Year-End Reflections

This time last year, I was in a dull funk as far as writing was concerned. Earlier in the year, I had started work on a historical crime fiction. It was to be a challenge for me but one I deemed worthwhile. I had to deal with selling my late parents’ home long distance. The process started out rather simple then devolved into chaos and confusion coupled with unprofessional people who I needed to trust. By the time that was resolved, it was the madness of the holiday season.
But in May, I recharged, going down to Oklahoma for my fourth OWFI conference, hooking up with my friend, Nick Lyon, meeting the amazing Les Edgerton, and generally reminding myself that I was still a writer.
Well, I completed the first draft of that book and am on the second edit now. John Lennon said it best: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I’m just fortunate to have been able to get back to those plans.

Les Edgerton

9 mm Centerpiece

I moved to Wichita, KS twenty years ago from Boston, MA. Yet, I find this community as filled with artistic talent. I’ve met writers and poets, sculptors and artists, musicians — the gamut of what truly invigorates me. My wife and I had season tickets for several years to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, regular attended shows at Music Theater Wichita, saw Cirque du SoleilTHREE times, and attended some great concerts over the past year at the historic Orpheum Theater.
But something makes me feel I haven’t explored as much of the arts scene as I could have and definitely should have. John Donne indicated that no man is an island unto himself. No man or no one interested in developing their art. I know I need to get out there more and meet some more people in this community who are passionate about creating something special and are urged on by a compulsion that can not be defined.

Why is it so difficult to disagree any more? Notice how I didn’t ask why we can’t get along. Personally, I think that’s overrated. But we seem to have lost our ability to disagree, civilly and intellectually. There is a pervasive attitude of “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” as opposed to “I disagree, but let’s hear what you have to say.” You see it in politics and in every aspect of contemporary culture, especially Facebook.
I went on a rant recently regarding something rather innocuous. A lady (who was a Facebook friend because she was a friend of a friend) commented, as was her right to do so. When the commentary started to become personal, I took offense. If you know me and can “analyze” me, fine. If you don’t know me, it’s best to stay away from that line of response. And I said so.
A couple of weeks later, after the rant had fully passed from my mind, I recalled with childish humor the whole exchange. I looked up the lady. Sure enough she had unfriended me. I figured it was her loss because I feel I am interesting and a good conversationalist. The real point is that she could not accept my comment on her comment and left.
Disagreement is not dissension.

I find myself more intrigued by experimental fiction. Metafiction, transgressive fiction, fonts and colors, non-linear story-telling. I still maintain my passion for noir and hard-boiled. Yet, I use the alternative styles as a playful experiment and wind up discovering something new.
I am fortunate to be friends with Eckhard Gerdes on Facebook and I follow an Experimental Fiction group. These writers are light years ahead of me but my fascination is part of the learning process. At 53, I am content to know that I am not stuck in a groove and have miles to go before I sleep.

One size does NOT fit all

The thing that bothers me about weight loss ads is that they seem to target…everybody. Every race, gender, age. Everybody. They’re saying “Our product (or system or program) can help ALL of you.” But we know it’s not true.

Let’s extend that to writing, or any art form for that matter. I’ve heard keynote speakers and writing teachers, and I’ve read other blogs. Without disrespecting anyone, we have to be aware that what is being taught or suggested is one individual’s perception based largely upon their experience and success. As such, as they often state with financial investment programs, the results are not representative or guaranteed.

I admire other writers, especially those who have gained a measure of publishing success, who give back by identifying key points or pitfalls. I respect those who do not treat the craft of writing as some ancient text worthy of only the initiated. But writers have to be cautious of embracing the methodology of one as the singular and only protocol.

We are all aware of concepts of character development, realistic dialogue, three act structures, rising and falling actions, and the notorious “show, don’t tell.” It is acceptable to write in a different fashion. It is commendable to try a completely new approach. The only thing that counts is good writing. Of course, if the discussion is geared toward getting your work published, then a hard decision has to be made. Write like others, safe and unimaginative, and get published. Or write like yourself, in your voice, and know that their IS an audience out there for you. It just might be harder to find and take longer to do so.

I have just completed work on a historical crime fiction. It was a different genre for me but something that is mainstream enough for publication. I also have a wildly unpredictable metafiction and a novella that is within the same vein. I do not have great expectations for either. That does not mean I will not edit and revise them as fully as possible and seek to have them published. Some may ask, “Then why did you write them?” The answer is painfully simple: They were stories I wanted to tell. At the very least they are out of my brain and in a document.

As writers, we are, first and foremost, storytellers. That means when we have a story lurking in our inner core, it MUST be told. Consider publishing secondary; tell the story, in your voice and in your manner. You don’t need to fit in with everyone. That way you will stand out.

When Metafiction crosses over into the “real world”

One of my current works-in-progress is a Metafiction. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is a literary device that draws attention to a work of fiction as an artifact, causing the relationship between reality and fiction. Two of the most well-known examples are The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne and The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth.

My work is called The Novel Titled ‘This is Not a Novel’,and it purports to be the fictional biography of a writer named H.B. Berlow by, strangely enough, a writer named H.B. Berlow. It then segues and criss-crosses with two other fictional biographies which may or may not be fictional. The whole purpose is to ask the question of how important it is to know of the history of a writer in order to appreciate his work. The mysterious life of writer B. Traven. who wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is a testament to this theme. He once said “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.”

Yet, even the notion of biography, autobiography, or memoir questions whether the information presented is factual and if it can be accurate. The nature of memory is always called into question. Police indicate that eyewitness testimony is less reliable than concrete facts. How can we possibly know the truth of anything if memory is not reliable enough?

The recent case of Brian Williams, a respected journalist and a man of integrity, causes us to reevaluate how events are created in the mind and then passed forward. Either Mr. Williams is a low-down and nefarious individual who, like most people on television, has an absolute need to be front and center in the spotlight…or, his memory is as suspect as anyone else on the planet.

I feel validated by the unfortunate series of events, knowing that my work-in-progress has a measure of basis in the real world. The irony is that my work of fiction that clouds the nature of reality should not so closely mirror that reality. Or should it?

The Writer or the Writing

Okay, try this out. You read a new novel or a short story or a collection of poetry. You are highly impressed. What’s the first thing you do?

Do you look up the author on Google or Wikipedia? I do. I can’t help myself. I like the work but I’m more interested in the author. This isn’t usually the case with looking up the director of a movie or the painter of a work of art. But with fiction, something within us wants to know about the person who created the work.

We SHOULD be going on to Amazon to find other works so we can read more by this person who has intrigued us with their abilities. But instead we focus on the person.

This is the premise behind my current work-in-progress (currently on hold per my last blog post). It is a metafiction titled The Novel Titled “This is Not a Novel.” The title itself is an enigma. The work purports to be the fictional biography of a writer named H.B. Berlow….written by myself, a writer whose name is H.B. Berlow. Then it deviates into various biographies or other works of fiction by various writers from past times whose initials were the same. A literary joke, a pretentious conceit, or food for thought? It is intended to be the latter.

While it is true that some authors’ personal histories are intriguing to the point where they would “make a good story”, I truly believe that, marketing aside, the focus should be squarely on the work itself. Literary critics use all aspects of a work to provide erudite analysis. What they do not do is talk about the author’s life.

Take the example of B. Traven, the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which was made into the Academy Award winning film starring Humphrey Bogart. This individual did everything possible to cloud the history, circumstances, and details of his life. To this day, there is no concrete answer. By doing this, he has unintentionally diverted interest in his work to the mystery of his life.

All of which makes me ask the question: Why is the author’s life more significant than his work? For right now, I am going to keep living and keep writing. I hope you will still be interested.

Something…different!

Did you ever want to write something…just because? Wasn’t sure what you were doing of if it would make sense or (better still) if it would sell? Had the gut feeling (or maybe that tingling in the back of your neck) that it was something that you HAD to write.

Happened to me.

A while back, I came up with an intriguing notion to write the fictional biography of a writer named H.B. Berlow. It sounded weird but mildly intriguing. I figured there were all kinds of characters in literature and there might actually be a person currently or previously living that had the same name as a fictional character. What if Holden Caulfield or Scarlett O’Hara or Leopold Bloom or Elizabeth Bennet are living somewhere in Illinois or Louisiana or Utah or Rhode Island. Fictional character’s names are not unique, despite what we may think.

Then, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that referenced metafiction and I looked up the meaning (from Wikipedia: “…a literary device used to self-consciously and systematically draw attention to a work’s status as an artifact) and realized that I was on to something. I was going to confuse people into believing that this “fictional” biography was nothing more than a roman a clef cleverly disguised.

As I began, it started to get, well, out of hand. The whimsical side of me then turned it into the fictional biography of a mid-century Polish poet who was a survivor of the Holocaust. On top of that, I created an early 20th century writer who was writing a fictional biography of a writer from the late 20th century. Strangely enough, all these characters had the same initials as…you guessed it…me.

Okay, so I’m working on a dark comic crime caper with my critique group but I break out into this seriously over-the-top piece like characters break into song from a 1940’s MGM musical. I enjoy writing crime fiction; it’s my bread and butter. However, there is something strongly fascinating about this work because it challenges a reader’s notion of the intention of the writer, the purpose and reason for the existence of the book, and whether the writer can be trusted with this abstract thing called the Truth.

The first draft is done. It’s really a novella given the word count. I’m putting it aside. For now. It was an impulse that needed venting. However, the themes that have emerged from writing it have given me pause to consider what it is I do as a writer and to take greater care to present my best work possible.

Oh, and the title of this work is — The Novel Titled “This is Not a Novel”. Go figure.