Category: On Writing

Writer’s Slump and Other Maladies

I know what writer’s block means, but what about writer’s slump? Or writer’s blues, or writer’s despair, or writer’s disillusion? Or writer’s whine? Post partum depression? The Yaqui Novel has been sent off to the Book Designer. I don’t know who that is or where that person lives, whether it’s a man or a woman, big or small, nor what color or religion. Or whether they are worried about their taxes and hence not putting their full attention on my book.

That collection of pages has gone through the Editor, three times, with we me coming along behind, like the millwright who is asked to take up the slack in this chain or that and to re-weld the great band saw blade (plot) that has snapped, lashed around and cut off a few characters at the knees.

Then came the Proofreaders. They read the text aloud to each other. Was it to keep from falling asleep? Were they alert enough to catch the errata that the human eye and brain do not catch—the missing Spanish accent, the two definite articles sneaking through together, “the the,” and “that” where a “who” should have been, since the antecedent was a person and not a thing? Or where I had written “lay” for “laid,” when thought I was saying the past tense of laying something down. This is a flaw in my English, which I think I should blame on my parents, since I never knew I had it. And about that last “which,” in the sentence before, was it non-restrictive enough, or should it have been “that”?

Warning to want-to-be writers: There is never one last perusal of the manuscript. That is because you have never found the last erratum, i.e. mistake. And the reason for that is that you make assumptions, for example, that you have scanned this or that passage the required twenty times. Then you have sent the manuscript off labeled “Final” and lie in bed at three the next morning, realizing you did not do a one last, full check of the book’s epigraph, that pithy little quote at the beginning of the book that speaks for the whole 80,000 words.

The book has left the station. Others will decide its cover design, title and print font. So you have plenty of time worry. Will there be some sexist photo that will offend women? I read you should never have a horse on the book cover. Then there are the blurbs. You go to other writers and beg them to write three or four lines that can go on the back cover and explain to the world that you are the greatest thing since Shakespeare. For me, it’s always like asking the prettiest or most popular girl to dance. Am I out of my mind? Won’t they just roll their eyes as I stare at my feet, while being sucked down into Writer’s Bog?

People are kind. Finally you get your blurbs and send them off to the Publisher, reminding him to send them on to the Book Designer. You hope he doesn’t forget. Should you remind him a week later, in case something came up and the blurbs languish somewhere short of their destination? But say the blurbs arrived, still, how would anyone know the book has been born? They won’t unless there has been pre-publicity, something that requires pre-planning, a luxury that little presses don’t necessarily have if they’re juggling several new books at once. Some writers brazenly ask their friends and distant relatives to buy their book through Amazon and to please review it, if they like it, and all on the same day in order to trick the company’s computers into ranking the book at the top of the list and to continue for some time with that advantage. To bring this off, you have to pull on your Brazen Pants, your literary Lederhosen—retiring, introverted writer that you are. This activity falls into the sphere of howling self-absorbed, self-promoting Jackass and can backfire on you, when the called-upon masses begins to think you’re taking yourself, your book and your writing too seriously.

It is said that readings and book signings at bookstores and Elks Clubs are a waste of time. Right away I can think of one devastating counter-example where one mega-writer sold 400 copies of his new book at a single reading—enough to keep me awake three nights in a row.

Book publishing has changed. Thousands, perhaps millions of books stream into Amazon’s computers where they are sucked into a black hole of equal opportunity oblivion. In that place, you cannot walk along a shelf, pulling out books, putting them back, stumbling on the unexpected, poking around, browsing. With Amazon you have to know what you’re looking for.

In the first place, you have to be a reader. That means being a woman, since women read in far greater numbers than men. That probably has to do with brain development, since we all know that sports and gadgets stunt growth. I am also a man. This perhaps explains my anxiety about the whole matter, often unjustly identified as whining. Much of my reasoning loses footing the way feet lose footing when placed in ankle-depth waves. Saturated with the Internet, I “relax” by watching a skillful television series (The Good Wife, Downton Abbey) at night—making myself my own worst enemy. If I’m not reading at night (because I am not a woman?), how can I expect anyone else to? I have not read most of the novels I excitedly downloaded on my Kindle. What does that mean? The Internet encourages acquisition but discourages follow-through? People still prefer tangible books. I know because my bedside reading table holds stacks of books that I read in dribbles. But if they (men) won’t read books, why go to all the trouble to write them?

I knew the answer to this question way back before the Time of the Slump. There is something in me that likes to tell a yarn to any audience that, in spite of everything, likes to hear a yarn. Is that earlier insight enough to over come Whine-slump? I think the answer is yes. Even writing this and throwing it out into the ether—with all the pertaining risks—makes me feel good .

A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature

When I was reading Jonah Raskin’s book A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature, I began to have wilderness dreams, as I have always had them, about undiscovered landscapes just beyond the daily familiar. If you’re an American and if you believe you have grown up with anything close to a spiritual relationship with Nature, then you owe it to yourself to read this beautifully written book, for the depth of Raskin’s knowledge, his generosity in sharing it, his wit and gentle irony, for his voice of a storyteller.

Perhaps you are like me. All my life, American literature has been the neglected cousin. But here, Raskin brings him tapping at my door, and right away it turns out he’s not my cousin at all but more the intellectual father I’ve pretended not to know.

Because of his book, I began to remember other relatives—books I had been a little ashamed of (a message from a distant Puritan ancestor?), some I had forgotten entirely. Like William Henry Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions, set in 1840, with its Argentine and Guyanan forests and Rima, the bird girl, the perfect embodiment of my wilderness spirituality, my romanticism and a fifteen-year-old’s sexual yearnings. The same English teacher plopped Hillaire Belloc’s essay “The Mowing of a Field” down in front of me, adding rhythmic, sweaty scythe-swinging work to my trinity of yearnings. Both books included the act of cutting, or taking from the paradise, the destruction theme—genocide, tree felling, buffalo slaughter—that Raskin follows throughout the book. Belloc’s wilderness was a domestic one in the South of England, but a world “remote from ambition and fear, where the passage of strangers is rare and unperceived, and where the scent of grass in the summer is breathed only by those who are native to that unvisited land.” A kind of Brigadoon, and dream-like, with mowing as metaphor, an activity Thoreau would have approved of— the honest work of harvest. And of taking.

Cotton Mather (the worst of me), Cooper, Hawthorn, Melville—it turns out I was baptized in their words hundreds if years before my birth. A Terrible Beauty reminds me that I am only one of a long line of travelers through woods and forests. Raskin opens a door to something that has been slumbering for a lifetime in me, in this boy of the forest, this young Transcendentalist, who thought no one else knew about these things. This little Lewis or Clark who also carried a rifle, but without a Sacagawea to guide him, the boy who saw meaning in dark New England ponds and in turtles that passed through the plane of what can be seen and what can not. This boy writer, me, is now old and trying to understand his long connection to Nature, his need for Wilderness, his need to explore and colonize, construct the hidden nest or hut—the little murderer still wanted as killer of innocent rabbits and other living things.

Raskin is a master of exploratory prose, like a weaver who advances, then circles back to pick up a color or texture, who threads in a streak of irony or wit. On Mark Twain he writes: “(He)…had wrestled with a definition (of civilization) for years, he confessed, until, knowing he was near the end of his life, he realized he had to nail the word down or die trying.”

Cooper, Melville, Thoreau, Twain, Dickinson, Cather, Fitzgerald—I carried all of them into the forest with me—along with Hudson and Belloc, along with Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage (1937) on the French and Indian War, handed to me by my father.

My forests were filled with light and dark, with enchanted clearings and the shadows of German soldiers and some Japanese. As far as Indians went, I was the Indian and not the enemy. At sixteen, my father showed me a mailing from the Exeter or Harvard Alumni Association. It was a story about one or the other of those two schools sending a letter to a New England Indian chief, inviting him to send some of his young men to learn Latin, poetics and English. The chief politely wrote back, thanking the school and saying that they had found such education had not benefited their young men the way they had hoped it would. But on the other hand, if those schools would send a few of their young men to him, they would learn to run fifty miles, argue persuasively in councils, shoot arrows with accuracy and be leaders of men.

And so, some of my admiration for Native Americans must have come from him—my quiet father. In my later years, I wrote a story (“It is Wrong to Steal,” www.sterlingbennett.com) about my grandparents giving up their own food to feed hungry Apaches in Arizona, then being nursed and fed by the same Apaches when it was my grandparents’ turn to fall sick. The Indians did this by stealing a white rancher’s calf. When the sheriff and his posse arrived on horseback, my grandfather, still sick, led the troop in the opposite direction, far to the north, away from his Apache friends. With all that said, I never had an Indian friend. Which speaks to the cultural contradiction that I live. Like others of European descent, I romanticized the people who were here before, but do not have one as my friend, did not count their culture as equal. In that way, I follow my literary ancestors and participate in the destruction of the very Wilderness I worship, accept the displacement and liquidation of the American Indian (as well as the what is wild and independent), make him a foreigner in his own land, put him on a reservation in my mind.

While I was at Berkeley in graduate school, the most important person in my life was already dead almost twenty years before I was born, the Yahi Indian Ishi, whom Theodore Kroeber immortalized in her books, Ishi in Two Worlds and Ishi, The Last of his Tribe. I even instructed that my ashes were to be placed at the top of a certain cliff overlooking Deer Creek, Ishi’s home canyon until he was driven out and became the “Last Wild Indian.” If I had known him, would I have allowed him to be my friend? Or would I have participated in an attitude of colonization and exploitation? This is a question I would never be asking had I not read Raskin’s extraordinary book. Devouring every single page of it.

Bennett’s Bullets, or How to Be as Good a Writer as I Am

I say this in all modesty. No one knows more about writing a novel than I do. Except—and it pains me to say this—my editor. That’s my New York editor. Whom I forgive right straight out in front. I speak for my ego here, who at the moment could not come to the pen. Let alone, the lip.

Here’s what I have learned, and I’m talking about the construction of a page-turner—the kind a corporate sales manager might be interested in.

1 – Avoid framework structures. For example, a gripping story found in your grandfather’s effects, say, about a passionate love, terminated by a stray bullet during a revolution in a country whose citizens your potential readers are afraid of.

2 – The story has to start with a shocking event somewhere within the first three lines of the first paragraph. This paragraph should not exceed three lines. For example, your father is murdered, shot in the back while investigating an injustice in a mine. The injustice can’t conflict with the accepted narrative, i.e. the enduring innocence of the country you the writer come from and where your book will sell.

3 – Everyone knows this: show, don’t tell. This is harder than you might think. For example, she is a respected striking London feminist with a thick French-Israeli accent, with a large following, who writes important books. You meet her at a reception, there are not that many people attending, you notice she is isolated, there is a chair next to her, and you go over and say you wonder whether you can ask her a question. You have a short, agreeable conversation about other people’s guilt. An admirer approaches, you cede your place. Then you go visit with other people, laughing and joking. She catches your eye. Her lips are moving. You nod and lean forward to hear what she’s saying across two tables filled with people. She says, “All your irony, come to me after you have cried, then we can have a conversation.” Do not explain, or tell, readers what just happened between you and the famous London feminist. They are intelligent. They can figure it out for themselves, even if you can’t.

4 – Don’t say he said, she said when writing dialogue, if it is obvious who’s speaking. Especially in the case of animals.

5 – Contract verbs in conversation. Say, “When you’ve cried” rather than “When you have cried”—which is less natural.

6 – Do not anticipate something that will happen in the plot by saying it could, might or will happen, no matter how they did it in the medieval epic called the Nibelungenlied—thus robbing the text of suspense. Don’t find an Austrian telescopic sight in someone’s saddlebag and then have him use it to shoot Siegfried two pages later. The reader has already anticipated the shooting, and the suspense is gone.

7 – Also, keep track of the number of elephants, “seven,” in an Indian night-time attack on British colonial forces. The reader will notice if the elephants are suddenly horses, or if all “eight” of the elephants lie dead or dying after the battle. Also, decide whether the moon is out. If it’s not, it’s almost impossible to get a correct count on the elephants.

8 – Pay attention to time. Remember, if a character died on Monday, her body is not still warm on Wednesday.

9 – Logic. If your ex-husband is making a scurrilous remark to his neighbor standing outside the car but has the windows up, the air conditioner on and has driven more than half a block, his neighbor cannot hear him, nor take offense. Only you can.

10 – Beware of sentimentality. Never say a situation is sad. Minimize the appearance of tears. Also beware of showing your imperfect hero saving a child from a fire or a cruel stepfather. Instead, describe a young man rowing across a calm German lake on a beautiful Spring day to a grove of beech trees, where he saws planks from a fallen log, then planes them, whitens them with chalk and, standing amid his bright shavings, shapes a coffin for his sweetheart, who is still alive but dying of tuberculosis. And if this is not adequate, have him place a window over the place where her head will go—with angels engraved on the glass.

11 – Always kill off your hero at the end. Everyone is suspicious of happy endings.

12 – Age: Make sure your hero’s father is older than your hero, so that each generation has at least ten years between it and the one that precedes or follows it. This is especially important in family sagas.

13 – Explicit sex. Do not show the entire penis—only the tip. Have it peeking out like a frog, just above the surface of the bath water. It is well known that this image, mixed with a certain amount of steam in the room, is a turn-on for both sexes.

14 – “Extra words muffle tense dialogue.” That is a direct quote from my New York editor. You might say it’s conversational as well, since that man and I are having a dialog about my writing. Frankly, I find the quote not muffled enough.

15 – Another unhappy quote. “Smart editors muffle mediocrity.”

16 – I near the end by telling you that “that”—the word “that”—carries very little emotional or substantive plot value, and that you should leave it out, when you can, so that it doesn’t dilute the strength of your prose.

17 – Irony: Do not even think the word, let alone use it as a form of communication while writing. Some people do not understand it. See if you can name two.

18 – Again, wit should be divorced from moral comment, and from irony. It taxes me too much to say why.

19 – There is no 19.

20 – 20 is like 19.

21 – If you’re a writer and like metaphors and pithy phrases, make a note of these points and Scotch tape them to your computer, so you will have them when you put pen to paper.

I hope that was helpful.on a beautiful Spring day