Sunday, June 23, 2013

Hemingway, the Beast, and Bleeding on The Typewriter

I have seldom used a typewriter but often lament it's passing nonetheless. There is a romanticism inherent in the tapping of keys, in that echoing resonance of click-clacking that evokes a previous age;  this absorbed intensity of writer hunched, the crumpled discards littering underfoot, the furious symphony of pounded keys that echoes the tumultuous haste of the literary mind: a Hemingway moment poised over the typewriter as bombs thundered in the streets outside - the ferment of war, the thrum and pulse of a quickened literary imperative; a darkened alphabetic imprint implying a forceful keyboard jab, the damp brow, the fleeting fingers, the quick catch of breath...when writers described a moment in all its intensity before it was gone. One can readily imagine the drops of sweat, blood and absinthe that marred Hemingway's pages (metaphorically or otherwise), that accompanied the feverish vehemence of prose that hammered out beneath his keys. As he himself said: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed."

Somehow the interaction now, between writer and vehicle of prose, seems, comparatively, a rather mute endeavor; the quiet hum and whir of computer processing power, the silent acquiescence of a pristinely effective delete function, and the intangible narrative product that exists in the dark obscurity of binary code. It is there somewhere, encoded in ones and zeros, in dusty company with other long-forgotten files and jpgs. Saved and stored, it exists in the abstract - it cannot be seen, let alone bled on. But of course Hemingway was referring to the figurative outpouring of everything that is essential within us - to get down to the steady beat of heart, the visceral muscular heat, the lifeblood that nourishes and sustains...the darkly pulsating warmth that resides within. It is about becoming acquainted with the darkest parts of ourselves, the unacknowledged failings, the ignored and unclaimed, the proclivities we deny, the secrets we bury deep. In short - letting loose the beast that resides within; for it is only when we have a passing knowledge of these subterranean undercurrents, these sluggish Stygian marshes, that we can attempt to write them. To find the words that capture, entwine, and depict the beast- which is, in essentials, an emotional, bloody, visceral thing. For we are attempting a portrayal of humanity, are we not? And when pushed to the brink, when cornered and threatened, do we not bare our teeth and snarl? Retaining some instincts of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, our last common ancestor with chimpanzees....

It is not an easy thing - to recognize or depict - when something is so deeply felt and hardly understood; the translation of which seems more appropriate to a Viking-growl or the fierce facade of Gothic warriors, then to words. This collection of letters in of themselves seem fairly mundane articles, poor conveyers of what seems a much greater thing. Perhaps it is the attempt of such that Hemingway refers to.

And as for typewriters - this poignant yearning for past things might also be indicative of the technologically-driven rate of world-transformation. Life oft seems to hurtle forward at an unimaginable velocity - the nature, shape and manifest inner workings of binary chip technology rapidly transforming into something else...nanotechnology, virtual reality...three-dimensional...touch pads...e-books... perhaps the typewriter is a stable iconographic image of the engaged writer - the hunched absorption, the auditory scales of keys forcibly punched, the intensity of prose sounding out an accompanying rhythm in flying fingers and furiously working mind. Click click clack. Perhaps the writer's innate tendency to retreat is a psychological reaction, in part, to the perpetual haste, the onward rush of things. For when we stop to muse, to ponder a word, to savor it on our tongue like the literary equivalent of a fine we not ease that headlong momentum just a little? We take deliberate pause. There is time to catch one's breath so to speak.

Perhaps the typewriter is gilded with the sepia-brush of nostalgia, belonging to a golden age of something impossibly pristine, and this is why it maintains an unsurpassed literary significance (or perhaps this is merely an archaeologically-driven idiosyncrasy of my own particular mind); that it must inherently be bygone and bypassed to be so appreciated. When we see a writer sweating over the keys in a movie...the pages impatiently torn and crumpled, the ink-stains, the blots, the smudges...does one not, even for a moment, wish for that visceral closeness with the text? With words that can be tangibly smeared, that seem more intrinsically a part - and thus reluctantly parted with; grimaced and winced, a pained tortured affair - as if we were wringing words from their preferred abode of quiet-ether to the solid imperfection of ink on a page. Coercing them with gritted teeth and determined mien, a bloody-forced progression, words shoved and contorted, bribed and coaxed until they spill out upon the page like animals in the circus obediently lining up for the opening act. The beast within. Does Hemingway tame it with his blood-sacrifice? Or does it merely cooperate for its own amusement?

So if it is all about the beast, and perhaps the portrayal of it (blood-spilling seeming a requisite to the process) then the crux is less the mechanism (typewriter) than the implied emotional investment behind it.  Indubitably writers today are similarly intensely engaged in the literary endeavor...perhaps, for us, the emotional ferocity of typewritten novels might stem from the frustrations of inadequately inked-keys, or the half-hearted effectiveness of the white-out function, or the reams of paper crumpled on the floor in a visible reminder of literary failure. It is not that I do not appreciate the quiet efficiency of the computer, I just wonder whether the ferocious click-clacking of an intense narrative immersion facilitates bleeding Hemingway-style to a greater degree....whether somehow the beast is himself attuned to the clatter and rhythm of keystrokes; if he is, to a greater degree, repulsed by our stark efficiency, by our quietly humming immediacy and our limitless electronic databanks.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Punctuated Equilibrium, Evolution of the Literary Voice and the Return of the Golem

I have recently reverted to an old manuscript, a dug up fictional narrative penned decades ago…born of a youthful pen; a novel bound and intertwined with all the exuberant enthusiasms and awkward mis-managements of a newly empowered voice. The first novel! The vibrancy of fresh growth is there, the seedling that carries within its cellular structure, within its convoluted nucleic coils, the recipe for a mighty oak. I approach this early work with some degree of trepidation; gingerly handling the pages, and perusing sections with a dubious eye, with all attendant winces and grimaces…but there are parts that capture me…that hold me enthralled and keep me coming back to this early work.

The trepidation stems from my intent to modify and modernize; to bring my early narrative up to present modes and manners of expression, to take the literary voice of a youthful me and upgrade it so to speak. My resident Golem, of course, is doubtful that such a thing can be accomplished. "Modify the voice?" his sibilant wheeze echoes through the dark neural cavern in which he resides. "You may as well start over....a juxtaposition of literary sensibilities, a hodge-podge of writing styles...a narrative mess!" He emits a disdainful snort, shaking his head in impatient irritation at such foolishness. Then a head cock to one side, a slow insidious smile and a gleam of delight in those large luminous eyes - his volley has struck home: he sees my hesitation, my fear that he may indeed be right.

[A whispered aside in regard to the Golem (despite unerring night-vision he remains auditorialy-challenged) - he made his unwelcome debut several musings back, lurking in the dark recesses of my literary mind, hovering protectively over his cultivation of all things rank and gross in nature: the stringy weeds of suspicion, self-doubt, mistrust and fear. And whilst I do my best to tend meticulously to the internal garden, I oft turn unawares to catch a gleeful Golem tending a thigh-high weed gone to seed. While, you dear reader, have only just become acquainted with the irascible fellow he has been an unwelcome tenant of mine for as long as I can remember.]

To revert to the conundrum of conflicting literary voices: musing upon the evolutionary trajectory of one's engagement with verbiage, upon the uniqueness of our literary vision - does it progress smoothly onward in a crisply linear fashion? Indubitably improving to some degree with each pondered literary phrase whether read of another or of ourselves composed? Is it a process of accumulating certainty, the gradual acquisition of narrative deftness? And indeed what precisely is meant by voice? My academic focus in early years primarily encompassed science and history, but it was literature that has consistently sustained and nourished the emotional heart…the after-hours haven, the door-firmly-closed to all intrusions: Dostoyevsky accompanied by the exquisite strains of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik comprised my rapture.  As such I am not well-versed in conventional definitions for certain literary phrases….and in my ignorance make instinctual assumptions that may very well fall far from the appropriate mark. I will rely upon my more informed readership to warn me of any grievous errors in this regard. But it seems before one can postulate the growth of a thing, one must first define it; so my untutored description of the literary voice: the subtle nuances of expression, the manner in which the writer transcribes the mental processes of their mind be it with a paucity of words or an elaborate sentence construction, a turn of phrase, or a certain stylistic manner that renders the narrative particularly unique. Perhaps voice simply denotes the manifestation of a unique literary style.

Given this particular definition – and the assumption that an author at any given time possesses only one expressive voice – how is it shaped and affected by time? I find myself pondering biological theories of punctuated equilibrium, whereby evolutionary forces act with accelerated velocity, perhaps in a time of tumultuous environmental change, upon a particular organism to promote rapid speciation subsequently followed by a long hiatus of genetic stability. One of the most dramatic examples of expeditious evolutionary change took place 500 million years ago as evidenced by the Burgess Shale fossils. Various organisms survived while other more complicated, and seemingly much better suited to their environment, died out (Gould introduces his theories in his book The Wonderful Life which are intriguing if not uncontested). And the majority deck of evolutionary cards were replaced by another and the rules of the game altered to accommodate a novel paradigm; a dramatic shift followed, perhaps, by a indeterminately lengthy period of lethargic status quo. An equilibrium punctuated by fits and starts, a surge of frenzied activity followed by a longer interval of quiet quiescence….

I wonder whether our own literary voice evolves in such a manner. Certainly at times I feel the focused intensity of the craft, immersed and embroiled in the literary endeavor heedless of passing time or needful sleep….and subsequently, inevitably drawn away from the page, and the pull of the narrative by not always unwelcome quotidian demands. Years of snatched interludes here and there, a writing hour or two squeezed between obligatory duties....then abruptly a glorious expanse of opportunity presents itself and the literary work consumes us with a ferocity of guarded time and growled admonishments for all to stay away - a weekend closeted away with the laptop and piles of books, the quiet of uninterrupted time - where the narrative flows, the plot takes shape and the characters breathe upon the page. Time to muse, time to ponder, or in T.S Eliot's immortal words: 'time to murder and create, time for all the works and days of hands that lift and drop a question on your plate...and time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions..' (although the latter probably less to be wished for!) Time simply to write. And does not then our literary voice benefit from such focused attentiveness? Would it not, like the environmental upheavals that can escalate the evolutionary process, contribute to the fine-tuning development of our own expressionistic form?

So why the terror of imminent immersion in a youthful work? Why has the Golem successfully induced such skittish apprehension? Is it because to re-write such work, to edit it, one must inevitably regress, re-occupy the space and time in when it was written? One must perhaps find a certain resonance between the lines, a murmur regained, the pulse of the piece, before proceeding. And then there is the singular conundrum of reconciling one voice with the younger version to the final manifestation of something indubitably improved upon. I am afraid that the process of molding and refashioning an earlier work will prove more intractable than writing fresh from the shining expanse of undemanding white – where no words have gone before and no images remain ingrained upon the recesses of our authorial mind. My Golem peers over one shoulder, and hisses with unmitigated jubilation: “It will become a jangled confused thing!" And I worry that this early novel, this rather simplistic piece that I have some affection for, that retains some intermittent literary merit, will be transformed in the fire of my evolving literary haste – that in this current focus on writing, on producing, on crafting, on working the words, wringing each poetic nuance from them until they seem to hang dry and exhausted on the page – into something it was never meant to be.

But my creative literary voice, relatively dormant in early adulthood, will now bide by no constraint.  It  is perhaps personified by the opposite of the skeptical Golem: a boundlessly optimistic, fast-moving thing that yearns above all for completeness of expression. It will be heard, and it will take pursed lip and narrowed eye to the early novel, it will trace through paragraph and plotline and it will flood all with red editorial ink. To be improved. To be tweaked and coaxed into some semblance of literary betterness. To reflect itself as it currently feels itself to be –  a more worldly perspective (albeit perhaps a tad life-tarnished and unduly cynical), a broader slightly elevated literary sensibility born of countless books read and writers encountered…

Which begs the question: is the older voice indubitably one improved upon? Is there nothing in the adolescent version with which to recommend itself? Perhaps there is a fresh innocence in that unlined exuberance of expression - one in receipt of which literary agents, critics and publishing firms might smile condescendingly over their pens, shake their heads in collective sorrow at the ineptitude of novice writers….too much too soon, verbiage overshadowed by a descriptive generosity that mires one down, characters that tend to caricature or a certain narrowness that inhibits transition to three-dimensional expansion: to that feeling of inhaling the same literary air or traversing the same landscape in glad literary company! So what is there in that early voice but the alluring promise of what is to come? If the voice is nurtured, encouraged, fed a well-seasoned diet of literary greats, engaged in intellectual exercise of focused phraseology, in the deliberate coupling of words and phrases that together evoke something else entirely, combined with all the multi-dimensional vibrancy of an imaginative mind - what is not possible indeed? And the youthful voice hides its own treasures - a literary reflection of a different kind of perspective - perhaps imbued with a simplicity that resonates with a power of its own. Perhaps my younger voice might prove instructive to the wearied, and at times, convoluted laboring of the older (this muse being a case in point!)

So the Golem is consigned to his dark corner,  grumbling and muttering dire predictions of abysmal literary failure; I pay him no heed. I have a book to work on.

[Golem-related postscript: I have recently exchanged correspondence with a gentleman of philosophical persuasion who is mired in his ninth year of a profound treatise on the meaning of life, wondering with some dismal futility whether this errant literary child of his would ever grow to maturity, and indeed whether he is keeping fruitless company with Sisyphus and his ever-laboring stone.  Perhaps he too habors a dark-lurking Golem nourishing a garden of nasty nettles. I have, however, discovered a wily weapon effective against Golem-intrusion: he can be quelled by a look. A direct gaze of compelling conviction accompanied by the stern proclamation: "I can do this and I will!" - will indubitably send him scurrying. The Golem, I have found, also cannot abide salty rain (which also does wonders for inhibiting weeds) so sweaty exercise of any persuasion is highly to be recommended.]