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Writing Well

Installment Fifteen:

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Should you be a sincere writer?

This isn't a trick question. But it is a question you'll have to understand and decide for yourself if you're ever going to be a professional writer of fiction.

We could argue the definition of "sincere" for hours and not get anywhere, but I suspect you know what I mean. I once wrote an essay titled "The Two Mayas" comparing the artistic work of poet Maya Angelou and architect-and-monument-designer Maya Lin.

President Bill Clinton -- remembering JFK's choice of Robert Frost to write and read an original poem at his inauguration (which Frost ended up incapable of reading due to the blinding sunlight, so he recited an older one from memory) -- invited Maya Angelou to write an original poem for his 1993 inauguration. Her poem for that day -- "On the Pulse of Morning" -- was a national hit even before she stopped reciting it. The New York Times said the next day that Angelou "had caught in poetry the American spirit better than any American since Walt Whitman." Accolades poured in from all directions.

As Wikipedia explains --"Reviewer Elsie B. Washington, most likely due to President Clinton's choice of Angelou to recite her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at his 1993 inauguration, has called Angelou "the black woman's poet laureate" Sales of the paperback version of her books and poetry rose by 300–600% the week after Angelou's recitation. Random House, which published the poem later that year, had to reprint 400,000 copies of all her books to keep up with the demand. They sold more of her books in January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, accounting for a 1200% increase . . .  

 "[Gary] Younge, speaking after the publication of Angelou's third book of essays, Letter to My Daughter (2008), has said, "For the last couple of decades she has merged her various talents into a kind of performance art—issuing a message of personal and social uplift by blending poetry, song and conversation."

Maya Angelou wrote no fewer than seven autobiographies. As writer Gary Younge said, "Probably more than almost any other writer alive, Angelou's life literally is her work"

Her work has not gone unrewarded. "Angelou has been honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. Her honors have included a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie",  a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away, and three Grammys for her spoken word albums. She has served on two presidential committees and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Angelou has been awarded over thirty honorary degrees."

Angelou also earned more money for her 7 autobiographies, poems, and essays than any other poet-biographer of the 20th Century. As she once said -- "I agree with Balzac and 19th-century writers, black and white, who say, 'I write for money.'"

So far, so good. The only thing left out in this hagiography is the fact that Ms. Angelou's inaugural poem for Clinton -- and almost all of her other poetry -- is simply banal and below mediocre.

Critic Harold Bloom, in acknowledging this fact, refers to a friend of his -- a famous poet and professor at Yale -- who, when pressed by the media for a reaction to Angelou's poem on the morning after the inauguration, said, "Today, we are all feminists." Bloom goes on to say -- "This is how one speaks in an occupied nation."

My "other Maya" was Maya Lin who -- in 1981, at the age of 21 and still an undergraduate -- won the "blind competition" (i.e. no names or info on the artist was given to the judging panel of artists, architects, and monument experts) to do the Vietnam Memorial, beating out 1,441 other competitors.

Again, from Wikipedia --

The black cut-stone masonry wall, with the names of 57,661 fallen soldiers carved into its face, was completed in late October 1982 and dedicated on November 13, 1982 The wall is granite and V-shaped, with one side pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument.

Lin's conception was to create an opening or a wound in the earth to symbolize the gravity of the loss of the soldiers. The design was initially controversial for what was an unconventional and non-traditional design for a war memorial. Opponents of the design also voiced objection because of Lin's Asian heritage. However, the memorial has since become an important pilgrimage site for relatives and friends of the American military casualties in Vietnam, and personal tokens and mementos are left at the wall daily in their memory. In 2007, the American Institute of Architects ranked the memorial #10 on their list of "America's Favorite Architecture".

Lin believes that if the competition had not been "blind", with designs submitted by number instead of name, she "never would have won". She received harassment after her ethnicity was revealed. Prominent businessman and later third party presidential candidate Ross Perot called her an "egg roll" after it was revealed that she was Asian. Lin defended her design in front of the United States Congress, and eventually a compromise was reached. A bronze statue of a group of soldiers and an American flag was placed off to one side of the monument as a result.

The realistic bronze statuary of soldiers -- joined later by an awful sculpture of nurses (done, necessarily, by a hack female sculptor) "to honor the women who served in Vietnam" -- pollute the area around the real Vietnam Memorial (Maya Lin's), but even hackneyed statuary can't diminish the pure power of Maya Lin's vision. Her Vietnam Memorial -- and later her flowing-water-over-names Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama -- have been among the most successful American memorials ever created by an artist.

My point here with the "Tale of the Two Mayas"? Perhaps it's that Maya Angelou has ridden her race and gender to fame and fortune, even though her poetry is mediocre-bad and one biography -- rather than seven -- would probably have been enough. Maya Lin's art, on the other hand, is not "sincere" in the sense of having experienced the subject of the memorial (her parents immigrated from China in 1958 and she was born in 1959, thus was only 15 years old when America's war in Vietnam ended) . . . but it is high-quality and strikingly original art.

Maya Lin has said of her work -- "My work originates from a simple desire to make people aware of their surroundings and this can include not just the physical but the psychological world that we live in"

Lin has succeeded as an architect and monument-artist without regards to her ethnicity and gender, as opposed to Maya Angelou's rewards which are largely due to everyone knowing that she is African American and a woman. Maya Lin sculpts to widen the perceptual boundaries of both our physical and psychological worlds; Maya Angelou writes to reassure us with well-worn and totally predictable acts of inspirational cheerleading.

Maya Angelou's work is always sincere. Maya Lin's work is brilliant. It's a sad artistic certainty that Maya Angelou's inaugural poem -- and her other work -- will be forgotten and unread (save by a few scholars) in a century. It's equally certain that Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial will still have great power a century from now, long after the last Vietnam veteran has died.

[Note: If you're a fan of Maya Angelou's prose and poetry, I wouldn't argue with you. I've been known to be wrong on literary judgment before this. But I need to say that I don't think, as so many people do, that all aesthetic judgments on the quality of art, literature, music, etc. are relative and "equal" in accuracy. An essential aspect of becoming educated in forms of art or literature -- especially with poetry -- is learning to see the bright line that separates the wide and deep flood of mediocre and poor poetry from the few and far-between islands of poetic excellence. The latter is lightning in the night, exposing and illuminating -- however briefly -- a world of hidden meaning; the former is a 3-watt, mass-produced bulb glowing weakly in the night.]

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But what about sincerity and writing?

The great (and shifty) poet Robert Frost has written -- "No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader. No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader." Certainly that seems to be praise of sincerity in a writer's work.

Tolstoy -- whose work I love and admire (and who intensely disliked Shakespeare) -- wrote that the most important factor in the creation of great art is --

Sincerity. i.e. that the author should himself keenly feel what he expresses. Without this condition there can be no work of art, as the essence of art consists in the contemplator of the work of art being infected with the author's feeling. If the author does not actually feel what he expresses, then the recipient cannot become infected with the feeling of the author, he does not experience any feeling and the production can no longer be classified as a work of art.

This Tolstoyan Rule certainly lines up with our 21st-Century academic consensus that a writer can never convey any of the truth of, say, the African-American experience unless he or she is black. Nor can anyone not a woman write meaningfully about female characters. Ditto all ethnicities and shades and niches of sexual identity; they are off-limits as literary subjects to all but those who have suffered discrimination or personal pain in each category.

I know one former head of a college English department who wrote no fewer than three "non-fiction fiction books" ( a term I still don't understand, but first encountered with Truman Capote's brilliant In Cold Blood) about her experiences as a female child and young woman being sexually abused by her father, uncles, brothers, grandfather, and other males in her extended family and brutal first relationships with males outside that family. Each of the nonfiction-fiction novels was greeted with an outpouring of approval and empathy (mostly from the audience of other academics who made up most of the books' audience.)

Certainly none of her autobiographical/fiction books lacked sincerity.

In college I avoided the poetry of John Keats as much as I could. Reading Keats's Romance-era poems made me feel like I was drowning in an ocean of Hallmark cards. Certainly Keats was writing from a deep, personal, and highly refined reservoir of profoundly sincere feelings.

Only decades later, when I spent years reading Keats's biographies and poetry -- doing a close reading -- did I find the non-maudlin beauty, wit, and professionalism that has made him one of my favorite poets. It turns out that John Keats was well aware -- literally painfully aware since he worked under the sentence of death from the tuberculosis that had already killed his brother -- that mere sincerity of feeling meant next to nothing where art is concerned. "That which is creative must create itself," wrote Keats as he was maturing into the master poet he became shortly before he died.

It was the quality of the writing, the quality of the poetry, not its "sincerity" that Keats was giving his attention, love, discipline, and waning life's energy to achieve. Thus these two quotations from his letters to his friend Bailey that have acted as North Stars to guide me in my own work:

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth -- whether it existed before or not.

The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream -- he awoke and found it truth.

The great Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate has written about this issue of sincerity (and the lack of it) in the Bard's greatest poems and plays:

The demand for sincerity was Tolstoy's error. The genius of  King Lear is that it was written by a man who was totally unlike his creation. The key to dramatic art is Insincerity, i.e., that the author should only pretend to feel what he expresses. That way, he can pretend equally to feel the opposite things which he also expresses. He can infect the spectator with the feeling of what it is like to be Goneril as well as that of what it is like to be Lear.

. . . . Compared with the Romantic artist who keenly feels what he expresses, Shakespeare is wantonly insincere. He does not project himself into his heroes. That is why so much room remains for his spectators and readers to project themselves into the world of the plays.

Tolstoy used a large part of his various diatribes against Shakespeare's "spurious art" pointing out that motives are -- in literature as well as in murder trials -- essential for understanding or feeling empathy (or antipathy) toward a fictional character. Yet Shakespeare -- from Hamlet onward and constantly in his greatest plays -- refused to give us clear motives.

In the original Scandinavian "Amleth" tale that gave rise to so many versions before Shakespeare's Hamlet -- the young prince had to spend a decade or more pretending that he was mentally retarded or, better than that, actively nuts, so that he would never appear as a threat to his murderous, usurping uncle. He spent years whittling large wooden fish hook thingees for no reason other than his madness -- until the day he used those hooks to spring a net under all of his uncle's protective knights, raising them into the air and building a fire under them. All part of his carefully plotted revenge.

But why on earth would Shakespeare's Hamlet feign madness as he does throughout most of the play? If you're planning to assassinate your uncle, the King, in coming days or weeks, it makes no sense to draw such attention to yourself. The "motives" for Hamlet pretending to be mad are as murky and unreasonable as his reasons for waiting, waiting, waiting -- and never taking the initiative to strike Claudius -- until other events force his hand.

Or take the character of Iago. He is one of the deepest mysteries in all of Shakespeare's plays. Samuel Johnson wondered at a lack of any perceivable motive for Iago's villainy -- which would cost the lives of the innocent Desdemona, the beguiled Othello, and of Iago himself -- and tried out different theories to explain what the scholar Goddard later labeled as "Iago's seemingly motiveless malevolence".

None of the theories about Iago has ever explained his actions.

In the middle of Tolstoy's most famous diatribe against Shakespeare, he allows one paragraph of praise (although he surrounds it with an explanation that this was just a 'peculiarity' of Shakespeare and his work):

However unnatural the positions may be in which he places his characters, however improper to them the language which he makes them speak, however featureless they are, the very play of emotion, its increase and alteration and the combination of many contrary feelings expressed correctly and powerfully in some of Shakespeare's scenes, and in the play of good actors, evokes, even if only for a time, sympathy with the persons represented. Shakespeare, himself an actor, and an intelligent man, knew how to express by the means not only of speech, but of exclamation, gesture, and the repetition of words, states of mind and developments or changes of feeling taking place in the persons represented.

So in Tolstoy's one grudging paragraph of praise, he's put his finger on what made (and continues to make) Shakespeare's characters and dramas different than any that had come before. As Jonathan Bate comments:

"This is a wonderful insight. Shakepeare's characters are not the fixed entities they tend to be in his sources. Rather, they are embodiments of the fluidity, of the play, of emotion. That same mobility which characterized the dramatist's social life is the gift which animates his drama."

From Hamlet through MacBeth and King Lear to Antony and Cleopatra and beyond, it was this missing motive, the absent central piece of logic in the puzzle, that Shakespeare used more and more to drive the emotional power of his characters and his finest plays. It was as if Shakespeare anticipated John Keats's musings on Negative Capability and made it the powerful core that heated and drove the nuclear reactors of his sonnets and plays.

Even before Dante's Divine Comedy, individual humans were looked upon as emotionally and morally fixed entities. Thus we find the souls of the damned in Dante's Inferno receiving precisely the eternal punishments they deserved for their major and always constant wickedness, not just for their actions.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "The greatest man does not set out to be great. Rather, he finds himself in the river of thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries."

Thus our endless fascination in Hamlet, who not only overhears his own ever-changing thoughts but who reacts to each shift in his own perception or frustration. Thus the only fair and sane way to try to understand the truly "great men" in our past, such as Abraham Lincoln. It was their ability to perceive clearly and to improvise as they went along that made both Hamlet and Lincoln great.

Jonathan Bate may have the final word on Shakespeare regarding this topic: hence his stripping of unitary motive from such characters as Leontes and Lear.

We live in an age where everything from political opinions to popular films and books seem always to dwell in the shallow ponds of reductive singularities. With that loss of perception -- perhaps best phrased as perception of complexity in all things and people -- we've all but lost the stylistic hallmarks of a poet and playwright who was receptive to every mood, every position and disposition, and always exploring the shifting and intermingling and layering and counterpoint that is the true chaos-theory pulse of actual human character, identity, and life.    

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From reading Montaigne about the time he was creating Hamlet -- a hoary old play that Shakespeare considered as so much dross to reshape and re-create -- the Bard was introduced to Epicurus.

The philosophy of "Epicureanism" -- when it had been remembered at all during the dark millennium of the Middle Ages -- was despised by the church and moralists. They boiled down the (usually unread) philosophy of Epicurus as an offense to Christian discipline and restraint, assuming that Epicurus's focus on living each day intensely -- since we can only exist in the "now" with the past and future both out of our reach -- as a Rabelaisian "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" sort of paganism.

But in the Essays that Shakespeare finally was able to read by the late 1590's, Montaigne not only defended Epicurus's thoughts but, as Jonathan Bate has said, "showed notable sympathy for the most maligned thinker of the ancient world." Montaigne resonated -- as did Shakespeare -- to the view that true wisdom involves being content to live in the moment rather than reflecting anxiously on the past and the future. Epicurus suggested that the true "seat of self" might lie not in the mind or heart, but in the stomach. This hypothesis is no better displayed than in Shakespeare's most lovable and perhaps most memorable of all his characters -- the fat, wastrel knight of Sir John Falstaff, whose life force was so powerful that it became not only the source of his own endless wit but the midwife for wit in those around him.

More pertinent than that might be the fact that Epicurus believed (and taught his heresy) that the multiplicity of possible interpretations of any text or any human encounter was a direct result of the endless multiplicities of possible swerves and conjunctions of the innumerable atoms that made up the universe.

And perhaps most pertinent to William Shakespeare, both the man and the artist, was Epicurus's call of resistance to the pursuit of public glory and posthumous fame.

Was Shakespeare a sincere writer?

Describe to me his true and sincere opinion on religion. Or on royalty. Or on marriage. Or on human sexuality. Or on politics. Or on greatness. Or on grand passions. Or on any of the scores of other themes he explored in his sonnets and plays.

You can't state his "true and sincere opinion" on any of these topics. Long before Shakespeare discovered and read Montaigne on Epicurus, Will Shakepeare the writer and man was staying true to Epicurus's prime precept: "HIDE THY LIFE".

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Most Shakespeare scholars still teach - and most students still learn -- that the Bard's farewell to his profession and his audiences comes at the end of The Tempest where the magus Prospero "drowns his book" and then, in an unprecedented epilogue, asks the audience not to clap but to pray for him.

But some scholars know that Shakespeare's actual farewell didn't come from the final words of Prospero, past and future Duke of Milan, but from Theseus, duke of Athens, at the end of The Two Noble Kinsmen:

O, you heavenly charmers,

What things you make of us! For what we lack

We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still

Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful

For that which is, and with you leave dispute

That are above our question. Let's go off,

And bear us like the time.

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So we always have our critical choices to make. We can have the uplifting and inspirational (and deeply banal) poetry of a Maya Angelou . . . or we can have the surprising and sometimes shocking encounter with true art created by the likes of Maya Lin . . . and, in choosing Maya Lin's dangerous path, we can join Epicurus and Shakespeare in giving a wry shrug toward the gods and their endless habit of making fools of all of us.

Or maybe it has to be a mixture of these things. Henry James said that the author is present in "every page of every book from which he sought so assiduously to eliminate himself." And few writers in the history of literature wanted to hide his true self more than did Henry James.

Joseph Conrad put the same idea more simply -- "The writer of imaginative prose stands confessed in his works."

But does he? Shakespeare -- the greatest writer of imaginative prose (and poetry) in English -- seems to have avoided such confession. And while Henry James admits that his authorial presence is there on every page he wrote while trying to eliminate himself from the tale, that mere presence tells us none of the secrets of his sexual identity or deepest fears or hidden feelings.

If all else fails, we have the unique Oscar Wilde to fall back on. As he often pointed out -- "All bad poetry is sincere."


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