Thin blue highway hugging the soft edge of night,
along this strange western town burning
with apricot light
like a necklace laid across a swell
of grass, over some vast New Mexican plain,
it fills me with a yearning
I’ve never quite been able to quell,
“Rat-eyed” Virginia Woolf described Somerset Maugham as.
“No man ever put more of his heart and soul into the written word,” said Eudora Welty of William Faulkner.
“Curiously dull, furiously commonplace, and often meaningless,” Alfred Kazin said of William Faulkner.
“Hemingway never climbed out on a limb and never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary,” William Faulkner said of Ernest Hemingway.
In response to which Ernest Hemingway:
“Does Faulkner really think big emotions come from big words?”
“Dostoievsky’s profound, criminal, saintly face,” observed Thomas Mann, nicely.
This is a short video I once made of my transcribing an obscure but beautiful passage written by an almost forgotten poet named Arthur Symons (1865–1945), in his poem “Rain On The Down.”
Rain On The Down
Night, and the down by the sea,
And the veil of rain on the down.
And she came through the mist and the rain to me
From the safe warm lights of the town.
The rain shone in her hair
And her face gleamed in the rain. …
The word theme comes from the Ancient Greek word théma, which means “proposition or thesis,” and this definition essentially holds true to this very day: theme is thesis; theme is meaning.
In literature, theme is the meaning to which the lines of a poem or the events of a story add up. For instance, the theme of the Dostoevsky novel which translators now term Demons (but formerly The Possessed) is this: the way in which philosophical ideas shape human action.
The theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is the injustice (and absurdity) of forced equality.
The theme of…
The art of characterization is the art of presenting the people who populate your story.
If plot is the bones upon which the meat of your story hangs, then surely characters are the heart and soul.
“A writer creates a character as a way to reveal and emphasize consciousness — to extend the pitch of human possibility,” as the novelist Don Delillo so perfectly put it, to which I add this:
Characterization is ultimately a depiction of motive.
Just as in real life we better comprehend a person when we comprehend the motive behind what makes that person act in…
Plot is not memoir.
Plot is not diary.
Plot is not journal.
Plot is not history.
Plot is not dialogue.
Plot is not essay.
Plot is not philosophy.
Plot is not sex.
Plot is not chronicle.
Plot is not action alone.
Plot is something deeper and more difficult to get inside the heart of: it’s a progressive and purposeful sequence of events. It’s also the method by which a writer presents her fictional story. In a well-plotted story, the chain of events all connect logically, in a cause-and-effect manner, and then they culminate in a goal or climax.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) — nom-de-guerre Nancy Boyd — American poetess and playwright, who at thirty-years-young won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (then only the third woman ever to do so), was, at age nineteen, catapulted into worldwide fame after her mother Cora encouraged her to enter a poem Edna had written — called “Renascence” — into a contest held by the magazine Lyric Year.
“Renascence” ultimately won fourth place in the contest, but her poem was widely considered the best submission so that upon being awarded fourth place, a certain scandal ensued — a scandal which thereby launched…
The difference between popular fiction and literary fiction is subtle yet unmistakable.
The criteria is graded — think of it as running along a kind of continuum or spectrum — so that a book or movie can have elements of both literary fiction and also elements of commercial-genre fiction at the same time. But there is a distinction.
It is not the case that plotting is the determining characteristic. In fact, some of the best plots in all the world’s literature are to be found in literary fiction — I’m thinking specifically of Les Miserables, Ninety-Three, and especially The Possessed…
“Life is an unceasing sequence of single actions,” wrote Ludwig von Mises, “but the single action is by no means isolated.”
So, in many ways, is plot.
But, unlike life, plot is selective — which means among other things that the author is the selector: the author chooses the actions her or his characters undertake.
This, incidentally, is one of the primary ways in which fiction differs from journalism or chronicle, and it’s why “the pressure to record,” as the excellent poet Thom Gunn once described it, is not — contrary to what you may have heard — the primary…
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy,