Editor’s Corner 101.16

Dangling Our Toes in the Stream of Consciousness

Scribe smallI love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours…

So, I picked up Ulysses the other day – as one is wont to do – and dove into the roiling river which is Molly Bloom’s beautifully, rudely fecund tale at book’s end. With my mind groping towards a subject for today, I read not only for the jaw-dropping poetry of the words tumbling across the page, but also for their precise, artful construction.

james-joycecollageAfter last week’s discussion of structure and time, it feels only natural to turn this week to a structure often entirely out of time, stream of consciousness. As a matter of history – and by now you know how I love my literary history – the term was first used by William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) to describe the uncensored way thoughts play across the mind. Writers picked it up as a narrative conceit, a means to imitate our interior chatter that fills out brains. Though some say his baby brother Henry (and a few other 19th-century scribes) toyed with the style, it did not really catch on until the 20th century.

Which brings me back to Joyce – and to Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, and other masters of stream of consciousness. Ulysses, The Waves,The Waves As I Lay Dying, Strange Interlude, all are modern classics with interior narratives as intricately constructed aAs I Lay Dyings Chartres cathedral. They lead the reader into the mental meanderings of characters, each word leaping off the page 200px-Strange_Interlude2like a synaptic spark, seemingly random, spontaneous, and free. Yet they knew what too many novice writers do not: an imitation of unfiltered thought is not truly unfiltered. Intimations of freedom require restraints.

Now, as an editor, I lay the trouble many people have with SofC at the door of misguided youth and J.D. Salinger. (For the younger generation, consider the culpability of the vast Cyberian wasteland and the Twitter/Facebook anything-I-think-is-brilliant-because-I-think-it mentality.) Back when we were teenagers many a would-be writer sat in third-period English poring over The Catcher in the Rye, carried along by Holden’s free-wheeling SofC narrative. Chances are generation of well-meaning teacher even assigned stream-of-consciousness essays, urging a generation to emulate Salinger and capture the spontaneity of his style. And why not? We were young and easily enamored by the freedom SofC embodied, believing that it’s simply a matter of turning on a tap and going with the verbal flow.

While this may be great for dusting the morning cobwebs from a sleepy brain, or dislodging a paralyzing case of writer’s block, an objective look at such writing will tell you that it may be ‘free’ but chances are it’s not very good. Even journaling, personally fascinating and helpful as it may be, seldom rises to the level of literature. (Pepys, Nin, Woolf, and a few other extraordinary diarists are the exception that proves the rule, and in some cases, they clearly wrote their diaries with an eye on posterity, making them more intentionally artful. But I digress….)

The fact is, if you look at Joyce or Woolf, you will see that there is no happenstance in their words (there was a reason it took Joyce 12 years to write Ulysses). They’re filtered through character and structure and rules, each stream-polished stone placed just so, that it might catch the sun perfectly. Like each stroke Jackson Pollock put on canvas, there is purpose and intent behind every word. There is the meticulous manifestation of choice.Jackson-Pollock-21

Throwing paint at a canvas doesn’t make someone Jackson Pollock and spilling random words onto paper doesn’t make you James Joyce. Literary stream of consciousness is not automatic writing, it just feels that way.

And that is the writer’s magic. The studied art of effortlessness.

Dive in, if you dare.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.8

The Precision of Words
Written by Shawn MacKenzie

“I do love perusing the dictionary to find how many words I don’t use – words that have specific, sharp, focused meaning.” … Geoffrey Rush

Scribe smallIt has been a Mad-Mouse sort of week, jostling me between work well done and pounding my head against an impenetrable stone wall, so I hope you bear with me if I am briefer than usual.

Today, as I was typing away at my keyboard (and deleting and typing anew), I began to think about our writer’s tools. The fact is, as a profession, writing is extremely light when it comes to essential implements. Pen and paper, they’re the basics. Of course, it’s the 21st century, and most of us have exchanged blank bond for a computer screen – to the eternal gratitude of many a pulpwood forest and their denizens. Much as I have come to rely on my computer, the Luddite in me still finds eternal delight in the feel of a fine fountain pen dancing across a pristine page.

Beyond that, the best tool a writer can have is a good dictionary.

A dictionary is a wonder – a good dictionary is a treasure. Between its covers lives the entirety of a language. And make no mistake, a language does live. It grows and changes, grafts on a foreign phrase here and gives fruit to a portmanteau there. It is full of infinite variety and as artful or as sloppy as we choose to make it.

Too often we writers get into ruts. We get comfortable with a primary palette of nouns and verbs and everyday adjectives. When we want to stir things up we simply trowel on the adverbs. Not that there is anything wrong with the everyday. If it suits. Your basic 8-pack of Crayolas can create lovely pictures. But after a while you might just want to increase the linguistic colors at your disposal. Green has its place, but Fern tastes of forest loam and Inch Worm is as warm as a May afternoon. crayola-by-nicole

In an instant, the ordinary flowers into a world of infinite possibilities.

Which brings me to my editorial advice for this week: Never settle for the imprecise simply because you can’t put call to mind the more exact alternative.

Get yourself a linguistic big 120-box of crayons. Use your dictionary. Religiously. The better your vocabulary, the more options you have to say exactly what you mean. Hell, open it at random and jump right in. I do this often, especially with the OED, a lexicologist’s dream. Use your thesaurus, too. While you don’t want your writing to sound like it was written-by-thesaurus, Roget’s tome and its ilk (the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus is particularly good and accessible) can serve as catalysts for the imagination. When all is said and done, in that “Eureka!” moment as just the right word unrolls across the page, does it really matter the path it followed to get there?

dictionary2_1418194c

“Webster’s—the original high definition entertainment.” …. Jarod Kintz

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIEMacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Thoughts on Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 8]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 8

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 14th December 2014

susan sontag photo for series

The writer does not have to write. She must imagine that she must. A great book: no one is addressed, it counts as cultural surplus, it comes from the will.
(3/10/80)

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Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.
(3/15/80)

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The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.
(4/26/80)

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Making lists of words, to thicken my active vocabulary. To have puny, not just little, hoax, not just trick, mortifying, not just embarrassing, bogus, not just fake.
I could make a story out of puny, hoax, mortifying, bogus. They are a story.
(4/30/80)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

When Susan Sontag died the obituaries omitted her relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz, with whom Sontag maintained a relationship with throughout her last decade.

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Thoughts on Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 7]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 7

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 7th December 2014

susan sontag photo for series

Language as a found object
(2/1/79)

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Last novelist to be influenced by, knowledgeable about science was Aldous Huxley
One reason [there are] no more novels — There are no exciting theories of relation of society to self (sociological, historical, philosophical)
Not SO — no one is doing it, that’s all
(undated, March 1979)

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There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work
(undated, March 1979)

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To write one must wear blinkers. I’ve lost my blinkers.
Don’t be afraid to be concise!
(3/10/79)

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A failure of nerve. About writing. (And about my life — but never mind.) I must write myself out of it.
If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing.
Then something else will happen. It always does.
I must write every day. Anything. Everything. Carry a notebook with me at all times, etc.
I read my bad reviews. I want to go to the bottom of it — this failure of nerve
(7/19/79)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, [Sontag considered herself to be bisexual] but it’s never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody’s in drastic need. I’d rather give pleasure, or shake things up.” – Susan Sontag

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Thoughts On Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 6]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 6

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 30th November 2014

susan sontag photo for series

One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.
(7/19/77)

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Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground (for what we don’t know — to see how much pleasure + pain we can bear or what pleasure + pain are?) and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.
(12/4/77)

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Only thing that counts are ideas. Behind ideas are [moral] principles. Either one is serious or one is not. Must be prepared to make sacrifices. I’m not a liberal.
(12/4/77)

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When there is no censorship the writer has no importance.
So it’s not so simple to be against censorship.
(12/7/77)

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Imagination: — having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.
(5/27/78)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

“Intellectually, I know why I haven’t spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven’t repressed something there to my detriment.”
– Susan Sontag

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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Thoughts On Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 5]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 5

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 23rd November 2014

susan sontag photo for series

Weakness of American poetry — it’s anti-intellectual. Great poetry has ideas.
(6/14/76)

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Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer — I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair.
By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.
(6/19/76)

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The function of writing is to explode one’s subject — transform it into something else. (Writing is a series of transformations.)
Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then — that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.
(11/5/76)

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‘All art aspires to the condition of music’ — this utterly nihilistic statement rests at the foundation of every moving camera style in the history of the medium. But it is a cliché, a 19th century cliché, less an aesthetic than a projection of an exhausted state of mind, less a world view than a world weariness, less a statement of vital forms than an expression of sterile decadence. There is quite another pov [point of view] about what ‘all art aspires to’ — that was Goethe’s, who put the primary art, the most aristocratic one, + the one art that cannot be made by the plebes but only gaped at with awe, + that art is architecture. Really great directors have this sense of architecture in their work — always expressive of immense line of energy, unstable + vital conduits of force.
(undated, 1977)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Sontag was quoted by Editor-in-Chief Brendan Lemon of Out magazine as saying “I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the ‘open secret’. I’m used to that, and quite OK with it.” – Susan Sontag

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Thoughts On Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 4]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 4

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 16th November 2014

susan sontag photo for series

The solution to a problem — a story that you are unable to finish — is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution. Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it.
(7/31/73)

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Talking like touching
Writing like punching somebody
(8/14/73)

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To be a great writer:
know everything about adjectives and punctuation (rhythm)
have moral intelligence — which creates true authority in a writer
(2/6/74)

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‘Idea’ as method of instant transport away from direct experience, carrying a tiny suitcase.
‘Idea’ as a means of miniaturizing experience, rendering it portable. Someone who regularly has ideas is — by definition — homeless.
Intellectual is a refugee from experience. In Diaspora.
What’s wrong with direct experience? Why would one ever want to flee it, by transforming it — into a brick?
(7/25/74)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Her often provocative essays and speeches drew criticism. The New York Review of Books called her “one of the most influential critics of her generation.”

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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