Thursday, January 1, 2009

A New Writing Year

Eudaemonia is all about reading and writing and with one year coming to a close and another beginning, I can’t help but look back to where I’ve been over the last year. Was it where I wanted to go?

I think it was.

Reading and writing are so intertwined for me that I can’t talk about one without the other. It was when I read Hoffman’s Hunger that I was hit hardest with the sense that I need to know much more, and not only about the mechanics of writing (although I continue to need that too). The book was written in 1989 by a Dutch author named Leon de Winter. The story takes place at the end of the cold war and drew heavily on the philosophy of Spinoza. I finished reading the book and immediately thought that it's the kind of book I wish I could write, but I can't.

It does not escape me that Hoffman’s Hunger fed a growing hunger in me for a deeper education. All signs this year led me to that conclusion, from my brief frenzied dive into modern economics, political history and American anti-intellectualism to my final December read of Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction. I can’t disagree with this idea:

"The notion of the novelist as gifted savage dies hard, even in English Departments. (Perhaps it dies hard especially in English departments – for if Faulkner was a wise man of letters like thee and me, why have we not written great novels? Further, department scholars may doubt their own methods, their students, and especially their colleagues so much that they deny that anyone ever connected with that world could produce a novel worth reading.) It breaks our American hearts to learn that Updike was an English major. We wish to forget that Thoreau, like Updike and Mailer, was graduated from Harvard, and that Walt Whitman spent his life in his room studying and rewriting, and that Willa Cather lived among the literati in Greenwich Village, and that Melville left the sea at twenty-five. The will to believe in the fiction writer as Paul Bunyan is shockingly strong; it is emotional, like to will to believe in Bigfoot, the hairy primate who stalks the western hills, or in the Loch Ness Monster. In fact, by the time the media had worked on Hemingway, he was scarcely distinguishable from Bigfoot, or less popular – and Dylan Thomas, that sentimental favorite, was the Loch Ness Monster. The assumption that the fiction writer is any sort of person but one whose formal education actually taught him something is particularly strong in this country; our democratic anti-intellectual tradition and our media cult of personality dovetail on this point and press it home, usually with full cooperation from writers.

In opposition to all this romance, I say that academic literary criticism is very influential: students listen to critics. What student does not read fiction for one course or another? And who is writing fiction these days who has not been to college?"

Lest the writers who may be reading this take offense to such bold myth smashing, just think on it. She’s talking, of course about writers in the class of those she’s mentioned and like Bellow, Roth, Chekov, Borges, Chomsky, Dostoevsky, Ellison, Garcia Marquez, Hamsun, Joyce, Lessing, et al.

Not many writers come close to creating what these people have, and not many want to. The vast majority of readers who are not critics wouldn’t be interested in reading such works if they existed. But despite the small probability of creating what could be art and the even smaller odds that it might be read and appreciated, it’s still a bold, unrealistic and probably delusional aim for some.

It’s been a year now since I first began work on a novel called The Foundling Wheel and as of today, it’s treading water after twenty-four messy chapters and 52,973 words. In the beginning, I thought I’d finish a first draft in six months, and then I thought it would be a year. I haven’t added to it since early October, but I haven’t abandoned it. It’s still very much alive and I intend to finish it.

What’s given me trouble since the beginning is much larger than the story itself, although that’s given me problems too. If you were to ask me some time ago why I was writing it, I couldn’t tell you, nor could I say what I was trying to accomplish in the work, beyond simply telling a story. Sometimes telling a story is enough. For me with this, it’s not.

I can almost answer the question now.

I learned to trust myself much more this year. Oddly, (or at least I think it’s odd) I was not self-conscious about sharing my work with other people when I first began blogging and taking classes, but as time has passed, I’ve grown more confident in my ability to assess what I’m doing and less inclined to ask other people to do it for me. It stands to reason that until I’ve worked out what it is I’m trying to do and precisely how I’m going to do it that there’s no point in asking another person to judge whether or not I’ve succeeded.

What interests me most is – everything about human beings. I’m interested in philosophy, sociology, culture, religion and psychology. I’m interested in history and economics and technology. I know a little about a few things, but I want much more.

The subject matter for my blog posts will be much more focused in 2009. My reading choices will be much more intentional. I’m on a quest to educate myself on all of those things that, even if I had gone to college and pursued a liberal education as a girl, would not have had the impact on me then that they will now.

I’ll never be a scholar or an academic or an intellectual and I don’t aspire to any of those things, but I can be a more literate thinker.

Whether it makes me a better writer or not remains to be seen. I think it will.


Seachanges said...

Lovely post and a lot of it resonates with my own struggle with writing and reading and how to take the writing forward. I've also got a novel stuck at around 50,000 words and messy! Blogging helps a great deal, but it needs to be focused, I cannot agree more. I have heard of Hofman's Hunger and will now get it - after all, the author is a compatriot as well as coming with your recommendation! Meanwhile, I wish you a very inspiring and full writing new year. Don't forget: lots of good books take years to germinate!

Seachanges said...

Sorry, meant Hoffman's Hunger (double f...)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Happy New Year and I look forward to your reading choices.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Whenever I speak to students as an author, and they ask how they can become better writers, they are often surprised when my first answer is, "Read. Read widely. Read intentionally." I still consider reading to be an important part of my "job." So, I look forward to your posts this coming year. And to your writing!

Happy New Year!

debra said...

Both my daughters write beautifully.
#2, now 17, is in a writer's group. She doesn't always do the assignment; she always writes something and continues to grow. She has always read good stuff, and knows when she is spot on and when it's a nice try.

Here is to a new year: full of love, laughter, peace and good books .

Carleen Brice said...

Ah yes. I know what you're talking about very well--we'll never know enough, but we write anyway and keep trying to learn more.

Melissa Marsh said...

What an incredible post, Lisa. And I think it's quite admirable that you want to educate yourself further on all these subjects. Here's to a wonderful 2009!

LarramieG said...

To your goals!

Sustenance Scout said...

Ditto, Lisa! And yes, it all makes us better writers--the reading, the blogging, the constant inquiring. Hugs, K.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thinking is its own reward. I find that most of my moment to moment life is spent thinking, and it's a very fulfilling, if sometimes frustrating, experience.

Vesper said...

Here's to us becoming better writers!
This post touched me, Lisa, for I find many similarities between our thoughts, and I'm glad I do...

Happy New Year, my dear Lisa! Be healthy, and joyful, and write and read to your heart's desire...


Lana Gramlich said...

Best to you & yours in 2009! Sorry for my long, recent absence--been busy in offline life. Peace!

Timothy Hall said...

I think the novelist IS Paul Bunyan. I don't care when Melville left the sea; I think it took more bravery for him to wander the imaginary ocean of Moby-Dick or to summon up the soul of Bartleby the Scrivener than it did to tootle around the South Pacific in a wooden ship. No matter what her/his circumstances, however comfortable the study in which the writer works, however rewarding the royalties, when we're writing, we're all in the same place: alone and adrift in the imagination, trying to find the structure we know is there somewhere, trying to let our characters reveal themselves to us.

I think it requires real bravery, and I know you've had the experience. Every day we set aside a substantial chunk of time with a good possibility that we'll spend it confronting our limitations and doubting our talent. And sometimes that's all we do for months at a time. But we keep setting the time aside and sitting down and doing what we can to make (or uncover) a world.

I'll get off the soapbox now. Heights frighten me.

Usman said...

Your post resonates with me so well. Telling a story, and within that story talking of things that matter, is no doubt a great art.
I wish you the best of luck.

Barrie said...

I think 2009 will be a year of great learning and writing for you. What a well-thought-out post.

steve said...

Kenneth Rexroth never finished high school, though he sat in on classes at the University of Chicago (they let people do that in the 1920s). I think I've learned more since leaving the university than I did when I was there. You're certainly better-read in contemporary fiction than I'll ever be. Best wishes on your quest.

Denis said...


kristenspina said...

Lisa, I love this post (and I'm sorry it's taken me this long to come by and comment). This is your year. Be brave. Be strong. Reach high.

Lisa said...

Everyone -- if you're not on Twitter, not only are you probably getting more done than some of the rest of us, but you won't know that I did start reading Swann's Way on January 1st -- and despite my initial fear and intimidation, I love it. I have pages upon pages of words I've had to look up, but it's been enjoyable. More on Proust later.

Seachanges, Yes, I'd forgotten that you are Dutch! Apparently, Leon de Winter is huge in Holland and Germany. You may want to read him in Dutch. He's written several other novels since, but his first is the only one so far (to my knowledge) to be translated to English.

Patti, One of these days I'd love to compare book and movie lists with you. You always name great ones at your place. I've read some of your recommendations and you haven't disappointed (no pressure!)

Judy, I think that reading intentionally is more difficult than it appears to be. I was quite excited when I read Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction because she mentioned so many titles I had not read, by authors I'd only heard of. Now it's just a matter of whittling that huge list down to works that I think I will learn from as a writer.

Debra, That's wonderful! You have such a creative family. Your girls are very lucky to have you and Stephen as parents.

Carleen, For some reason, the vast amount of knowledge out there doesn't feel quite so overwhelming right now. I am on a learning jag and I'm having a great time with it. We don't ever stop learning...well, I suppose that's when we die, isn't it?

Melissa, It feels a little greedy and selfish sometimes to tell you the truth, but with no kids at home, what better time?

Larramie, And to yours!

Karen, I don't think most of us could stop even if we wanted to. Sometimes I wish I could...

Charles, Every thought and question only brings on more and more. I guess that's why I've never quite understood what it means to be bored - well, unless I'm a captive audience someplace where I can't think about what I want to!

Vesper, Here's to all of us and a very Happy New Year to you too! I am anxiously awaiting the appearance of your lapines? lupines? Those purple flowers :)

Lana, No worries! We all have things to do. So nice to hear from you.

Tim, Hey, I think you look good up there on the soapbox! And you always temper my flights of excess with the reality of writing. Yes, I'm grateful to have racked up enough life experiences to start writing and never stop, but I've got an itch to learn some things that experience hasn't taught me. Don't worry -- I'm still writing :)

Usman, I suppose there's a danger in getting too far into philosophy and theology and then trying to force it into the work, but I'm hoping bits and pieces can seep into my unconsciousness and reappear later the way things mysteriously pop up now.

Barrie, I think it will be too. I'm feeling a hunger for knowledge and it feels pretty good.

Steve, There's always more to learn. I'm just happy that I know what it is I want to focus on. Now let's hope I still have the grey matter to remember some of what I learn.

Denis, hello!

Kristen, Thank you so much. You too, my friend.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf