A Class on the Art of the Final Farewell

SuicideNote

(George Eastman‘s (co-founder of Eastman-Kodak) suicide note. Eastman shot himself in the heart after suffering from chronic spinal pain which left him partially disabled.)

When someone makes the decision to take their own life, often the first thing many people want to know is whether they left a suicide note. Some people, like Eastman, leave just a few words the living are left to ponder; others leave long, detailed letters of regret, pain, and loss. Whatever the method, there is no denying that the final, written words of anyone who has made this decision are compelling.

Taking a class on the composition of suicide notes though…well, that’s definitely new. But philosophy professor Simon Critchley of New York’s the New School  believes there is much to be learned, artistically and rhetorically, from suicide notes. He recently hosted a course called the  “Suicide Note Writing Workshop.” One of several classes offered in month-long series of programs called “The School of Death,” Critchley came up with the idea after hearing about a program called “The School of Life” in London.  Critchley (my kind of guy) called it ” “a particularly nauseating philosophy of self-help.”

Critchley realizes it is a dark subject and also a “way of mocking creative-writing workshops.”  But, in the workshop’s defense, the professor explained to The New York Times,  “We’re not mocking suicide. We’re doing this as a way to understand it. And why not be a little insensitive? People are terrified in talking about death.”

Fifteen students signed up for the workshop which looks closely at suicide ethics from antiquity to present-day. Suicide notes themselves, Critchley says, are a relatively recent innovation. “In antiquity, there was no need to leave a note,” he said. “It would have been obvious why you killed yourself.”

Notes examined include those left by  Adolph Hitler,Virgina Woolf, Kurt Cobain. After analyzing a variety of suicide notes, from both the infamous and “ordinary” people, the class was asked to write their own last words. They were given just fifteen minutes to do so and the goodbyes had to be contained to a 4″ x 6″ index card. One woman wrote this for her children: “When you inevitably discover those things I kept secret, let these not diminish the reality nor the magnitude of my love for you.”

It is an interesting way to think about communication, especially since these last words, when not a classroom exercise, come from people who largely failed at communicating.


The Best Laid Plans of Novelists

Ever wondered how some of your favorite authors tackled the crazy job of putting pen to paper and creating those stories you loved to read? Well, we’re here to tell you it’s not all magical. As you can see from these intricate spreadsheets and notes, crafting a novel takes a whole lot of careful planning. Just click on any of the following spreadsheets and scribbles for a closer look to find out.

This first is from none other than J. K. Rowling, who planned out all seven books of her Harry Potter series before she had even started writing the second. Here’s part of her plan for Order of the Phoenix:

In the columns, Rowling separates each chapter by its subplots; she lists, “Prophecy,” “O of P” (Order of the Phoenix), “Cho/Ginny” (the romantic subplot of the novel), “Snape,” and “Hagrid” as different story lines to help her keep track of the plot. For a zoomed in look at the detailed spreadsheet, click here.

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The Daily Rituals of Ten of the World’s Most Creative People

Do you have a daily ritual when you write? I don’t know of a single writer who does not.  Maybe it’s summoning the Muse…everything must be just so if there is any hope of words appearing on paper.  Most of us are NOT like the writer, Muriel Spark who, Ann Lamott notes, “is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning — sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.”stephen_king_desk

No, most writers have certain things they are committed to doing every day: common milestones are a starting time, and ending time, and a number of words that must be met. Oh, and a reward at the end (or perhaps that’s just me…. but I doubt it). Here are ten creative people who know that while the result may appear effortless, the process is paramount.

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That’s an Egrig… Egregou… Egregious Error: Most Commonly Misspelled and Looked-up Words

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When I worked in a bookstore in my early twenties (my mother said it was the equivalent of putting an alcoholic behind a bar), this book was one we stocked.  I worked in the tiny store inside an elite hotel alone and Nurnberg’s book was one I frequently thumbed through in between waiting on doctor’s wives looking for the latest bodice-ripper (true story).

No matter how well-educated one is, there are always a few words that, for some reason, just don’t stick.

You are not alone.  According to the website Grammar.net, the following are the fifteen most frequently looked up words (at least on their site):

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The Writer’s Diet: Is a Trim Essay a Good Essay?

WARNING: your writing may be headed for a coronary.

No, this is not an indictment of your eating habits. (Believe me–these days I can hardly put fingers to keyboard without a sugary coffee and half a bag of Cadbury’s mini eggs in me. I am intimately familiar with the ailment that is “writer’s bum.” Ergo, I am NOT the person to school anyone on the deviousness that occurs between hand and mouth.)

I am, however, qualified to speak on the trimness of your writing itself.

Back when I tutored students for the SAT and ACT writing exams, “eloquence” was a prominent focus of the grading rubric. And while eloquence to me, as a Literature and Creative Writing major in university, harkens back to the masters of language–Dickens, Bronte, Austen–”eloquence” (dubious quotation marks and all) to the standardized testing officials actually means quite the opposite; sentences should be devoid of descriptive words, lean to the point of dullness, about as tasty and filling as a leaf of lettuce. It was soul-crushing to teach, though perhaps a necessity when it comes to teaching high school students how to write effectively.

That’s why I found The Writer’s Diet, a new tool that objectively assesses the “leanness” of a writing sample, so interesting. Could it be a helpful tool for students? A measure of eloquence? To find out, I gave it a whirl with one of the best opening paragraphs in the history of the English novel.

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Oh my dickens! Look at that lovely paragraph splattered with ugly neon highlighter. What’s even more injurious to the eyes? The Writer’s Diet test’s fitness rating, which breaks down on a smug little bar graph the faults of A Tale of Two Cities.

Screen Shot 2013-03-19 at 11.15.05 AM

Alright, so I get it that this test is a totally algorithm-based assessment, and that I chose one of the most flowery writing samples in existence to try it out. But to say that Dickens is beyond flabby is frankly insulting. The only way the WD test could redeem itself now was by casting its harsh neon criticism across the greatest assault to English literature I know of… Fifty Shades of Grey.

So yeah, turns out that the passage about the girl feeling adventurous because she borrowed her boyfriend’s toothbrush is officially “Fit & trim.” Nice one, Writer’s Diet.

As it turns out, there is no objective assessment for good writing, because no algorithm can calculate style. And what I didn’t mention before is that style is the one factor of the SAT/ACT grading rubric that separates a mediocre essay from a great one. It’s one thing to be able to simply state a message, and another to instill it in your reader. So before you forsake all commas, dependent clauses, adjectives and adverbs, take some time to become a master of the English language. Scratch that–become an apprentice of the English language. Even a small infusion of style will take you further than you think.

After all, would you rather chomp into a low-fat, gluten free cracker or a dripping, succulent guacamole bacon burger?

Yeah, I think I know your answer to that already.


Fifteen Tips for Writers from Ernest Hemingway, Anne Lamott, and Stephen King

Of the many good things about being a writer… The pay! The fame! The constant attention…

If you believe any of that, you are not a writer.

But one of the GOOD things about writing, or really, any of the arts, is the sense of shared community. Writers want to tell other writers things that worked for them. There are, of course, hundreds of books of advice on writing.  But there is one thing I think all writers should remember.  This advice actually came from a book on parenting, but I feel it is just as applicable to writing:  Take the advice that makes sense to you and throw out all the rest.

Here are the three writers I turn to most often when I want to remember why Wall Street isn’t for me (aside from a complete inability to “math”):

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Ernest Hemingway

1.  If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. – Death in the Afternoon

2.  A serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.

4.  I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.

5.  The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life and one is as good as the other.

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Anne Lamott― Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

1.  “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

2.  “I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”

3.  “Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”

4.  “Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.”

5.  “I don’t know where to start,” one [writing student] will wail. / Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O’ Connor said that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is okay if it is well done. Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just get it down.”

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Stephen King On Writing

1.  “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

2.  “If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

3.  “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

4.  “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.”

5.  “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”


To the Beat of Our Own Drum: My Life Among the Beat Generation

This guest post comes to us by way of one of our eNotes educators, wordprof. Besides serving as one of our literary experts, having written two books on drama and worked for Purdue University, wordprof has much to share for having witnessed firsthand one of the most interesting time periods in American literary history. Read on to find out a little more about one of our best educators as well as the decade dominated by the Beat movement.

There is an interesting way to think of History: it is any time you didn’t live through. The Beatnik era, however, for me is not history, because I was there, in San Francisco in the 1950’s, and I experienced the emergence of a new sensibility, in the contrasting lifestyles of the time.

San Francisco (of course, New York also) experienced a dynamic, innovative time just before the invasion of the “Flower Children” in the 1960’s.  It was known as the Beatnik era (named by Herb Caen), combining the Russian suffix –nik from Sputnik (1957) to the “Beat” designation from Kerauoc’s “Beat Generation” (meaning many things, including “The Beatitudes,” because there was a beatific, nonviolent atmosphere to the art of the time). I remember at the time that the aesthetic atmosphere brought an interesting contrast between the commercial, conservative atmosphere of the Ayn Rand  mentality (The FountainheadAtlas Shrugged), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, and the like.

The contrast could most easily be seen in the two dominant book stores—Paul Elder’s Books, downtown, where multiple copies of such novel bestsellers as Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago (1957) and Nabakov’s Lolita (1957 in English translation) were stacked in towers in the expanses of window displays, and City Lights Book Store in North Beach. The latter, co-owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, featured single copies of books on shelves marked “Alternate Lifestyles” and “Non-Western religions,” where my friends would keep in touch with me by leaving notes on the cork bulletin board made available to all.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti stands outside City Lights Bookstore, which devoted itself to selling alt and ,yes, banned books.

The reading habits of this period reflected a vital new interest in Eastern philosophies and literature, prompted in large part by translation of eastern thought by Alan Watts ( The Way of Zen, 1957) and by English editions of Herman Hesse’s work (Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Glass Bead Game, Journey to the East).  The Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran of The Prophet and the ancient Egyptian “Hermes Trismegistus” of The Kybalion also became widely read; Krishnamurti and the theosophists were much admired, along with existential philosophical writers—Jean-Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness, but more often Existentialism and Human Emotion), Albert Camus’ novels, Andre Gide, Dostoevsky, Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum,  all much read, passed along, and discussed. It was a time of experimentation for all.

Other influences, both philosophically and stylistically, were Walt Whitman, T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, and especially E. E. Cummings, not only because of his distinct poetry, but for his prose autobiographical The Enormous Room and his seminal Norton Lectures i. six nonlectures. (I enjoyed a brief correspondence with Cummings that started as a paean to his genius and an inquiry about whether we should capitalize his name in our writings, and ended up with a request to be his apprentice, to which he responded in a postcard: “This nonhero is too busy being to teach.”)  Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving (1956), in many ways a contrast to the other popular literature of the time, was also read widely.  My personal “book of wonder” during these years of the Beatnik era was Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness (written earlier but enjoying a revival), a conjecture about the next phase of human development, followed by a collection of brief biographies of persons who had transcended self-consciousness into “cosmic” consciousness (Francis Bacon, Walt Whitman, Gautama Buddha, etc.). It was all very beatific.

As for my own enlightenment, I had my spine read by a “chiropracter” who could tell me all about my previous lives (I had been a sailor and an astronomer!). I was charted by a “personology” expert, who read my face, hair, and head bumps to determine my predilections toward a profession in this lifetime.  I also tried to teach myself Greek by reading interlinear translations of The Odyssey (no luck), and took playwriting lessons at the Sears-Whiteside School of Drama.

That was the world of the “Beatnik” wannabe.

Between that world and the world of ego-driven commercialism lay a chasm only bridged by San Francisco’s geographic splendor.  Besides the obvious tourist attractions—Pelican Island (Alcatraz), the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Fisherman’s Wharf–there was Golden Gate Park, containing, besides expansive grass valleys, dozens of commemorative statues (many hidden by fast-growing shrubbery), as well as the De Young Museum and the Japanese Tea Gardens.  At the park’s western edge, guarded by two old-fashioned windmills, was the Pacific Ocean beach, a free public expanse of sand beyond which nothing existed except the Farallon Islands and the mysterious East.  At the top, northern tip of the beach, was Seal Island, close enough to shore to observe the seals without the coin-operated  binoculars, overlooked by the Camera Obscura and the Cliff House restaurant and bar, next to Sutro’s Bath House (since burned down).  These sites were somehow almost reserved for natives to discover (despite the gift shops), again because the beach was free and we were always broke.

Living as a young adult in the mid-50′s to early 1960’s, I witnessed the contrasts daily. In North Beach, for example, (not a beach, but the Italian-American area surrounding the intersection of Columbus and Broadway streets) one could walk from a sublime, subtle Benny Bufano bronze statue of St. Francis in front of St. Francis Church, to the frighteningly commercial art studio and gallery of Walter Keane, where the big-eyed clown portraits reeked of poor taste.  Elsewhere throughout the Bay Area, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn (my friend, a student at S.F. School of Fine Art, did his gardening and mowed his lawn), and Paul Thiebaud were carving out Fine Art careers. (I remember one abstract expressionist painting at the DeYoung originally called something like “Study No. 2” but renamed “The Unnatural Battle of the Four Primal Elements” but I don’t recall the artist’s name.)

The contrast in drinking establishments, too, was always apparent, from the upscale nightclubs—The Condor, Finnochio’s, Bimbo’s, Vesuvio’s, and the Buena Vista at the cablecar terminus—to “The Place”, a simple bar where anyone could speak publicly on the topic of the day, on Blabbermouth night, posted on a blackboard behind the bar. I myself spoke to “Is Nixon a Stone Fetishist?” (when he was vice-president and was stoned by the crowds as he toured South America on a “goodwill mission”) and to “Is Nudism a Form of Catharsis?” before nudism entered the free enterprise system with Carol Doda.

Poet Allen Ginsberg (right), at North Beach’s popular hangout Caffe Trieste. He’s joined by City Lights clerk Shig Murao, who was once arrested for selling Howl to an undercover police officer.

In music (pre-British Invasion), Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Mose Allison sang out from apartment windows, while Flamenco dance music and West Coast Jazz floated out of the nightclubs (financially out of reach for the Beatniks, who would cluster on the sidewalks just outside the bouncer-doorman’s jurisdiction). A startlingly good recording of Porgy and Bess, with Mel Torme and Francis Faye, came out—in vinyl, of course—with a real red handkerchief in a pocket on the cover. Comics considered cutting-edge at the time would be featured at the Hungry I—Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, George Carlin.

Entertainment—other than the private gatherings in apartments decorated with free posters of faraway places (handed out by downtown travel agencies) featuring cheap wine and Tarot card readings, I Ching yarrow stick interpretations, and Mah Jongg games—was self-generated. We played chess at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop (where no bagels were served), or attending Auteur theatre. We watched Jules et Jim, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita and a dozen others, or the free performances in Golden Gate Park of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. There was a growth of experimental theatre, with 1957′s Waiting for Godot, (an outstanding production directed by Herbert Blau, with Jules Irving as Lucky, performed downtown and then at San Quentin prison), Albee’s The Sandbox, Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, the Happenings of Allen Kaprow, and an interest in the New York theatre experiments emerging at the beginning of the 1960’s, Living Theatre, Open Theatre, etc.  In the conservative category at the same time, the best were the movies The Vikings and The Horse’s Mouth and on stage a traveling production of West Side Story.  I remember the Jack Tar hotel (finished in 1960) being built, ugly, rectangular, devoid of charm, an outsider to San Francisco’s opulent tradition of upscale hotels—the Mark Hopkins, and the St Francis.  As one critic put it: “It looks like the box that the Mark Hopkins came in.”

The changing landscape of Broadway and Columbus signified the ushering in of a new era and the end of the time that belonged to the Beats.

Geographically and socially, the Beatnik era ended around 1962, not only because of the Kennedy assassination, but also because Carol Doda at the Condor brought a different kind of tourism to the Columbus and Broadway area (her larger-than-life image in neon became a visual reminder of the change in atmosphere). The creative forces of the writers and poets were moving on, to Telegraphic Hill and to the Eastern cultures that Zen, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Krishnamurti had introduced them to—Japan, China, India, Tibet. The new neighborhoods were the Castro district and the Haight-Cole area (later claimed and re-named by the Flower Children as the Haight-Ashbury area, surrounding the panhandle of Golden Gate Park.) The writing generation just before the Beatniks, such as William Saroyan (Fresno), Jack London (Oakland), and John Steinbeck (Monterey), had branded California as a literary haven, but the Beats took San Francisco as their own (Saroyan lived on Carl Street in the Haight-Cole district before returning to Fresno). They—we—branded it with the indelible image still found today between the stacks of City Lights, or the pages of On the Road.

All in all, if my memory hasn’t distorted the actual facts (Hinman Collator needed), the contrasting worlds served to heighten my awareness of the changes in social aesthetics that were taking place at that time. Whether the Beat Generation or the Ayn Rand Establishment won that particular battle, only history will tell.

Besides, I wasn’t in history—I was in my salad days, in San Francisco during the Beatnik era.


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