After a long semester of teaching I found some time to indulge in studying the novella Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo. I’ve been an admirer of Rulfo’s career and this book reads as a tremendous progression from his short stories I was introduced to in his book The Burning Plain. What I found in this work is a complex, surreal story of a long abandoned town, Comala, and the stories from the ghosts of the townspeople. The book masterfully shifts from third person omniscient narration to first person narration. The book is filled with ghosts and spirit guides revealing their traumatic stories to the visiting narrator, Juan Preciado. We learn all about the dead city’s heritage from the ghosts of the past. In fact the sometimes narrator and his life aren’t very important to the story and this narrator only acts as a relayer–intermediary really–of spirits and voices from Comala. It’s been a few days and after much thinking and re-thinking on some of the motifs I think the book is simply about voices associated with place and a town dealing with generations of tragedy and grief–how objects and buildings can stand as totems for past traumatic events. How pain and suffering from the most horrible of moral offenses–murder, rape and incest–can stand at the center of entire town’s spiritual demise. The ghosts I found to be eccentric and odd yet always memorable. In fact, the book reminded me of Twin Peaks–David Lynch and Mark Frost’s masterpiece from the 1990’s. The narrator travels to Comala the way Agent Cooper travels to Twin Peaks to find answers about loss and death. From passage to passage I am wondering if the voices are real or from a spirit world.
Recently I rewatched David Lynch’s Fire Walk with Me and I am finding so many similarities between Rulfo and Lynch. We have a small town holding onto psychic pain and suffering as well as intense secrets associated with the death of several young women. The film is filled with flawed and inept investigators who though despite being clever and observant cannot seem to crack the code to the murders as well as the spirit voices guiding them. The “lodge” mythology from the film and the television show are very different but the film has a cosmic and supernatural context I find so similar in the so-called magical realism work of Rulfo.
In the article “10 Famous Writers Who Hated Writing” from The Huffington Post, Bill Cotter discusses his “dark feelings” regarding what he labels as “the commission of the act of writing.” He lists quotes from famous authors revealing their angst on the very act of writing and he also discusses the problem of his own inarticulateness. And I must agree when Cotter jokes he would rather go to the emergency room rather than have a writing commitment.
And the more I teach the more I empathize with my first year students and concerns over writing and composing essays. I often say their concerns as writers are very similar to my own. Even in creative writing, my chosen field of study, I feel students have a point when they complain over drafting basic components of a short story assignment. I am just as susceptible to internet distractions and slothful tendencies. And I often dread approaching the work of revision.
Currently, I have a novel I’ve been wrestling with. I also have a novel I’ve been chipping away at for years. And perhaps the more you know about writing the more you are jammed up. The more I teach and learn the more I am self-critical and also I over-think the simplest of revision exercises. And maybe I am just reaching the age of worry over my talent if I have any and the limitations of talent. Perhaps subconsciously I worry about not fully developing as a writer. More and more I have broad stories with broad notes–more free writing really. And I struggle just to get my broadest thoughts down on the page regarding scenes or characters. Sometimes I just type where I want a character to go or what I want them to do and I have no way to get them there. I often say that writers suffer more from inarticulateness than most others. Lately I’ve been joking I would rather work with dogs or own a bed and breakfast than sit and work. I’d rather sit and watch MST3K.
This all reminds me of a George Orwell quote:
“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”–George Orwell
Perhaps the difficulty of writing–the illness in composing and revising–is what makes it great. PS: It took me hours to write this.
This film is from 2009 and from director Bobcat Goldthwait. I missed it because of a limited release. I most admired Robin Williams playing a frustrated writer and teacher in this dark comedy. Love the scenes in poetry class.
“I used to think the worst thing in life was ending up alone, it’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel alone.”
Fascinating documentary about Sam Shepard’s forty year letter writing correspondence with friend Johnny Dark. Shepard stands as one my favorite authors and I enjoyed the inside look into how Shepard works and operates as a playwright–travelling around with his dog and his typewriter.
I have had so many conversations with students about how great old school mechanical typewriters are for the feel and cadence in the act of writing. Yet we love the ease of the word processor. In fact once I had a dream I plugged an old typewriter into my MacBook Pro.
I rarely post writerly gear on this blog but when I saw the Qwerkywriter prototype on Kickstarter I couldn’t resist.
Lately for many reasons I feel I’ve been living inside of a Philip K. Dick novel, so I’ve been rereading a couple of my favorite–Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly.
What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again. I’ll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.
And Richard Linklater’s film adaptation visualizes Dick’s themes of shifting realities–internal and external–and also shifting identities so perfectly in its animation. It’s funny how today we are reading post-modern novels with shifting narration, and Dick’s work was seen as genre and a lesser form of novel writing back in the sixties and seventies. I’m looking forward to tracking down his so-called “straight” novels.
Great documentary now available for streaming on Netflix. I’d been waiting to watch this one for a while. I was glad to see some insight into the reclusive artist Bill Watterson. Calvin and Hobbes has always been one of my favorite strips and I remember the last strip to this day. In fact, I found the description of Watterson and his thoughts on merchandising to be very Salinger-esque. And I’ve always thought of Salinger in relation to Watterson and his themes of youth and familial relationships. I also liked the discussion of high art and commercial or comic art.
A few years back I made a joke to D about teaching and writing. I told her I was deciding to be a bad teacher and to focus on my writing. I told her I would be selfish. I would put my class work on cruise control. This was difficult to do because I feel such a responsibility to my students and I spend so much time note taking and creating lessons and lectures. It didn’t help that Sergio Troncoso inspired me with the care and attention to his students I witnessed in his workshop. Resolution: This year I will try to devote more time to the work. I always say my teaching is investigating story and writing, but I recognize I need to work harder on revising manuscripts rather than generating new material. Update: currently the Semi-Orphaned novel in stories manuscript is away at the editor and I am anticipating a mass of notes for revision. Actually I’m waiting for Jennifer C. Cornell to kick my ass. She was incredibly helpful with what became The House of Order manuscript. I’m slowly and surely starting to understand the importance of an experienced and assertive editor. And her notes are the most rigorous and detailed I’ve seen from an editor. Invaluable for the work. I’d also like to complete the Monte Stories manuscript later on this year. That is another manuscript–possibly another novel in stories–I know needs much work and development. This should be an interesting year of struggling for balance.
Reading this defeatist article on Slate.com on grading the college essay. Rings true in many ways but why would I want to give standardized exams instead of essays? So as I prepare to spend the next three or four days reading my students’ work, I just have to keep telling myself to grade, and not to edit. In many ways this article goes against an essay by David McCullough I read a while back. His point was to have students write in every class, in every situation. In his point of view, and I have to agree, that is exactly what college is about. Reading, writing and thinking.
Big Sur may be my least favorite Jack Kerouac novel. While On the Road and The Subterraneans captured youth and restlessness, Big Sur relates the aged, alcoholic Kerouac. And perhaps that is why I don’t enjoy the book. Kerouac’s persona is one of such a broken down writer unable to cope with fame and personal relationships. Kerouac’s obsession with death and the chaos of meeting up with Neal Cassady once again drive the energy of the book.
Michael Polish’s new adaptation is an independent film and therefore nowhere near my Midwest town and so I had to stream from Amazon to my television. Perhaps this is the future of watching smaller budgeted films. The film is so well shot though and gives so many beautiful views of the locale in recreating Lawrence Ferlinghetti‘s cabin near the beach where Kerouac would’ve stayed. The photography is so gorgeous I regret not being able to watch on the big screen.
I most admired the director’s decision to narrate the film with an abundance of Kerouac’s words. The words give the film an energy that matches the book–perhaps more so than Walter Salles’ recent On the Road adaptation.