Saturday, August 11, 2018

Insist on Your Cup of Stars

When human beings, or even dinosaurs, fail to deliver consolation in times of doubt, uncertainty, and maybe even a little despair, there are always libraries.
For instance …
This afternoon, I needed to get out of the house. It’s been a bad week, in some ways. Not so bad in others. One part of me wanted to just sit at home, lie on the bed, and contemplate my misfortune. Luckily, I recognized that doing so never solved anything. I have a lot of work to do – work that I want to avoid, and still have to some degree.
And, of course, I have writing to do as well, which I don’t want to avoid, but I had a hard time working myself to get any done. I’m in the dumps.
My fall class at Columbia was canceled.
And this time, I can’t really blame the administration, the department, or anyone but the students. They just didn’t sign up.
Not enough of them. Just nine, I think. And I thank those nine for signing up. And I also apologize that now there won’t be a course for them to take.
But when you get ready to put on a show, so to speak, and no one comes, you can’t help feeling bad. Feeling like a failure. Or an outcast. I have some experience in feeling like an outcast.
And when you feel like an outcast, it’s very difficult to motivate yourself to soldier on and produce new work. Even if you’ve had some relative success, all you can remember are the failures, the empty rooms, the silence.
So, sitting in the library, I started writing, then looked around. Who needs any more stories? I’m surrounded by five thousand books. Who needs to read anything by me? What the hell do I know? I think science fiction will not only save literature, but maybe save the world. How dumb can you get? If readers don’t want Tiptree, Delany, Sturgeon, Lafferty, on and on and on, who the hell wants me?
Well, this is no good, I thought. I got up and started checking out the shelves, looking for something to read to remind me what good words look like when put together. Good sentences. Good storytelling. I also wanted to see what books I have loved are still hogging shelf space. On previous scans of the shelves, I’d discovered a number of my favorites had been “disappeared” to make more space. Catalog searches proved they were gone. Kaput. Outta here.
But I did find this: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.
Memory is the ultimate censor, but if I recall correctly, Jackson’s novel was the first “grownup” novel I read, excluding books by Wells and Stevenson, which some considered “kid stuff” (the Wells novels were in editions specifically marketed to children).
I had also included the novel in a list of books that made a great impression on me or were favorites. I had read Hill House in many years. I retained my very first copy of it in my library, but handle it with care, afraid it might turn to dust if I finger through it too rapidly.
Did it still retain its power?
I took the edition off the shelf, flipped it open, and started reading at a random page. It’s early in the novel: Eleanor’s car trip to Hill House. It’s a section that fascinated me when I first read it as a kid and which still fascinates me. You would think a boy, especially a boy living in Chicago, in Garfield Ridge – a place of mediocre little schools and mean-spirited, mediocre little minds, a paradise for the venal and the superficial – would be bored by all this. “Come on! Let’s get to the house! Let’s get to all the haunted stuff!”
But no. I didn’t know who Eleanor was, but somehow I detected a kindred spirit in her. She didn’t feel at home at home. She is wandering, heading off to Hill House, daydreaming along the way.
She stops at a “country restaurant” and notices the family at another table, the only other customers at that time of day: parents, a young boy and a little girl.

… The light from the stream below touched the ceiling and the polished tables and glanced along the little girl’s curls, and the little girl’s mother said calmly, “She wants her cup of stars.”
Indeed, yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course.
“Her little cup,” the mother was explaining, smiling apologetically at the waitress, who was thunderstruck at the thought that the mill’s good country milk was not rich enough for the little girl. “It has stars in the bottom, and she always drinks her milk from it at home. She calls it her cup of stars because she can see the stars while she drinks her milk.” The waitress nodded, unconvinced, and the mother told the little girl, “You’ll have your milk from your cup of stars tonight when we get home. But just for now, just to be a very good little girl, will you take a little milk from the glass?”
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.
“You’re spoiling her,” the father said. “She ought not to be allowed these whims.”
“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.
When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gray stream tumbled along below her. …

This is an incredible moment that a lesser author would have probably cut in an early draft – “No, let’s get to the action. Let’s not dawdle.” Or an editor would have made the same suggestion. “No one wants to read about country restaurants! Hell, let’s get this show on the road!”
But the show is on the road. The show is Eleanor. And in this little moment we get the answer to the question I keep asking students and fellow writers when I read their work, and so often – so very, very often – they cannot answer with even faint success: “Why the hell should I care what happens to this person?”
Eleanor wants her cup of stars.
We all want our cup of stars.
Eleanor knows. She was trapped into being like everyone else, at least on the outside. You concede your cup of stars and for the rest of your life you struggle to get it back. Eleanor and the little girl exchange this wisdom silently, and it is not simply Eleanor imparting wisdom to the little girl – she isn’t. The little girl is imparting as much to Eleanor as Eleanor is warning the little girl.
I don’t pretend to know what great literature is. I believe, perhaps wrongly, that I know good storytelling, and good writing, and how to bring a notion across to its most powerful effect. And this is certainly great storytelling, great writing – a brief moment, a stop on the road to destiny that tells us almost everything we need to know about Eleanor while revealing a startling awareness of our own secret dreams.

There’s a lot of talk these days, especially among folks of my generation, about whether books we read when we were young “stand up” today. Maybe they have a point, because a lot of what they read (me too) was a lot of crap. Earnest crap. Exciting crap. But … crap.
But then I think: stand up? To whom? Who has appointed these arthritic bozos the Grand Jury of Literature? They were stupid enough to read and love the crap in their youth. I should take their judgments seriously now?
Perhaps it makes one feel cool and wise now to eviscerate the giants of our youth, to call “Fraud!” and “Foul!” on former heroes. Perhaps that’s an exercise everyone needs to perform to understand how the world changes and how we change within that world.
But perhaps a few moments should be spent not in judging how the works we read in youth stand up for us, but how well we stand up against the works we read.
Have we kept our cup of stars?
I went back to my reading table and scribbled out a few more pages of words, most of which I will probably cross out and try to come up with better ones, reminding myself of something I’ve been telling myself a lot: All great stories are love stories. All great stories are about loneliness. These two sentences are not mutually exclusive.

Writing is never easy, but the only way you get it done is to keep going through the tangle of uncertainty and fear and emptiness. Take a break, enjoy your coffee, but at the end of road, Hill House awaits.

Monday, August 6, 2018

With These Hands (and a few other parts thrown in)

As a kid, I was very big on hand-scripting first drafts. In part, it was because notebooks were a lot more portable than typewriters (even portable typewriters) in those days. Another part was because I wasn’t a particularly good typist (I’m still not, but much better than I was). Not that I had particularly good penmanship, either. The choice between typescripts and handscripts was pretty much the choice between scribble over scrubble.
As a young adult, I continued to do a lot of my early-draft work in spiral-bound notebooks. Again, it was the portability. It must have also appealed to me that even though it was a notebook, it was still a book. The covers were thin, but it still felt like a book.
That was when I did a lot of writing, but I hadn’t yet learned, to some extent, how to be a writer.  I still had visions of pages upon pages with nary a scribble or a cross-out. The words came out freely and unhindered – too bad the majority of them were crap.
This is not to say, also, that I didn’t type. I typed up a storm, in spite of being the worst typist in the universe. I think I was in the fifth or sixth grade when I received my first typewriter for Christmas. It was a machine that printed all caps. I was forty years ahead of the times if I was planning to write comments on social media posts. Everything I produced looked like it came off a broken teletype machine. Luckily, my mom had a 1949 Royal Portable typewriter – or what passed as “portable” when dinosaurs ruled the earth. But I put that old Royal to work. When I was in eighth grade and home with some sort of terrible sickness for a week and a half, I used the time to write a book about the movies. Yes. I wrote a book. Not a long one, but a book nonetheless. Not only did I type the whole thing, I typed it with two (2) carbons(!!!).
And yet – I was a lousy typist. A typist of necessity, not of talent. I didn’t type well, but I typed a lot. That’s how you “got it done” back then.
That is still how you get it done, though the keyboard is no longer fixed to a physically mechanical device in quite the same way. Your fingers move over the letters that make the words (and the punctuation) in the same way, and you press down in the same way, though maybe not so hard.
I know writers who never hand-script a thing. If it weren’t for keyboards, they wouldn’t be writers. And I need to add that most of those writers are prolific. Not only do they get it done, they a get a lot of it done.
And that’s fine with me. Every writer has to find what works best. Some have a proscribed methodology. Others work within the confines of a continuous riot. There is order and there is chaos and there’s a lot of room in between. There is an order in chaos as well and, conversely, a chaos in order.
With that in mind, I’d like to suggest to some of you who are still working out what works best for you, that you try an intermingling of both.
Usually, one works at hand-script first, then transfers or transcribes what was written by hand to the keyboard. That’s supposed to be the natural progression of things.
Recently, though, when I worked on the novel, and then on “The Man Who Put the Bomp,” I kept switching back and forth, typing up what I had scribbled, then scribbling what I had typed down. The process was born of necessity. I very often had to work on these projects while in transit, or in spare moments before heading into an office. I didn’t have a laptop computer handy, but I still needed to get work done. Some folks have notebook computers. All I had was the notebook. And a pen. And, very often, a printout of what I had typed up the day before, or a week before, or whenever.
Going back and forth between keyboard and pen, I noticed something very unusual, to me at least: we write differently when we type than we do when we write with a pen, scripting out each letter by hand; also, we read differently when we engage in these processes.
It may be that each process utilizes a different part of the brain, or if not that, it uses the brain differently. Typing up scribbled notes is a different task than composing on the keyboard. Hand-writing sentences that have already been typed out applies a different kind of scrutiny to what you have written. You’re looking at the sentences in a different context – it provides you an opportunity to look over your sentences and read them with a greater distance – or if that “greater distance” phrase seems hackneyed, look at it this way: it’s a chance to read your work and separate your self from your words.
I’ve never been into this “your brain is hardwired to do this” kind of thinking. The brain precedes hard-wiring and the metaphor is, as all metaphors about the brain are, flawed. Some researchers, so I’ve read, are catching up with this insight.
They’re also becoming aware that the brain does not work in isolation.
It is tied to a nervous system that extends to the body’s extremities – hands, for example. Brain and hands work together. Brain and eyes work together. Brain and nose work together. And ears. And so on.
We read a page of your handwritten work differently. We read a screen of your prose differently. We also read a printed page of your prose in a way that puts your sentences into a different context. The writing and reading of your prose in various ways involves processes that are substantially different but not unrelated to each other. We learn from each of these processes and, with a little thought, we can use their interrelations to become better writers.
Years ago, when “right brain thinking” and “left brain thinking” were all the rage, my prof at Columbia, John Schultz, would make a point that he included in his text, Writing from Start to Finish, that this notion was an oversimplification. Early brain scans demonstrated that people who were writing used both “parts” of the brain (and a few parts not usually counted) – sending messages back and forth. “Logical” brain was as necessary as the “aesthetic” brain to create a vivid piece of writing.
And that work was done over a half century ago. Today, my guess would be that every part of the neural network – every part that can be utilized – has been observed contributing to the process. Brain, eyes, hands, fingers, feet, gut – you name it.
Over all these regions of the neuro-system, memory rules. You remember your fingers scribbling out a phrase, or tapping keys that produce figures on a page – the way you remember how to run, or ride a bike.
Which is to say: a great part of the writing process is visceral. It’s exercise. The best kind of exercise your entire nervous system can get.
Not to mention your mind.
And it doesn’t hurt your writing, either.
I’ve noticed over the years, and even now, that when I ask my students to read from something they’ve just started working on, a good half of them will pull out notebooks, filled with words they’ve placed there by hand, printed carefully or in cursive script. When I see that, my fears that the end of the world are near significantly alleviate. There is hope.
In the meantime, if you spy a writer in the library who has both a laptop and a couple of notebooks spread out before them (along with a few old books and a cup of coffee) you have found either me or an ally.