Saturday was Herman Melville's Birthday, did you celebrate!
Speaking of Good Writing
I was recently on a blog for freelance writers and in one sidebar they carried bios and pieces by some of their freelance writer members. Curious as I naturally am, I clicked on one of the pieces and read it. It's a chintzy little piece by a woman writer, a successful woman writer, I assume from her carefree way of writing about writing--you know who I mean, the young housewife, the lawyer husband, the cats, the kids, the fabby friends--sorry, I'm being a lopsided investigator. Anyway, I assumed from her narrative she was successful; in fact, so successful, she obviously had a lot of leisure time to delve into other "artistic" fields. Her piece was a pep-talk-type piece advising wannabe writers to experience life in all ways, to find that deeply serious and multitalented person inside all "good writers," a hidden person who, as this Chatty-Cathy-style of writer said, might surprise you as to that self's catipulting powers, what you as a successful writer are also capable of achieving, like becoming a serious painter, which this writer then confesses that she had striven for and become--having an exhibition of her paintings and even selling one or two. OR, she continued, how about becoming a professional singer, which she then confessed to trying to become herself. She said she had been taking singing lessons and she was buying a new dress and readying her "singing self" for her first professional debut as a professional singer. That turned me off. Ugh, I said, in a rather uppity stance. And echoing from way back in my continual present mind I heard, "Fuck her, she's an amateur...still trying to find her true self in her middle-ages!"
But my fascination for this woman's ambition kept me focused on her. Jesus, I considered, I'm on a parallel line with this Chatty-Cathy-type woman (gal) writer. I despise what she's doing; yet I have to stand humbly before this woman as an apologetic fop, my Mexican sombrero in my hands at my midsection, covering my solar plexus, the seat of my emotions. I have to apologize because when I look at my own writer's profile in the mirrors of the Muses, Holy Mormon Angel, I see I, too, am writing self-advertisements on this freelance-writer's blog, which is all this is, just a blog, a Web log holding back a lake of my self-advertisement jetsam and flotsam but also that of other jungle (Gonzo?)-writing men and women "on or off staff," fictional or not.
I'm doing the same as Chatty Cathy; I'm writing self-advertisements--loudmouth lugs and luggage through the jungle moments of my every passing hour. My writing is my Homeric journey through my landscapes of life, a pretensive effort to sell people who like to read on the truth of my Sociology-driven written-out observations, which I try and illuminate through putting them into my most-refined rushing-forth American English--or through singing about them when I once upon a time was a professional singer...or symbolically jotting them down in oil paint when once upon a time I painted pictures.
And, yes, once upon a time, I did paint pictures. I painted pictures to the point, and here I go sailing forth on my self-propelled-sailing-ship, high on my imagined sea's striven pelagic again, I even developed my own "technique of painting." A technique based on a misunderstanding of what I was interpreting out of a thin Paul Klee notebook in which he explained through line drawings and words his technique of painting. My always being painting in my invented technique, acquired me a student, a girl named Ann, a girl I was dating, a girl who before we went to bed at night used to read to me from her set of Great Books of the World, a set of books she'd bought on time payments, of which at that time she had not made on time or otherwise. Nope, she had made no payments at all, a neglect she was reminded of almost daily by getting frequent letters from a collection agency threatening to do everything including break every bone in her fragile body if she didn't forward them immediately the full amount she owed. I think the whole set had cost her a little over $100, which was a pretty heavy debt for a woman social worker back in those days.
And this pobrecita, once-beautiful, then beaten-down-looking woman of Scandinavian stock named Ann (really Anna)--her family name found all across the waist of the USA from New York over to Oklahoma and then Colorado, where her father's family had eventually settled--at 26 was a stone alcoholic and every night the drunker she got, the more intently she read to me from her Great Books.
Her favorite work to read out of this massive set of world classics was Edgar Allen Poe's Marginalia, a wildly written thing of Poe's that while probably written while drunk is best read to you by a drunk (see below right before the Wolf Man signs off for an excerpt from Marginalia). I can still hear Ann reading away to me whatever into the waning hours of an ending long day of work and a coming weekend of lavish freedom. Me, I was in the crack between her bed and her roommate's bed, which they had pushed together so I'd have a place to sleep when I spent the night with Ann, which for a while there got to be every night for one whole spring as that chirpy spring burned into a sizzling Texas summer. And I stayed on especially after one night after Ann had passed out and started snoring after reading to me a passage from Goethe's Mephistopheles.
Ann had just passed out. She was snoring away louder and louder, sleeping sounder and sounder knocked out loaded. I had just turned off the table lamp by Ann's bed and was lying awake in my crack in the dark of the room, fidgeting, unable to sleep. I was just beginning to maybe nod off when the roommate came home from a date around 2 in the morning.
I watched as she tip-toed across the dark room. I smelled her perfume as she tip-toed by me in the crack between her bed and Ann's. I still remember her favorite perfume: Ma Griffe--I remember, I remember--and that thrills me now, makes me keep on writing about this. She tip-toed over to her end of the sliding door closet that covered that whole end of the large bedroom and she turned on the closet light. I was frozen in delight as I squint-eyed-watched her take off the LBD she was wearing. I watched her slide it over her head, hang it up, then slip her black slip up over her head. I was like a bird hypnotized by a snake as she unhooked her black-frilly bra and freed her breasts. My focus was cemented on her as she bent over, her breasts dangling like men love to see naked breasts dangling, as she slid down her black-frilly panties (she did wear very dear lingerie) and kicked them off her foot to reveal her absolutely incredible ivory-white-slightly-freckled-shouldered full and exciting grown-woman's girlish body--and there it was, naked unto me in that rather sanctified faint closet light.
It was about a second after she'd gotten in bed that she said, "I know you're awake. Wolf Boy. I knew you were watching me undress, too, you rascal." "This rascal thoroughly enjoyed watching you undress. You are an absolutely perfectly beautifully seductive woman...." She rolled over on top of me shutting me up by kissing me. I woke the next morning and she was still wrapped around me--we were both totally openly naked. I looked for Ann, but she was already up and I could hear her taking a shower in the adjoining bathroom.
It's OK. Forget what you're thinking. I dumped Ann out of pity and married the roommate out of lust after we had all motored down to Monterrey, Mexico, for a partying vacation at our favorite place there, the California Motel.
Right after I had broken up with Ann, had left her lonely, pissed, and crying, and even though neither the roommate nor I had told a soul about our unionization, Ann had figured out her roommate and best friend and I were "married" (and I put that word in quotes because if you've been following all my self-advertisements, you know what happened to that marriage). So this one day after the roommate and I got back from Monterrey in the married state, Ann came by my apartment--and, yes, even while I was spending every night sleeping in that crack between those two beds at my girlfriend's apartment, I had my own apartment.
"Here," Ann said after I opened the door, "all I'm here for is to give you this." She handed me a package, a large package, through the door, and then without another word went back out to her car and drove away--and, that, folks, is the last time I ever saw dear Ann, though I know she went on, survived my desertion, and soon was married herself to a man I didn't know, never met, and never cared to meet, a worthless man, her sister years later told me.
Inside, I opened the package. It was a painting. It was a painting of ME she had done using the technique I had taught her. I hung that painting later over my fireplace in my New Orleans apartment that I shared with another woman, not the roommate, but my second wife, my real wife, I call her, the one who I stayed with the longest, 10 years. Wife #2 hated that painting. She said whoever painted it was an artistic moron. I thought of poor Ann and how diligently she had followed my teaching her how to paint. I loved the painting. It was 30 x 30 canvas of just my head, which was a wonderful wild jumble of every color in the Grumbacher rainbow of oil paints and yet it was recognizably me, a rather Jesus-Christ-looking me, in terms her making me look very Messianic in the painting.
What Is Good Writing
Hemingway said literary critics affected him the same way as the intoxicating foul smell coming from a prostitute's armpits after she's just finished a pulling a trainload of johns. [Remember Language Hat's Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit is now available on amazon.com.] Hemingway further stated, in Death in the Afternoon, if I'm not mistaken, that if a wannabe writer has not sold a book after 5 years of trying, then he should either shoot himself or become a critic. Papa recommended, of course, he shoot himself. It was a much more honorable way for a failed writer or a writer who's run out of gas to die.
Good writing to me is any writing I'm reading and suddenly realize how into it I am and then suddenly realizing--holy shit, this is some damn good well-tooled-and-honed writing. Hemingway's writing is some of the first writing that lured me in and hooked me into reading every speck of his efforts I could lay my po'boy hands on. His novel The Sun Also Rises (I first read it under the Brit title, Fiesta) became my literary Baedeker, my guide to the life of an expatriate American writer. My guide to the 1920s Paris, "The Banquet Years," as the writer Roger Shattuck called them in his book of the same name, a good book; I highly recommend it if you're interested in that period of American Literature, an American avant garde movement started in Paris by the American student of William James, Gertrude Stein. Hemingway put me into that era just the way I wanted to be in it. As a writer among other writers--and painters, and movers and shakers, and the poets--Ez was there; Jimmy Joyce was there; TS Eliot was over the Channel in London; Man Ray was there; Henry Miller was there; F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were there; the Black Sun Press Crosbys were there; Elie Faure was there; Blaise Cendrars was there; Picasso was there; Braque was there; Ford Maddox Ford was there; Matisse was there; Nancy Cunard was there; Bricktop was there; Josephine Baker was there (Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast how he danced with Josephine Baker one night in a Paris bal musette. He said she was wearing a mink coat and as they danced, he realized she was totally naked underneath it). [WARNING: The latest Scribner's edition of this Papa's last book is a butchered and rewritten version, a ruined, phony version--a disgrace to Papa Hemingway perpetrated by one of his ex-wives's pissed-off-at-what-Papa-wrote-about-her nephews.]
From Hemingway on, I fell for everything of that era--the music, too; Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, George Antheil, even Ez wrote music, and Copeland was in Paris then and so was Virgil Thomson and so was Coleman Hawkins living in England and working all over Europe for several years then, but especially in Paris where he hung out with and jammed and made those unbelievably swinging recordings while in Paree with Django Reinhart and Stephan Grappelly and Bill Coleman was over there then and Herman Chichester and Sidney Bechet, the great Sidney Bechet!
Excerpt From Albert Murry's Train Whistle Guitar
"Uncle Jerome said I was learning about verbs and adverbs and proverbs; and he preached his sermon on the dictionary that time, and he had his own special introduction to the principles of grammar: A noun is someone or something; a pronoun is anything or anybody; a verb is tells and does and is; an adverb is anyhow, anywhere, anytime; an adjective is number and nature; a preposition is relationship; and conjunction is membership; and interjection is the spirit of energy" (p 71, McGraw-Hill, 1974).
And now, here's an excerpt from Edgar A. Poe's Marginalia (again, all about writing)
That punctuation is important all agree; but how few comprehend the extent of its importance! The writer who neglects punctuation, or mis-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstood — this, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils arising from heedlessness or ignorance. It does not seem to be known that, even where the sense is perfectly clear, a sentence may be deprived of half its force — its spirit — its point — by improper punctuations. For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid. There is no treatise on the topic — and there is no topic on which a treatise is more needed. There seems to exist a vulgar notion that the subject is one of pure conventionality, and cannot be brought within the limits of intelligible and consistent rule. And yet, if fairly looked in the face, the whole matter is so plain that its rationale may be read as we run. If not anticipated, I shall hereafter, make an attempt at a magazine paper on "The Philosophy of Point." In the meantime let me say a word or two of the dash. Every writer for the press, who has any sense of the accurate, must have been frequently mortified and vexed at the distortion of his sentences by the printer's now general substitution of a semicolon, or comma, for the dash of the MS. The total or nearly total disuse of the latter point, has been brought about by the revulsion consequent upon its excessive employment about twenty years ago. The Byronic poets were all dash. John Neal, in his earlier novels, exaggerated its use into the grossest abuse — although his very error arose from the philosophical and self-dependent spirit which has always distinguished him, and which will even yet lead him, if I am not greatly mistaken in the man, to do something for the literature of the country which the country "will not willingly," and cannot possibly, "let die." Without entering now into the why, let me observe that the printer may always ascertain when the dash of the MS. is properly and when improperly employed, by bearing in mind that this point represents a second thought — an emendation. In using it just above I have exemplified its use. The words "an emendation" are, speaking with reference to grammatical construction, put in apposition with the words "a second thought." Having
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