Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Archive for February, 2012

Maladaptive Disorders

So the Oscars are coming up, apparently. I wouldn’t really know, because I never watch them (yeah, that’s right). I have no particular vendetta toward the Oscars; I look at the results the next day and the pictures on the red carpet. I’m just not invested enough in the results to care. I spend whatever disposable income I have on books, not on going to see movies, no matter how Oscar-worthy and promising the film may be. So when the Oscars roll around, I look at the nominations, think “Oh I should see that,” check my bank account, and go buy the book without ever seeing the movie. Many of the pictures nominated have a common thread: they’re based on books. According to the OOM Blog on Scholastic, “In all, six of the nine films nominated for Best Picture are based on books:  Hugo, War Horse, MoneyballThe Help, The Descendants, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (full article can be found at http://oomscholasticblog.com/2012/01/the-oscars-love-movies-based-on-books.html). In an article I read in Entertainment Weekly while in the waiting room at my doctor’s office, book adaptation is listed on the Oscar formula for success. And of course, people want to read these books not only before the Oscars but before seeing the movie itself.

Stuff White People Like expands on this phenomenon–particularly amongst white folk, apparently: “The other problem is that these announcements [for movies based on books] create a ticking time bomb where by a white person must read the book in ADVANCE of the release of the movie. This is done partly so that they can engage in the popular activity of complaining about how the movie failed to capture the essence of the book. But more importantly, once a book has been made into a movie, a white person can no longer read that book. To have read the book after the movie is one of the great crimes in white culture, and under no circumstances should you ever admit to doing this. Literally dozens of white friendships have imploded when it was revealed that someone read Fight Club after 1999” (full post here http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2009/07/13/127-where-the-wild-things-are/). It’s true that people do have a fanaticism bordering on mania about reading the book before they read the movie, which leads to the movie tie-in. For those of you not familiar with the term, a movie tie-in occurs when the cover a book/its title is changed so that it matches the movie. Good recent examples are Memoirs of a GeishaSlumdog Millionaire (originally titled Q&A), and Being Flynn (originally Another Bullshit Night in Suck City because for some reason that’s an inappropriate title for a general audience). Apparently, back in the 80s–I can’t speak with authority because I was born in ’91–movie tie-ins on book jackets had a bad rap. People wanted the original book without all that marketing/advertising/PR nonsense. I wouldn’t say that this sentiment is confined to the 80s, because I’m one of those people who would infinitely prefer to have the original cover art. When I bought The Namesake, I could have bought the movie tie-in book, but I insisted on buying the original. But other people don’t share my conservative purist streak and are fine with whatever cover is out there. Whatever form it comes in, they’ll take it. One of these days I’ll be writing a post about the lost art of cover art. But I digress. More info on tie-ins at http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/tip-sheet/article/50665-questions-for-a-bookseller-hollywood-s-diesel-books.html

The movie tie-in speaks to a greater trend: the movie adaptation. It’s not hard to put together why there are so many adaptations out there: 1) good books have great stories, 2) bestselling books make for blockbuster movies, and 3) many bestsellers are written in a format that translates easily to film (The Firm, anyone?) Even die-hard Harry Potter fans convinced that the movies would never, ever live up to the books flocked to see the movies (including yours truly). And there’s the old adage, “The book’s always better than movie.” Well, of course it is. Rather than 2 to 3 hours maximum (excluding the outlier of Lord of The Rings) for a movie, a writer has hundreds of pages to develop setting, characters, exposition, rising action, climax,  falling action, resolution, etc. Books have room for complicated plots and subplots and have the luxury of enriching the scene and character development. Movies are on a tight time schedule, so cuts of bits often seemingly essential to the book disappear.

I’m a book purist, so when I know a movie based on a book is coming out, I pledge to not re-read the book before I go see the movie. If I do read the book, it has to be at least 3 or 4 months in advance. That way, I forget enough of the important details and more subtle nuances that I’m not disappointed when I see the movie. I used this strategy when seeing The Help and Water for Elephants with pleasing results. I’m out of luck on Harry Potter, because I’ve read the books too many times for even the slightest nitpicky details to slip my mind. My boyfriend, who has a BFA in film, and I have extended conversations about whether or not Part 8 of the movie series lived up to the book. But what I forget about adaptations is that they’re just that–an adaptation, an actual change of medium from print to screen. Changes have to be made, because the restrictions and conventions of a novel are so different from a movie. I’m a lover of the zombie apocalypse subculture, and I have read World War Z three times. Brad Pitt is producing an acting in a movie adaptation. The book is essentially a series of short stories of different characters around the globe through a series of interviews. But a movie can’t be a series of short vignettes for an action-oriented audience, so the movie will use the interviewer as a central character to tie it together. When I go see the movie, I will have to remind myself over and over that the movie cannot be “true” to the book–the demands of film are different than the demands of books. Both media are intended to entertain, but the type of entertainment from sitting down and engaging a long text versus sitting and watching a two-hour long film are vastly different.

So yes, I’m one of those white people who likes to read the book before the movie comes out, and if I do go see the movie, I do complain, often at length, about how the movie dismally did not live up to my expectations. But my boyfriend is a film major, and as he teaches me more about filmmaking and screenwriting, I have a better appreciation for the changes a screenwriter must make when adapting a book. I understand more the restraints of how the genre, the characters’ names, even the title of the book must change. And sometimes, seeing the interpretation of a book on screen is worth seeing. However, I will digress and make a side point–bad books rarely translate to good movies, with the exception of Forrest Gump. Books like the Twilight series cannot be redeemed on film. Books as atrocious as those cannot and will not make good films.

But I’m going to stick by one thing: Part 2 of The Deathly Hallows focused too much on action trying to be a summer blockbuster rather than focusing on the major themes of the book. And nothing’s going to change my mind.

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How to Boil Water

I never took the freshman and sophomore comp courses at TCU; I tested out from AP testing (thank God). I got to skip out on the repetition of how to write an essay, how to analyze a source, how to do research and cite sources, how to write about literature. But I have read the course outcomes for freshman and sophomore comp. Because TCU’s accreditation agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), requires these course outcomes, these lower-division courses have the following outcomes listed:

ENGL 10803 Introductory Composition: Writing As Inquiry

1. Students will demonstrate the ability to write in a range of genres, using appropriate rhetorical conventions.

2. Students will demonstrate competency in reading, quoting, and citing sources as well as competency in balancing their own voices with secondary sources.

3. Students will demonstrate the ability to employ flexible strategies for generating and revising their writing.

ENGL 20803 Intermediate Composition: Writing As Argument

1. Students will demonstrate facility with the language and analysis of argument.

2. Students will demonstrate the ability to write an argument for a specific rhetorical situation.

3. Students will demonstrate competency in using sources (primary, secondary, digital) in argument construction.

4. Students will demonstrate the ability to use computers effectively as a communication mechanism.

In my cyberliteracy course, my professor asked us to rewrite these course outcomes to reflect relevant and useful skills in writing and composition. These courses often focus on a narrow set of writing skills, particularly geared toward academic writing that has little application outside the university setting. My group and I discussed some of the issues with these course outcomes as they do not prepare students for what the writing world is like beyond the college campus. We argued that the first course’s three outcomes could be shortened simply to, “Learn to write in an effective and appropriate manner with clarity and precision.” Instead of focusing so much on the academic composition side, introduce students to publications online through blogging and social networking. So much of getting a job these days, in publishing or otherwise, depends on your online presence and proving that you know how to express yourself. Many entry-level positions involve maintaining social media for the company, and being able to compose anything from a tweet to a blog post is essential. Also, these classes do not teach essential digital skills such as effectively using a search engine or using online databases such as JSTOR or Academic Search Complete. We are leaving students illiterate in the world of Google and Wikipedia. We thought that if students want to continue in academia after undergrad, there should be a separate course for academic writing and instead have the intro comp classes focus on more utilitarian forms of writing such as technical writing, magazine writing, newspaper writing, business writing, etc. Students should walk out of a freshman comp class and understand how to write for a variety of positions and workplace demands–even composing a memo or writing a brief business letter.

The sophomore comp class should continue with how to develop an online presence through social networking (LinkedIn, e.g.) and continuing to find online publication avenues. Rather than focusing on a competency in using sources, focus instead of the ability to analyze sources for their accuracy, reliability, and meaning. I come across so many writers in my job at a writing center who cannot analyze a source for its meaning and implications. They can summarize a source but not take it a step further and say what they can infer from reading a document. Also, students should learn more difficult software such as InDesign. So many jobs expect students to have a rudimentary knowledge of the Adobe Creative Suite–particularly Dreamweaver, Photoshop, and InDesign. Composition should involve some visual rhetoric as well–showing students how to build an effective website, how to edit an effective photo, how to create an effective ad or page. These are all useful skills. Of course we should never drop the ability to effectively express oneself and have a practical use of grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling, but the intense focus on the academic essay is not helpful to students who want to go out into the “real world.”

Also, this type of formal writing does not prepare students for the times they will need to write personally. Personal writing and creative nonfiction are some of the most difficult genres to master. Being able to write about onself, especially in a concise and clear manner, is a difficult task, one professional writers struggle with. Expecting students to walk into college knowing how to write a good personal essay (even when admissions expects a good personal essay in five hundred words or less–ask a professional writer to do that and they might throw something at you)  is unrealistic–a good amount of maturity and deft handling of English is required. Instead of forbidding students to use “I” in essays or address the reader as “you” or to use contractions, teach students the importance of communicating, getting your message across, because the point of writing is to communicate, to spread information, to tell someone something you want them to understand. Rather than leaving students in the dark on the real applications of publication and writing, give them the tools to walk out of college and enter the real world.

This lack of real world preparation is a controversy in universities. Some people see the university system as overly indulgent and too focused on the curricula of esoteric learning removed from real life. Others argue that the university system is designed to teach the ability to think critically and not a technical school for vocation preparation. The whole point of the university, some argue, is to learn for the sake of acquiring knowledge, not to get a job after graduation. But students expect a bachelor’s degree to be the key to a job after school (at least they used to). Not teaching students tools to be effective in the workplace leaves them at a disadvantage, especially when they are competing with more experienced and skilled workers already out of school. We can still teach writing, composition, and rhetoric while supplying skills necessary for “real life.” These skills are as basic as boiling water–universities that don’t teach students how to express themselves and publish online are leaving students in the dark about how to create an online presence, find jobs, and showcase their skills.

Your Participation Grade

Writing has evolved tremendously over its 6,000 year history. No, I’m not talking about the evolution of language. I am not a diacrhonic linguist; I leave charting the changes and growth in language up to them. Writing has moved from carving on stone tablets to scratching on animal skin to using a quill and ink on parchment to ballpoint pens to the typerwriter to the computer. The ability to write (not just the spread of literacy) has grown exponentially because the technology of writing has so vastly improved. With graphite penciles, felt-tip and ballpoint pens, and the modern-day keyboard, the amount of time it takes to write out your thoughts has diminished vastly since writing’s inception. Back in the day, many writers employed a scribe who would write down what they said, because the process of writing out characters on a difficult surface was too time-consuming and diverted attention away from the words themselves. Today, many would-be writers face no such barriers. In fact, the barrier between writing and publication has practically shurnk to zero if you have a computer, a Internet connection, and a blog. At the end of writing this post, I will press “publish” and have shared my thoughts and writing with the world. All within an hour or less.

Seed magazine’s article, “A Writing Revolution” ( http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/a_writing_revolution/), charts the growth of authorship from 1400 to the present. Spoiler alert: the growthh as been exponential as Internet users tweet, post, and blog. Suddenly the spread of influence moves from how many people read your article/book in a sanctioned publication to anyone who stumbles upon your page. Everyone writes e-mails to groups, shares status updates on social networking sites, and posts videos and photographs of themselves. We live in what one might call a “participatory culture” (http://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF) in which the ability to express and circulate one’s own work and thoughts is easy and simplified. Members of various groups (including wordpress) crowdsource information, learn from one another’s posts, and believe their contributions to the website’s content matters. Through these sites, people can share their writing easily and quickly. The standard roadblocks between composition and publication have all but disappeared so long as you have a will to write and feel encouraged to log in, type away, and hit “enter.” We follow one another’s blogs, subscribe to follow different users on facebook, etc. , so we believe that what we are writing and sharing is important, that others will read it and consider it.

This massive growth in influencing others through informal publishing is only an asset to encouraging the love of the written word. More and more as traditional writing and reading books is seen as too time-consuming and irrelevant, the explosion and outgrowth of personal publication is a way for budding writers and skeptical readers that the written word has concrete value. The fact that anyone can put their thoughts out their is a testament to how the world has simultaneously grown and shrunk as the global network becomes increasingly interconnected. Writing is the pleasure of transferring thought to word, and we are well to honor our literacy, both on paper and online.

The e-textbook Explosion??

E-textbooks have become more and more prevalent in the university textbook scene. E-textbooks are less expensive than their print counterparts, which is a huge draw for students on a budget who can’t afford that $125 textbook that will be out-of-date and “obsolete” after one semester. Some textbook sellers even let you buy specific chapters rather than the entire book, and you can also “rent” books for 30-, 60-, 90-, 120-, and 180- day periods. These options make textbooks more affordable, more portable, and more available to students. Some students, however, still prefer the hard copy, because the hard copy is easier to mark up, annotate, and read without distraction. I once used an e-textbook for an intro religion course, and I had a hard time reading from the screen, remembering where text was located on the page, and reading deeply beyond surface-level comprehension. Some apps do allow noting and markups, but many students complain that such annotation is simply “not the same” as writing notes and underlining/highlighting by hand.

Various tablets/e-readers offer textbooks on their user interfaces, including the iPad and Kindle Fire. Students and professors mostly use third-party applications to buy and mark/annotate e-textbooks. One of these applications is Inkling for iPad, which offers interactive textbooks through major publishers–McGraw-Hill and Pearson, W.W. Norton, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, e.g. “Inkling allows publishers to create interactive content with video, interactive quizzes, 3D models and more that can be easily published across a variety of formats and platforms and updated just as easily” (www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/50622-inkling-debuts-multimedia-publishing-platform-at-toc.html).

According to an article on Publisher’s Weekly, “E-textbooks on the Cusp?” (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/50552-e-textbooks-on-the-cusp-.html), 46% of students are interested in purchasing a textbook for their iPad, but only 10% use a tablet or smartphone for schoolwork. The article argues that because the interest is there, usage will increase as tablet prices (particularly the iPad) decrease and as professors and universities fully integrate e-textbooks into their courses.

Personally, I find that this prediction/projection is somewhat overly optimistic, unless the projection is for several years down the line. The majority of students are still reluctant to read e-textbooks on their computer or tablet. (I am one of them; I would spend more money for the print version than have to read the electronic version and not remember what I read). Students in the future may be more comfortable reading from a computer screen or tablet, but most current students have reservations about readings online. In a course I am taking right now, many readings are online, and most of the students in my class print out the electronic articles anyway to maintain their ability to mark/highlight the reading.

Also, the cost of tablets on top of the necessary laptop/computer for higher education may be beyond many students’ grasp. The iPad has no USB ports, so it cannot be connected to a printer or other drives. Its use is currently more for entertainment and less for education, and many iPad users see it as a leisure tool rather than a part of education. A tablet, particularly the iPad, cannot replace a computer for schoolwork, and buying an iPad specifically for Inkling and textbooks may not seem a worthwhile investment when the student can find the used textbook in print for less money. However, if schools provide iPads or other tablets because the university wants to integrate interactive textbooks, students may be more enthusiastic.

E-textbooks may emerge slowly as students who are more experienced in learning from a screen enter the university system and as the economy recovers, allowing students to afford expensive technology. Until then, though, I think that e-textbook publishers should not get ahead of themselves in prophesizing huge jumps in e-textbook sales.

The Memory in the Memoir

Memoir is one of the big ticket items in our literary zeitgeist. Memoir appears everywhere on the bookshelves and on the homepages of Barnes and Noble and Amazon. From the French mémoire, the memoir is a form that has in some ways surpassed the novel and is the most prominent form of nonfiction in contemporary literature. Writers, musicians, artists, politicians, and public officials have all jumped on the bandwagon. The appeal of memoir is simple–we assume that “this really happened.” The person writing actually experienced what we are reading. We’re consuming some form of truth, a primary source document by someone who really lived it. For example, Memoirs of a Geisha by Aruthur Golden and Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki both deal with the life of a Kyoto geiko. But while Golden is a white man writing a fictional account, Iwasaki was the most renowned and famous geiko of her time. In fact, she sets the record straight about some of the misconceptions sown by Memoirs, such as the fact that high class geiko are essentially courtesans who sell their virginity for the highest bidder and that they are essentially the Japanese equivalent of escorts. (In truth, there is no true “Western” equivalent of the geiko; it simply does not neatly translate into our standard of company for hire). The appeal of Iwasaki’s account over Golden’s is clear; she lived the life of a geiko in Gion. We can believe her more than we can Golden. Her memoirs are true memoirs, rather than Golden’s fabricated account. A memoir of a Holocaust survivor can be trusted more than Holocaust fiction.

Yet the validity of memoir has come under some scrutiny, particularly after the Million Little Pieces scandal on Oprah. Although James Frey’s book was marketed as memoir, much of his account is fictionalized, although loosely based on truth. The appeal of this traumatic account being factional was just too tempting for marketing purposes; it’s more entertaining as memory than it is as made-up. Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors came under similar fire when his own family members questioned the truth of his accounts, and one can assume that Burrough’s took large liberties when recounting his family history.

This literary license leads one into the skepticism a reader must either put on hold or caution when reading the memoir. Because our memories are not video recorders, accurately transcribing and recording our past, many memoirists edit, delete, or alter the account either because their memories are truly faulty, they can’t fully remember, or the edited version better suits the storyline and artistic style of the piece. Creative nonfiction is allowed a little bit of latitude with “fact” when it comes to the memoir. Our memories are far from perfect, and sometimes the “truth” needs tweaking to better serve the genre. Yet one must draw the line with how much a writer can change the past; the account must be based on reality, with additions and deletions minimal and based on need rather than sensationalism. It’s a fine, fine line, one which personal essayists and memoirists struggle with daily.

Additional backlash comes from critics who accuse the memoir as little more than the published equivalent of a psychotherapy session, the thought being if you drank, drugged, or sexed as a way to deal with inner pain and external turmoil, go ahead and share with the world. Why not? Skeptical readers assert that the memoir is indulgent and guilty of navel-gazing. The question arises, “Why should we care if this happened to you? Quit it with the confessional whining and self-serving recounting of your past.” But in truth the memoir is more than self-absorbed rambling. The memoir, when well-written, provides an account of an aspect of the writer’s life, a way for readers to live vicariously through an experience or theme of a person’s life and perhaps reflect on their own. The memoir taps into the human story, the human experience, which, in my opinion, is what true art strives to do. Art tries to tap into the One Story of humanity, what it is to be human, to be cliche–the human condition.

At this point I should make a clear distinction between autobiography and memoir. Autobiography, while also a reflection of a person’s life, is usually a linear account starting from the beginning and moving toward some presupposed end to the present. The writer is attempting to accurately and truly represent the passage of their life, from childhood through adulthood in the ownward march toward death. Autobiographers are often older, able to go through decades of life (presumably full and hopefully well-lived). Autobiographers take little artistic license and are concerned with the retelling of the life story. A memoir, on the other hand, usually focuses on one time period or one aspect of the writer’s life, usually coming-of-age, a relationship with a parent or the family, a traumatic event, or a lesson learned. The memoir is often about self-realization or self-actualization, the process through which the writer lived to reflect and reconsider their past through an artistic lens. The writer is using a dual mode of narrative and reflection to weave an overall picture of an aspect of their life. For example, in Loose Girl, A Memoir of Promiscuity, Kerry Cohen Koffman recounts her parents’ divorce, troubled youth, and subsequent “loose behavior” and how she learned to overcome her low self-esteem and develop a healthy sex life. Alex Lemon’s Happy recounts his years of alcohol and drug abuse as he coped with his strokes and brain surgery, how he recovered and dealt with his lost identity as a star baseball player.

The memoir is a difficult form, and one struggles to come across a well-written memoir in the wealth and breadth of memoir available today. Writers struggle to avoid the trap of “And then…and then…and then…” Rather than merely recounting a story, the memoirist must endeavor to interweave the past with the present person. We must know who the person was when it happened to them, otherwise why should we care? Why should we be invested in what happens to this person? The memoirist must create themselves in a new image, into a character and avoid the urge to provide all the backstory, the impulse of “They won’t understand if I don’t give all the background information.” The memoirist must trust reader just enough to assume they’ll put the pieces together but not too much that the reader becomes lost and confused.

Much of this post is coming from The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts, who supplies the different subgenres of memoir, good examples of each, the challenges of memoir, etc. But I want to stop recounting his point and offer my own criticism of the memoir. Rather than disliking the memoir for its self-indulgence, I think the memoir has become too popularized, too dominant on the nonfiction shelves. Anyone can write a memoir and sell it if famous enough (Bristol Palin, anyone?) The art and craft of the form becomes secondary to the personality of the writer (who usually works with a ghost writer). My issue comes from not the idea that memoir is essentially narcissistic and an exploitation of our culture’s fascination with dysfunction and self-help. I’m not of the opinion that the memoir belongs in the closet instead of on the bookshelf. The well-written memoir is an experiment of introspection and self-knowledge, the combination of experience in the moment and the looking back of a different person.

No, my criticism comes from this idea that memoir is a one-size-fits-all way to represent a person’s life. That anyone with a ghostwriter, a computer, and a celebrity personality/scandal/entertaining story can publish a worthwhile memoir. The memoir has exploded. The memoir worth writing is not the memoir of the famous screenwriter or the celebrity singer; the memoir worth reading has been carefully crafted, edited, and manipulated to show a person’s life without specific chronology, without all the details spoon-fed to us, without the writing handholding his or her reader every step of the way. As a creative nonfiction writer,  I acknowledge the immense difficulty of writing a memoir and writing it well. How to tell your own story, represent it for a reader–this thing is daunting and seems impossible. It is a form and a genre that is delicate and difficult to master. The well-written memoir is not about the story but instead how the story is told, how the narrative connects with the reflection.

 

The Foxy Journal

Apart from professional development and blogging about publishing, this WordPress also serves as a forum for me to write creatively and discuss creative writing. I’m currently in a graduate-level creative nonfiction workshop, and one of our assignments is to read The Journal of Jules Renard on our own time and journal about it. Jules Renard is not well known in English and American literature; in fact, his works such as Poil de Carrote and L’Ecornifleur rarely appear in the literary canon so often taught in high schools and universities. But this neglect is such a shame, for Renard’s writing is beyond simple lyricism and grace—it is clear, concise, and thought-provoking. Renard has inspired many a writer, and reading his journal is an excellent example for writers to follow, for, as writers, we are never done developing or honing are craft. There is always another book to read, another form to experiment with.

In the first creative nonfiction workshop I took the second semester of my freshman year of college, we read a piece that was full of short maxims in an anthology titled The Lost Origins of the Essay by John D-Agata. One girl in our class commented that they were “truth bombs.” Our assignment over spring break was to write our own series of truth bombs. I believe I’ve since “lost” (or conveniently misplaced) my truth bombs. I’m guessing that whatever an eighteen-year-old girl had to write in the way of truth bombs isn’t much worth repeating. My writing is rarely concise. I tend to ramble a fair bit, and I have this awful habit of constantly repeating myself, as though I believe the reader isn’t going to get it the first time, so I just have to pound the point into the reader’s head. Frankly, it’s a little insulting to the reader—childish hand-holding between the writer and reader. One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn as a writer is to trust your reader.

Anyway, I digress. Back to one Jules Renard. From the get-go, I’m sure he and I are going to have a good friendship, even though he’s, well, dead. In French, renard means “fox.” Before I even open the cover, I think, “Damn, this is gotta be good.” So when I begin reading, what do I discover? A whole new set of truth bombs. Not aphorisms, not adages, not maxims. Truth bombs. I assumed that reading snippets of a late-eighteenth-century writing was going to be a challenge, but I immediately found myself in dialogue with Mr. Renard, because he immediately challenged me:

“Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred. No novel exists which an ordinary intelligence could not conceive; there is no sentence, no matter hoe lovely, that a beginner could not construct. What remains is to pick up the pen, to rule the paper, patiently to fill it up. The strong do not hesitate. They settle down, they sweat, they go on to the end. They exhaust the ink, they use up the paper. This is the only difference between men of talent and cowards who will never make a start. In literature, there are only oxen.”

Immediately I want to protest, “But I’m a writer! And I have writer’s block; I can’t help it!” I think to myself, “Psh, I work in a writing center. Trust me, there are some sentences that are beyond the beginner’s grasp,” as elitist and horribly condescending as that sounds. But then I wonder, “Hrm, that concept of ruling the paper, just writing and writing until something good comes out.” Most of what I write is absolute shit. There’s no getting around that word. Most of it quite simply sucks. Hard. But when you just write and write and write, eventually you’ll strike gold, or at the very least fool’s gold. I’ve got to just go and go and go. Already Renard is providing me lessons about being a writer, but in a more modern context: type until your fingers are numb. Control the screen. You are the master of your own Word document.

But beyond the lessons and content Renard is passing on to me, I’m looking at his syntax above all, or lack thereof. For example, one line reads “A scrupulous inexactness,” another, “Fingers knotty as a chicken’s neck,” “A simple man, a man who has the courage to have a legibile signature.” “The scholar generalizes; the artist individualizes.” These aren’t even complete sentences, but they’re compelling and fascinating, like flash fiction in ten words or less. Maybe these phrases don’t constitute a story; maybe they don’t make up a scene. But I feel like I’m getting an intimate look into his mind, random thoughts he had and just jotted down. I do this, except on my iPhone. A phrase or thought pops into my head, I open my notes, and type it out before returning to whatever it was I was doing. The juxtaposition of two opposing thoughts—scrupulous and inexactness, a gorgeous simile of knotty fingers, and the idea that those of us who hide behind a chicken scratch signature are cowards. Makes you think, doesn’t it? All of a sudden I want to work harder whenever I use my credit card. But my favorite so far is, “To have a horror of the bourgeois is bourgeois.” One sentence, and I want to say, “Yes! Exactly! How did you do that? That would take me three paragraphs to explain.” Frankly, it’s kind of sexy for a dead guy, how he can capture the fact that memories can use your brain as a tambourine. Lately, I’ve been experiencing this every night,and consequently I’m so sleep deprived that it took me half an hour to go grocery shopping because I kept forgetting which aisle I was on.

What are like are the breadth and depth of his one-liners; I feel like I can curl up in them, sleep in them, explore them. There are a few words, ten at most, and yet I want to live in them, emulate them, experience them. I walk away not inspired but contemplative. When was the last time one sentence made me really think?

His prose his sparse yet full. On the one hand I think of haiku and the prose poetry of Gary Young; on the other, I think of a fusion of romanticism and realism. He focuses on some of the details (even the mundane) of life—a bitchy mother-in-law, how a spider glides on an invisible thread as though it were swimming in the air, that the ideal of calm exists in the sitting cat. But he also extols nature, the verbal version of romanticism. Renard is a contemporary of the avant-garde school of impressionism: Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, yet his work is reminiscent of his art contemporaries through his use of the written word to capture a snapshot of life, a brief moment snatched from time. But he also is expressing his personal views on life—representing the world through a lens not based on time of day or fleeting feeling of the moment, more on the thought passing through his mind.

Renard leaves me with the inner workings of his mind, snippets of what passes through his mind during any given day. Although he doesn’t share explicit details or his personal life, the prose feels incredibly intimate. I feel as if I am almost intruding, looking through a keyhole into which I should not be peering.

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