Tag Archives: eventual good luck

“Where the hell have I been all day? What have I been doing?”

Hi, I haven’t written a new literary post for today.  If you’ve already been online to my site, you know this, of course.  So, where have I been and what have I been doing?  Clearly, this is one of those “other than literary days” I have noted down in my categories.  Yes, it is.  Here’s what I’ve been doing since about 9 o’clock yesterday morning:

I’m on the verge of finishing my fourth novel, which is very, very exciting (that is, the prospect of finishing it is–as to whether or not the novel itself is exciting, it’s a matter of opinion, though of course I’ve been having a fantastic time writing it).  It’s hard, yes, but with this novel I have written in bits and pieces, and then stopped sometimes for a week or more, until I had something else to say, or had an idea of how to continue.

Though I have a very good idea of just how the novel is going to end (which I explicated to my ride on the way in to the eye doctor this morning), I was really dreading more the inevitable necessity to design the book cover and get it placed on the front of my novel file.  Previously, my brother the good and noble web designer has always done this for me, using PhotoShop of which he owns a download.  This time, I was on my own.

First, I took the background picture off my USB drive and put it in Windows Live Photo Gallery, where I played around with getting the logo from the I Ching in the right position (upper right-hand corner).  Then, when I discovered that Windows Live Photo Gallery would do this but wouldn’t allow me to switch the height and the width, I went to RoxioCreator and RoxioPhotoSuite.  Here, I was able to make changes to the size and shape of my picture.  By about 11:30 p.m. last night (Monday night), I had the lettering placed on the canvas in the correct positions, and was feeling mighty pleased with myself.

Next, however, I had to put the altered photo back into Windows Live Photo Gallery and transfer it into my Microsoft Word documents file so that I could place it at the beginning of my text.  This was when the fun began.  Rather, I’d been having a certain amount of fun so far proving to myself that I’m not a total ninny when it comes to computers; now, however, it was necessary to get my Photo Gallery to accept that yes, I really was not interested in putting together a slide show, or e-mailing my photos to anyone else, or doing any one of the nearly 110 other ingenious things that were apparently done by anyone else with photos.  I nearly despaired.

Then, however, I found something called Microsoft Office Picture Manager.  This became very grueling, because I kept trying to follow directions instead of being innovative (it’s hard to be innovative with the posted instructions unless you’re in a sort of devil-may-care frame of mind about experimenting and taking things down and putting them up again in a series of trial-and-error runs).  By 1:30, I was too tired to continue, and had to go to bed, because I had to travel about 45 minutes to get to the eye doctor’s office this morning.  So, knowing that I was almost there in terms of getting my photo project done (which just started out life as a .jpeg copy scanned from a watercolor), I went to bed and was unable to get to sleep because I wanted so badly to keep on working.  Finally, I slept.

When I got up this morning, I discovered that the “edit” button the Microsoft Office Picture Manager had described as having a “insert into text” option actually showed no such thing.  But you don’t know how stubborn I am; I tried again and again and again, until I was tired.  I’d gotten the thing to work one time, but it didn’t look the way I’d wanted it to, so I’d taken it down, and now couldn’t remember what I’d done.  Finally, I discovered that what I’d done the time it worked was to go to one of my favorite functions on Word and use the extremely useful “send to” button to send the picture to the front of my document.  And there it sits now, waiting for the title page and copyright page to be put in behind it, between it and the body of the novel.

True, it still doesn’t look entirely as I would like for it to, but I’m content to tinker and twiddle with it hoping to find perfection.  And the eye doctor even gave me a clean bill of health, so I haven’t totally ruined my eyesight from hours and hours in front of the computer!  Now, in place of my usual literary endeavors, isn’t that just about the most exciting story you ever heard (no, I know, probably not)?  Well, it’s at least exciting to me, because it proves I can usefully be stubborn instead of (what usually happens) being stubborn to no avail.  Now, if only perfection and I can work things out!

I hope to have another literary post up for you folks tomorrow or the next day, and I hope you’ll continue to visit my site.  Until then, onwards and upwards, as they say!

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When is borrowing acceptable, and when is it unacceptable (and actionable) plagiarism?

The twentieth century and the early twenty-first have not been kind to the notion of borrowing from others in order to create one’s own work.  From Ezra Pound’s edict “Make it New” to the constant reiteration in critical and creative writing courses for students of the priniciple “just do your own work,” the modern (1899-1945) and contemporary (1945-present) eras have put a high premium on originality, that loaded term of terms.

Of course, Pound himself was a great borrower from much earlier works, which he imitated, borrowed from, referred to, and essentially canonized in the more acceptable (read:  non-anti-Semitic) of his Cantos.  So, Pound’s instruction to “make it new” was less an injunction to create ex nihilo, or like Athena’s “springing full-blown from the mind of Zeus,” than it was to revitalize literature by returning to past models and revamping them for modern use.  It’s just that in returning to past models, Pound went further back in time for his models, instead of basing his work on that which came immediately before him.

T. S. Eliot, who had his poetry sculptured and shaped by Pound in Pound’s character of literary patron and advisor, is known to have further muddied the waters of clarity by saying “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” (from Philip Massinger).  Nevertheless, this statement is qualified by other things Eliot says, such as “[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor” (from the essential essay for students even now, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”).  He also says “The great poet, in writing himself, writes his time” (from Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca).  Of course, to some extent writers who are very self-aware of their status like to issue shocking or startling remarks like Eliot’s first one quoted above.  But wait–take these three quotes together and with their sources, and I think things become a little clearer again, at least with reference to T. S. Eliot.  We might have considered anyway that Eliot was referring to writers like Shakespeare in the first quote above:  for, Shakespeare regularly stole plots and sometimes whole plays from others, improved upon them immeasurably, and set them in their forms for generations to come, because of his sheer poetic and dramatic greatness.  The problem is, this took place at a time when it was the norm for poets and playwrights to draw freely upon the works of others, both contemporary to their own times and from antiquity.  But our times have insisted upon originality as part of the essence of a truly great work, and upon innovation as a necessary rite of passage in the struggle to turn out a good and creditable work.  It’s no wonder that those people who are genuinely confused by the issue of plagiarism are so taken aback by what seem like competing sets of requirements.

And then, of course, there’s the issue of writing articles and books in the academy.  If you can still find recordings of the Harvard mathematician Tom Lehrer’s hilarious satirical songs anywhere (and let me not wander too far from my topic, but Lehrer is well worth hearing; he’s the John Stewart of his time, in the 1960’s), you’ll run across a lyric about Lobachevsky, a Russian mathematician who evidently wrote things without proper attribution that were at least highly imitative of what others had written.  Part of the lyric reads:  “Plagiarize.  Let no one else’s work evade your eyes.  Remember why the good Lord made your eyes.  So don’t shade your eyes, but plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize–only be sure always to call it, please–research.”  For another quote of this ilk, there’s Wilson Mizner’s “Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research.”  These quotes are not meant to make students who might read my column cynical; rather they’re intended as an airing of the issues involved.  The best advice in the academic life is:  however much you may borrow, either credit the work outright and get consent, or if it’s an occasion between friends where no credit is needed, check that out with the friend or let them see it to make sure.  You can always credit it privately and impersonally for them if they are shy of attention, or can perhaps say something like “as a friend noted some time ago” or variations on the same.  If you’re working for credit in a class rather than writing a manuscript, let your instructor know that you are honest by crediting quotes as you are taught.  The basic rule is: be modest.  Don’t take credit for something which you have found somewhere else, and if it turns out especially that the other fellow or gal beat you to the punch and said what was just on the tip of your tongue (infelicitous mixing of metaphors here, but you get my point), give them credit anyway:  they historically said it before you did, even if the idea is a brand new one which just occurred to you.  If you find out too late to credit it that it was said by someone else first (after you publish or turn in an essay for example), tidy up behind yourself by mentioning (in any new edition or to your teacher) that you were previously unaware of the concurrence of remarks, and give the other person a footnote or mention.  Contrary to what you may believe, it makes you look better rather than worse.

To return just for a moment to Shakespeare and one of the reasons he got by with his extensive borrowings without credit (aside from the traditions of his time, that is) let’s look at the poet John Milton for a quote:  “For such kind of borrowing as this, if it be not bettered by the borrower, among good authors is accounted Plagiarè” (Eikonoklastes).  There have been a number of studies written, only a few of which I’ve even seen or had presented to my attention by my own teachers, that show how Shakespeare immensely bettered the other playwrights and poets he stole from.  So, in the traditions of his own time, in which it was essential to write upon some story that perhaps was well-known anyway, in the same fashion in which a realistic writer of our own time might use as inspiration a story which is covered by all the major news networks, Shakespeare “made the grade,” so to speak.

During the twentieth century also, the scholar and critic Julia Kristeva came along, with her idea of intertextuality, which is a way of referring to the intricate and intertwined relationships literary texts establish among themselves without recourse to authors’ intents.  As this is more a move to put consideration of what the authors’ intentions are out of the picture than an actual stance on plagiarism, it is a more theoretical issue.  It takes place after the fact of composition, however, not before the fact, so I’m leaving it out of account for now (and I’m being a bit lazy here–Julia Kristeva is a very challenging author to read, and I’ve only covered most of one of her books).  I’m just mentioning it because there is some tangential relationship to originality as a topic.

And what about all those columnists in the news in the last ten years who were fired for plagiarizing from other columnists or newspeople?  It’s tempting just to let Peter Anderson settle the issue.  He says, “Quotations are a columnist’s bullpen.  Stealing someone else’s words frequently spares the embarrassment of eating your own.”  Still, as we have seen, this doesn’t really settle the issue, because the columnists get fired anyway, and several of them have declared that the fault was unintentional.  What do we make of this?  Perhaps it would be generous in this discussion to remember the many times in which some of us literary wannabees copied out the words of others in our notebooks or on our computers because they seemed so strongly to chime in with what we ourselves wanted to say or felt.  I’ve certainly had times myself (in the days before personal computers) when I found thoughts scribbled in one of my writer’s notebooks, and said to myself complacently, “Boy, that’s really a good one.  I have to use that soon.”  And in the days before I started also to take the time to copy down the author’s name and possibly the source of the quote as well, I misremembered more than once and assumed the thought was mine, only to have a friend or teacher to whom I showed the idea furrow his or her brow a moment and say something like “That sounds like so-and-so.  Are you quoting or did you think of that yourself?”  It can happen, yes, which is why it’s a good idea always to note down under your quote where it came from and the author, if you know.  It only takes a little more effort, but more effort is what being a good writer is about.  And if it’s just a coincidence, look up the author anyway, and see how they developed their thought that was similar to your own.  This is what truly changes your work from plagiarism to research, which all kidding aside is a noble endeavor.  And there’s no rule that says you have to write only about your own little mud puddle or corner of the world to stay original; most good writers are either knowledgeable already upon some subject they want to write about or do actual research on it (and either directly or indirectly credit their sources).

My solution in fiction, which would not suit everybody, is to have a character mention the name of the author he or she is quoting, or initiate a literary discussion which makes it obvious what issues are being discussed.  In poetry, I give notes to my poems and let my readers know whom I was thinking of when I wrote, if anyone.  Most of all, I try to “just do my own work.”  And I put my whole heart into it, because what everyone on this planet has to say, despite all the many human things we share and the human experiences which join us one to the other, makes them as individual as myriad snowflakes, each one original and different.  Putting your whole heart into being your plot, being your characters, being your style, et cetera, and relying likewise on the best models you can find and the best literary advice is advancing a large step ahead on the path towards real originality.

P.S.  My own investigation of and meditation upon this topic was occasioned by dialogues I’ve had with the blogger at http://thelivingnotebook.wordpress.com/ .  By and large I think we agree, though he is advocating a freer system of borrowing than I feel comfortable with.  I rather suspect that he’s more interested in spurring creativity in others by his remarks than he is in actually encouraging people to steal freely.  He’s a little like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in that he knows enough about what he’s talking about to know just how far he can go without seeming unoriginal (and of course, he turns out a very original column, which I’ve much enjoyed).

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“Hope is the thing with feathers.”–Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson wrote:  “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers–/That perches in the soul–/And sings the tune without the words–/And never stops–at all–“….  This is a very well-known quote, to which even Woody Allen felt the need to respond (by titling one of his comic books Without Feathers, for example).  We all feel hope for one thing or another, aspirations of one kind or another, desires that we cannot perhaps meet in the present, but which we hope to fulfill in the future.  In the nature of the thing itself, it matters not whether it’s a hope for a particular education, kind of job, one specific individual to share our life with, or our poetic “muse”: whatever may be the inspiring element of our own hopes, it reaches fulfillment because of some of the same characteristics, which might be called “persistence towards the elusive future, capitalization on the possible present.”  (That last phrase is just something I made up for lack of a better one, it’s not a quote.)  First of all, we have to persist in hanging on to the future, which seems to be trying just as stubbornly to elude us at every turn.  Secondly, we have to capitalize on anything good in the present which might lead us to that ever receding goal.  We all face these challenges, and it’s in the documents of our successes, failures, and survival on the path that we enrich and entertain and inspire each other.

One writer who has composed for us a story very much of this encouraging and rugged nature is the Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros, another graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, who has written several books and volumes of poetry about her experiences, somewhat fictionalized but always true-to-life.  The book of hers about which I want to comment today is the book of short “vignettes” (as the blurb writer denominates them) composed around the life of Esperanza (a word for “hope,”) who doesn’t like her own name and would prefer to be called “Zeze the X.”  The book is entitled The House on Mango Street, published some time back, in 1984 (this is the paperback date; the hardback date may well have been earlier.  The story appears in a slightly different form in the anthology I mentioned in an earlier post a day or two ago).

In the autobiographical note in the anthology, Cisneros is quoted as saying that she has discovered for herself a way to write stories “that were a cross between poetry and fiction….[I]  wanted to write a collection which could be read at any random point without having any knowledge of what came before or after.  Or, that could be read in a series to tell one big story.  I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with reverberation.”  (The only other writer I am aware of who has written by a similar method is the writer Julio Cortazar, who wrote a book named Hopscotch, of which the chapters can be read in any order.)

The House on Mango Street opens with a terse, tense, though melodic relation of all the many houses (and streets) Esperanza has lived in (and on) with her family during their urban migrations from apartment to apartment building.  Esperanza first becomes aware of her own and her family’s poverty when a nun from her school points to the apartment from the sidewalk and says “You live there?”  Esperanza remarks only, “The way she said it made me feel like nothing.”  But true to the nature of her being (and living up to her name and her quality of mind) Esperanza relates, “I knew then I had to have a house.  A real house.  One I could point to.  But this isn’t it.  The house on Mango Street isn’t it.  For the time being, Mama says.  Temporary, says Papa.  But I know how those things go.”  Thus, Esperanza’s dreams are at variance with her worldly wise awareness of the things adults say and do, even though she herself is still a child.  Her experience and attitude are much the same regarding the friends she sometimes hopes to have.  Other incidents and conversations which are well-imagined and which are perhaps remembered concerning the writer’s comrades and friends are told in a lyrical style all their own, achievning what Cisneros herself aspires to do in her work.

In the penultimate story in the book, entitled “A House of My Own,” Esperanza adds evocative details to what she wants in a house:  “Not a flat.  Not an apartment in back.  Not a man’s house.  Not a daddy’s.  A house all my own.  With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias.  My books and my stories.  My two shoes waiting beside the bed.  Nobody to shake a stick at.  Nobody’s garbage to pick up after.”¶  “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.”  Here, the rhythmic flow of the sentences creates the “space” for the readers to dip into Esperanza’s world imaginatively, adding their own like feelings and experiences of being crowded/longing for release, with the final line of “clean as paper before the poem” being the line that vindicates both Esperanza’s desire to escape and the reader’s persistence in following the writer’s exploration of the nature of hope.  Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own, move over (or at least make room!):  Sandra Cisneros and her whole house are coming through!

(Today’s a short post, but I hope a worthwhile one.  I’m having a great time with my family members who’re visiting, and I hope your weekend is going well too.–Cisneros’s book is available from Vintage Contemporaries of Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.  Get it soon, and enjoy the fine combination of poetry and prose which is a goal well-realized by Cisneros.)  shadowoperator

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Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

“Experience teaches you to recognize a mistake when you’ve made it again.”–Unknown

And that’s what I’ve been doing today, making mistake after mistake, and not always sure that I didn’t make the same one twice.  Today, I’ve been trying to embed something from Scribd into WordPress.com, only to find that for some reason I (is it only I?) couldn’t get the instructions to work right.  So, finally I put the previous post up as a pdf (a review article I wrote 2-3 years back for thedeepening.com, a site ever to be commended); you can visit my WordPress.com site and click on it at your leisure on the Home page.  Some days, it just doesn’t pay to be a computer idiot!  shadowoperator

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“The covers of this book are too far apart.”–Ambrose Bierce

Have you ever been really enjoying a book, on the one hand, and on the other wondering how much longer it was going to go on?  It’s not quite the same as boredom with the thing (if it were that, you’d probably just put it down), yet you still find your self counting the pages, getting impatient with the author for not “gripping” you as you deserve, or perhaps deserting it temporarily for some shorter read which promises instant gratification.

This feeling I’m describing can oppose or strangely go along with the contrary feeling you get when finishing such a book (maybe even a book published in volumes), that you are sad to see it finally go, and that it’s been a world for you to live in which is now taken away from you until you have a chance to read the book again.  This is especially true of long reads like A Dance to the Music of Time by the British author Anthony Powell (a book which spans a major part of the main character’s long life in the 20th century, and is composed of twelve, yes twelve, well-respected volumes)–read it and laugh, don’t weep, because it’s very often a witty book.

It took me a year or more, reading a short number of pages each night at bedtime, to read all twelve volumes.  I often turned from it in frustration, to read a few pages or chapters of some mystery or fantasy or science fiction novel which made more modest claims in the literary world, but I conversely felt safe because I knew I had a world just waiting for me to come back to it and take it up again.  Such reads, sometimes resented in the reading, have later turned out to be some of my favorite books to share and discuss with others in retrospect.  So the next time you’re looking for that special book to take to the beach, or to fill a dull moment, don’t just grab the shortest and flimsiest reading experience you can find, assuming that it doesn’t matter.  Why not try developing a long-lasting relationship with a good, long, serious or humorous (or both) read that will carry you well into autumn if you read a little of it now and then?  You may be surprised to discover just how rewarding an experience this can be!  shadowoperator

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Filed under What is literature for?

Wow, who’d ever thought setting a menu could be so challenging?

Too many widget choices and not enough space to put them all in!

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Filed under Full of literary ambitions!