My latest Industry article Cosmo Grrl …On sex icon Helen Gurley Brown’s passing, finding mojo in print, and some advice on writing relationship articles.
Maybe Cosmo indoctrinated me into lady concerns, or gave me a slight complex about my body, but that HGB took her readers more seriously than did the tween mags on offer was obvious. I might never have shiny hair or wear skirt suits, but I was a Cosmo girl in independence.
There are writers we love in our youth and ones we outgrow. If we are magnanimous we don’t disparage them later for being too symbolic or obvious. A few that come to mind include Poe, Dickens, and those genre writers that proved too entertaining to be taken seriously. Ray Bradbury somehow eluded the dangers of this latter category.
I’ve gotten much relief from Bradbury over the years, as a writer, long after reading Something Wicked This Way Comes (a book whose very title evokes the sublime), and Farenheit 451. When I read his Paris Review interview years ago, it made me stop and realize that as a writer I was trying too hard. I put the pen down for a while. Writing had become a pressured thing, and I needed to clear that out so that I could again create for no one’s benefit but my own.
He also took quite a bit of the guesswork out of the process.
“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”
—Ray Bradbury, Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 203
“I want you to envy me my joy.”
There are few writers who seemed to take such distinct joy in their occupation. Quite a different thing from Dorothy Parker’s “I hate writing. I love having written.” (I can’t find the source, I thought it was Hemingway.)
In this 2001 lecture at Point Loma Nazarene University, the then affable curmudgeon exhorts writing students to start with short stories to learn the craft. His theory was, if you write a story a week, it’s almost impossible to write 52 bad ones in a row.
He wrote, and talked about writing, so straightforwardly, and he made it clear he was a steward of his own subconscious. He honored his source. Writer’s block is just your subconscious telling you to do something else, he said. Write what you want to read. He spoke in terms of “hygiene,” purposefully I think. Because there is a way to go about it and a way not to, a way that pollutes it. You keep the well clean and then drink from it. The well is basic, it is not interesting, per se. It is the beginnings of thing, not a thing itself.
There is almost a delicacy to this understanding that is itself rare. Is it modern life gets us into habits of ripping ourselves to shreds, killing the goose so to speak?
Not allowing the transmogrification of the process of living is a form of self-control that our overanalysis merely feeds and abets, like a stripping process or a splitting. We are gone to extremes of self-monitoring, self-making, that even the most ordinary impulses in us can have no outlet because we deny we should even need it. So we twist ourselves in knots and block our own flow.
Maybe it’s time to put down the self-help and pick up the Martian Chronicles again.
His actual writing advice is wonderful, too. In this video he argues that literature is a pressure valve for civilization, a place for us to indulge animal instincts and emotions. “We save up a tension of tears,” he says, “I come along as a writer, and help you to cry.”
But really the thing that stands out about Bradbury in all his interviews and lectures is that he seems like a relic, almost a fictional paragon of decency and romanticism, a pure talent, a pure intellect, unblemished by consumerism and careerism. It reminds me of having a conversation with my grandfather and coming away completely disillusioned about the world, but in the best way.
I’ve always been more of a nonfiction writer, but I dabbled in fiction when I was younger. Following a recent shift in writing goals, and in honor of Ray Bradbury’s passing (during the epochal transit of Venus) I think I’ll write a story a week until further notice. I will not necessarily post them here, but if anyone would like to join me, please do! It’ll be like a mini NaNoWriMo.
One last thing: Bradbury’s vow of poverty strikes me as a necessary thing for an artist (maybe anyone) willing to be more than career-minded, to dedicate oneself to a life of integrity, to live with goals beyond mere survival. Of course, poverty’s not the only way, but the fearless facing of it may be necessary, just so we’re not fooling ourselves. It’s enough to participate, it’s more than a career. It’s the art of creation.
As a writer, I have fought long and hard to remove cliche’d words and phrases from my writing. It’s an uphill battle, as you will see if you ever take up the challenge. One of my first writing teachers handed out a mimeographed, crooked old piece of paper with a list of a daunting number of phrases and word combinations considered cliché. Besides the tried and true,old stand-bys, the subtler examples (rock hard, steely-eyed, slippery slope) showed me how such ready-made phraseology is a hallmark of lazy thinking.
Writing is hard. There are so many cheats and short cuts, but they all add up to hackneyed writing. Readers can tell. Readers eyes glaze over, and that response is never the reader’s fault.
Today I found these in an essay draft:
grass is greener
expand my horizons
and the ones included in this blog post I have purposely left in to show you the depths of my cliché problem.
Fearing that perhaps my thinking is hackeyed, I cut most of them. But I confess I love clichés. They are slightly ridiculous and strangely apt. Today I told a friend, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” We both laughed, as it was literally relevant to her situation. This somehow elevated the usage to the meta-comical, provoking a self-satisfied giddiness, like any well-placed pun or other low-brow verbal effect. Sure, I’m a word nerd.
The sociological interest, however, goes deeper. I’m fascinated by these turns of phrase, and what they may reveal about our culture and way of thinking, making connections, and categorizing.
I often deconstruct common concepts in my writing. The cliché is similar to stereotype in that it exists as a kind of shorthand. There is a kernel of truth to it. It’s a good jumping-off place. It takes on the air of symbol, that we know at a glance, and ignore, but that which can show us the contours of our beliefs, our interests and motivations.
Cliché is like found meaning. It has existed in culture long enough to be understood implicitly. It’s part of the human condition. The human condition—another curious concept that is more like a rhetorical tag than a defined thing.
Knowing that clichés help us work as little as possible to understand each other, I suppose that’s why they exist. But taking all the little events, how do they add up to a life? How do our words add up to meaning, or alter it, as a pebble plunked into a pond? How do they affect us? and how can we make our expression of ourselves more original?