6 Misconceptions About Writing, No. 3

Continuing with Rebecca Maclanahan’s essay of writing, as follows:

Rebecca Maclanahan

Writers know in advance exactly where they’re going,
and they get there.


“Some writers claim to carry whole books in their heads the way Mozart
carried whole sonatas, releasing the finished composition in one swift, turbulent flourish. Some say they know, even before the first word is written, exactly how the story will open, the plot thicken, the theme develop, and all the loose ends tie together on the last page.
“As for me, and for dozens of writers I know personally and hundreds whose journals, letters, interviews and memoirs I’ve studied, writing appears to be an ongoing act of discovery, or, as John Updike says, “a constant search for what one is saying.” Some writers begin in the dark, with only a word, a phrase, a cloudy image or emotion to guide them; they feel their way to the light. Some, like Katherine Anne Porter, who said she always knew where she was going and how her stories would end, write the ending first and then, in Porter’s words, “go back and work towards it,” thus making a kind of backwards discovery. Still others map out a plan but quickly discard it when the road unexpectedly veers off in a more intriguing direction.
“The idea that writers always know in advance exactly where they’re going is linked to the first idea we discussed—that writing gets done without writing.
“Since most writers publish only their final, edited version of a piece of writing, if indeed they publish it at all, readers are rarely able to glimpse a writer’s path towards a completed draft. We can’t see the crumpled pages, the cross-outs and deletions, the discarded chapters that were fed to the fire or used for lining the parakeet’s cage. Because we see only the finished product of a writer’s labour, it’s easy to assume that everything happened according to plan. Thus, the myth is perpetuated: Writers know exactly where they’re going, and they get there.”

I can’t imagine having a complete story in mind when I begin a novel. For me, a novel is an organic creation which develops as one creates it. Yes, I have an idea of the plot, the characters and the setting, but I reserve the right to make changes – additions and deletions – as I write. The point is that as the characters interact on the pages, new and more interesting events begin to emerge. And while I agree with the point made in a previous post that it is good practice to prepare an outline of the novel, and I usually write an outline of each chapter, I almost always deviate from the outline. In fact I have killed off a character for the sake of the emotional response of the other characters, and to strengthen the point of the novel. (Though I did cry every time I had to deal with his death.)

What They Don’t Teach You in MFA Programs: 5 Rules for Writing Stories That Work

There was an article by Chris Mooney in Writer’s Digest on September 1, 2020, with the above title, that caught my eye.

The Harvard Extension School says this about Chris Mooney on its website: “Hailed by Lee Child as one of the best thriller writers working today, Chris Mooney is the critically acclaimed and international bestselling author of twelve novels, including The Snow Girls, the ninth book in the bestselling Darby McCormick series. In 2006, the Mystery Writers Association nominated Mooneys third novel, Remembering Sarah, for an Edgar Award for Best Novel. Remembering Sarah went on to become one of the top 100 bestselling books in the Netherlands. He has sold over two million copies.”

Chris Mooney

In the article, Mr Mooney says: “I was never a fan of academic creative writing courses. The ones I took in college and graduate school were, shall we say, less than desirable (more on that in a moment), and the classes were run by professors, some of whom were published writers, who loved to talk about what made great writing but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) explain what made a great story. Story, more often than not, was secondary.

“I’ve been teaching creative writing at Harvard’s Extension School and their Summer Writing Program, on and off, for the past two decades, to mainly graduate students, and I’m always struck by just how little many of these great, promising writers know about story. Whether you’re writing romance, young adult fiction, or the great American novel, it all begins with story. You have to know story structure, how it works and how to work it, before you write a single line.

“And this is how you do it.

“Rule #1: What Story Do You Want to Tell?

“You have to start here. And this is where many writers fail because they don’t take the time to ask themselves the question. Even when they do, they often come up with an idea that isn’t clear or specific.

“Let’s say you want to write a coming of age story about a boy. That’s a starting point, a germ of an idea, but it tells you absolutely nothing about the actual story. Saying you want to tell a story about a thirteen-year-old boy from Kansas who undergoes a spiritual awakening while in a six-month coma—that’s more specific.

“When I began drafting my crime thriller novel Blood World, I started with the idea that one of the things we struggle with in life is the effects of aging. It’s a premise, but it’s not a story. 

“Once I sat down and experimented with ideas, I came up with a better preliminary idea for Blood World: There are people called carriers who have a certain gene that allows their blood to operate at maximum efficiency. They live longer, are healthier, and look young. When a “non-carrier” gets a full-body blood transfusion with carrier blood, along with a mix of certain medications, the results are amazing—fat melts away; skin looks young and supple; increased energy and muscle mass—oh, and as an added bonus, you’ll have the sex life of your dreams. The younger the carrier, the cleaner—and more powerful—the blood.

“Interesting, right? The idea is also specific and clear.

“Once you have a solid idea that excites you, then you move onto the next important question:

“Rule #2: You Must Have Conflict.

“No matter what story you write, no matter what scene you write, conflict is your best friend. This isn’t just the realm of thrillers. The same principle works in every story, whether it’s literary fiction or a summer rom-com or the latest Disney Pixar movie.

“Your job as the writer is to create lots of conflict, and you do that with your characters. Your characters have to want something—a goal or desire—and you, the writer, need to set up interesting obstacles. The characters have to struggle against these obstacles, and when they overcome them, not only does the experience change your characters in some way, they must take what they’ve learned and apply them to new obstacles, with greater stakes. This is what creates not only drama and suspense but also creates story.

“To put it simply, your protagonist wants something, and the antagonist will go out of his or her way to prevent your protagonist from getting it. Their actions and decisions create conflict, which creates story and also moves the story along. John Truby, in his excellent (and highly recommended) book The Anatomy of Story says it best: “Create an opponent … who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness.”

“There’s one caveat: The story must feel natural—meaning, the story comes about because your characters are making their own decisions. The writer is invisible. The reader must never feel you’re forcing your characters into decisions and choices in order to serve the plot. Story isn’t a machine.

“Rule #3: Always Start With Action.

“You always—always—want to open with the “big” event—the inciting incident—because this is what your overall story is about. Don’t work up to it; throw the reader right into it. Yes, it’s tough, because you need to weave in backstory and some other matters, but you have to do it. It takes time and practice.

“Let’s say that’s not your creative process—that you’re the type of writer who needs to write his or her way into the story first. Okay, fine. Do that. Then, when you’re done, your job is to identify this “big event” and figure out a way to start the story there. You have to get the reader into that scene as soon as possible. This rule applies not only to the opening scene but to every single scene you write.

“Rule #4: Always Increase the Stakes … and Don’t Let Up.

“Most beginning writers have an idea of a scene that starts with conflict. Where they often stumble is by not taking the time to ask themselves what the stakes are.

“I always approach story this way: You place a noose around your character’s neck. Each decision the character makes tightens the noose just a little bit. But as the story evolves, as your character makes tougher decisions, that noose is going to get tighter and tighter. It’s at its tightest right at the end—the climax of the story—where your character encounters his or her greatest obstacle, the one that is going to allow your character to finally “breathe” again. When this happens, however, your character is changed in some way by the experiences and the choices he or she made.

“And what if you don’t want your character or characters to change? That’s fine too because that says something about them and the overall story you’re trying to tell—but we still need to see and know why they don’t change.

“Rule #5: Prepare Yourself in Advance.

“I’m the type of writer who knows how a book is going to open, and how it’s going to end. I might have some vague ideas about what happens in the middle, which is why when I start writing, the beginning part flies … and then comes to a grinding halt. Why? Because I have no idea what happens next. Not only that, I’m usually paralyzed by indecision.

“When I first started out, I would write draft after draft of a book. That process doesn’t work out so well when you have to write a book a year—and, most important, it’s draining and demoralizing. What’s a writer to do?

“You outline.

“Now, if you’re of those writers who says, “I can’t do an outline, it will kill my creativity,” know that I, too, thought that way. But consider this: TV writers get into a room to first hammer out ideas. Then they work on the overall themes and character arcs, then individual episodes and then scenes. So I decided to try it.

“By sitting down and outlining your book, figuring out its structure ahead of time, wrestling with the big dramatic choices your characters are going to make, how you’re going to increase the stakes—trust me when I tell you that doing all these things upfront, before you write, will free you up creatively.

“How? Because you’re creating a roadmap of where you want to go. When you sit down to write, you already know where you’re going, which puts you into a more relaxed state. You’re focusing on the scene in front of you. You’re not worrying about what comes next, if it’s the right or wrong decision. The more relaxed you are, the more your imagination will work, offering you more ideas. Some of these ideas will be very exciting, and if you get one that you fall in love with one, guess what? All you need to do is take a look at your outline and see how to best incorporate it. You won’t have to throw out 100 or more pages labored over for weeks or months and start from scratch.

“The outline is a guide. That said, the more locked down the idea, the more pleasant—and creatively fulfilling—the writing experience. I’ve had students fight me on this, and while not all of them enjoyed it, they all said the same thing at the end: They’re glad they tried it. The process allowed them to engage in their story on a deeper level because all the “big-picture” stuff was already out of the way.

“Do yourself a favour and follow these guidelines. They’ll make you a better storyteller. You’ll create deeper, more fully formed characters that readers will fall in love with and a richer, more compelling book that readers won’t be able to put down. At the end of the day, isn’t that what you want?”

6 Misconceptions about Writing – No. 2

Somewhere on the Internet, I found the “6 Misconceptions About Writing” by Rebecca McClanahan, which is excerpted from Write Your Heart Out, which was published in 2001. Ms McClanahan is the author of ten books and is also an educator, and public speaker. She specializes in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.

Rebecca McClanahan

I quote from her document below.

Misconception #2: Writers have time to write.
For many people on this planet, writing is not an option. Those who are locked in the jaws of war, illness, poverty, violence, illiteracy, starvation, natural or unnatural disasters don’t have the luxury of writing. Getting from one day to the next is all they can manage.
On the other end of the scale are those for whom life affords every luxury.
Blessed with health, talent, opportunities and material resources, their only
responsibility is to the blank page or canvas. Some are born into wealth and
privilege; their days are and will always be truly theirs, to use as they will.
Others, through cosmic collisions of luck and fate, are granted uninterrupted time and space in which to work. If they chose to write their hearts out, nothing can stop them—or so it appears. (We’ll talk more about this assumption later.)
The rest of us fall somewhere between these extremes. And though we cite
plenty of reasons for not writing, lack of time seems to be the biggest factor.
Listen in on any group of writers long enough, and chances are the subject of time will come up. “If I just had more time,” someone sighs aloud, and everyone around the table nods agreement: the poet/single mother of three, the essayist/ computer programmer, the novelist/college student, the mystery writer/nurse, the memoirist/carpenter.
The challenge of making time to write is not new nor is it trivial. For centuries, writers have felt time’s weight pressing down upon them, and many have collapsed beneath it. Books, journals, diaries and interviews are filled with their struggles. In Tillie Olsen’s meticulously detailed Silences, which ironically marked the end of Olsen’s own twenty-year literary silence, she tells of famous and unknown writers alike whose work was interrupted, postponed, abandoned, or, in some cases, barely begun. As Olsen explains, time wasn’t the only pressure bearing down on these writers, but it was one of the heaviest. Heavy enough to silence Melville’s prose for thirty years while he wore himself out at the customs dock trying to make ends meet. Heavy enough to force Katherine Anne Porter to spend twenty constantly-interrupted years writing Ship of Fools rather than the two years she estimated it would have taken had she been able
to write full time.
Any piece of writing requires time, and a sustained, artistic, well-crafted creation requires not only actual writing time but time for imagining, thinking, feeling, dreaming, revising, reconsidering, and beginning again. The circumstances of our lives eat up that time; that’s why we call them “time-consuming.” Some time consuming circumstances are welcome: playing with our children, making dinner for friends, planting a flower garden, taking a trip to the mountains. Other circumstances, if not always welcome, are nevertheless necessary: going to work, filling out tax forms, changing the oil filter, making out the grocery list. But whether welcome or unwelcome, pleasant or unpleasant, necessary to our physical survival or to our emotional well-being, these circumstances use up time, time that is not being used for writing.
When day-to-day circumstances absorb the time that could/should/might be
used for writing, you may get a little edgy. You might even get angry or envious, imagining living the life of a Real Writer, someone who doesn’t have to work at another job, or two or three, to make ends meet, who doesn’t have to mow the lawn, call the plumber, take out the garbage, clean the chimney, make breakfast, grade papers, feed the kids and the cat. I’ve wasted whole afternoons doing that old two-step, The Sulk & Carry. (The steps are simple: You just sulk awhile, then carry it with you all day.) It’s just not fair, I tell myself. In addition to everything else they have, Real Writers have time to write.
Or so it appears on the surface. In actuality, no person, however rich or free of outside constraints, has time to write. True, some people have more money, energy, opportunity, or freedom from day-to-day duties than the rest of us. But nature abhors a vacuum, and each life, however privileged, must fill with something. And fill it does. All the time in the world, by itself, will not make writing happen. Or, as we’ve said before, writing only happens by writing, and only the person who writes the book can write the book.
Okay, so maybe it won’t be a whole book. Not this year, anyway. Maybe what you’ll manage is a poem a year, one long letter on each grandchild’s birthday, a handful of travel essays or short stories, a stack of editorials written to your local newspaper, song lyrics for your daughter’s wedding, one wild and crazy screenplay, or a locked diary filled with your secret fears and wishes. Whether you end up publishing a body of work that makes Joyce Carol Oates’ output look paltry, or whether you write one story that no one but yourself ever sees, is beside the point. The point is, you’re writing.
As the Rolling Stones song says, “You can’t always get what you want…but if
you try sometime, you just might find you’ll get what you need.” If you can make time to read this book, you can make time to write. If you can make time to watch the evening news or your favorite sit-com, you can make time to write.
True, you may not be able to make the time you want, but you can make the
time you need. You may even find that time limits actually feed the writing
process. (We’ll discuss this in the next chapter.)
Most of us already have everything we need to do the kind of writing we need to do. And if we don’t yet have what we need, there are ways to go about getting it. We can change the external circumstances of our life to allow more time for writing, we can wait for our circumstances to change, or we can learn to work within the restraints imposed upon us. But one thing is certain: If we spend time complaining that we have no time, we’ll have even less time to write.

REVIEW: On the Road

I was somewhat startled to find this book in the English language section of the bookstore in Capo D’Orlando, Sicily. But maybe the owner had read it and thought it might find a buyer among the half-dozen English speaking tourists here who were born before the publication date (1957), and felt guilty about never having read this American classic. If so, he was right. I was at university at the time, had plenty to read and thought that this book was too hip for me. I confess that while I enjoyed reading it, it’s still too hip for me – or I’m too square.

The fly leaf inside the cover says that the author, Jack Kerouac, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922. “In 1947, enthused by bebop (music), the rebel attitude of his friend, Neal Cassady, and the throng of hobos, drug addicts and hustlers he found in New York, he decided to discover America and hitchhike across the country. His writing was openly autobiographical and he developed a style he referred to as ‘spontaneous prose’, which he used to record the experiences of the beat generation. Kerouac wrote a number of hugely influential and popular novels – most famously the international bestseller On the Road. As much as anything, he came to represent a philosophy, a way of life.”

Jack Kerouac

On the face of it this is a semi-autobiographical novel about an educated writer’s travels across the USA and Mexico with one particular male friend whom he admired, and in the company of other friends who drop in and out searching for kicks: alcohol, drugs, music and sex. Almost always destitute, they party all night and sleep during the day, moving from place to place mostly as hitchhikers, as jalopy drivers, and occasionally on buses. The original version of On the Road was typed by Kerouac on a scroll 37 meters long (to save time in changing sheets in the typewriter). It included explicit sex and the real names of some of the author’s friends; these were removed or changed at the insistence of the publisher, Viking. I notice that the original version has been published in 2008.

As for the ‘spontaneous prose’ used by Kerouac, it does make the novel marginally more difficult to read, but it also makes the emotions, the thoughts and the settings – bizarre as they sometimes are – more real. If I had known about the scroll version, I would have bought it instead, as being more authentic. Sex was a primary objective on the road, and the edited version mentions it only in passing.

As I reflect on the novel and its author, it seems that the novel created a sensation at the time it was published. I think that most readers today would wonder what the point of it all was. Was it really just irresponsible kicks and living life at maximum velocity and intensity. Kerouac’s biographer, Douglas Brinkley, says that the author was a committed Catholic. But there is none of this in the novel (except for doodles in the original margin). Kerouac also suffered from mental illness. Politically, he was conservative. But I don’t get a sense of the author’s values. If I were able to, that might answer the major question I have after reading this novel: Why?

Misconceptions About Writing, No. 1 (of 6)

Somewhere on the Internet, I found the “6 Misconceptions About Writing” by Rebecca McClanahan, which is excerpted from Write Your Heart Out, which was published in 2001. Ms McClanahan is the author of ten books and is also an educator, and public speaker. She specializes in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.

I quote from her document below.

Rebecca McClanahan

Misconception #1. Writing gets done without writing.

I usually don’t answer the phone during my writing hours, but when I do, it’s often a friend or family member calling, and the conversation goes something like this.
“Hi. What are you doing?”
“Writing,” I answer.
“Really?” she says, as if this were news, as if it weren’t the same answer I’ve
been giving for years now. We talk a while, she tells me about her day, I
complain about the essay that’s tying me in knots or I exalt in the final revision of a poem that’s been eluding me all summer. We say goodbye and hang up.
A week or two later she calls again.
“Hi. What are you doing?”
“Writing.”
Again she seems surprised. We talk a while, say goodbye, and after a few
minutes of sharpening pencils (I don’t even use pencils) or fantasizing about a six-figure advance on some book I’ll never begin, or staring out the window where people with real jobs and leather briefcases are hurrying to meetings, I get back to work. Later in the week while I’m getting a haircut, my stylist asks if I’m still writing, as if it were a bad habit, like smoking, that I surely must have kicked by now. It occurs to me to ask him if he’s still cutting hair, but I decide it would be mean-spirited. Besides, it takes energy to talk, and I need all my energy for the chapter revision that’s backing up in my head. So I just look in the mirror and nod politely.
Occasionally even writer friends seem surprised to find me writing, just as I’m sometimes amazed to catch them in the act. I realize this makes no sense. How else do I suppose their poems, stories, essays, songs, lectures and journal entries get written? Yet the fantasy that writing gets done without writing is so appealing, it’s a hard one to release—like the notion of babies being delivered pain free, via stork or cabbage leaf. Watching the freshly polished baby asleep in a blanket beside his exhausted mother, it’s easy to forget that just hours ago he was a squirming sack of blood and skin and primal scream. And reading someone else’s published novel—or a finished poem, short story or essay—it’s hard to imagine the often tedious, painful, messy, sometimes joyous, always life-changing process by which it was delivered, kicking and screaming, into the light.
Like sex or childbirth, writing is almost always a private act. Others don’t see us doing it, and the popular media do little to dispel the notion that writing gets done without writing. In movies about writers, the writers do everything but write.
They sit in dark cafes, dance on tables, smoke one thin black cigarette after
another, slap their lovers, drive too fast or drink too much. In the few scenes where they’re actually writing, the camera doesn’t linger. Who would pay seven dollars to watch someone sit at a desk and write? So the camera seeks out something more interesting—the bottle of Scotch, the unmade bed, the cocktail dress dropped on the floor—and moves on. One quick shot of the writer’s hand on the keyboard (typing, what else, “The End”) and he’s heading for the door, grabbing the finished manuscript and cigarettes on his way out.
No wonder we imagine writing gets done without writing. And no wonder we believe anyone can write a book. The truth is, anyone can’t write a book. Only the person who writes the book can write the book.”

How The Times’ Best Seller List Comes Together

There was an article in The New York Times on 2 October 2020, written by the “Best Seller Lists Staff” and I quote from it below:

“Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

“Come holiday or hurricane, one thing you can count on is that The New York Times’ best-seller lists will be published online every Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern. And those lists will be dated for the print Book Review, where they will appear 11 days later. This is just one of the many quirks of the work we — the three-member BSL team, as we call ourselves — do, combining data science, investigative reporting and our own special blend of foxhole humor.

“As much as we wish some myths were true, such as that the lists are determined by an automated data spigot with a secret algorithm or our executive editor’s throwing darts at the wall, the work of putting together the lists requires the full-time efforts of the three of us and the support of an information technology team.

“The sales data that drives what books make the lists, and where they land within them, is sent by stores giant, tiny and in-between all across the country. It reflects the previous week’s Sunday-to-Saturday sales period, which stores begin to report to us over the weekend. We receive numbers on millions of titles each week from tens of thousands of storefronts and online retailers as well as specialty and independent bookstores.

“So there’s a lot of data in need of herding. This is complicated by the fact that a single title in one binding, such as hardcover, can have a dozen or more International Standard Book Numbers or I.S.B.N.s, which are like Social Security numbers for books, depending on the different kinds of stores where it is sold. We must tie them together in our system and track all of them appropriately. Since our work must be kept under wraps until we publish, we use an assortment of code names for books, authors and stores.

“By noon on Mondays, we have received roughly 75 percent of the data and have some idea of what the best bets are going to be for new titles. But, as in sports, it’s not over until the final buzzer, which will come the following afternoon. Monday afternoons fly by because we continue to gather reports, help stores with technical issues and begin the stressful task of writing things we know will eventually be read by a lot of famous authors.

“We write descriptions for the new titles based on the blurbs on the books’ jackets or publishers’ websites. Most weeks, we have a dozen or so new titles across our 11 weekly lists. On busy weeks when we also close our seven monthly lists, we can have over 40 new titles. We have to make sure we have the correct title, author(s), publisher’s imprint and pertinent facts about the book before squeezing everything into a limited space on a tight deadline.

“Yes, this means we are ranking the books and writing their descriptions without having read the works. You might ask how we can choose which books are good if we aren’t first reading all of them. We don’t. Unlike the staff members of the Book Review, from whom we work independently, we aren’t making value judgments. We go off the sales data.

“The window for reporting each week closes at noon on Tuesdays. For the next few hours, we determine the final rankings, based on the sales data and details provided by stores. We want the lists to reflect what individual consumers are buying across the country instead of what is being bought in bulk by individuals or associated groups.

“During the finalization stage, the three of us gather in a room (or, these days, we get on the phone), and one editor reads each list from top to bottom as the other two double-check information. To stay alert, we sing some book titles to the tune of familiar songs. Recent chart toppers include: Tara Westover’s “Educated,” crooned to the rhythm of Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited”; Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” delivered in the style of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”; and Sean Hannity’s “Live Free or Die,” belted like Axl Rose wailing “Live and Let Die.”

“Once we complete the descriptions for the new titles, we send them to get copy-edited before they get published in our subscriber newsletter, online and in the print Book Review. On Wednesday evenings, people are either popping Champagne corks or calling for our heads. Whatever the reaction, it’s important to remember that the lists are less of a final judgment by readers on a book or topic and more of an ongoing conversation. Each week tells a different story. The only way to get a true sense of trends in the book world and in our culture is to look at the lists over many weeks, months and even years.”

This sounds like a complicated process, but maybe it’s the fairest way to do it.

Review: The System

I heard Robert Reich speak on a subscription program – was it a Guardian program?  And I was impressed enough to order his book, The System: Who Rigged it, How We Fix It.

Robert B Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkley.  He has served in three national administrations and written sixteen books.  His articles have appeared in top newspapers and journals.  He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and Newsweek.  He lives in Berkeley.

Robert B Reich

This book is about what has gone wrong with the American political system, how it has occurred, and what can be done to recover our democracy.  Professor Reich says there are three major power shifts which have occurred and, together, they have, over the last forty years transformed the United States from a democracy to an oligarchy, where power is concentrated in the hands of an elite group of very wealthy individuals.  The power shift was brought about by corporate raiders who made the shareholder the only stakeholder in publically traded companies.  Previously, the employees, the communities in which they were located, their suppliers and customers were also stakeholders.  This led to a strict focus on profits, resulting in wage stagnation, loss of union power, off-shoring of production, and, in turn, to tremendous increases in CEO compensation.  CEO’s gained tremendous wealth and power.  So, Professor Reich says that the first power shift was from stakeholder capitalism to shareholder capitalism, and the second was a shift in bargaining power from large unions to large corporations.  And the third shift was unleashing the financial sector (Wall Street) from laws regulation.  This meant huge financial rewards for CEO’s, hedge funds, derivatives traders, and others.  With vast financial resources available to few people, and with the Supreme Court’s ruling on political campaign finance, it became possible for this limited pool of powerful people to ‘bribe’ politicians with huge contributions to obtain the laws, regulations and taxation they wanted.  The top ten percent of Americans became richer, the bottom ninety percent became poorer, with lower quality education, health care and basic infrastructure.  Professor Reich argues that it is possible for the ninety percent to act in concert to change the system.

In the book, Professor Reich singles out Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, the huge bank, as an example of an individual who uses his power to change the system.  He and many other specific examples populate this book with a host of convincing evidence.  A multi-page appendix lists the sources of the evidence.  There is also much evidence of the wage, benefits, health care and educational erosion for the ninety percent, including personal examples.  The book is written with considerable emotion and conviction.

As accurate and convincing as the book is, I have two minor criticisms of it.  It is often repetitive, making the same point repeatedly.  It is also not organized like a legal brief, the points are all there, but they tend to get somewhat tangled.  Perhaps these ‘faults’ were intentional on the part of the author and his publisher.  They intended this book to be an emotional tirade.  If so, it is very convincing.

 

What Is Literary Talent?

On September 10, 2020, Writer’s Digest ran a reprint of a 1925 article written by Thomas H Uzzell, the former fiction editor of Colliers Weekly and author of Narrative Technique.  He also wrote The Technique of the Novel – a Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative, Grandee Jim: A Novel of Action, Romance and History in Old Santa Fe, and was the editor of Short Story Hits.  I was unable to fine a picture of Mr Uzzell, who said:

“Just before I sat down to write this article, a young woman came to me saying she wanted help in writing short stories. I asked her how much writing she had done, and her answer was, “None,” and she had been wanting to write for eight years! A hopeless case. People who want to write, write; they don’t think about it. They may write very badly because they are too subjective and have no idea of an audience and know nothing about technique, but—they will write something. Their interest gives them the energy needed to get the writing done.

On the intensity and the endurance of a person’s interest in his writing does his success hang more utterly than on any other single factor. Love of the medium and love of the deed or want of that love make or break 95 out of every 100 aspirants. Where that love is, you find something as deep as life itself. How much writing have you already done? The answer to this question will offer the best solution I know as to how much writing you are going to do.

Legions of people with literary ambitions who get nowhere are more pre-occupied with the thought of why they would like to success than with the thought of how they are going to win success. They want to “win fame,” “earn some money,” to “fulfill ambition,” “make their friends proud of them;” and, alas, too many of them have turned to fiction after failing at everything else they have tried, as the one thing within their slender powers.

Desire for money or fame are not at all inconsistent with a genuine literary purpose; they are generally incentives to energetic action; but if the action is not the putting of ideas in the shape of words on paper, all resolutions will come to nothing.

One of the commonest errors with regard to this desire to write is the mistaking of a love of reading for a talent for writing. Once he realizes that the easier a book is to read the more painful the labor that produced it, the person with this “book-lover” complex becomes discouraged. His interest was not in self-expression, but in being “literary.”

A handicap even greater than this “book-lover complex” is that caused by some pathological inhibition, some nervous disorder which prevents the writer from comprehending the conduct of normal human beings. His writings express not life as it is, but some suppressed personal desires. This psychopathologic problem of writers is too wide and intricate a subject to be more than touched on here.

The highest mark of genuine writing talent is an interest in the art so deep that copy in quantity is produced. Jack London was fond of quoting his favorite author, Conrad, as follows: “An artist is a man of action.” Action for the literary artists is writing.

Nearly every student writer postpones too long the hour of beginning. He hopes for the beautifully finished plot, the perfect word, the high inspiration. The art of writing is a well-developed habit under constant control. Years of writing are necessary for practically every aspirant to develop this habit effectively enough to release his message to the world. For the average student a million words are needed for this training in habit only.

Whether or not you should write is a question you must decide for yourself. It is both a moral and a literary problem. Most of us do the things we want to do, and writing is no exception. If you have an interest in writing you are writing; if you haven’t you are not, and that is just about all there is to it—on the moral side. If, however, you have been writing persistently without attaining satisfactory results, you may well seek expert advice as to the things which may be hindering you. Such advice can only direct and guide your energies which in themselves are your main asset.

If it were possible to give a “formula for literary success,” such analyses of writers’ assets as I have made would lead me to say that, in the case of the average writer of second and third-rate popular stories we would find that his success depended

60 percent on sheer industry or energy,

10 percent on personality,

30 percent on technical skill.

The writer who produces a bestseller or wins national fame for the high quality of his art owes his success, we would find,

45 percent to sheer industry,

45 percent to personality,

10 percent to technique.

If I am even approximately right in my analysis, the factor of energy or industry plays a larger role in literary talent than is generally supposed. It is also my belief that beyond a certain point, when sufficient energy is allowed, a writer succeeds in his work in exact proportion to the depth and richness of his personality. This last factor is the variable one. It is the only true inspiration. It is that gift which may most truly be said to be born in us, and the possession of which may be said to rest in the laps of the gods and, as one disappointed writer I know says, “The gods sometimes stand up!””

I certainly agree with Mr Uzzell that ‘love of the craft’ is essential to literary success, but I don’t see ‘love of the craft’ as being literary talent.  I think one has to have Love of the Craft and Technique/Skill in about equal measure.  I also agree that personality enters into the equation, as well, in the from of Creativity, Imagination, Intelligence, and a Sense of Freedom.

Review: Lucifer Exposed

I was looking for a book with the title Hostage to the Devil, that I read a long time ago.  It was written by a man who was a priest and a psychiatrist, and it dealt with about five genuine cases of ‘possession’ that he had experienced.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find it, so it must be out of print.  There is a newer book with the same title, but its reviews put me off buying it.  Instead, I bought Lucifer Exposed by Derek Prince (1915-2003), which had many excellent reviews -106 reviews, of which 96% are four or five stars.

Derek Prince’s website says that he was “born in India of British parents. Educated as a scholar of Greek and Latin at Eton College and Cambridge University, England, he held a Fellowship in Ancient and Modern Philosophy at King’s College. He also studied Hebrew and Aramaic, at Cambridge University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“While serving with the British army in World War II, he began to study the Bible and experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. Out of this encounter he formed two conclusions: first, that Jesus Christ is alive; second, that the Bible is a true, relevant, up-to-date book. These conclusions altered the whole course of his life, which he then devoted to studying and teaching the Bible.”

Derek Prince

Lucifer Exposed uses numerous quotations from the Bible to describe the history, the motivation, the intentions and the actions of the devil.  It describes the devil a a beautiful fallen angel whose fall was caused by his trying to usurp the power of God.  The devil’s power over death was destroyed by the death of God’s son on the cross and his resurrection.  The devil’s reaction had been to try to estrange humanity from God by tempting us into sin, and by destroying the power of the church to disseminate Jesus’ teaching.  The book makes the point that escape from Satan’s clutches cannot be achieved by following the law, because there is always another law we have neglected.  Salvation can only be achieved by faith in Jesus and his teachings.  The book draws a major distinction between citizenship in the World (the temporal, secular place of which the devil is the ruler) and citizenship of Heaven (God’s spiritual world).

This is an excellent piece of Biblical scholarship: well written, thoroughly referenced, and completely logical and believable.  My only comment is that I would have liked to have seen some secular arguments (as well as the religious ones) for the existence of and the extreme hardships caused by the devil.  These hardships are often wrongfully blamed on God’s ‘negligence’.  There is, I think, abundant evidence that most of the World’s hardships are caused by the devil.

 

Review: The Kite Runner

I found a well-used copy of The Kite Runner on the  bookshelves of our Sicilian house just at a time I needed something to read.  How it got there is a bit of a mystery as my wife hasn’t read it.  I guest must have left it.  It is a book, by Khaled Hosseini, that I have wanted to read for some time.

Mr Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965 into a privileged family.  His father was a diplomat and his mother a language teacher.  In 1970 the family moved to Tehran, where his father worked at the Afghan embassy.  They returned to Kabul in 1973.  In 1976 they relocated to Paris, but were unable to return to Afghanistan because of the 1978 Saur Revolution and the Soviet invasion.  In 1980 they applied for asylum in the US and settled in San Jose, California, where Mr Hosseini attended high school, Santa Clara University and University of Calfornia, San Diego Medical School.  He practiced medicine until 2005.  The Kite Runner was released in 2003, A Thousand Suns in 2007, And the Mountains Echoed in 2013, and Sea Prayer in 2018.  His novels have sold 55 million copies, globally. He, his wife and two sons live in northern California.

Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is set in Kabul and San Jose, with brief stops in Peshawar, Pakistan beginning in the mid 1960’s.  The central character is a boy, Amir, who lives with his well-to-do father in the best section of Kabul.  They have two low caste servants, Ali, who’s wife deserted him and Hassan, a boy of Amir’s age, who is his best friend.  Amir’s father seems to like Hassan better than Amir, a source of much jealousy for Amir.  Amir witnesses a terrible assault on his friend Hassan, without making an effort to come to his rescue.  Ali and Hassan leave the household when Amir implicates Hassan in a theft.  Amir and his father flee Afghanistan and find asylum in the US.  Years later, after Amir’s father dies, Amir is called to Pakistan by his father’s old friend, Rahim Khan, who tells him that Hassan and his wife have been executed by the Taliban.  Rahim also tells Amir that he and Hassan were half-brothers, and that Hassan and his late wife had an orphaned son.  Amir confronts his lack of courage to rescue the orphan and take him to the US.

This is a splendid book about family: good and bad, strong and weak.  It’s also about how childhood can shape our adult lives.  As one reads, one can’t help wonder if this isn’t a memoir rather than a novel.  One feels transported to the old prosperous Kabul, to the savage, wrecked Kabul after years of war, and the strange life of exile in an Afghan settlement in America.  Mr Hosseini is extremely adept at having the reader feel what the characters are feeling, be it jealousy, love, fear or anger.  I’m glad I found this book.  It’s a compelling story wonderfully told.