Ragnarok and Metaphor

A European cat. Strasbourg? Liege? You decide.
A European cat. Strasbourg? Liege? You decide.

Genetic testing, bought for me as a present some years back, reveals that I am, on my fathers’ side (plural intentional) Norse. I have common DNA with men in Uppsala, Copenhagen, and a couple of small villages in western Russia. I  have a blood condition common around the Mediterranean, also, which, along with those Russians, indicates that it is likely that an ancestor of mine visited Byzantium and brought home a bride. Upon learning that, I became interested in Norse mythology. I’ve learned about Odin, and Thor, and Freda, and Hel (yes, the original Hel,) and many other gods worshipped by my ancestors. And I have always been curious about Ragnarok.

Ragnarok, in the short version if you don’t click the link, is a story about events at the end of the world. Thor manages to kill a monster snake, but is killed in the process. Odin dies, Freda dies, everyone in Valhalla dies, oh, it’s a bloodbath. The good guys do win, but holy smokes, at such a cost.

I always wondered why anyone would include such a terribly pessimistic story in their cultural mythos. Everybody dies! So what’s the point? Right?

Except, after reading Neal Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. (See my review on Amazon from February 18th for more.) Gaiman tells the story so clearly and enjoyably that I finally got the whole story on Ragnarok, which is darned difficult to do reading the Eddas. The fact is, of course, that everybody doesn’t die. I knew that, but I didn’t know what happened next.

Two of Thor’s children survive. Two of Odin’s children survive. One human couple survives by hiding deep in the branches of the World Tree. So, one might surmise that the Norns are still down there at the roots dealing out fate, right? And Balder, the nicest, most beloved, all-around good person of everyone at Asgard, comes back from the underworld, because, well, why not, huh? The former Asgardians set up a new city at the site of Asgard, a better one. The world starts coming back, better than ever. And one day the gods are out sitting in the grass when they notice something shining in the sun, mostly buried in the grass. It turns out to be a chess piece, representing one of the gods.  They find a chess piece for each of the gods, in fact, even Balder himself. Then they set up a game, and Balder, whose smile is like the sun coming out after a rain, reaches down and makes his move. Then, as Gaiman puts it, the game begins anew.

Wow! So, there is no end to the world, really. But it is terribly, destructively, difficult to defeat evil. But, the game always begins anew, in a better place, with better players. Holy cow, does that remind you of anything?

Like how the Great Depression and World War Two ushered in a newer, better, world, based upon the virtually total destruction of an old one? The Renaissance? The Industrial Revolution? Today?

Like all stories, Ragnarok is a metaphor. In this case, it is a lesson in how tough it is to put down evil and build a better world, but that in spite of that, good always triumphs, and a new, better, situation emerges. If we give it our absolute all. Damn, but I felt better after reading that book!

And there you go! Metaphor! Sure, there are people who don’t get it. Well, too bad for them, huh? But for the rest of us, we can march into Ragnarok fully knowing that a bit of what we hold dear will survive, while our enemies (whatever that means in a given case) will be wiped out. Take that, snake! I’m not saying that you should consciously insert metaphor into all of your stories. I’m saying that if they are good stories, the metaphor will be there, and be what’s making them so good. Wow. And all about reading about a mythical battle at the end of the world!

Skoal!

The Rules

These beauties were in a thrift store in St. Petersburg, Florida last week.
These beauties were in a thrift store in St. Petersburg, Florida last week.

*In case I haven’t mentioned it in too long a time, all of the photographs on this site were taken by myself unless they are otherwise labeled.*

I am the coordinator of the Las Vegas Writers’ Group. I will be presenting to the group in April on “The Rules of Writing.” Feel free to drop in, but in case you can’t make it, here is a short summary. I promised them that I’d hit all of the rules, but for you, I’ll keep it lighter. Ready? Begin . . .

You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.” — Pablo Picasso

My favorite Picasso Quote. A mistake new writers seem to make a lot is to not follow the basic rules of writing. They notice that the big, successful writers don’t always follow the rules, so they don’t either. But, what they fail to do first is to learn the rules so well that they can follow them without even thinking about them. Then, if clarity demands it, rules may be broken. And the first, and most important, set of rules are the ones your high school Language Arts, or maybe English, teacher made you repeat back to him/her week in and week out. Here are a few, to remind you.

  • I before E, except after C, or when sounded as “A” as in “neighbor” and “weigh.”
  • The Oxford comma, which is to put a comma before each single entry in a list, even the very last entry. An example is one, two, and three. Is it okay not to use an Oxford comma? Sure, but when is it okay?
  • Parts of speech: nouns, verbs, pronouns, subjects, objects, prepositions, and the rest. When do you use “who” and when, for pity’s sake, does one use “whom?” Why is that?
  • Two, to, and too. Their, they’re, there.
  • Is it its it’s? (I’m actually kind of proud of that one.)
  • Which witch is which?

You get it. All that stuff from school. True, most people forget more than you have to know. And that’s okay because most people are not professional communicators. But you are! Once you know all those rules, and there are many that I did not list, you are ready to break them as needed.

But, when does a writer need to break the rules? Simply put, when clarity demands it!

If Huckleberry Finn spoke good English, nobody would read that book. If Holden Caulfield spoke properly, nobody would know who that even was. In both of these instances, clarity demanded that various traits of the protagonists be demonstrated in their speech. So, rules out the window; they talk like they talk. So, the first rule beyond those from school is that Clarity is Primary!

One of the primary ways a writer can be more clear is to, as they say a lot, “show, don’t tell.” I like jokes, so here is a quick illustration of what “show don’t tell” means, using a joke.

When I die, I want to go peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car!

That is a joke because of its structure, but it also is an excellent illustration of showing something rather than telling it. When you read that, you know what happened. But, look again. Nowhere is that tragic event actually mentioned. Not a word about what happened, really. As a reader, your own imagination fills in the terrible details, and a joke is born. If that joke were to be explicit about actual events, it would be the news, and not a joke. Keep that in mind when writing a description. You can show it to us, rather than tell us about it.  Readers don’t need the news, they need to see the story in their own minds.

This post up to now is the basics of how to actually write a good story. There’s more, such as story arcs, character goals and motivations, conflicts, dangers, and other specific elements, that I have not covered. Don’t proceed just on the basis of what I’ve written here. Read everything that you can about writing before you begin.

Beyond the Basics

Rule the First: Only write things which you like to read!

  • By writing what you like to read, you automatically have a leg up on the process because you are familiar with the conventions and genres of your favorite topics.
  • What you know? (I hear you.) The fact is, if you don’t know something, you can learn it. If you only write what you know, you are severely limiting your range of subjects, places, and character types. Research has gotten much easier in recent years, so take advantage of that, and learn what you need to learn in order to write what you know. Then write it in a way that you’ll like reading it.

Improve Yourself

How?

  • Read a Lot
  • Practice (write) a Lot
  • Get a lot of Help
    • Books on writing
    • Critique partners
      • People whose opinions you trust
      • People you will critique in return
    • Writers’ Groups
      • To find critique partners
      • To meet kindred spirits
    • Writers’ Conferences
      • Meet fellow writers
      • Meet successful authors
      • Meet (and pitch to) agents and editors

And at last we come to Marketing, which I’m not going to cover in this post. Just know that, if you succeed, you will have done, and continue to do, a lot of marketing of yourself, your brand, and your writing.

There! Now, go forth and write! You now have no excuse for not being a successful author!*

 

*For free information on a fabulous bridge, contact your author.

Wanna Iron Some Shorts?

On Fremont Street in Las Vegas. I don't vacation here (duh) but you should!
On Fremont Street in Las Vegas.
I don’t vacation here (duh) but you should!

Some people may be uptight enough to iron their shorts, maybe even put plenty of starch in ’em, but not me. But, in response to some reading I came across extolling the virtues of writing short stories, I wrote my first one in quite some time. And it came out fine! So, in spite of the fact that I wrote it with absolutely no idea of what I was going to do with it (specifically at least,) I wish to add my voice to those encouraging short story production.

I have for years admired poetry. William Carlos Williams creates an entire world in a few lines simply by describing a wet, red, wheelbarrow in a chicken yard. In prose that might take a couple of paragraphs, but in good prose, say in your earth-shattering novel that will no doubt redefine American literature for the balance of this century, it may take only one, two, or three words. If your novel is really good, that is. A novel, even a short story, contains a lot more information than a poem. Williams did describe the city of Patterson, New Jersey, at length, in a long poem. But he had to use just about as many words as would a novelist describing a day in the life of said city in any sort of detail. By which I mean, I don’t want to stretch my “poetry as the essence of storytelling” idea any further. I confess, I’m not much of a poet. I can’t even write a serious song, but I can write a short story. And it is great practice for the longer stuff.

In a short story, you can’t spend a lot of time on background, exposition, or extended character development. The reader has to see the character, figure out what she is immediately, and develop sympathy for her predicament within the first couple of paragraphs. That doesn’t require that you be a great poet, but it does require that you write very well. 250 words in, we should know who this is, what her problem is, and what she’s doing about it. You can put the thrilling climax right up front if you wish, and fill us in on how it came about. Or, you can do the more traditional thing and put that thrill just before the end (don’t have time for much denouement, either.) A few writers have gotten away with putting the big moment smack in the middle of the story. If you think you can pull that off, please go ahead. (I like putting it up front as a teaser, leaving the resolution for the end.) You must show everything, because there is no time for telling. She’s nervous? She has a tic, or something, right? He’s mean? He shoves a kid out of his way.

And that is by way of saying that, if nothing else, writing short stories will give you practice on the tight writing you need to extend throughout your entire earth-changing novel! The one I just finished is based on the same social situation as the YA novel I’m shopping around. But, it is only 2500 words, and it has different characters, only one of which is the POV we see, and it’s a completely different story, in several senses of that phrase.

So, what they hey, give it a try! You have nothing to lose but, oh, I dunno, superfluous modifiers? Happy writing!

Language! Or, Those Darn French!

Detail from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Detail from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

If you’ve read a few of the things I’ve posted here, you may have noticed that I enjoy travel. One of the things I’ve found that helps make travel more enjoyable is learning some of the language of the place I am going to visit. Prior to visiting Cancun a few years ago I studied up on my Spanish. Prior to visiting Rome I learned enough Italian to become terribly confused, as it is too similar to Spanish for me to always tell them apart. (But I did learn to hear words, and was amazed that, in fact, Italians, at least Romans, tend to speak rather slowly.) Prior to visiting Germany last year I studied German. We are planning to visit England this Spring, so maybe I should study English? Since a writer is concerned with language (or else they’re not a very good writer) I find it interesting to see how languages other than English are put together and used. Here are a few observations from my time in other countries.

As I pointed out above, not knowing a language at least a little can lead you to some plainly wrong conclusions. Such as thinking that Italians speak very fast. Actually, every word ends in a vowel in that language, so it can be difficult to tell when one word ends and another begins. Also, most words have a lot more syllables than they need, so if you can’t hear the words, it sounds fast. French is special to me because it is the only language besides English that I started learning by immersion. I got off of a train in Calais at 4:30 in the morning. The train to Paris left at six. I needed coffee. I was hungry. To hell with what they think of my accent. I asked my companion how to say various things, and, eh voila, I got my coffee and pastry. To this day, French is the easiest foreign language for me to use, probably because I started learning it from the ground up.

Spanish, though, was my first. My sister was taking Spanish in college, and she taught simple Spanish words like numbers and other single-syllable things to my seven-year-old self, in order to help herself learn. Well, she still speaks some Spanish, and by cracky, I do too. Unfortunately, we can’t hide anything from her son, my nephew, because he speaks Spanish better than both of us put together. Lo siento, Ed.

As to German, it is common to think that German is the closest thing to English, and in some ways it is. However, more than half of our English vocabulary comes from French, as do our verdamt (get it?) spelling rules. A thousand years ago, English and German were the same language, more or less. Now, not so much. But some words are exactly the same in German. Words like active, relative, and the like, except that they’re spelled “activ” and “relativ.”

All of my three non-English languages do have something in common that English has lost: personal versus formal second person pronouns. That is, if you know somebody well, you use one word for “you” with them. Otherwise, you use a different word for “you.” But, hey, the personal “you” does exist in English, even though virtually nobody uses it any more. Oh really? Really! And thou dost know whereof I write, dost thou not? Sure, and if I hadn’t studied at least one other language, I would never know what that “biblical” or “Shakespearean” language was really all about. It comes, one way or another, from the German: Thou hast looks a whole lot like du hast, doesn’t it? Especially the “hast” part!

So I’d recommend studying another language if you want to write English. It really helps to understand how language is structured and used, which of course just what you’re trying to do when you write, fiction or non-fiction makes no difference. As Twain observed, The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening! Oh, isn’t it, though?

I’d like to close with an observation about the French language. I used to say that the French didn’t know how to spell, because what they write doesn’t match what they say. However, in recently starting some formal studies, using Duolingo*, I have learned that in fact, I had that backwards. The French spell quite well. The verb conjugations and the various inflections are familiar, not at all unlike Spanish and Italian words. But what is pronounced is more of a sloppy creole of only vaguely comprehensible syllables, when they use syllables, that is. I read a theory that English is a creole, and maybe it is. And maybe we got that, along with a lot of our words, from the French. Merci boucoup, mes amis!

 

*Duolingo is a free online language course that I highly recommend to anyone wanting to learn a new way of speaking. Not quite as good as getting off a boat in the middle of the night in Calais, but close, very close.

Paying Attention

A Raven at the Tower of London. (Don't know it's name.)
A Raven at the Tower of London. (Don’t know it’s name.)

I’ve been thinking about paying attention for the past few months. Yes, it is a strange obsession, maybe. I’ve read articles from those extolling the virtues of the practice. I don’t have any idea what is meant by “Mindfulness” in it’s current popular use, but I suspect that originally the term had something to do with simply paying attention to what’s going on.

Paying attention can have some definite value for a writer. By paying attention to conversations you hear, you can get a better sense for the rhythm of language as it’s really used. By carefully re-reading your projects and paying attention to the rules of writing (someday, I’m going to write a book!) you can cut a lot of time and frustration off of the publication end of the process. Most people only consider paying attention to be critical to certain occupations. Airline Pilot comes to mind. Or the carney operating the tilt-a-whirl. If those people don’t pay attention, other people will die. But writing, too, is a profession where paying attention is critical. Because, if you don’t pay attention, your story will die, and all of the people in it.

Paying attention isn’t common. Here are two quick examples from commercials and their use of music. For instance, there is the Beatle’s tune Getting Better, which has been used in more than one commercial series. The next line after the one you hear in one of the commercials is “Can’t get no worse!” Really? Your product is as bad as it gets? Do the people who produce these ads ever listen to themselves? Maybe not. I had a boss back in the 70s who owned a pizzeria in a college town. M.A.S.H. was popular then, so he used the theme song from M.A.S.H. in his commercials. The title? Suicide is Painless! Not sure about that statement in the first place, but it really doesn’t put any kind of restaurant in a very good light does it? In this case, I pointed this fact out, but the boss didn’t care. Maybe because he knew that very few potential customers were paying attention, do you suppose?

Why ever, at least some clients noticed, of that I’m sure. And I’ll bet they ordered from the shop down the street, where the pies wouldn’t kill you.

As a writer, you must pay attention to how you are writing. I’m possibly the greatest violator of this principle that I know, but if that’s true, then consider that I know whereof I write, okay? If you are telling us things all the time, and your reaction to that being pointed out is that, “the reader has to know all that to understand what comes next,” then you need to do some serious study to see how to show us all that before whatever comes next, um, comes next. If you have characters who all talk the same way, you’d better believe that you need to pay attention to manners of speech in order to differentiate them one from another. And so on.

Paying attention, even if it isn’t what people mean by “mindfulness,” is an important component of a productive project or life. I’m running out of space here, but trust me, I could cite examples until my ISP fined me for taking up all of their disk space. So, this week’s advice: Simply Pay Attention!

And don’t get me started about paying attention on the road! Yoiks!

WRITING COMEDY and other stuff

The 'Nostalgia Room' at Grand Canyon Caverns along Route 66 (Historic and a Current Arizona Highway.)
The ‘Nostalgia Room’ at Grand Canyon Caverns along Route 66 (Historic and a Current Arizona Highway.)

I have a series of posts about Route 66 available. Click the tag “historic route 66” below to see them all.

I am guilty of not writing any comedy for the better part of a year. This in spite of the fact that I enjoy writing and performing comedy. The reason why this is so would take up at least an entire post, so I’m going to leave it at the simple fact. But, and this is true, I do know how to write comedy. I’ve been a wise-ass all my life, so it comes naturally. And comedy is mostly writing! So, here we go.

First, that all important step for a stand-up performer, is the rant. Some comedians, like Dennis Miller, make a career out of rants. But, you may be sure that the “rants” you see them perform are not the rants with which they began. Far from it. Even in written comedy, you start with a written form of a rant, called by the descriptive name of Your First Draft! Hmmm. Non-comedy writers, does that sound familiar? It should. A rant, when performed, is a test of a concept. A field-test, as it were, of new material, new jokes, or even just new ideas for jokes. Some of the rules are that it doesn’t have to be funny, although you, the writer, hope that it mostly is. Also it doesn’t have to be final. In fact, if experience is any guide, you will throw out most of the material from your rants, and polish the stuff that did work until it’s really funny. Trust me, that’s what Dennis Miller has always done. It’s what George Carlin always did. It’s what Andrew Dice Clay does. It’s what any good comedian does, because otherwise you’re just not going to be funny. And a comedian wants to kill, not die, right?

Does that make the business sound sort of nasty? You’re catching on.

Your first draft, your rant, can be about anything. For me, it is a way to discover what I’m really thinking about. And, this is a surprise to many who try it, it is rarely what you think you’re thinking about. Too tight a curve? Well, your own impressions of yourself are frequently not in agreement with everybody else’s, so why should your thoughts be any different? Better? Good! I use ranting by keyboarding to get down new story ideas. It works better than if I think about the story too much. So, here’s another way to find story ideas, guys: just start writing and see what comes out. Remember, it’s a rant, not War and Peace! It will suck big time, and that’s okay!

I do have an observation, based on watching American politics. That is, those who are too close to their subject don’t do as well at making it funny as those who can step back a bit. For instance, the funniest jokes about Obama have always come from Liberals. Maybe because they like him, or maybe it’s because Conservatives hate him that their Obama jokes have always been too on the nose. “On the nose” means that you are telling, not showing. It’s as simple as that. And what has to be close to Rule No. 1 of any writing, comedy or not, is “show, don’t tell.” If you make a political joke and say “He’s just an idiot because he signed that bill!” You’re on the nose. If you can craft a story that surprises the audience/reader with the sudden knowledge of that fact after leading them astray as widely as possible, then you’ve got a joke. Trump is too new, still, to know who will tell the best jokes about him. But, historically, Conservatives tend to be more on the nose than Liberals, which may explain why most popular comedians are Liberals. I don’t think that this is a requirement of Conservatism or Liberalism. P.J. O’Rourke is very funny, and Conservative. Maybe it’s a lack of training? Whatever, it is what it is, at least so far.

So, that’s the writing post for this week. There are quite a few books available on Amazon on how to create comedy. If you’re interested, I’d suggest checking them out!

So, a Rabbi, a Priest, and a Parrot walk into a bar. The bartender looks at them and says, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

OFFENDED?

The Weinermobile, Times Square, Summer 2015
The Weinermobile, Times Square, Summer 2015

KNOW WHAT REALLY FROSTS MY SHORTS? PEOPLE WHO TRY NEVER TO OFFEND ANYONE! That’s what!

I was watching Bill Maher’s final rant the other day, in this case one where he talked about being offensive. Steve Martin, for example, was forced to take down a tweet in which he praised Carrie Fisher quite nicely. Because, it seems, he had the insensitive temerity to mention that he thought her beautiful before he noted that she was also intelligent. WTF? You know, the first time I saw her was in Star Wars. In the second installment, Episode 5, she wore that slave girl outfit while in thrall to Jabba the Hutt. When I saw that, I wasn’t really noticing her obvious intelligence. That’s just the way it is. Good grief, people, sex is why we’re all here! The fact that a man notices a woman’s sexuality first does not in any way diminish his opinion of her intelligence, drive, tenacity, verve, congeniality, or whatever terms you prefer to “beautiful.” It’s what keeps life going!

That’s one example. I follow Mr. Martin on Twitter, and I missed that snafu, because I follow a lot of people and I miss a lot of stuff. I hope that all he did was take that down, and that he didn’t apologize as have other celebrities when they bruised someone’s tender sensibilities. Twitter is, as a company, overly sensitive to those sorts of complaints. Probably, and this may even be fair, because of the preponderance of ugly, unfair, and even dangerous trolls who use Twitter to pursue their nefarious schemes. But, just because something is offensive to somebody does not mean that there is anything wrong with that something. In fact, I think that if anyone, especially an artist, doesn’t offend somebody along the way, then they are not doing a very good job.

When you write, whatever it is that you believe personally will come out in your writing. I don’t mean explicitly, but it will come out. Your protagonist will end up demonstrating something that you believe in, and that could be anything. Slow and steady wins the race, fear is the mind-killer, blue is a better color than yellow, whatever, it will come out. People have found many great authors offensive. Today, there are those who think that Huckleberry Finn should be banned from school because it uses the word “nigger.” It sure does, and it’s the most anti-racist book I’ve ever read. People have been offended by Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are because, well, I guess because they like to be offended. But it’s a wonderful book, as I’m sure you know. (He based the characters on relatives – see what I mean about your beliefs coming out?)

If you are going to write, you are going to have to be true, above all, to thine own self. (Hmmm. I think I read that somewhere?) If you aren’t, your writing will suffer, and probably suck. Not that you need to be explicit: I’ll quote Ben Bova, the famous editor of Sci-Fi magazines in the 40s and 50s: “You got a message, use Western Union!” (Western Union was a telegraph company in those days.) By which I mean, don’t be on the nose about your beliefs, because they will come out regardless, so long as you are true to yourself. And there will be those who are offended by what comes out, and those people will push to have your writing suppressed, in one way or another. Know what? Fuck ‘em! If you can’t be true to yourself, you can’t write well. If you can’t write well, you’ll never sell anything. If you never sell anything, you’ll starve. And if you starve because of some limp-brained, half-assed comments? Then that’s a tragedy of the first order.

Oh, gosh, I hope that this post hasn’t offended you! And if it has, then I truly have to say . . . . . . . TOUGH!

Watch Bill Maher’s Rant Here

Terrible Revision

Inside the Model Train Museum in San Diego (Surprise! Not Europe!)
Inside the Model Train Museum in San Diego (Surprise! Not Europe!)

Last year some time I came across a blog titled Terribleminds, written by a writer named Chuck Wendig. I liked his style, so I’ve since bought a few of his books, and also I follow him on Twitter. Since the election of Donald Trump, Chuck has been almost apoplectic at times, although he’s mellowed down to a menacing growl (comparatively) after his initial reaction. The story I’m going to discuss is that some people write to him and tell him that he should stick to handing out writing advice (which he does do very well.) Naturally, this encouraged a response. It is the evolution of that response that I’m writing about today.

It began as a thread on Twitter. It was a series of disconnected if related impressions, and others were free to chime in as well. (I just looked and it seems to be located here. This guy tweets more than Trump on the campaign trail.) The final product is located over here.  Feel free to refer to the originals, but be warned that they might be upsetting to certain political viewpoints. This is Wednesday, and I don’t do anything but writing on Wednesday, so I will state for the record that I neither endorse nor oppose the views expressed, which remain those of the various authors.

But, as I was saying, The thread on Twitter was sort of like a series of quick notes (heck, at 140 characters, that’s all you get, anyway.) It was a “thread,” in that it sort of hung together and if one read carefully one could extract a coherent theme from it. But, that was all. Nobody’s ever going to win a Nobel prize for a Twitter thread, I’m fairly certain. But, the blog post is a different story. It is coherent, (it has only one author,) it can be followed like a story instead of one of those odd Japanese comic books, and it makes its points clearly and succinctly. What changed?

Revision! That thread, if you will, is a first draft! Like any first draft, it needs some work! But, unlike some first drafts, it got some work. Lots of it. It looks casual, almost flippant, but you can bet Mr. Wendig put some thought and sweat some blood in getting it just right. He’s like that. He saw a story in a Twitter thread (sure, a short one) and he made it real. All by revising that first draft.

No story is done in one draft. My first drafts are so bad that I show them to nobody. Sometimes not even myself. How about yours?

Trust Yourself (A True Parable)

Vegas Vic Takes a Vacation in Cologne
Vegas Vic Takes a Vacation in Cologne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve put a rant or two about Bob Dylan on this site in the past. I have said that I considered Dylan to be one of the major poets of the twentieth century, and so I do. But, he is not the only one. Yes, there are the old reliable ones they taught me about in college, Yeats, Keats, Eliot, Pound, Williams, and (Dylan) Thomas. But also, there are a couple of more. One is Bruce Springsteen, no surprise there, as he was as close to a protégé as Bob Dylan ever got. (They reference each others works a few times.) And there was Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan liked Leonard Cohen, and vice-versa. Fine poets, both.

But I never thought of them as poets back when I would sit and play my Martin D35 as I sang their lyrics, over and over. I still love those songs. Blowin’ in the Wind is a classic by Dylan. And at about that same time I first heard Suzanne by Leonard Cohen. To this day, I couldn’t say exactly what it’s about, but the imagery, oh, the imagery, is wonderful. But, it didn’t occur to me that this was fine poetry, and not just the words to a song.

[You know, I’ve heard Shakespeare’s work put to music, too. A sonnet or two, that is. I should have known better, I guess.]

There is an official Leonard Cohen website, available here if you’d like to learn more. There are lyrics to his songs available at various places on the web, too. The link takes you to a Google search result.

The reason I failed to realize the majesty and depth of these two poet’s work was because I was in college, and taking English classes, and I knew a mess of poets. Those poets never wrote anything like what Dylan and Cohen were releasing, but they were poets, they said so, the teachers said so, and that meant that they were writing poetry, ipso facto. Except that, well, maybe it was poetry, but it was mostly lousy poetry. I’m sure that several encyclopedias worth of discussion is out there concerning what makes someone a great writer as opposed to a hack like most of us, but whatever it is, it is/was present in Dylan/Cohen, and it was decidedly lacking in the poets I knew back in the day. Fortunately, none of that bad poetry survives today, so far as I know. (And, to be honest, not all of it was bad, but most of it was bad. The not bad, even pretty good, stuff is still around, I’m sure.)

But Bob Dylan’s and Leonard Cohen’s works endure, and will continue to endure. Here’s a sample of Cohen:

Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried, in my way, to be free.

I could learn to like that sort of poetry. Oh, wait, I’ve liked it ever since I first heard it, and that is the actual truth. I liked the work of Cohen, and Dylan, the first time I heard their lyrics. I know, there are those who cried over a singer getting a Nobel Prize, rants about how awful the Nobel Committee is, but, in truth, those ranters and complainers were and are, to put it simply, wrong.

Suzanne takes you down to the place near the river.
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night beside her.
And you know that she’s half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there.

And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China,
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her,
Then she gets you on her wavelength, and she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover. (Leonard Cohen)

Or, from South of the Border, up in the North Country:

Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time,
Far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees,
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
(Bob Dylan)

Sorry, doubters and serious academics, those are some of the finest lines of poetry I’ve ever read, and I’ll bet that Wordsworth, Shelley, Poe, WC Williams, Dylan Thomas, and probably even Will Shakespeare would agree with me. So to the point of this post: If I had simply believed in my own judgement, I would have realized that these songs I liked to perform were great literature, and seen the earnest but missed the mark works of my peers for, well, earnest but missed the mark works. I knew what good writing was, but didn’t realize that I knew it.

You know what good writing is, too, or you wouldn’t care enough to try to be a writer! You know it! You may need some help to recognize how to produce your own, that’s true, but YOU KNOW WHAT GOOD WRITING IS!!! TRUST YOURSELF!!!

There, write that down in your daily journal, Bucky!

Writers of Southern Nevada

Writers of Southern Nevada Find them at nevadawriters.org.
Writers of Southern Nevada Find them at nevadawriters.org.

One of the links in the sidebar of this page is to nevadawriters.org. Besides creating literature so brilliant that Shakespeare would be jealous <grin>, I am on the board of this non-profit group dedicated to supporting writers, and writers groups, throughout Southern Nevada. In March, WSN will be presenting a workshop to the Las Vegas Writers’ Group, of which I am coordinator. I have advocated finding support on this blog before, and now I’m doing it again. I will state for the record that I get nothing financial out of support for these groups (although if there’s enough cash left over at the end of the year, Las Vegas Writers’ will have a holiday party.) What I do get is the moral and spiritual support that I need to keep plugging away at a craft that is, in all truth, a lot harder than anyone who has never tried it believes.

WSN has a lot of events planned for this year. Sometime, today or maybe tomorrow, maybe even Friday, but this week, there will appear, as if by magic, but actually by our President, Eric Miller, a calendar of these events. Some are workshops, some are Painted Stories, in which an artist or two interprets stories read by two or more writers. Some are mixers in places such as a local bar or restaurant. And we are holding a Writers’ Retreat at the Boulder Dam Hotel in Boulder City, Colorado, in September. All at affordable prices. (The March workshop, as it is also the meeting of the Las Vegas Writers’ Group, is just five bucks!) We also have a speakers’ bureau, right on the same site.

So, check out WSN at nevadawriters.org (the link is above.) Small investment, good return!