goals he set for himself in any of his novels. If you read them carefully, you can see that this is true. Even the beautiful bumble of The Sound and the Fury falls short of his wonderfully mad notion of creating a tale told by an idiot. But there is something transcendental about Faulkner’s so-called failures that Somerset Maugham could never achieve. What is this magic Faulkner possesses? This obsession with flying with wings attached with sealing wax? It’s like the difference between the staid and proper Salieri in Milos Forman’s film Amadeus and the brilliant Mozart. Salieri, no matter how much he prayed for genius, never received it.

Of course, as a writer, I’m not even of the second tier. Maugham is as far above me as Faulkner is above Maugham. My pile of work will go unread and disappear with the trash when my wife dies. But this is as it should be. It is just and right that we be measured by a standard that is not ours, and, also, that we accept this, no matter how painful it might be. If only the fictional Salieri had understood this and appreciated himself better. Thank God for genius. It is the standard that allows the rest of us to be ourselves.

June 9, 2009   1 Comment

Oh Ezra

We looked around the castle where you lived,
And found nothing of you there, save your things,
Dusty objects now several decades old,
Though it was easy to imagine how beautiful it was
In summer when alpine flowers bloomed
And water trickled from sluices to rows of vines,
As cries of birds and insects
Carried on the wind, and workers with mellifluous voices
Shouted to the gods–while you, Ezra,
Locked inside your head,
Stopping up your ears with candle wax,
Ignoring meter, rhyme, and sense,
With barely a heartbeat or footfall,
Wrote that awful verse–and I wondered, really wondered
Whether it was worth exchanging that fragile mind of yours
For the title “first modern poet.”
Oh Ezra, no one ever suffered more.

March 31, 2009   Comments Off on Oh Ezra

The Authorship Game

Over coffee this morning, I met a very charming woman who wants to write a memoir about synchronicity  (causally unrelated events that have occurred together in a meaningful way in her life) and advised her, as I do everyone who wants to try her hand at the game, to do the following:

  1. Write at the same time every day, seven days a week. This is not to bolster your strength of will as Natalie Goldberg suggests, but to train your subconscious, which is where your work lives before you transcribe it to the page.
  2. Use a good word processing program, like Framemaker, so that you can easily convert your text to pdf’s. Microsoft Word is awful, because it assumes too much and goes off adding formatting behind the scenes. Some people only learn this the hard way, as I did.
  3. Choose the most evocative and emotionally touching scene to start with. There is no need to start at the beginning. Besides, you’re going to revise your piece a thousand times before you’re finished.
  4. When you’re ready to show your work, get a second opinion from someone objective whom you trust. Relatives, spouses, and friends make very bad critics, because they almost always like what you’ve done or don’t have the stomach to tell you the truth.
  5. Make contacts and network, network, network with other writers, editors, and anyone in the literary scene.  I don’t bother doing this myself, but you should!
  6. If agents hate your work (and most of them will), you can always publish your work on your own. Simply go to BookMobile or some place similar. (This is why good pdf’s are necessary.)
  7. In Minnesota, be sure to submit your work to the Minnesota Book Awards. Like the agents, they will probably hate your work, but you never know. Perhaps you’ll run into an enlightened group of reviewers.
  8. Finally, read everything you can get your hands on. A writer who doesn’t read is dead from the start.

And there you have it. Your path to success (or oblivion, if the gods are against you).

March 20, 2009   2 Comments

Attributors (Automated Copyright Checkers)

One of my daily visitors was a site in Campbell, California (I’ve since blocked its access to my site) that scans every post I make to see if I’ve stolen information from copyrighted sources. The site is called Of course, it’s not kosher for a blogger to use copyrighted material, but for all you novice bloggers out there, it should be noted that sites like this will turn you over to the copyright owners who often have the equivalent of ambulance-chasing lawyers who will sue you, or threaten to sue you, for as much money they can get. Naturally, they do better in cases where the infringement is made by an educational institution or an organization with money. The bottom line is this. Beware. Avoid using copyrighted material. We live in a litigious society. They really will come after you if they think it’s worth their while.

By the way, there’s also a service created by Techrigy, whose purpose is to measure the effect of social media, which attempts to match you with employee lists provided by corporations and businesses, to see if you’re blogging on company time. See Eric Olson’s fine article for more information.

February 10, 2009   1 Comment

The Faith of the Writer

We are social animals. In our daily lives, we receive constant feedback about our appearance and behavior, because it is instinctive to react (mostly in socially acceptable ways) to other human beings. For better or worse, we define ourselves by these reactions, though most of us have developed very effective filters for what we recognize as valid input.

There are unscrupulous persons in the world who circumvent these filters and try to redefine them in such a way that they have a free pass to influence us at will. Examples include powerful spiritual leaders of various flavors, overbearing husbands or wives, charismatic political figures, and charlatans. Of course, the subject has to be susceptible (or damaged) for this type of programming to work. An extreme example is torture, where the subject’s filter is essentially destroyed over time. There’s also the case of the individual who lives in isolation, or, perhaps, in a monastery, where the routine is invariable. The Roshi used to say that monastic life pulled his life in straight line. I always imagined a river without loops and curves when he said this.

The writer is an interesting case. He or she puts himself in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis the public, where the feedback he receives varies from nil to overpoweringly positive or negative. How he or she deals with this requires faith. It’s what Joyce Carol Oates calls the faith of the writer. How do you keep going when no one reacts to what you say? Or when people try to shut you up through intimidation? Or, perhaps, the worst case of all, when you receive movie-star-like adulation from a besotted public? To me, this is really the central question of life: how do you channel the feedback you receive in such a way that it maximizes your potential as a person?

You think I have the solution? Believe me, I don’t. Ask Lance Armstrong or Joyce Carol Oates. I can pose questions, but I sure as hell don’t have the answers—though I do have some advice. Distrust anyone who says they do.

December 17, 2008   Comments Off on The Faith of the Writer

Magic Circles

I vaguely remember reading an incident G. I. Gurdjieff described in one of his books about a man (or was it a boy?) trapped inside a magic circle. He told the story in such a way that the reader fully grasped this person’s titanic, but ultimately useless, efforts to escape. Of course, Gurdjieff offered several explanations for the phenomenon, though none of them were true, because one of his firmest principles was obfuscation. (You have to have read Gurdjieff to know what I mean.) Everything was mysterious. Nothing was as it appeared. If there was a point to the story, I suspect it was that there are powers in this world we dimly guess, but never fully grasp. The psychic power of casting a circle is one of them.

Women are mistresses at casting magical circles around themselves. The intent, of course, is to keep you out, rather than the other way around (although it probably functions in that manner also). She dares you to cross, all the while making it very plain that you cannot and will not cross, no matter how hard you throw yourself at the barrier. What’s fascinating about barriers is the thin line that demarcates two separate realities—the one inside and the one outside the circle. For this is really what the line does—it sets up two separate realities with different rules and ways of being.

Good writers do this. That is, they create worlds we happily inhabit because they’re interesting and contain people who are remarkable. The ability to invent magical worlds is a gift. Any of us with a modicum of imagination can create separate realities, but few of us can invent truly absorbing ones. So if you’re struggling as a writer, ask yourself whether the worlds you create are interesting to anyone other than yourself. If the answer is no, and you continue to write, congratulations, you’ve cast a magic circle inhabited by no one other than yourself.

December 16, 2008   Comments Off on Magic Circles