Archive for September 2012

How to Become a Writer Part 3 by Laura Kalpakian

The Romantic Particularist 


Laura Kalpakian

 I have always thought that the perfect person to be married to would be an astronomer. Every day at work he would sit beneath the massive dome of an observatory and peer out into the cosmos, the distant constellations, the galaxies far far away. Then, he’d come home and see the baby throwing applesauce everywhere, one kid painting on the walls, and the other having a meaningless, unfettered tantrum. The astronomer would walk past Legos spilled all over the floor, past the unwashed dishes, unfolded laundry, wave to the wife who is on the phone while the rice overcooks and bubbles on the stove. The astronomer would know that in the great plan of the universe, these particulars simply do not matter. (Full disclosure: I was once married to a theoretical physicist, an oceanographer who spent his days making mathematical models of the way the wind and the sea made love, but it wasn’t like the above.)

 Nonetheless, I cling to my notion of the ideal-astronomer-spouse, the Universalist whose approach to life is cosmic. As a writer, I am a confirmed Particularist. The writer can’t be anything else. Others might be able to choose: either you look for, take your cue from the universal in the world, like the astronomer. Or you are fascinated, transfixed by the particular. Writers belong in the latter camp. Poets belong in the former.

Great poetry might emerge from the Universalist instinct, as in Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, Matthew Arnold, or further back, (to my mind, boring) Mr. Milton and boring Mr. Pope. But narrative prose emerges from Particulars. Stories might eventually approach the Universal, but they do not begin there.

No writer, including Shakespeare, ever said: I am going to write a narrative prose about universal themes. (Remember that hilarious scene in Shakespeare in Love where Will is flailing away trying to write Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter?) Every writer, including Will the Bard begins with scraps of particulars, What If?

Hmm, what if you have a king, a powerful king, whose judgment is failing, who decides to test his children’s love (Note in margin: which he doubts anyway) by making them slaver after his inheritance. Thus you have King Lear, or with a tweak, tug and pull, Death of a Salesman. Hundreds of years apart, these plays are thematically linked under the Universalist canopy. Perhaps for those universal reasons, we return to these works to cry our eyes out at the particulars: the delusions of these men, the loyalty or treachery of the family, the friends, the last grasp at dignity.

Remember William Faulkner’s well-known anecdote about how he came by the idea for The Sound and the Fury? True, he took his epigram and his title from Macbeth, and true the book is divided into three sections (only one of which is actually readable), and true the central character, the sister, Caddy, only shows up in her brothers’ narratives indirectly, and true The Sound and the Fury is a challenging read of epic proportions. But Faulkner got the idea watching a bunch of kids climb a tree, and the little girl at very top had muddy drawers. That Great American Novel emerged from a particular pair of dirty knickers.

As a writer the Romantic Particularist is constantly nudged, nettled, fascinated, kept awake by the great What If. The writer gets the equivalent of imaginative poison ivy mulling over a shard of story overheard, a conversation on the bus, a scrap of incident, a friend’s dilemma, a cranky barista. These are particulars that irritate, stay with the writer till she actually does something about it. She can forget about it; that’s one possibility, or she can write about it.

The best and most succinct description of task of the Romantic Particularist, ironically comes from a writer who was a confirmed Universalist. I speak of that eccentric, poet, printer, painter and illustrator, a taker of tea while naked in his garden, the dreamer and death-haunted, William Blake. From his Auguries of Experience it goes something like this:

To see the world in a grain of sand

And heaven in a wild flower.

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.

And Eternity in an hour.

That’s your task, my ink-stained friends. Have at it. You are responsible for the particulars. The universals will take care of themselves.

How to Become a Writer: Part II by Laura Kalpakian

 The Three Sillies


 Laura Kalpakian

 Learn to worry in advance. Do this often, intensely, reflexively. Writers are always asking themselves: what if, constantly sorting through possibilities that don’t yet exist, considering what might happen, what could, bracing for the not-at-all-inevitable. This affliction, alas, cannot be confined to the page. The writer equally sweats the knuckle-gnawing possibilities (What if a drunk-driving yahoo is on the road while my son is cycling to work?) as the mundane (What if we run out of toothpaste?). Your friends will roll their eyes. People who know you well, your grown children, for instance, will mock you without mercy.

Worrying in advance is an occupational hazard. I do it because I’m a writer and writers are constantly thinking about structure. Structure is essential to narrative prose, yes? Structure, how the tale is told—any tale—is every bit as important as the tale itself. The larger the canvas—fiction or nonfiction—the more the question of structure will vex the writer. The writer is constantly shuffling the narrative deck, and each little change necessitates new thinking, worrying way in advance of the actual challenge. Where to begin? Where to end? How much to tell in between? When to impart key information? How much to withhold?

The novelist is not alone with this affliction. If you are writing nonfiction or memoir (and of course, your memory is absolutely unfailingly vivid and correct) you still wrestle with narrative questions. How much goes in? How much stays out? Are you missing something scenically, thematically telling, dramatically important?  These questions keep the writer awake at night with worry. I often do my best thinking in my sleep. I wake, unrested, but clearer in my head. Sort of.

Consider a simple example. Your characters are going to________, (fill in the blank). How will they get there? Car?  (Nifty little foreign sports car? Family sedan? A rusted station wagon with no speedometer and the gas gauge broken and the tires bald? Does the radio work? Is it winter and does the heater work? Summer? Does the car overheat?). Send them by train? (Where’s the station? How do they get to the station? How much is the ticket? Does the passenger beside them reek of garlic?) Plane? (Ditto all the train questions, but throw in the vicissitudes of security.) Bus? (All the above, minus security, plus the grit-strewn ambience of the Greyhound station.) How long is the journey? Will they need to eat? To bring their own food? Live on candy bars?  The writer is responsible for these characters as though they are unruly guests. All characters are unruly. Many are unpleasant. You must answer for their being hungry and cold and needing to pee, or sweating like pigs, shaving (the men); do they get sick, break arms, have PMS (the women) suffer jet lag, allergies, bee stings, frostbite or sunstroke…? The perils of what might befall your characters are endless, and irritating and essential. (And there is always the possibility that no one gives a shit about the journey anyway.)

This particular affliction of the writer’s life always seems to me best exemplified by the old folk tale of The Three Sillies:

A well-to-do farmer had but one daughter, a lovely girl who fell in love with the handsome son of a neighboring villager. The couple was set to marry. The young man was invited to dinner, and all was in readiness, a fine feast, prepared by the daughter, and her mother, and presided over by the proud father.

They were about to toast the wedding when they realized they had not brought ale up from the cellar. The girl said she would fetch it. She took the pitcher down to the cellar and had her hand on the tap when she looked up overhead where an axe was stuck in a thick beam. The girl’s eyes filled with tears, and she began to cry bitterly.

Upstairs, they waited for her. Finally her mother said she would go down to the cellar and see what the problem was. Once there, she found her weeping daughter. “What is the matter, dear?” The mother exclaimed. “Why are you crying?”

The daughter said: “O Mother, I am crying because will marry and have a beautiful son and one day he will come down to the cellar to fetch something and this axe will fall from the beam and crack his head open and he will die, and I will be heartbroken for the rest of my life!”

The mother too broke into a paroxysm of tears and sat beside her daughter, weeping into her apron.

The father, growing restless, excused himself, saying he would go see what was keeping them. Down in the cellar he found his wife and daughter crying their eyes out. He ran to them:  “What has happened?”

The Mother said: “O Father, our daughter will marry and have a beautiful son and one day this boy will come down to the cellar to fetch something and this axe will fall from the beam and crack his head open and he will die!  Our lives will be shattered.”

The father too fell to weeping and they all three sobbed together.

The young man finally went down to the cellar to find all the Three Sillies crying into their hands. “What is the matter?” he implored. “Why are you all three weeping?”

They all three told him that he would marry and have a beautiful son and the son would come down here, the axe would fall, crack his head open and kill him. “There,” the daughter pointed to the floor, “is his hair in a pool of blood.”

The young man declared: “You are the three silliest people on the face of the earth!” He turned, left, and counted himself well out of that family.

All three Sillies are writers. Probably of your acquaintance. The young man is a CPA.












How to Become a Writer, Part 1 — by Laura Kalpakian

One on Whom Nothing is Lost

by Laura Kalpakian

 First, forget the notion that there is a magic wand, an elixir, an incantation, a diploma, a badge, a license, a handstamp from a big burly bouncer that will certify you as a Writer. Trash that. Trash the idea that book-in-hand, I’m a writer. We’re not discussing publishing. Trash the MFA. Lovely, I’m sure, but we’re not about credits and stuffing your ideas into someone else’s corset. To become a writer you must educate yourself to become, as Henry James so succinctly put it: One on Whom Nothing Is Lost.

What does that mean? Firstly, that experience without articulation is, well, useless. For the writer, experience only becomes valid when it has somehow been rendered into words. This is not the same as journaling (an odd verb if ever there was one). This is not to say that one uses in one’s work everything one experiences or articulates. This simply means that the writer reflexively renders experience into something useable, just like those old frontier men and women would stir vast pots of tallow and lye, lavender if you were lucky, and make of these unlikely elements, soap. One on Whom Nothing Is Lost ceaselessly stirs a similar sort of cauldron, not because she wants to, but because she cannot help herself. All experience is rendered.

If you are One on Whom Nothing Is Lost, you will sit before the casket of your own grandmother—who loved you from the moment you were born, whose affection you returned, whose guidance…..etc. etc. etc—and notice, absorb, cast into language and verbal sensation the lugubrious music, (Oh God why do they always play that awful…..) the shift of sunlight through amber windows (why are the windows in funeral homes always amber?), one aunt in navy blue, one aunt in pink, none of them in black, a cousin dying for a cigarette (he has a tic-ish smile), the hum of the air conditioner, and the scent of flowers, even the freshest, dying, drying (how is the death of flowers supposed to be comforting to…). One On Whom Nothing Is Lost catches scraps of conversation. A shard of laughter. A blowing nose. A silent fart. You can tell which cousins have their shit together, know enough to be grave and caring, and which cousins have been hastily dressed like dolls and told not to disgrace everyone. One on Whom Nothing Is Lost does all of this—and a good deal more— while listening, and saying Amen when required.

One On Whom Nothing Is Lost does this because, quite simply, it’s reflex. The writer has educated herself to notice, evaluate, judge (yes, that nasty, unfashionable word, one renders judgment as one renders tallow into soap, part of the process) to absorb everything, knowing, or perhaps not knowing, (by this time not even caring) that one day I’ll use that, and even if I don’t, without this rendering, none of this is real to me. None of this (sorry, Grandma) is very evocative.

In articulating, in turning all experience into words, the writer courts the occupational hazard best exemplified in the apocryphal story about Balzac: On the streets of Paris one afternoon, Balzac met a friend who was downcast, pale, eyes red-rimmed. Balzac said: My dear friend, what has happened? What terrible trouble has beset you? The friend replied: Ah, Balzac, my world is ended, I am crushed! My little daughter has died. Balzac—so the story goes, replied without irony or sarcasm, certainly without malice—Ah my friend, I know exactly how you feel. Yesterday I killed off my character, and my heart is broken.

Is Balzac an unfeeling, egocentric bastard? Probably. But the story itself suggests that Balzac the writer could make no creditable distinction between killing off his character, pen in hand, and his friend’s loss of a beloved child. Should Balzac be in therapy? There’s no help for his affliction. He educated himself to be One on Whom Nothing Is Lost, and in doing so, he lost perspective.

Other than a punch in the gut, the writer more fully responds to words than anything else. Give One on Whom Nothing Is Lost, a two-bit lyric from a silly song (You are my sunshine, my only sunshine….) and you can give him a veritable heart attack of Love. Offer that person a line from a novel or a film or some threadbare cliché from the Bible or Shakespeare (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death....) and you can render her into a blubbery mass of sorrow. A scrap of poetry (A thing of beauty, a joy forever..…..) can wrap its lovely arms around an unruly swath of experience to make it intelligible, meaningful, moving.

In any profession there are perils. Tennis elbow. Carpal tunnel. Housemaid’s knee. To be a writer—One On Whom Nothing Is Lost—the peril is that one may come to love, to value the Word above the Deed. To respond more vividly to the word than to the world. Is this healthy? No. Will it make you wealthy? No. Is it wise? No. But you will be a writer. And you will have learned how to take the world in through your senses, absorb everything around you, stir it, like lye and tallow (and lavender if you are lucky) in the cauldron of your heart and mind, and then, bring it out your fingertips and make of it narrative prose. Or not.

The End of Superstion by Laura Kalpakian

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The End of Superstition by Laura Kaplakian

They say that theatre people are among the most superstitious of professions. They cherish many, perhaps hundreds of taboos, most of them in place to ward off bad luck (as opposed to inviting good luck). First among these is the bad luck rampant around Macbeth, so much so that for five hundred years, the name of that play is not spoken ever within the confines of the theatre itself, but referred to always as “the Scottish play.” Beyond that ancient taboo, there are many others whose roots lie buried in lore and antiquity. No peacock feathers on stage. No whistling backstage. No knitting. No real flowers… the list goes on. Collectively, theatre people subscribe to these superstitions, and do not breach them.

However, writers are not a collective tribe. Writers are generally solitary. The superstitions one writer invokes will mean nothing to another. But the way in which writers work is changing. One need no longer tote one’s Smith Corona in a heavy case, nor plug in an elaborate computer with a big box and a large screen. The laptop, the tablet have perhaps sent us back to the era of ultra simplicity when all one needed was pen and ink.

Virginia Woolf in her A Room of One’s Own opined that writing was women’s preferred art form because the tools were so few, so cheap, and so easily had:  pen and paper. These could be swiftly taken up and swiftly put away. Her other requirement (in addition to the proverbial five hundred a year) was the sweet solitude, the room of one’s own. Is that still a requirement for the writer’s life? Less and less so. While we are not a collective as the crowds needed to put on a play, many writers are finding they write best amid the voices, the white noise, the clang and rattle of a coffee shop, a theatre lobby (you know who you are!), even a bar. Some writers have found the proximity of their peers spurs productivity.

             I am not one of these. I work alone, and save for the occasional teaching residency or writer’s retreat, I have worked in the same space for a long time. Creatively,  I am settled into this space, no longer the gypsy I once was, plugging in the old Smith Corona wherever I managed to camp for a few weeks or a year or so, not long enough to collect superstitious trinkets.

But in twenty-plus years, my working desk and surrounding environs are adorned with many gewgaws. They seem essential to my writing life. Most are not affiliated with any one book, just a generalized collection of items that constitute a small silent cheering section of friendly objects.

They are many and varied, most are silly: little toys given me by my children when they were little, and little hand-made gifts given me by their friends, favorite coffee cups, now chipped and filled with pens, a pipestem Elvis, a garage sale angel, a little mouse someone made from beads and cloth scraps, postcards of John Lennon, Boris Pasternak, Ellen Terry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Matisse’s “Goldfish,” all aged, battered, dusty, curling at the edges. I have framed poems friends have written, framed pictures of kids’ drawings, framed drawings of old haunts. There is a long loose curl of birch bark picked up one memorable day at the beach  (though which memorable day I can’t remember). I regularly consult a carriage clock from England and a paper-made barometer from Scotland. The newest addition is a little white bunny in a tutu which a friend who served in Iraq found in Baghdad, hence its name, the Baghdad Bunny.

Clearly,  much of this is trash of the Rosebud variety, that is:  it is important to me and to no other. Could I write without this eclectic collection of junk? Probably. But not here. Take these away and I could not write at all. I look at them every day, and they ward off bad luck.

I suspect younger, newer writers don’t and won’t need these sorts of superstitious gewgaws  And why should they?  When one memory stick can carry say….five or six different novels in varying stages of growth or decay, the equivalent of two thousand pages of manuscript, why not put it in one’s pocket, and follow the parade? These peripatetic laptop-toters can work anywhere, or so they say. Are there writerly superstitions,  taboos shared by—or singular to— people who work in collective places?  Or are we all, mentally, still living in a room of one’s own?