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"Never turn down a front row seat for human folly."

Norah Ephron

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Personal Archaeology

A few writers catch the habit late in life but most of us started young, tempted by the low initial investment and the illusion of status. This means that, by the time we enter the Valhalla of senior citizenhood, we have a lot old writings behind us. Attitudes to these vary: some of us shred, delete or otherwise dispose of all our unpublished and/or immature creations, while others keep every golden word. I am one of the pack rats.

Most of my old manuscripts are rubbish, except in so far as they jog my memory and constitute a kind of disorganized memoir. But occasionally I get the idea that something from the past could be revived, rewritten, and given a second chance.

Right now I’m working on a series of essays under the general title Lost Causes, and it occurred to me that I had written about some of these subjects before. Back in the 1990s I finished about half of a planned book called Pre Millennial Syndrome about the anxieties surrounding the Year 2000 (PMS, get it? Very cute). No publisher thought it was cute, and the finished chapters dropped into some dusty files in the basement.

Now I think can use some of those chapters in my essay collection. They will have to be much revised, but a lot of work went into them twenty years ago and I hate to see it all wasted. The only catch was that the chapters were not on my computer. They were on old 5¼ inch floppy disks that had deteriorated a long time ago, and don’t fit any modern computer. But I did have the printouts.

How to avoid the tedium of a vast amount of retyping, or the cost of hiring someone to do it? It was time to learn the mysteries of OCR or Optical Character Reading. After consulting some technical wizards I installed a program called “Readeris” which (not without some calls to Bombay) allowed me to scan the old pages into a word processing program, and so recover them for easy editing and rewriting (and deletion, if that proves to be the sensible thing).

Now my eyes turn towards the dubious treasure trove of ancient manuscripts in the basement. Using this new technology I could bring any of them back to life. Perhaps I could post my historic science fiction stories on the Internet – a blast from the past of the future, so to speak?

But no, it’s like revisiting old love affairs: the untouched, unedited memories are more than enough.

Talk

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” Jessamyn West

“The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.” Pearl S. Buck

Reading and writing are solitary pleasures. Other people must be pushed into the background so that we can enjoy our communion with words. But sometimes I wonder if this solitude is a defect, something fundamentally inhuman and anti-human. Reading, after all, is not a significant part of most people’s lives. For the nine out of ten Americans who scarcely read at all it is something positively alien. If you think I exaggerate, ask any high school or college teacher.

What brought this thought to the surface was a period of unusual sociability, during which I have met and talked to a lot of people. Tried to talk would be more exact. Writing comes easily enough to me, but talking is increasingly hard work. I seem to be losing my verbal (i.e. conversational) skills. Could this be the result of the writer’s inevitable solitude, eight hours or more a day of complete silence in an empty room in an empty house? It’s a disturbing thought.

When I started paying attention I realized that people all around me are talking all the time. My neighbor stood in her yard the other day and talked in a penetrating voice on her cell phone for a total of sixty-seven minutes, scarcely drawing a breath (I timed her with a stopwatch). I could never talk for sixty-seven minutes without a script because I don’t have that many things to say. Yet other people do it routinely. The front desk workers in our local library talk steadily from morning till night, as do most people in groups. I’m overwhelmed and silenced by their flow of words.

This brings us back to the difference between writing and talking. The decline and literacy has been more than overbalanced by a huge increase in verbosity. Cell phones may have something to do with unleashing this tsunami of talk, but something bigger may be happening.

Printing is not yet six hundred years old. Mass literacy is less than two hundred years old. For most of human history stories were told and heard, not read, and the tradition still survives in many parts of the world where literacy rates are low. The storyteller is an important and respected figure in the community. I’m reminded of the character Katsimbalis in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi whose fount of stories clearly made a deep impression on the author. Good storytelling is powerful.

By contrast, books and magazines as a form of popular entertainment are historically very new, and intellectually quite difficult. Learning to read is hard, reading is a concentrated, interpretative, solitary activity. The reader has to think. Translating those marks on paper into words, then into sentences and meanings, is hard mental labor. That’s why so many young people hate it.

In the twentieth century alternatives to reading appeared: radio, movies, television, videogames, and so on. Suddenly the hard work of reading could be bypassed, and we could drop back into the delightfully relaxed world of the old oral culture. “Tell me a story,” we said to our parents, and they did (or at least mine did). It was and is a primordial pleasure. Talk is easy, listening is easy. That’s why recorded books are so popular.

So an argument can be made that, because of the new post-print technologies, we are moving back (or forward) into a new/old age of oral communications. There will still be plenty of isolated, silent writers serving their isolated, silent readers. But most people will be just talking, and talking, and talking.

The Image

Writers must sometimes venture into activities for which we have few or no qualifications. Public speaking and salesmanship are two good examples. Recently I have been trying and failing to think intelligently about cover design. A visit to any bookstore will confirm that some book designers have tremendous flair, and others should never be allowed near a graphics program. It seems that I one of the latter type. My visual ideas are rubbish, and my grasp of typography and graphic design is about on a par with my grasp of quantum theory.

Book design is overrated, in my opinion. Books are about words. Nobody buys a book for its cover, unless we include trashy paperbacks sold in airport bookstores. The French once had the right idea about jacket design. Most serious books in France used to be (and a few still are) wrapped in the absolutely plain, graphics-free paper covers that I remember from my student days: title, author, publisher, and nothing else. They looked serious, and they were serious. If you wanted to know what was inside you had to read the book.

Our publishers have never gone for this simple and cheap solution. Book covers are advertisements, and must be created with the same care as the text – or perhaps more. Professional book designers are employed to do this, although most of us have strong ideas about our own books which the designers are paid to ignore.

My particular design problem was perhaps one of the most difficult and potentially embarrassing. We needed to agree on the cover design for a memoir that is due to be published next year. The very last thing I want on that cover is a picture of myself, because I am not and never was a thing of beauty. Almost anything else would do: an abstract design, a photographic image relating to the memoir, or a cartoon. I have used all these in the past, and they were fine.

Inevitably I lost the battle. The book will appear with a large cover photo of you-know-who. How this will affect the sales is something I don’t want to think about.

The Final Cut

About two hundred and fifty pages of manuscript just appeared on my computer and they look strangely familiar. In fact their existence is entirely my own fault. They are the final draft of a memoir I wrote last summer, and that now come back to me to me with the copy editor’s final comments – nineteen closely typed pages of them. This is the last chance, the final revision. Once the copy editor has corrected my grammar and punctuation (I love commas, who doesn’t?) this will be the version that appears in print. Every author at this stage suffers from Fear of Finality. The questions come crowding in:

What have I left out?

What should have I left out?

Who have I left out?

Who should I have left out?

Is this memoir true or is it, like most memoirs, pure fantasy?

Is it too late to cancel the whole thing?

Years ago, in a book called Writer at Work, I included a chapter about how to write a memoir. It was based on zero experience, because I had never tried to write one myself. But I had found it a popular course to teach at writers’ conferences, and at the rules seemed pretty straightforward. Now I have completed a memoir myself, and found a publisher, I’m not so sure.

P.S. A week later I’m still working through the corrections on this manuscript, so there’s no time to waste on web pages!

Too Many Books?

We were staying in a village close to the English town of Rye, which is famous for its sellers of used and antique books. Half a dozen such establishments are scattered along the picturesque high street. One rainy day I decided to hit every used bookstore in town.

I started at the east end, the forbidding Land Gate, constructed in 1369 as part of the town’s defenses against the wicked French invaders. The defenses failed. Nowadays the French come pouring through the Channel Tunnel, and the streets of Rye are full of French tourists. Napoleon would have been delighted. Right beside this ancient monument was the Land Gate Book Shop, its door firmly closed but its window displaying an eclectic selection of Audubon prints, nineteenth century romantic poetry, and modern thrillers.

Just up the hill was ‘The Book Worm,’ where I could have picked up a rare first edition of Trilby by Daphne du Maurier, or a leather bound set of the complete works of Edward Bulwer Lytton – a great but almost forgotten Victorian writer – at a knock-down price. I was almost seduced by a long out-of-print biography of the French composer César Franck. But self-control is built into an expedition like this. The modern economy-class air traveler can’t afford to accumulate books. They’re just too heavy.

Books are solid things. They don’t grow old. It’s the subject matter that ages. Today’s ephemeral celebrity biography or instant Iraq war analysis will be outdated and forgotten before Labor Day. Used book stores preserve the good stuff – books that really tell us something about human nature, life and love – universal books. In these stores the literary connoisseur can discover half-forgotten authors, biographers and poets – whose works are no less good to read for being in faded bindings without colored pictures – and they cost next to nothing.

There are so many tens of thousands, even millions of important and wonderful old books that I should have read, but I haven’t read yet, and that I never will read. And it’s not only books by forgotten writers that make me feel guilty; it’s the sight of shelves and shelves of books by very famous authors whose works are almost never read outside university literature departments, and sometimes not even there. Who has read all the works of Dickens for example, or Twain, or Poe? Who has read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, or Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – two of the best adventure tales ever written? They sit on the shelves, waiting for readers who never come.

My tour took me into the dusty recesses of half a dozen old bookstores, including one called ‘Chapter and Verse’ that had a Latin motto engraved on its glass door: Cave Librum Unum Habentem – which I render in my schoolboy Latin as “Beware of a house with only one book.” I leafed through a well-worn 1802 edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in three volumes, but decided that it’s message was too contemporary for my taste. The first volume alone contains enough material on the collapse of democracy, Caesarism and the illusions of empire to keep us thinking for quite a while. After a couple of hundred pages we might realize that we’ve been there, done that – and we don’t want to do it again.

It’s daunting to learn from the trade magazine Publishers Weekly that 140,000 new titles were published last year alone. So even if we ever catch up with the good books of the past, we will never in a dozen lifetimes catch up with the good books of the present.

It was the great Dr. Samuel Johnson who remarked that “Of the making of many books there is no end,” and I was struck by the thought – a horribly subversive and even wicked thought for a writer – that there are indeed enough books already. We could spend the next hundred years reading our way through the used bookshops of the world, or even just the bookshops of Rye, and never exhaust this literary treasure house. To save the drowning readers of the world I’m almost tempted to suggest a ten year moratorium on all new books; or most new books; or at least other people’s new books.

Solitary, Silent Pleasures

Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking. Jessamyn West

The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration. Pearl S. Buck

Reading and writing are solitary pleasures. Other people must be pushed into the background so that we can enjoy our communion with words. But sometimes I wonder if this solitude is a defect, something fundamentally inhuman and anti-human. Reading, after all, is not a significant part of most people’s lives. For the nine out of ten Americans who scarcely read at all it is something positively alien. If you think I exaggerate, ask any high school or college teacher.

What brought this thought to the surface was a period of unusual sociability. During the last three months I’ve been involved in conferences, a cruise, and several other events where I’ve met and talked to a lot of people. Tried to talk would be more exact. Writing comes easily enough to me, but talking is increasingly hard work. I seem to be losing my verbal (i.e. conversational) skills. Could this be the result of the writer’s inevitable solitude, eight hours or more a day of complete silence in an empty room in an empty house? It’s a disturbing thought.

When I started paying attention I realized that people all around me are talking all the time. My neighbor stood in her yard the other day and talked in a penetrating voice on her cell phone for a total of sixty-seven minutes, scarcely drawing a breath (I timed her with a stopwatch). I could never talk for sixty-seven minutes without a script because I don’t have that many things to say. Yet other people do it routinely. The front desk workers in our local library talk steadily from morning till night, as do most people in groups. I’m overwhelmed and silenced by their flow of words.

This brings us back to the difference between writing and talking. The decline and literacy has been more than overbalanced by a huge increase in verbosity. Cell phones may have something to do with unleashing this tsunami of talk, but something bigger may be happening.

Printing is not yet six hundred years old. Mass literacy is less than two hundred years old. For most of human history stories were told and heard, not read, and the tradition still survives in many parts of the world where literacy rates are low. The storyteller is an important and respected figure in the community. I’m reminded of the character Katsimbalis in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi whose fount of stories clearly made a deep impression on the author. Good storytelling is powerful.

By contrast, books and magazines as a form of popular entertainment are historically very new, and intellectually quite difficult. Learning to read is hard, reading is a concentrated, interpretative, solitary activity. The reader has to think. Translating those marks on paper into words, then into sentences and meanings, is hard mental labor. That’s why so many young people hate it.

In the twentieth century alternatives to reading appeared: radio, movies, television, videogames, and so on. Suddenly the hard work of reading could be bypassed, and we could drop back into the delightfully relaxed world of the old oral culture. “Tell me a story,” we said to our parents, and they did (or at least mine did). It was and is a primordial pleasure. Talk is easy, listening is easy. That’s why recorded books are so popular.

So an argument can be made that, because of the new post-print technologies, we are moving back (or forward) into a new/old age of oral communications. There will still be plenty of isolated, silent writers serving their isolated, silent readers. But most people will be just talking, and talking, and talking.

Who Can Teach Writing?

“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

Bernard Shaw

At some point after coming to America I began to teach writing, first in local library courses and then in larger conferences, including the Iowa Summer Writing Festival where I taught for ten successive years.

It was an interesting exercise. Everyone who has tried to teach creative writing, or creative anything, has suffered from doubts. The big three are:

Can it be done?
Can I do it?
Should I do it?

In a collection of whimsical blogs called Writer at Work I wrote, among other things, about the painful problem of honesty.

“How critical should a teacher or workshop leader be? Norman Mailer has described the brutal criticism he endured in writing courses at Harvard fifty years ago. But times and expectations have changed, and teachers are supposed to be unwaveringly supportive. This is pleasant for the student but worse than useless when he or she actually needs to hear comprehensive (and perhaps devastating) criticism. An honest teacher should be willing to point out obvious incompetence. But nobody wants to do this, especially in a setting where students are there by choice, at their own expense, and for many different motives.

“This dilemma, more than any other, creates emotional pressures for teachers of writing. At the Iowa Summer Writing Workshops one year, a stressed out teacher suggested that they should employ therapists as teachers instead of writers, because so much of the workshopping process felt more like therapy than education. A lot of ambiguous feelings and anxieties walk into the classroom, and instructors don’t always know how to handle them.

These are the things that teachers of writing discuss in their hotel rooms in the dark watches of the night, usually with the aid of a bottle of vodka. But I’ve seldom found anyone else who has actually written about the dilemma of teaching something called “creative writing.” Most of us need the job and the money. We don’t want to rock this fragile boat.
.
However, author and teacher Lynn Freed did rock it, and possibly sank it, in an article published in the July 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The title of her article speaks for itself: “Doing Time: “My Years in the Creative Writing Gulag.” If you’ve ever been a creative writing teacher, or had the urge to be one, you will find that Lynn Freed has been inside your head. She feels your pain. Let me quote just one sentence that echoes my own thought above, about honesty.

“To have to pretend to take seriously the job of improving an unworthy piece of writing because one is being paid by the writer is perhaps the most dangerous compromise of all.”

Hanif Kureishi, an author and professor of creative writing declared, rather bravely, in 2014, that “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” and that it was impossible to teach creativity to un-creative people.

Yet there’s another side to this argument. Teaching can be so much fun if you don’t take yourself too seriously, and really good teachers of creative writing can inspire even the most mediocre students. In the end, though, I was infected by the same pessimism, and gave up trying to teach writing. When I publish a big bestseller myself I may think again. But then I won’t be in such urgent need of the money.

Universal Plagiarism

A college education these days contains many traps and challenges, not the least of which is to avoid (or effectively conceal) plagiarism, a campus crime almost as heinous as sexual harassment or a taste for 1940s Big Band music. Some students are required to sign long, impressive documents, written by lawyers who stole the wording from other lawyers, certifying that they understand the penalties for plagiarism. They may have no idea what it is, but they will sign anyway. Others will be severely lectured on the subject their professors. I know, because I’ve received and delivered a few such lectures myself.

Plagiarism is the theft of intellectual property, or more plainly to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Intellectual property is just stuff that people have made up or created. This essay is intellectual property, and could conceivably be plagiarized by some abysmally stupid student somewhere, who would get a well-deserved F.

It is dangerously easy to commit this particular sin, by borrowing a half-remembered idea or turn of phrase. We’ve all done it without knowing. All our culture is one big exercise in plagiarism. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all been thought and said before, and will be again.

Plagiarism is a very ancient art. Shakespeare stole most of his historical plots directly from the unreliable histories of Holinshed. Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were both accused of plagiarism.

In modern times, plagiarism is not limited to lazy and dishonest students. Lazy and dishonest adults are equally guilty.. Almost every week we read another high-profile case from the world of academia or publishing. The distinguished historian Stephen E. Ambrose, and another historian Professor Doris Kearns have both been in the news recently, accused of lifting chunks of their works from previously published authors. Lord Archer, the disgraced British novelist and politician, is another distinguished example. Politicians borrow chunks of speeches from more intelligent men, artists copy photographers and each other, and musicians notoriously “borrow” certain melodic ideas when inspiration runs out. These rip-offs are routinely passed off as “tributes.” Movies are so obsessively self-referential that you get the feeling that nothing completely new has been attempted since “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. Real creativity is very rare.

In a sense, then, all culture is plagiarism. We can’t reinvent the world every day, but we can and do copy the good stuff from the past, and perhaps transform it in the process. So I don’t feel strongly about intellectual property as such. When great genius or large amounts of money are involved, I suppose it becomes important. But most creative work isn’t in that league and, on the whole, we should be mildly flattered when someone finds our work worth stealing. After all, the plagiarist gains nothing, and the act itself is rather pathetic, an admission of an empty mind. I can forgive a modest amount of plagiarism, especially if it’s well done. In the academic world, the whole thing is a bit of a game, hence the old saying that stealing from one source is plagiarism, and stealing from many is research

But I do have strong feelings about cheating partly because I never could get away with it when I was a student. The worldwide web has made plagiarism infinitely easier, and less detectable, and cheating by students has become an epidemic. If you look up plagiarism on the web you will find hundreds of articles and books condemning it, and even anti-plagiarism software. The cheaters cheat themselves out of an education, they cheat the honest students, and they make fools out of their teachers. I don’t like any of that.

The moral question is: should we discourage all cheating, or is it a useful skill? News media are always full of stories about cheating on an epic scale, mostly by politicians and businessmen. The notable fact about the guilty parties is that they are all very, very rich. My mother used to tell me that cheats never prosper: but they do. Cheating may be as essential to success in the modern world as computer literacy. By discouraging plagiarism and similar tricks, we may be condemning our students to a life of poverty and hard work.

If anyone has the answer to this educational conundrum, please let me know. But don’t send me any of those anti-plagiarism articles off the web, I’ve read them already. Where do you think this essay came from?

Unlucky Day

Friends have told me how lucky I am to have a regular audience for my whims, opinions, and prejudices in the form of a weekly essay on public radio. They are right, of course. Since the 1980s I have written a newspaper or radio feature of some kind at least once a week and (in my busier years) two or three times a week. Before that I was a college teacher for decades, which gave me a different but equally satisfying platform.

Having some kind of public voice is a pleasure and a privilege, but there’s always a catch, or several catches. The relentless pressure to come up with something new and entertaining every week is stimulating and exhausting in about equal proportions, although it becomes second nature after a while.

The really painful thing is uncertainty, which comes rarely but is very disturbing when it does. The only reason I am writing this is to avoid writing something else, namely a morning radio commentary for September 11.

What does anyone write about September 11? It can’t be ignored on the anniversary date, and yet everything has been said a million times already. We have read and heard all the different varieties of sadness, fear, outrage at the barbaric perpetrators, and more outrage (but not enough) at the idiotic politicians who used the event as an excuse to attack a nation that had nothing at all to do with the attack, setting off a series of catastrophic events in the Middle East that may not end in our lifetimes.

What can I possibly write about all this? My “opinion” is worthless. My feelings are irrelevant. But I must produce a commentary in the next day or two.

It’s time to go for a long walk.

The Incredible Journey

The old laptop we have been using in France was corrupted by anarchic Gallic computers on the local network, and went more or less permanently on strike. It is easy enough to buy a new computer in France, of course, but then we would have to cope with the keyboard which, in the European style, starts top left with AZE and ends bottom right with VBN. This deviation from the odd but familiar QWERTY arrangement is enough to drive a person mad. Personally, as a lifelong hunt-and-peck typist, I would much prefer keyboards to follow the alphabet from ABC to XYZ, so I would finally know where to find things and double my typing speed.

So, to keep a long and tedious story short, we delayed the purchase until we could make it during a visit home. Here we placed an order with an American manufacturer for an American laptop with a normal if not very logical keyboard, and waited.

The first surprise was an e-mail that said that our computer would be “built by July 16.” In these bad economic times I had assumed that they must have hundreds of unsold computers sitting in boxes waiting to be shipped. But this message about building it suggested something even worse: they can’t afford to keep any inventory at all, so they are making them one at a time when they get an order, like an old-fashioned craft workshop. Some highly trained, highly paid technician at corporate headquarters in California was assembling all the little bits and pieces – chips, drives and keys and so on – and gluing them together just for me. I felt both flattered and embarrassed, like a man who has ordered a bespoke suit but doesn’t quite feel that he deserves it.

Punctually on the appointed day came another e-mail saying that the building of our laptop had been completed and that it was being shipped via a big express service whose name you know. There was a tracking code with which we could follow its progress from California to our home in the Long Island suburbs. I can never resist these things, so I started to check the progress of the package. Surprise! It wasn’t coming from California at all, but from a place called Kushan, which turned out to be a city in South China. Next time I looked, a few hours later, it was in Shanghai, and the very same evening it had arrived in Anchorage Alaska, which seems to violate some fundamental laws of space and time. But we must assume that a bit of time travel is mere routine to these express delivery services.

By early next morning our frozen long-distance laptop had very sensibly migrated southwards, but overshot the mark and arrived in Newark New Jersey, where it languished for a while, presumably enjoying the scenery. A couple of days later it was delivered to our doorstep by a young man who, considering how far he had come, looked quite fresh and cheerful. When I slid the laptop out of its box it brought with it the chill of Alaska, and perhaps just the faintest whiff of Kushan soy sauce.

This is one of those moments when globalization becomes real, and not just an abstract word. To have our modest laptop built and shipped all the way from the far side of the planet, at the cost of who knows how much carbon debit, literally brought the global madness home. And it’s just one stage in a continuing process. As wages rise in Kushan we will find that our stuff is being made in Ethiopia or Somalia, or wherever labor is cheap and unemployment is high. But here’s the good news: eventually (and it’s already happening), the relentless logic of the market will bring all these jobs back home.