Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dear Author

Dear Author.  Two words I've grown to hate.  The salutation of rejection.  I open my email and there they are and I know it means not only another rejection, but a form rejection, the impersonal device used by publishers and agents to clear the slush pile decks as efficiently as possible.  I understand.  And I hate it.  I am nobody.  I am "Author."

And yet ... At least I'm that.  I am "author."  The powers that be have called me an author.  But why?  Because I managed not only to write something and, presumably, finish it, but I have had the courage, or chutzpah, or stupidity, to submit it somewhere.  And for this, I am called "author."  I'll bet they say that to all the girls.  Well, they do.

How do they know I deserve that name?  Do they have another form letter somewhere for the even-less-deserving that says "Dear Bozo"?  "Dear Wannabe?"  "Dear WTF?"  No.  They are being polite.  They also thank me.  Seriously?  Are they truly grateful that yet another of thousands has sent them a manuscript they DON'T want?  No.  But they extend us this courtesy, and in doing so, in giving us this title, they bring us to our knees and our humility.  

Thou hast written.  Thou hast submitted.  We dub thee "author" and we thank thee.  Go and sin no more.

We who submit have grown to wear these words as badges of honor.  "How many rejection letters have you collected?"  We look to our heroes and count their rejections like so many notches on the sword, so many battle scars.  Rejection is our penance, our dues, our years in purgatory, the price we pay to earn enlightenment and a place at the table. 

I am "Author."  I come with my shaved head and my begging bowl.  Will you let me in?

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Writer's Inferno

When I was a senior in high school, as a culmination of our study of Dante's INFERNO, my high school English teacher gave us the assignment of writing our own INFERNO.  It had to be an allegory, all our punishments had to fit the crimes, and we had to reach for a style reminiscent of Dante.  It remains one of my favorite assignments.

I decided to make my inferno a writer's inferno.  The entire thing was structured on a gigantic typing element.  The most offensive crimes were relegated to the most frequently used letters, while lesser crimes were placed on the less frequent letters.  Hence, Satan and the worst offenders of all were located on the letter "e."

I still have this paper, and it still cracks me up to read it.  It's also somewhat gratifying to remember that, even at the age of 17, I saw myself as a writer, so much so that, in my high school English assignment, I attempted to define my view of literature.  However, it was a high school student's perspective.  Therefore, I placed Dante, Melville and other writers of allegory near the worst offenders.  Their punishment, besides getting pounded against the wall of the infernal paper, was to be plagued with lice and vermin because  they "attached significance to every detail of their writing, causing endless suffering for others" (I was thinking of myself and my fellow students, who had endured the hard labor of lengthy term papers about symbolism in these works).  "Their works crawled with symbolism that their readers had to pick out."  Hence their lice-infestation punishment.

My 17 year old self made James Michener my guide, there to save me "from the path of cheap detective stories, dime novels, paperback books, television miniseries, lousy English papers and other bad writing."  Apparently I had issues with genre fiction and making money from writing.  Ah, youth!  Michener clearly qualified, in my teenage mind, as a virtuous pagan, and his only crime, apparently, was that he had allowed his epic novels to be turned into mini-series.  I condemned Alex Haley for the same reason.

I seemed to have been on quite an anti-TV screed on this assignment, because TV critics and writers of TV series got pretty prominent spots.  Poor Norman Lear gets special mention.  Other writers my teen self deemed worthy of Hell included Harlequin Romance writers, sensational journalists, political philosophers, and writers of pornography.

I wonder who I would place in writer's Hell today.  Who would you put there, and where on the landscape would they land?

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Rereading the Classics: Damn, That's Good!

Sometimes, as I'm reading, I just have to stop and say, "Damn, that's good!"  This is one of those moments.  From ANNA KARENINA, by Leo Tolstoy, currently on my iPad Kindle:

When Levin, after loading his gun, moved on, the sun had fully risen, though unseen behind the storm-clouds.  The moon had lost all of its luster, and was like a white cloud in the sky.  Not a single star could be seen.  The sedge, silvery with dew before, now shone like gold.  The stagnant pools were all like amber.  The blue of the grass had changed to yellow-green.  The marsh birds twittered and swarmed about the brook and upon the bushes that glittered with dew and cast long shadows.  A hawk woke up and settled on a haycock, turning its head from side to side and looking discontentedly at the marsh.  Crows were flying about the field, and a bare-legged boy was driving the horses to an old man, who got up from under his long coat and was combing his hair.  The smoke from the gun was white as milk over the green of the grass.

 Okay.  There are a couple of similes in there that, perhaps, are cliche today.  Who knows if they were then, or if they are in Russian?  Not me.  And maybe there are too many similes for some people's tastes, though you never know what's been lost in the translation.  But, damn it, if you don't feel like you are there with Levin, hunting the rural Russian marshes in the chilly dawn, you have no soul.  Talk about painting with words in the minutest detail, attention to every brushstroke that can bring the scene alive.  And the structure!  The way it starts with humanity and ends with humanity, while the slow, must-be-savored imagery of the solitary moment blossoms out in-between?  You can't help but read this section with the quiet, reflective, hushed reverence that Levin is experiencing.  Damn, that's good.

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