Tag Archives: prose

Pretension VS. Ambition

(excerpted from A Resistance of Letters):

I find her seated in the pre-ordained bar, and say this place is a little loud. She agrees. We start to walk, find ourselves at the WTF Cafe. Funnily, I had worked here, long ago. For all of two weeks. The troll owner is not around—but over by the register I sense the residue of the prophetic homeless man, and I smirk. Rene asks what’s up. I ask her:

‘What is pretension?’

“Rhetorically?”

‘I want to hear your opinion.’

She leans back. Her asiatic eyes narrowing into bladed orbs. A couple weeks ago I took her out with Karl for drinks and he told her: “I want to fuck your mind.” She had got offended, and ranted about that later on, but in the moment she was quiet. She does have a voluptuous intellect, barely contained by her 90 pound South Seas frame. When she gets considerate, like now, I usually feel a tingling in my palms. She says:

“There’s the derogatory connotation, which muddies the meaning some. Like, you can be sincere and heart-felt, but if you have a developed aesthetic taste, then you will automatically be inventive with your expression of those emotions, and people might respond to that by calling you pretentious. Because they see your refinement as dishonesty—as a removal from “being real,” or as affectation. And so, by that yardstick, a poet is the epitome of pretension—his works being refined expressions of feeling.

“But that’s not real pretension. True pretension is acting as if you are something you are not, usually something better or higher or more ideal than yourself. And not only that, but you believe in that ideal self so much that you are out of touch, or deny, the lower or more “mundane” self. That is pretension: when your skill is disharmonious with the actualities expressed.

“Why do you ask?”

‘A homeless man once told me I would accomplish something… important. And I’ve always thought to believe him would be pretentious, but to doubt him would be foolish.’

“Well, I think I’m qualified to say you’ll be thought a fool regardless.”

‘Heh. You are, and right.’


Writing from the Heart

Last year’s novel was concerned with Memory and Mistake, and it’s greatest fault—and the reason it’s sitting in the vault, aging for a spell before I go back over it—is that it is largely written from a state of removal. From the first page, the “writer” states that he is writing about his writing more than he is writing about the life that his writing sprang from. And by the time the denouement starts to form, like a storm accumulated from the dust and wind and moisture of the traversed landscape, the Blackbird Variations, 3 retreats into a fractalling demurement of self reference, interpretation and critique that is so freaking dense and uncalled for that I’m sure anyone who made it that far would end up chucking it across the room, shouting: “What the hell is your problem, Benjamin? Why is it so hard to just tell a damn story?”

I let my mind guide my prose, and while some people can pull this off, I’m not one of them. My wheels spin so tight and quick that all too soon they spend the grist they’re fed, and begin to masticate their self-same mechanism.

Probably the greatest complement I’ve ever received, as an artist, was voiced 10 years ago by a four year old girl. She said to her mom, while describing the stories I would make up for her class while they ate lunch: “Benjamin tells stories from his heart.” And yet every time I tell a story to a blank page, my head steps all over the heart and tries to get the blood portioned out into a 42 fluid ounces, labeled and tested and siphoned of hemoglobin.

There has to be a way to cheat this.


Going Pro (as an artist, as a critic)

There is a line between an amateur and a pro, and it isn’t making money, it’s realizing that one’s product is distinct from one’s person.

If a writer asks for your opinion, give it to him honestly. You do both your judgement and his work a disservice by pandering to the conceit of his “feelings.”

And beyond pointing out the wrongs and weaknesses, one might try to find what the other is attempting to do, and urge him to do it better; perhaps telling him to avoid X, Y and Z until he’s got A, B and C down.

But it is important, if one’s criticism is to be useful, to tailor it to the parameters of the work in question, and avoid the cliche’s of critique (i.e. “show not tell”) which, in a subtle way, exert a homogenizing influence on the creative process. Each work of art really only works well when it is in tune with itself. This is what makes writing so damn hard, and why critiques often miss the mark.

In the end, if his desire to be a good writer is stronger than his desire to be liked, he will buckle down and put in the time and effort required. And, should you strive to make your critique a work of art, then the art of writing itself will be enriched by your contribution.


the PREantePENultimate POST

From another r/writing thread

Some superfluous advice for the Beginning Writer:

Make sure you read as much as you can. Branch out of fiction, find a vein of philosophy you enjoy—that will help to build your thinking muscles for later on, when you’re ready or want to dip into deeper concepts.

(A semi-related anecdote: when I was a teenager I wanted to be a poet. I understood that poetry needs to be wed to music to garner the praise I was after, at least in the culture I’m from. And seeing as how I was shy and more often than not disappointed by the lyrics of the bands I liked, I decided to focus on writing stories instead. Years later, burnt out on stories, I picked up a guitar, and found that songs fell out of me, like rabbit poop scattering across the carpet. It puzzled me how much a struggle it was for the musicians I knew to finish a song—when, as a writer, all I needed was a good chord progression, a change or two, and the lyrics came on their own. I knew how to listen for them. Which goes to say: other pursuits will feed into your writing, and give you an advantage, or, rather, increase the value of your product. (As an aside, I can’t record music for sh*t, but I love writing songs, they alleviate my poetry compulsion))

Also, write for people and write for yourself. Get good at action sequences and descriptions, but experiment with language when you can. I believe that Writer’s Block is not so much an absolute block as an indication that your imagination wants to take things in a different direction. As the proverb goes: “There is always fruit in the forest.” So: be playful. Remember that the entirety of writing is a human construct, and there are no absolutes, only varying degrees of clarity, immediacy, and sympathy between writer and reader.