Thursday, May 30, 2013

How Often Should You Write?

So after a week-long vacation, and several extremely busy days after getting back, I've finally returned to writing on a daily basis this week.  The first couple days were tough, but now the words are flowing.  I'm struck again, as I have been in the past, how important it is to write every day.

For the novelist, it's critical.  You simply can't get any momentum going if you take days off between writing sessions.  When you take a couple days off, you have to read over what you've previously written, re-calibrate, take a few paragraphs to warm up, and only then does real writing come out, maybe.  You'll never finish that way.  But write daily, and each new session flows beautifully.  Your mind has been working on the problems of the previous session and you start exactly where you left off previously, with new ideas and energy.

I'm not the only one who thinks this.  Stephen King's a big believer in writing every day. Raymond Chandler prescribed four hours a day for writing, and even if he couldn't think of anything, he forced himself to sit in the chair and look out the window.

That's novelists.  Surely other types of writers are different?  Well, maybe, but I'm not so sure.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe started writing a poem every day when he was a teen-ager, and continued the habit throughout his life.  It worked out pretty well for him.  I bet most successful writers make it to the writing desk daily, or nearly so.

If you miss a day here and there, it's probably unavoidable.  Don't sweat it.  But try to write at least six days every week.  Avoid missing more than one day in a row.  That's how you keep your brain bubbling.  Here's a secret: Writing is not the product of inspiration; inspiration is the product of writing.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What I'm Reading: In Cold Blood

Another recently finished book I'm only now getting around to writing about.  "But isn't In Cold Blood true crime?" you may ask, more in Dana's wheelhouse than mine?  Indeed it is, but since reading Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James last summer, where he mentioned ICB as the best true crime book ever written, I've wanted to tackle it.

So ICB tells the story of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, two ex-cons who had briefly shared a cell in the Kansas State Penitentary and got together after their release to commit a robbery.  Their target: the Clutter farm, a prosperous spread in western Kansas described to them in detail by another prisoner.  A farm may seem an unlikely robbery prospect, but they were told (erroneously, as it turned out) that Herb Clutter kept a safe in the house with at least $10,000 in it at all times.  And the place was isolated, giving them plenty of time to work without interruption.  All the time they needed to locate and open the safe, and kill any family members in the house, if necessary.

They broke in with no problems, but when they found no safe, they woke Herb, his wife Bonnie, and his teen-age children, Kenyon and Nancy, and tied them up.  They knocked Herb around a bit but realized quickly the safe didn't exist, and proceeded to execute the family.  Then they drove to Kansas City, floated a few hundred bucks worth of bad checks, and took a little vacation to Mexico.  Eventually they returned to the United States and were located by Kansas detectives a few months later in Las Vegas.

The murder spree was nationwide news in 1959, and attracted the attention of Truman Capote, who traveled to Holcomb, Kansas, in 1960 and spent four years interviewing residents and following Hickock's and Smith's trial and death row appeals.  He published his book in 1966, the first "nonfiction novel," in which a real-life narrative is elaborated with fictionalized thoughts and conversations.

One thing that struck me about the book is that neither Dick Hickock or Perry Smith could have committed the murders on his own, but their respective character flaws added up to a complete sociopath when together.  Dick lacked a conscience and was the mastermind of their misadventures, but didn't have the guts to kill.  Perry was an interesting character, sensitive, intelligent, and a natural at any instrument he picked up; he might have been a musician if a childhood of neglect and abuse hadn't twisted his personality.  He too was no real murderer, but was capable of brutal violence if pushed, or when goaded and guided by Dick.

I'm probably not cut out for reading true crime.  I have no problem with scary or gory books and movies in general, but I do prefer them to be fiction.  There were several points when I was really getting into the story, only to realize that it had actually happened and become a little sickened at my own eager response and identification with the charismatic criminals.  The only one I remember reading before this was something I picked up at my grandparent's house when I was in high school, a book of my grandfather's on Richard Ramirez, the 1970s California serial killer known as the Nightstalker.  I was bothered then, too, by a feeling of what almost might be termed bloodlust when reading it, an unhealthy desire to see how the horror played out.  (And what fascination with evil drives my grandfather, a gentle retired country doctor, to read such books by the boatload?)

But if this is your thing, I agree In Cold Blood is probably as good as it gets.  The writing is precise and elegant, the characters well-presented and incisively analyzed.  I'm not qualified to say how close Capote got to real life, but it feels as real as possible.  There's nothing sensationalized in his telling, but be aware he does describe the murders in clinical, policework-like detail.  In the end, I'm glad I read it, and can recommend it to adult who likes good writing and has a moderately strong stomach.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Complete Crumb, Vol. 5

So it's been awhile since I've written in here about what I've read.  I was out of town last week on a family vacation (Disneyworld!) and spent this week getting caught up.  I might write up another of these later this week, but I'll start with the Complete Crumb, Volume 5.  This collects underground comic artist R. Crumb's work from December 1967 to April 1969.

Wow, is this one ever not for kids.  Drug use, extremely uncensored sexuality, and all sorts of adult situations and scatology, all done in the cute, "big-foot" style of art Crumb is best known for.  This is what most would consider his classic period, and includes the Janis Joplin album covers, as well as multiple episodes of his best-known characters taken from underground comix and alternative newspapers of the period.

Fritz the Cat, the motivationally-challenged cat who stumbles, smokes (not tobacco), and sleeps his way through San Francisco's hippie underworld, receives the book's longest section.  It's a fairly episodic story culminating in Fritz's almost accidental involvement in a Marxist cell's plot to bomb San Francisco's bridges.  Fortunately, the cell is utterly incompetent, many of its members more interested in free dope than revolution, and the plot fails.   Fritz himself is dopey and affable, and it's hard not to like him even when he's involved in terrorism--after all, he doesn't really mean it, he's just going along with what his friends are up to.  I do have to wonder what Crumb really thought of his friends and acquaintances, if the bumblers, psychotics, and druggies depicted in this story were typical of his own circle.

Mr. Natural, the white-bearded philosoper who instructs his "clients" in overcoming their hang-ups to achieve sexual liberation and spiritual fulfillment, appears in several one- or two-page strips.  In one series of strips, he even goes to heaven and meets God, only to decide the scene is too boring and he wants to go back to Earth.  Mr. Natural is the opposite of Fritz, perhaps something of Crumb's ideal man: funny, wise, able to see through the various falsehoods the world presents to discern what's really important in life.

Another recurring character is Angel McSpade, a sort of hyper-sexual Aunt Jemima who's used in several pieces satirizing white men's attitudes towards black women.  I found these strips to be the most uncomfortable to read, although I can see the point Crumb was making.  In fact, they are probably the most pointedly political strips in the book. 

Much of the remaining material is little more than humorous scatological skits, fairly juvenile but funny if read with the the right attitude.  As a whole, I would recommend this book only to a fairly narrow segment of people.  If you have an interest in comics history or the 60s counterculture, and a high tolerance for raw language and graphic (though cartoon) sexuality, this is an important document of the era not to be overlooked.  For anybody else, this should be avoided.