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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

At War With War and Peace

Posted by crowbiz on August 2, 2010

Guilt strikes at unexpected times.  It also motivates one to do unexpected things with unforseeable results.  This is how I find myself reading Tolstoy’s  epic War and Peace.

Spending my summer with Leo

As someone whose livelihood depends on the destruction of old books, it is with irony that I stayed my own hand when this classic fell into it.  Understand that my whole work process is enjoyable for me, and not rarely tinged with the bittersweet.  First is routing out books like a pig to truffles at yard sales, curbside heaps, the free shelf at thrift stores, the “as-is” garage (Salvation Army’s lowest rung), and the occasional dusty book shop.  The choosing, the measuring, the ideas for prints, the ripping, the cutting to size, the printing, the sometimes surprising result, the packaging, all pleasant steps in the process.  (I reserve the right to skip any self-defense, apologies or explanation for those who blanch at the idea of destroying books – quelle horreur!  Have you visited any landfills lately?  Really, can you find a good home for this forgotten, half-mildewed, partially chewed copy of The Bobsey Twins In Eskimo Land that the owner, whose name was inked with fountain pen to the inside cover in 1943, chose to throw out on a rainy trash night?  I saved it, lovingly dried it in the sun in my backyard, pressed its useable pages flat and turned some of it into objects that sit framed on peoples’ walls.  Got a better idea?)

So it was that I scooped up War and Peace among a handful of foreign language books at a neighborhood yard sale.  “A classic!”  I beamed.  “People love that shit!”  I surmised.  “Just about any of my prints would work well on its pages!”  I reckoned.  A good solid copy, its leaves passed the test:  croppable to 5″ x 7″, uniform header, all reading simply “War and Peace,” and importantly, nonstinky.  I had big plans for it.

Later at home, when ready to rip into one of my latest acquisitions and start a new print series, I handled Tolstoy’s tome hesitantly.  Gosh, it was a decent hardbound copy.  The name “Matthew R. Katrein” (or so it looks) is written inside the front and back.  And, well, I hadn’t read it.  But it seems like I should.  I’m all, like, educated and stuff.  And Anna Karenina was one of my favorites, despite the mocking I took for reading it way back when.  It’s possible that I might like it.  But Christ, who’s got the time for War and Peace…?  You may as well ask me to start making all my family’s clothes on a foot-treadle sewing machine, counting the blades of grass in Delaware Park, and blogging in longhand.  Exactly when was I going to fit this in?

I cracked it open one night at bedtime.  As Mr Crow bustled in and out of the bedroom – a curiously common behavior of his before bedtime – he absently asked and I absently answered what I was reading.  “War and Peace,” I muttered through my mental strain with Russian surnames.  “OH gawd!”  he exclaimed, which is his way of expressing the verklemptitude of an old Jewish lady and “Uh oh, here we go!”  all in one.  (One can’t blame him, though.  Having your wife announce she’s tackling War and Peace takes things in a very different direction than a man hopes at bedtime.)  “Yep,” I replied automatically while inwardly practicing “Fyodorovna,” wondering if it was worth rehearsing in case this was a character I’d have to know and remember, or just a forgettable bit player that could be skimmed.

Here I sit a couple weeks later, marshaling through it.  Sure, I’ve taken flack for it, as many friends and family have either seen me with it – beaches, picnics, in the car, it goes everywhere with me – or heard about it, chalking it up (family, mostly) to my entrenched eccentricity.  I did get a little ooh-aah mileage from Mr Crow when I told him that Boris and Natasha from the Bullwinkle cartoon series were named after the rosy-faced would-be lovers of W & P, and for all I know, it could be true.  I’m only about a third of the way along, and it would help tremendously if I were some kind of military geek, but I’m sticking with it, godammit, because that’s what old Prince Nikolay Andreivitch Bolkonsky would do, the cranky bastard.

And man, what I don’t know about the Napoleanic Wars could fill a book.

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Tips For Lousy Writing

Posted by crowbiz on January 3, 2010

Notice this post isn’t titled “Ways To Become A Good Writer.”  If I knew that, would I have a blog?  Rather, it’s a little cautionary tale about writing potholes that you’d rather not bend a rim over.

Now then, I could well conduct an authoritative set of lessons on good academic writing and good scientific writing.  I get paid to do that, though the outcome usually leaves me disappointed in the state of humanity.  Most of my directives can be boiled down into “cut the wordiness” and “this is not a ninth grade book report.”  But do they listen?  If they did, I’d never again have to read, “the conclusion of the data of this research on the study of the experiment’s work definitely points to a hugely important finding.”  From graduating college seniors.

Anyway, here is my bad advice for today, applicable to fiction writing:

Channel Your Inner College Sophomore.

Oh god.  I’ve been writing since I was eight years old.  It doesn’t mean I’m any good, but it does mean that I’ve gone through a lot of attempts at something.  My glory years were in college, unsurprisingly, when the world and your thoughts about it become ever more interesting, and you have time to write.  At that stage in my life, I enjoyed manufacturing angst the way cows make manure.  With no warning about a future life of mortgage payments, car repairs, permission slips, endless hockey schedules, and running out of ibuprofen at the worst times, making up strife is all you can do.

For a couple solid years, all my stories seemed to be set in a rather Prague-like place, or occurred sometime in October through March between the World Wars, or contained the desire for something unattainable (the dead lover; recognition; someone’s conversion to something).  Often, it was all of these elements in one dreary tale.

Aiding these criminal devices was my – at that time – fluency with German, which crept into every story.  “Schaden” this and “muede” that…  Characters were of simple means, living on the edge of…of… something, outwardly meager and inwardly a roiling stew.  Everything took place in a Lane Ward-like world of black and white, sharp edges, things divined but unspoken, genderlessness….(drift off here, but with feeling).  One of the most fabulously awful metaphors I produced was that of a tangle of deflated balloons and streamers swirling in the wake of a passing car to signify an unrequited love.  It was after a Halloween festival (October, of course).

Every story was like a shotgun wedding of dimestore Colette and Wal-Mart Kafka, with a little Kurt Weill side affair for both, all with a dash of too many late-night viewings of “Cabaret.”  And wordy.  Hoo boy.  No Hemingway concisely telling us that the sun also rose.  Why use four words when twenty-seven words, several of them German, would tell us how the sun broke bleakly over the ineffable troubles of my lost-soul characters and….  Wait, there was no sun in my stories.  It was November.  In Prague.  How I wish I still had some of these stories!  Alas, they were produced on both manual and electric typewriters, and didn’t stand a chance of lasting 20+ years.

We beg of you, please wait until you’re over yourself until you start writing something.  It’s OK to take notes.  Just promise to throw them out a few years later.

Posted in Life In the Mod Podge Lane | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »