Have you ever been attracted to a literary journal simply because of its name? Thought that because the editors were cool/funny/hip/erudite enough to come up with such a great name that you immediately wanted to be associated with it too somehow? I have a list of such journals, ones I haven’t cracked yet but hope to someday.
This weekend I had a story published over at The Steel Chisel, an online journal I was first drawn to by its name. (I came for the name, stayed for the stories and poetry.) It’s taken from one of my favourite John Newlove poems, called “Such Fun, Such Fun.” I’ve loved this poem since my first year at university, when I took a course in Canadian poetry. And here it is:
When the poets stopped writing poetry
I thought they were dead
and I went about and tried to describe my country
not leaf by leaf but soul by soul
and I found that though my soul was obscure
it was common. Liquor cured me or calmed me
and pain and long lying lines.
And the poets came back to life and said I was a poet too
and I was astonished!
I hadn’t thought they’d known so much
or that I had cared so much.
And the booze tastes good even if the body aches
and the end is shame – but the sheer pleasure
of the gift, of a few gloomy words –
This is prose, this is a ghost with a steel chisel
sneaking another letter onto the stone.
Such fun, such fun. I guess you would have to pay attention
to someone besides yourself. It’s better to celebrate
your funeral before you die.
Thank you, thank you.
Many thanks to David Emery, editor of The Steel Chisel, for selecting my short story.
Most people understand that history and historical fiction are not the same thing. While history attempts to narrate events as accurately as possible, historical fiction attempts more than just the dramatizing of those events into prose. All the rules of story-telling still apply. There must be fully-fleshed characters, who sometimes are as much a mystery to themselves as they can seem to us. There must be conflict. And finally there must be some reason for telling the story, some revelation or transformation, whether it is on grand historical themes or on a more minute scale, that keep the reader engaged to the very end.
I’ve read more than a few submissions to Circa that have not taken this into consideration. They take a key moment in history, say the assassination of J.F.K. They call it “The Assassination of J.F.K.” or “The Day Kennedy Was Shot” or something. Then they describe the day from the perspective of a hitherto anonymous bystander, a member of the crowd or one of the members of security perhaps. How the sun glistens on the motorcade, warming the red brick of the Book Depository, the crowd’s growing excitement as the motorcade slowly purrs along the asphalt. Then the unthinkable (which is, alas, totally thinkable). Gunshots ring out, as you knew they would, and everyone is suitably horrified. Somebody at some point will say that life will never be the same again.
But meaning doesn’t lie in the chain of events, only in the writer’s interpretation of them.
From the beginning there must be something at stake, some twist to capture the reader’s interest, or promise of a differing point-of-view from the accepted one, or single character on whom the events impact in a unique way. Otherwise what is the point?
History may provide a mine of potential plot devices and character-types but the writer still needs to do the work. Structure the story. And tell the reader something new.
I mentioned in my last post that I was taking Sarah Selecky’s Story is a State of Mind online writing course. In the very first lesson she asks her students to find a way of working the course into their schedules, essentially to be accountable to themselves to complete each assignment, in order to derive the full benefit of the course. Among the examples she gives of ways to register this commitment is to start a blog and post the completed assignments to it. Makes sense, I thought.
At roughly the same time I began reading Austin Kleon’s newest book, called Show Your Work. In it he extols the benefits of sharing your work as a way of joining a community of like-minded creative people and even possibly getting “discovered.” One of his chapter headings is “Think Process, Not Product.” He urges artists to take people behind the scenes, to show them how they go about creating whatever it is they create. (And for fans of visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, I can see how seductive this insight could be.)
And I thought about it. I did. I even got as far as creating a new page on this here blog to publish some of my responses to Sarah Selecky’s daily writing prompts. Only the good ones, of course. Only the ones I thought wouldn’t embarrass me later. Basically I would share my notebook with the internet.
But if I did that, I realized, then the nature of my notebook would change. It would no longer be the safe space for me to play, doodle, and experiment in. I would be committed to sharing its contents. And I know what the result of that would be: my pen-hand would seize up.
I can certainly see the benefits in making oneself accountable to others in the creative work one does as a spur to motivation (especially since for most of us, creative work is something we squeeze in between day jobs, family life, housework and sleep). And I can see the benefits of what Kleon calls taking advantage of the network, rather than networking. But there has to be a private place too, where the dreaming, the attempting and the failing happens, away from prying eyes.
Sometimes the internet is too much with us. And process doesn’t mean much without the product to illuminate it.