Wednesday, December 16, 2009

“You might as well not believe in fairies!”

One of my favorite pieces of writing related to the Christmas season is the 1897 editorial from the New York Sun penned by Francis Pharcellus Church. The editor wrote in response to a letter from a reader:

“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old.
“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
“Papa says ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’
“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
            “Virginia O’Hanlon.”

I admire Church from the outset because he doesn’t hedge. He goes right for it with his opening sentences: “Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.”

Church’s response celebrates the season and the power of a sense of wonder. But it also illustrates the strength and certainty that once upon a time rolled off printing presses all over the country. “If you see it in The Sun it’s so.” Readers believed in newspapers. That belief has slipped away over the past century as surely as a faith in the existence of Santa.

I’m not saying that newspapers then—and in times since—didn’t grind axes and rake muck and go all yellow, but people counted on them, and the journalists knew it. Now, in the age of twenty-four-hour-a-day news access via television and the Internet, news in print is like the turtle to the hare (with the outcome of the race still to be determined). With so many outlets for news none of them appear to feel that same sense that people count on them.

Getting the story first matters more than getting it right, because there’s always a chance for a follow-up, and a follow-up just means more news to deliver. Streaming news comes at us like flowing water—first impressions, unconfirmed items, corrections, additions, commentary, confirmations, additional unconfirmed facts uncovered, bystander accounts, exclusive interviews, semi-related juicy gossip…

Once upon a time a newspaper reporter dug up all those bits and pieces, chewed them over, and then gathered them into a story. Or a series of stories. All those elements, rather than streaming over us, gathered into a pool that we could dip into. And the deeper the reporter dug, the deeper the pool for us to savor.

I’m afraid those days of diving into the news may be gone, but perhaps, as F. P. Church wrote, I “have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.”

In this season of wonder I will try to resuscitate my belief.

Church’s editorial makes me want to believe in journalism as much as in Santa Claus. And the belief he writes of, a belief in “all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world” makes me think he may have been a fiction writer too. Or at least he understood fiction writers, the creative process and the magic involved in it.

“[T]here is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.”

I wonder if he knew, after he’d finished writing the column and was reading it over, that he’d written something that would be so long enduring—so “real and abiding.”

(In case you’re interested, you can read the whole column for yourself.)


Note: I’m giving myself a Christmas present and taking a couple of weeks off from blogging. Look for me again in 2010.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Here it is two weeks after the craziness of National Novel Writing Month, and I miss it. I am on a forced hiatus from my writing life (in large doses). But I am hoping that the recess will let me hit the keys running when I’m ready to go back.

The reason for the break is a practical one—I had LASIK surgery on my eyes last week and can’t spend a lot of time at the computer just yet. I’m hoping for a new outlook, both literally and figuratively.

One thing the timeout has shown me is just how much time I spend writing or reading. It’s difficult to fill the days in a satisfying way with those activities curtailed. I am in love with the written word.

It’s the unknowable quality of writing—the part that can’t be captured in books on craft and how-to articles—that fascinates me. And I’m not the only one. Plenty of writers have tried to explain it, or at least written about their inability to explain it.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King puts it bluntly: “Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.”

Nearly fifty years earlier, Ernest Hemingway said essentially the same thing: “In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done. That is because there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dis-sect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.”

The above is from a letter, so I’m guessing Papa wasn’t expecting the sentences to be widely read. But you can see that he used punctuation sparingly. He commented on this in another letter, and to my delight, he reveals a sense of humor:

“My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”

If only he could have allowed himself to take that flight of fancy, I really think he would have understood that golf would be radically improved by the introduction of croquet mallets and billiard cues on the putting green. Not to mention goalkeepers and defensive tackles. But that’s another topic for another time. And I realize that he was actually talking about punctuation, not golf.

I’m just surprised at the humor, unexpected from square-jawed Mr. Hemingway. I expect if from Stephen King, who describes his muse as a surly, grunting little guy who “sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”

Whatever. He has a muse, and obviously the little guy does something.

Sometimes I wonder about mine. (Just like I wonder about the existence of Mr. Right-for-me.) But all I can do is pound the keys and keep going—or will do as soon as my eyeballs seat themselves properly again in my skull.

It’s a process. An ongoing one. Not just ongoing—one that keeps going and going and going, like a popular fuzzy critter from advertising. So my plan for the novel-in-progress is to keep making progress. Like Hemingway said, “[T]here is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.”

So, here’s to the end and the hope that I’ll get there sooner rather than later.


“The hardest thing in the world to do is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn…” – Ernest Hemingway

(Hemingway quotes from Ernest Hemingway On Writing edited by Larry W. Phillips.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

NaNoWriMo hangover

Okay, I’ll admit it right up front. This post is going to be shorter and shallower than previous ones. I can’t help it—my fingers and my brain are tired.

Fifty thousand words in thirty days. I did it. The novel isn’t finished—its story wouldn’t be contained in fifty thousand words. I’m still not exactly sure how it ends, but I’ve come to know the characters—surprises and all—and I made it through a variety of unanticipated plot twists. Those moments when words spill onto the page bypassing the conscious brain until my eyes read them are magical, if disconcerting. When a sentence that I knew when I started it finishes itself in some unexpected way makes me wonder where the ideas really come from.

The month of marathon writing was like walking on a path through the forest at night. I knew ultimately where the trail led, but I didn’t know the territory I had to cover along the way. And my flashlight batteries were rather weak—I could only see a few feet ahead of me at any given time. It’s a scary situation to be in: dark shapes loom just beyond that beam of light, and the trail might fall off into nothingness out there in the gloom.

One might think that new batteries and a bright, piercing beam would make me better equipped for such a journey when I take it again. But I think I’ll keep things just the way they are—that stumbling through the unknown is a unique trip and one worth taking.

I still have the rest of the story ahead of me, but I’m doing that on a less grueling schedule and giving myself room to breathe.

Until next year. November 2010 will find me frantic and fumbling through NaNoWriMo once again.