Reading and Writing. We’ll Skip the Arithmetic

This Wednesday evening I’ll be part of a group reading at the Mohawk Valley Center for the Arts. I’m rather fond of readings in general. Back when I was attending a lot more conventions, I generally preferred the author readings to panel discussions, even when I was on the panel and someone else was doing the reading. Maybe especially then.

There’s nothing quite like hearing the author read their own work, especially if it’s a story you’ve already read yourself. Now you can hear where the stresses go, and what the author chooses to emphasize or minimize. Literally hearing the work in the author’s own voice, aside from their narrative voice, which can be quite different.

I think I was completely turned on to readings at my very first World Fantasy Convention. I had the pleasure of hearing Parke (Pete) Godwin read then, and it was an eye-opener. I know I’ve mentioned Pete several times before, but something I wanted to point out here is that he was an actor for many years before he became a writer, and it showed in his performance. And I do mean performance. As an actor he knew how to work the lines and hold the audience’s attention. I realized then and there that the act of doing an author reading was or at least should be, at least in part, a performance, not just the person who wrote something reading it aloud. If you’ve ever attended a convention or library reading with an author who doesn’t know how to read (in the performance sense), you know what I mean. You miss out on most of the value of the work.

Now, I’m not an actor. Never was, never will be, and I don’t have nearly the chops that Pete did. But I always  take his example to heart when I do a reading, and I try to bring at least a little of that performance art to it. I do my best. I don’t always hit the target, but at least I know where the target is.

That’s half the battle.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018

I haven’t written anything about the passing of Ursula Le Guin before now because I couldn’t put two coherent thoughts together. I’m still not sure I’m ready but I’m going to try, despite the cat purring in my lap demanding all the attentions. Living creatures have their own priorities and in that sense I’m no different.

I never met her. Other people who knew her best will have the personal remembrances of the woman herself, I can only speak of her work and its effect on me. I’ve spoken at times about influences that made me whatever I am as a writer, though as I look back on it these influences were more about teaching me something I needed to know at the time I was ready to learn it. Parke Godwin? He taught me lessons about humanity. Fritz Leiber? That the limits of genre were illusory, and there was very little it could not do. Ursula Le Guin? She taught me what magic was and—just as important—what it wasn’t.

There are other lessons, of course. Some I still may not be ready for. Take her classic, The Word for World is Forest. I’m going to have to come back to that one, I hope when I’m a little stronger and wiser. At the time I needed it, however, there was The Earthsea Trilogy, which later became the Earthsea quintet with Tehanu and Tales of Earthsea. Yet in the beginning, there were three: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. They were first marketed as “young adult,” probably because Atheneum, the original publisher, didn’t know what else to do with them, and it was true as far as it went. However, I read them in college, when I really was a young adult, or maybe just a kid trying to figure out what “adult” as in “grown up” really meant. Ged, the young wizard in Earthsea, was trying to sort out the same thing, and in the course of the three—then four—books, he does, even though all the books, especially the last few, aren’t really about him. Which makes sense—a lot of growing up isn’t about you at all, but everyone around you and your relationship with them. Some things I can see now that I couldn’t then, but that’s all right. The lesson was waiting for me.

Then there was her classic, The Left Hand of Darkness, which made me and a lot of other people think about gender and what it does and doesn’t mean. Her early collection of stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which remains one of my favorite books ever.

Now Ursula Le Guin the person is gone from the world, but Ursula Le Guin the writer remains, and there is, I realize, a lot of her work that I have yet to get to, and I hope I will.

I hope I’m ready.

 

Empty Places, Part 2

In case you missed it, “Empty Places, Part 2” as performed by LeVar Burton launched on July 4. I use the term “performed” advisedly, because that’s a distinction I learned early on. Back when I was attending more sf/fantasy conventions, I was fortunate enough to attend a reading by Parke Godwin. I’d been to a few readings before that and I’d always enjoyed them, but this one was a revelation–Parke Godwin was an actor before he turned to writing, and he approached his readings the way an actor would approach a play–as a performance. The characters each had their own voices, the inflections were placed where he wanted them, the emphasis of one word over another precise and intentional. I was transfixed, and it was a lesson I always tried to bring to my own readings when it came time to do them. I never had the actor’s skillset to pull it off in the same way, but changing my approach improved my readings greatly.

LeVar Burton has those skills. Listening to him perform “Empty Places” Parts 1 and 2 was almost as if I was hearing the story for the first time, and I wrote the darn thing. I can’t recommend “LeVar Burton Reads” highly enough.

LeVar Burton Reads

Remembering Good Things

Front_cover3Now that the second file cabinet is a file cabinet and not just a pile of particle board, it was time to transfer the last of my paper files from the box they were living and traveling in to their new home. Which naturally involved going through them all during the transfer process. I’d already done one huge purge before we moved, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make more space. After all, most files are electronic these days, even if paper is still best suited for some things, aside from the recycle bin. Sure enough, several times I ran across folders full of errata that had me scratching my head. “Why, in the name of all that’s holy, did I save that?”

Yet there were many more instances where the question didn’t even come up. Like back in the day when Parke Godwin sent me an example of a novel pitch he used when selling one of the wonderful Arthurian novels he did. As I’ve said before, what little I know about writing novel synopsis and pitching, I learned from him. Or copies of (rare) fan letters, including one for my first collection, The Ogre’s Wife from one of my favorite artists. It was a boost, at a time I really needed one. As with my good fortune in marrying First Reader, and the help and encouragement—and Dutch Uncle severity, when needed—I got from Pete Godwin, you can’t always depend on those things along the way. So when it happens, count yourself lucky, and don’t forget. Pass it on when you can, but above all, be aware.

We like to talk about writing as a solitary profession, and mostly it is. So often it’s just you, putting your butt in the chair and facing down the blank page/screen. Yet now and then along the way, alongside the confused/bad reviews and rejections, odds are you’re going to get a hand up. Sure, be proud of what you’ve accomplished, since you did almost all of it yourself. Just remember the “almost” part and don’t forget to be grateful.

We Could Be Heroes…But Probably Not

WRITING 02

Not everyone is entirely comfortable with the idea of heroes. They too often have feet of clay, or in these days of the media creature, turn out to be fabricated out of whole cloth, or at least a cheap polyester. Yet we all have them, and writers are no different. The difference is in what inspires us—the words on the page, not necessarily the people behind them. Writing heroes. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when you discover that one of your heroes, known for his gentle and optimistic fiction, is a right wing fascist at heart or another with a unique and powerful voice is a virulent racist. Such things usually kill off normal heroes. As a hero, that is. Writer heroes usually survive, not always, but usually, since it is the words on the page that matter, not the imperfect, venal, or just plain unworthy person behind them, but more so because there’s a secret that the process of writing fiction eventually teaches.

You write better than you are.

I’ve touched on this before, but it’s especially relevant, I think, in the genre today. We all do it, if we’re any good at all. What comes out on the page is smarter, wiser, usually more together than, well, we are. I don’t know how it all works, I just know that it does. So I’m not usually so surprised when it turns out that the writer behind books and stories I love is a deeply flawed human being. Someone you might even cross the street to avoid if you saw them coming.  It happens. It doesn’t matter. Any decent work we produce is, at its core, a reflection of our better selves, maybe even who we’re trying to be, not necessarily who we are. Which is probably why I’ve never been driven to meet writers I admire. Most of the writers I call friends are ones I met even before I discovered their work, and got to know and like them as people first. That way generally works. Someone you only know from their work? Not so much.

Oh, sure, there are exceptions. There are even times when I regret, say, that I never got to meet Fritz Leiber, even though I did have the chance, once, at a World Fantasy Con way back in 1987, and I will always treasure my one and only meeting with Parke Godwin, who turned out to be as grand a human being in person as he was on the page. It’s great when that happens, but I don’t expect it. No one should.

I started this blog post with the idea of talking a little about one of my writing heroes, but I got pulled in another direction. It happens, so I’ll save that one for next time. I never met her, but then again, see above, I didn’t need to. The books and stories were all I did need, or had any right to expect.

So, if you ever want to meet me and manage to do so, I apologize in advance. That is all.