The Amateur Spirit in Writing – Revisited

As The Coming of the Toads nears its 10th anniversary (our first post was Dec 27, 2007), we reflect on why and wonder what now.

The new book, “Alma Lolloon,” is out (“look inside” here). “Out” may seem hyperbolic – it’s now available. Others trying to write and publish will get the difference.

Most writers, excepting the besttellers, have to self-promote; yes, even when published traditionally by a standard house in the traditional manner.

It is, then, in the interest of shaking the bushes and the amateur spirit of writing, I invite readers of The Toads to subscribe to my TinyLetter notes.

Meantime, the amateur spirit in writing lives on at The Toads:

The amateur spirit in writing

on

We do not have the New Yorker DVD library (though we do have in the basement a stack of paper copies we regularly prune for mold), but we do have E. B. White’s “Writings from the New Yorker, 1927-1976,” edited by Rebecca M. Dale (HarperPerennial paperback edition published 1991).

The “Talk of the Town” pieces these days only occasionally reach White’s wit or brevity. He often captures a moment of his own time while gazing into some distance, foretelling. A case in point, his May 11, 1929 piece, where he writes: “’Writing is not an occupation,’ writes Sherwood Anderson. ‘When it becomes an occupation a certain amateur spirit is gone out of it. Who wants to lose that?’ Nobody does, replies this semi-pro, sitting here straining at his typewriter.”

Yet today, as the reading crisis spreads its tangential wings to include newspapers pruning peripheral departments, some semi-pro and pro writers are forced back into an amateur spirit.

Where will they go? Continued White: “Nobody does, yet few writers have the courage to buy a country newspaper, or even to quit a city writing job for anything at all. What Mr. Anderson says is pretty true. Some of the best writings of writers, it seems to us, were done before they actually thought of themselves as engaged in producing literature.”

Or before, in other words, they thought of themselves as real writers at all. One blogs in the hopes the amateur spirit will prevail, painfully aware that blogging also makes it easier, as White later said, “for persons who are not artists and writers to continue the happy pretence” (May 21, 1938).

But it’s not only to gain even amateur status that we might entertain the doubtful purposes of writing – for self or for others; it’s because even though we know full well we’ll never play right field for the Dodgers, we still enjoy shagging balls in the back-yard; we will still ride a skateboard down the hill, though of course we are no Tony Hawk, as our spouse reminds us, shouting she’s not taking us to emergency when we fall; and though we could never follow “Da Bull” into the big waves, when we’re back in El Porto, we’ll always paddle out for a small one.

Whatever happens to the pros, this amateur writing spirit hopefully encouraged and evidenced in the best blogging, whether pretence or preface, may enable those who agree that writing is learned while writing, and in no other way, to find a subject, knowing that subjects often reveal themselves only once we’ve made the commitment marked by a few hundred words.

The amateur spirit in writing

We do not have the New Yorker DVD library (though we do have in the basement a stack of paper copies we regularly prune for mold), but we do have E. B. White’s “Writings from the New Yorker, 1927-1976,” edited by Rebecca M. Dale (HarperPerennial paperback edition published 1991).

The “Talk of the Town” pieces these days only occasionally reach White’s wit or brevity. He often captures a moment of his own time while gazing into some distance, foretelling. A case in point, his May 11, 1929 piece, where he writes: “’Writing is not an occupation,’ writes Sherwood Anderson. ‘When it becomes an occupation a certain amateur spirit is gone out of it. Who wants to lose that?’ Nobody does, replies this semi-pro, sitting here straining at his typewriter.”

Yet today, as the reading crisis spreads its tangential wings to include newspapers pruning peripheral departments, some semi-pro and pro writers are forced back into an amateur spirit.

Where will they go? Continued White: “Nobody does, yet few writers have the courage to buy a country newspaper, or even to quit a city writing job for anything at all. What Mr. Anderson says is pretty true. Some of the best writings of writers, it seems to us, were done before they actually thought of themselves as engaged in producing literature.”

Or before, in other words, they thought of themselves as real writers at all. One blogs in the hopes the amateur spirit will prevail, painfully aware that blogging also makes it easier, as White later said, “for persons who are not artists and writers to continue the happy pretence” (May 21, 1938).

But it’s not only to gain even amateur status that we might entertain the doubtful purposes of writing – for self or for others; it’s because even though we know full well we’ll never play right field for the Dodgers, we still enjoy shagging balls in the back-yard; we will still ride a skateboard down the hill, though of course we are no Tony Hawk, as our spouse reminds us, shouting she’s not taking us to emergency when we fall; and though we could never follow “Da Bull” into the big waves, when we’re back in El Porto, we’ll always paddle out for a small one.

Whatever happens to the pros, this amateur writing spirit hopefully encouraged and evidenced in the best blogging, whether pretence or preface, may enable those who agree that writing is learned while writing, and in no other way, to find a subject, knowing that subjects often reveal themselves only once we’ve made the commitment marked by a few hundred words.

E. B. White

from “The Amateur Spirit in Writing,” March 12, 2008

The “Talk of the Town” pieces these days only occasionally reach E. B. White’s wit or brevity. He often captures a moment of his own time while gazing into some distance, foretelling. A case in point, his May 11, 1929 piece, where he writes: “‘Writing is not an occupation,’ writes Sherwood Anderson. ‘When it becomes an occupation a certain amateur spirit is gone out of it. Who wants to lose that?’ Nobody does, replies this semi-pro, sitting here straining at his typewriter.” One blogs in the hopes the amateur spirit will prevail, painfully aware that blogging also makes it easier, as White later said, “for persons who are not artists and writers to continue the happy pretence” (May 21, 1938).

First Notes on the publication of “Berfrois the Book” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book”

The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) convention is being held this coming week in my home town of Portland, Oregon. I’ll try to post daily through the week my local observations of the main event and its various outlier happenings. One of those happenings is the concurrent publication of “Befrois the Book” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe Original, 2019). Editor at large Russell Bennetts will be on hand at the AWP Berfrois table with an ample supply hot off the press.

These two anthologies of contemporary writing include work by a community of writers from around the world whose collective voice argues for independent and alternative, experimental, grass roots writing and engagement in the Humanities. By calling them a community, I don’t mean to suggest I personally know any of them. I don’t. Nor am I deeply familiar with the writing of them all. I have, however, since my own discovery of Berfrois about ten years ago, and later when Queen Mob’s Teahouse went online, followed the progress of several writers appearing there, and remain a frequent reader of the sites. And of the whole I’m confident in calling it not only international but diverse in all the characteristics generally acknowledged to matter in today’s world, at least to those whose hearts beat in their chests and not in their pockets. Which is to say the community seems genuinely united in standing for freedom from tyranny or abuse of any kind in any place.

There of course we swim into deep waters, for the books, designed and published by the neophyte press Dostoyevsky Wannabe, are printed via the gargantuan Amazon. The DW press readily speaks to the issue which for some could be a show stopper – from their About page FAQ:

“Where d’you stand on the ethics of using Amazon?

We stand where every radical bookshop and arts organisation and alternative and independent organisation stand when they use Twitter and/or Facebook, or when they use a smartphone or a laptop made by another similarly faceless corporate entity who may or may not be very ethical. Ask any giant faceless corporation how ethical they are (ask their lobbyists). We stand where zine makers stand when they use Hewlett Packard or Canon printers or photocopiers. We sometimes also sit in cars and on buses that pollute the earth much the same as other independent and radical and alternative organisations. We don’t like that we have to more or less do this but we do.

Or as one of our good friends put it recently: ‘I hear Richard Kern used Kodak film for his movies. Was he really No Wave?’”

I mention the publishing platform question here in anticipation of possible staid literary critical rebuttal to the content (a criticism which might include the snobbish notion that the self-published is by definition unworthy). When Ferlinghetti began City Lights, back in the 50’s, he wanted to establish a literary community, and he did so on the back of paperbacks, at the time a sign of inferior publishing content. In any case, literary revolution was ever so, as a review of the so-called modernist journals will reveal. The work is radical at least in as much as it questions the status quo of form, content, gatekeeping (including academic), and distribution. The Berfrois and QM’sT work also seems inspired at least in part by the open source, open access, creative commons, and dropping paywall movements (particularly where academic or research papers, already in part publicly funded in many cases, are concerned). The work is Indie and Alternative, and departs from traditional industry publication methods much as the work of musicians has ventured away from the traditional recording industry – all enabled of course at least in part by technology but also perhaps by a general turning away from or shrugging of the shoulder at the popular, the mall-ed, the commercialized, but as well from the so-called credible, reliable, cited sourced and footnoted, peer reviewed. There’s a new pier in town, and it’s not Stephen’s disappointed bridge. It at least points toward something new.

Not to say though any one individual within the Berfrois and QM’sT community has not also benefited from or would refuse professional (i.e. paying) gigs. I almost framed for the wall my poem accepted and published in The Christian Science Monitor back in 2009, for which I was paid the handsome sum of $40.00. I was going to frame a cutout of the poem with the check, but I ended up cashing it to help fund my book habit. There are of course differences between writing for payment (at least one of the prerequisites to the ranks of pro) and writing for payment enough to quit one’s day job. Or night job. Or multiple jobs. Add to that one’s status as an adjunct of any organization and we wonder what kind of fuel keeps these engines running when they can only run in overtime mode. But nor is this work simply about “exposure” in lieu of pay or some sort of deferred payment or contract. Maybe, at its core, it is about the amateur spirit in writing, a spirit we remain loath to lose, as E. B. White suggested, no matter how professional we become.

So who are these spirits whose light has filled our screens and now illuminates the pages of the Book and teh Book? They do indeed include both professionals and amateurs by imprimatur and in their own right. As with any group of artists, bohemians, intellectuals, their diversity skews any leaning toward a unifying code that might undermine their independence. To what degree is calling these Berfrois or Queen Mob’s writers a community even accurate? Has someone proclaimed a movement, written a manifesto? Do they form a new school of writing, such as the Imagists, or later, the Beats? To call these writers a community might be simply to identify the line of best fit. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” as Dorothy says upon landing somewhere over the rainbow. Or maybe that’s exactly where we are, Kansas. But what exactly is an artist and where do they work and reside? Recall father and son from Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”:

“There’s that son of mine there not half my age and I’m a better man than he is any day of the week.

—Draw it mild now, Dedalus. I think it’s time for you to take a back seat, said the gentleman who had spoken before.

—No, by God! asserted Mr Dedalus. I’ll sing a tenor song against him or I’ll vault a five-barred gate against him or I’ll run with him after the hounds across the country as I did thirty years ago along with the Kerry Boy and the best man for it.

—But he’ll beat you here, said the little old man, tapping his forehead and raising his glass to drain it.

—Well, I hope he’ll be as good a man as his father. That’s all I can say, said Mr Dedalus.

—If he is, he’ll do, said the little old man.

—And thanks be to God, Johnny, said Mr Dedalus, that we lived so long and did so little harm.

—But did so much good, Simon, said the little old man gravely. Thanks be to God we lived so long and did so much good.

Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or of temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.”

Perhaps, then, there is some kind of temperament that brings and holds the Berfrois and Queen Mob’s writers together. Throughout the writing, one begins to recognize the use of certain scales. And when you mix them together you get the four body humors. And more, and there’s the humor of it. The temperament might, after all, belong to Russell Bennetts. I wonder if Russell wouldn’t prefer pizza and a beer with the hearty senior Dedalus rather than the morose Stephen. But that sets up an out of whack either or fallacy, and anyway, Russell has already invited them both.

Berfrois the Book includes work by 41 writers. Queen Mob’s Teahouse: teh Book includes work by 57 writers. Only two writers appear in both, so 96 writers from around the world represented. Many are US or UK, some Canada. New Zealand. Tokyo. Singapore. Berlin. Melbourne. Chile. Paris. Netherlands. India. Poland. That much a reader can see from the short biographies included at the end of each book, many of which though don’t name a place. In any case, Joyce said he could write anywhere. Hemingway said he could too, but maybe he wasn’t so good in some places. Where one might be located at any given moment does not necessarily betray one’s identity as a writer. For that, we must read beyond the biographies to the work. Writers travel outside time and place and person, even if they never leave their desk. As do readers.

I’ll be reading through the anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on. I’m hoping to meet up with, in person, the, as Jeremy Fernando would say, inimitable Russell Bennetts, who is apparently already in Portland town for the conference. I already missed an opportunity yesterday.

…to be continued

…more on the disappearance of newspapers

I walked out to fetch the morning paper this morning, and the news hit me before I had even slid the thin paper from its plastic sleeve, for the paper was so slight, surely the headline would say something more about the disappearance of newspapers. Almost. The headline in today’s Oregonian heralds the coming forced disappearance of the city’s elderly elms. But the paper continues to waste away, this morning much thinner than my MacBook Pro, possibly a record for the thinnest Oregonian newspaper ever.

Related: The amateur spirit in writingWhat we will miss when newspapers disappear

Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice

Joe Linker Pizza Face by Emily“The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct,” Jenny Diski said, writing in the London Review of Books (7 Mar, 21) about Marco Roth’s memoir, “The Scientists: A Family Romance.” Well, Henry James thought so, anyway. Continued Diski, echoing James, “If you were born, you’re in there with a story.”

“Every talk has his stay,” James Joyce said. But does every story have a voice? Is the writer’s job to tell the stories of those without voices? Is the critic’s job to decide how long the voice’s stay is welcomed, if at all? Not if Joyce had anything to stay about it: “Why? It is a sot of a swigswag, systomy dystomy, which everabody you ever anywhere at all doze. Why? Such me” (FW, 597). But even if one has a story with an illuminating voice, should one talk? And once one starts talking, must one tell all? Well, maybe not all, there are time and space constraints, after all. Ah, and there’s the rub, what to tell, and what to withhold.

Memoirs, like all forms of writing, have narrators: is he, or she, reliable? What have they left out? And even if they’ve tried to put everything in, there’s the problem of point of view. Would the story tell of the same experience related from another’s point of view, someone else who was witness? A memoir doesn’t contain fictional characters, but real people, but to the reader who has never met them, they may feel and sound like characters. The characters speak, but are their words reliable? The memoirist creates a set, described, composed, like a family photo album, and adds tone, the attitude toward the experience, all drawn with words that suggest as well as denote. And there is that slippery, mercurial ball of memory we always seem to be chasing after. We might call that ball ambiguity.

And writing in the March 18 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says, “Thanks to the Internet…anyone can write” (21). The assumption is that not everyone should. All these amateur bloggers serve up knuckle balls to the professional writer, though the proliferation of adult amateur softball leagues doesn’t seem to hamper the work of pro baseball players. How many family garages or basements sport bands? That they don’t all reach Nirvana doesn’t invalidate their experience, as much as it might hurt our hearing. Why is the amateur spirit more tolerated, if not enjoyed, in music, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, and sports (golf, anyone?) than in writing?

Henry James, in his essay “On the Art of Fiction” (1894), talks about experience, and answers a question about whether or not one individual’s experience might be more valid and valuable than another’s when it comes to writing about that experience. James is speaking of fiction, Diski of memoir. But memoir might be the most flagrant of fictions, since it attempts to disguise its narration as truth. But what makes any experience worth writing and reading? For James, the more cloistered a life’s experience the more opportunity for close reading of that experience. The only requirement is that one pay attention: “The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military…The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”

Maybe everyone has a story, but not everyone has a voice, but through certain kinds of experience one might discover one’s voice, the expression of which might be realized in writing. But the expression of one’s story might also be realized in music, nursing, or plumbing. Maybe the writer’s job is to tell the stories of those without voices. But a more instructive way of thinking about experience, story, and voice might be to say that the writer’s job is to reveal voice where story is found in any one individual’s experience (not necessarily the writer’s), so that a reader might enjoy a kind of reading epiphany, realizing it’s the significance of their own experience being reflected. The reader hears her or his own voice. One need not be a writer, or a reader, to experience one’s own voice. But first we must find our voice, and where will we find it amidst all the wrack and ruin, the dry brine, the commercialism and the consumerism and the garbage sloughing like wax dripping from our ears, and deep in our ears a muffled sound like gigantic iron church bells echoing? But if indeed that’s our experience, how should it be voiced, or should we keep it silent?

We might read something and question the author’s authority, the authority of his or her voice. But the author of the writing should not be confused with the speaker of a narrative. Even if the writer who tells us the “I” of her poems is indeed her own voice, and that is the reason she writes, to describe her world, her reality, using her own voice, we still might think in terms of author and narrator, not necessarily the same. How does the writer decide what to put in and what to leave out of her poems about her reality? That decision making is the process of narration. Because as authors of our own narratives, our own stories, we still create characters, even if we call those characters ourselves, as in the memoir. This is why I said above that the memoir is perhaps the most flagrant of fictions.

Maybe no one has a voice, and we are all voiceless. We might all have stories, but we are all helpless, writers and non-writers alike, to voice those stories. This is why we keep writing, why there is no end to storytelling, amateur as well as professional. Earlier this year, a couple of houses on our block replaced their sewer lines to the street. I watched the workers and the job progress. I had done this kind of work with my father, years ago, and I marveled now as I did then at the simplicity of the technology, which has not changed much over the years. “Just remember, shit runs downhill,” my Dad said, handing me the shovel to dig a sewer pipe ditch. “That it do,” he said, concluding his short story, the voice of experience slowly dripping off as he walked away to more complicated, but no more important, matters on the job.

Related Post: Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

How Literary Critics Think

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000), James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008), Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980), which he proposed to subtitle “How to be a Good Reader,” are all books about how critics think. Oxford University Press has announced John Sutherland’s “How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts,” due out in March, 2011. We’ve put our order in, never tiring of the How books; in fact, we’re thinking of writing our own: How Literary Critics Think. Of course, slim chance, for as Laura Miller discusses in a Salon interview with Louis Bayard (“Who Killed the Literary Critic,” May 22, 2008), “at a certain point there’s nothing left to dismantle.” Bayard observes “So the only critics left to evaluate most contemporary fiction are journalists, ranging in seriousness from someone like Wood to your average newspaper freelancer who mostly delivers plot summary. There are no critical movements evident today.” Blogging certainly doesn’t count; in any case, Laura says, “I’m not really a reader of blogs.” Sure, and professional literary critics probably don’t watch television, either. Yet Barnard notes that he’s “learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.”

Ah, but what about the How school of literary criticism? The how of something is the scientific part. Nabokov puts it this way: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter…To the storyteller we turn for entertainment…to the teacher…for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts….” And to the enchanter we go “…to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.” This last part Nabokov calls “the intuition of science.” Can literature be taught as a science? Certainly it can, and it may be the only way to teach it. Northrop Frye, in his instructive and influential essay “The Archetypes of Literature,” said, “Art, like nature, is the subject of a systematic study, and has to be distinguished from the study itself, which is criticism. It is therefore impossible to ‘learn literature’: one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature. Similarly, the difficulty often felt in ‘teaching literature’ arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism is all that can be directly taught.”

Yes, but that bit about nature: Nabokov says, “Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives…The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.” So the professional critic clues us in on which writers are the most deceitful?

The reader speaks, ignoring the sign “Silence in the Library,” and the amateur spirit in literary criticism is born. Why kill this amateur spirit? Because ( more agreement between Miller and Bayard) “talent is inequitably distributed in all art forms… great critics are even rarer than great novelists or poets, and I wonder if that’s because criticism itself is held in such low esteem…McDonald mentions that one of academia’s last havens for evaluative criticism has been the creative-writing class, and he suggests that universities should offer more in the way of ‘creative criticism’ classes, teaching the craft of interpreting other people’s works. All the same, I’m skeptical this would reverse the current state of affairs. People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature.”

Any true experience of reading literature is an experience that calls for a reflective response, and this response can be made without a conscious understanding of how figurative language and connotative meanings (and the often resulting ambiguity) inform how literature works. We might even argue that the less conscious one is of how these things work, the more primal the reading experience. Yet one can see the merging of the effects of literature on cultural, societal, and individual development (of course these effects might also be considered only a reflection of changes already occurring in culture, society, and the individual, changes that become, in turn, the subject of literature – note the latest effort to change Twain’s Huck Finn). In any case, literature as cultural value is key to the interest of adult readers, which is why if we want to read Langston Hughes in a book (since we can’t very well still read him in a newspaper), we will end up wanting to know something about the Harlem Renaissance.

Reading literature can be a perplexing experience. We want to understand the meaning of a story, poem, or play, and when we don’t “get it,” we feel disappointed. But the idea that a work of literature “means” something is part of the problem. Flannery O’Connor once put this problem this way: “…something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students [readers], the story becomes simply a problem to be solved….” Rene Char put the problem this way: “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” Yet, we can learn to ask the right questions of literature, questions that don’t scare the bird off, and we can through the discussion of these questions discover how literature works. That’s what the general interest reader wants after the reflective response, the discovery of how literature works, for that discovery enables more enjoyable reading and helps us better understand the influence of literature on culture, society, and the individual.