Happy Accidents

October 2, 2013

Word poster made by my daughters

Word poster made by my daughters

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

T.S. Eliot

Anyone who has ever tried to write something in verse—a poem, song lyrics—has likely realized, with mounting despair, that words get in the way of what one wants to say. Unlike a painter’s brushstroke, words appear on the page naked and unpretty, loaded with meaning made stubborn and static through their regular use as tools for daily communication. Words are primarily functional, and in that respect they serve us well. They create at least the illusion of a shared reality, however mundane that reality might be (e.g., “Hot enough for ya?”). There is, of course, great comfort to be found in everyday speech. No one would remain sane for long if we were somehow compelled to speak in rhyming couplets.

As I see it, the poet’s task is to manipulate words in order to overcome the limitations of words. Or, to say what words cannot express. This seemingly insurmountable oxymoron has led countless would-be bards to throw up their hands, develop a fondness for liquor, and (if the urge cannot be stilled) scrawl free-verse tantrums on soggy cocktail napkins.

But it is worth keeping in mind that words are man-made constructs—signs and symbols that have no intrinsic meaning. A tree is not a tree because we call it a tree. That is, words come after the fact. They are abstractions.

It is this approximate nature of words that makes possible the ambiguity necessary to communicate poetically, which is to say, emotionally. If prose is the language of the material world—everything that we apprehend with our senses—then verse is the orderly expression of our scattershot inner lives. The best poetry offers us a reflected glimpse of both our own felt experience and the experience of others.  There can be wisdom in those words.

Heavy

But how does one go about selecting and arranging words in such a way that the desired effect—or any effect—is achieved? Here I will speak only of my own lengthy but largely fruitless experience. With very few exceptions, I have not purposefully sat down with a blank page and attempted to compose something in verse. It seems unnatural to consciously will or demand something of my unconscious. I accomplish much more when writing poetry is the last thing on my mind. These occasions include, but are not limited to, walking, heavy lifting, and cleaning out the litter box. Certain lines or phrases sometimes burble to the surface and I immediately write them down. Even if I’m aware that the words are awkward, I save them. I have a notebook full of these fragments. Later, while reading through my lists of other blurted half-thoughts and impressions, I sometimes discover that a flimsy line fits well with an earlier, unrelated phrase to create a new and unexpected meaning. It’s like a mad experiment, with no hypothesis and nothing to prove. Most of my successful poems and lyrics have been, in short, happy accidents; a matter of finding significance in coincidence. To a certain extent, it’s as though the poem and I have met halfway, and what follows is a feeling of recognition, of reuniting.

And I will end this here. That litter box ain’t gonna clean itself.

Thanks for reading! Comments and criticisms are always welcome!

Calvin

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Chalk drawing courtesy of my daughter.

Writing comedy is difficult because it requires imposing structure on something that, by its nature, rejects the killjoy that is form. Although I’m an amateur in the field, I do know that caging the anarchic gag can crush the spontaneity and gambolling good humour that are the very essence of funniness. And before you know it, everyone hates you.

Shared laughter, or what I’ll call “organic humour”, develops its own tone and tempo as the hilarity mounts. It’s regulated by quips and cues that provide fodder for the next round of merriment. Cold glares and general discomfort also tell you when you’ve gone too far. Pre-meditated humour is deprived of any such social hand-holding, and often suffers for it. A lot of written comedy (especially the “fake news” piece; see below) simply tries too hard, straining the credulity of even the basest parody. Though I wouldn’t make it a general rule, it’s probably wisest to err on the side of subtlety. Meet the reader half-way. Let him believe that you’re sharing your joke. Which is what you’re doing. There’s nothing unethical about it.

I can offer no help when it comes to determining what is funny, but I do recommend that you attempt to write something that you yourself might find amusing. I say “might” because, really, who among us is fortunate enough to laugh at his own jokes?

I hope you enjoy the following, which you can also find posted at http://thewindsornaysayer.com/2012/05/14/reader-submission-scandal-erupts-at-university-of-windsor/.

As always, comments and criticism are welcome.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

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Scandal Erupts at University of Windsor

Shame-faced officials at the University of Windsor are scrambling to provide plausible cover stories in the wake of yesterday’s discovery that the school’s writer in residence does not exist. At a hastily convened meeting last night, representatives of the English department provided a muddled if eloquent defence, effectively deflecting all questions put to them by answering in fluent Middle English.

Meanwhile, a spirited offensive by the Cultural Studies department placed the blame for what they called “unforgivable neglecticism” squarely at the feet of “a phallocratic system whose goal is to otherize the marginalized, even if that means driving someone into a state of non-existence.” Asked to “unpack” this statement, professor David Brett sighed and insisted that “you find your own damned axis of oppression.”

Out on the quad, students appeared largely oblivious to the scandal. Alice James, a third-year Linguistics student, said, “I always dismissed the writer in residence as a kind of joke, like maybe the fraternities were behind it. No one really believed there was an actual writer on campus. We all just played along, like you would with Santa Claus, or the Queen.”

The matter was brought to the attention of campus police yesterday morning, when sophomore Michelle Summers, following numerous failed attempts to reach the writer in residence by e-mail and telephone, decided to drop in unannounced. At this point, she made a shocking discovery. “The student handbook lists the office of the Writer in Residence as room 448 Dillon Hall, but Dillon Hall is only a three-storey building.” According to Summers, the news “went viral”, and has already been re-tweeted twice. “This is totally going on my resume,” she said.

When contacted by the Naysayer, Sergeant Charlotte Green of the Windsor Police said, “I can’t really say if this is a criminal matter. I’d much prefer to chalk the whole thing up to stupidity, but we can’t be so dismissive when academia is involved. That university has a Law school, and it’s a breeding ground for hungry lawyers just waiting to sink their pro bono teeth into something close to home.”

Ruth Taylor, Director of the Writer in Residence program, expressed mock dismay at the news that her pet scribe did not exist. “I’m shocked,” she said, “but not appalled. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. And at least we have a Writer in Residence program. There are many schools which, in fact, do not.”

My desk

I’ve never considered myself to be one of those people who seemed destined to write. Nature did not endow me with extraordinary powers of psychological observation, and for the first twenty-odd years of my life I felt no impulse to express myself in words. Words are not picturesque. I was very big on going to the movies at the time, so I made Super-8 films instead.

As I entered my early 20s, my attitude toward art became more passive. I read widely and majored in English at university. I tried my hand at writing and discovered that, while I had some facility with language, I had very little to say. Drinking with friends, playing darts, and shooting pool provided an attractive distraction.

The genesis of any creative endeavour is a tension that cannot be expressed by prosaic means. For example, I can swear at someone who has cut me off while driving, but that requires only that my vocabulary contains existing profanity. (And it does, believe me.) The source of tension might be one’s reaction to something external. Beatniks, hippies, and punks all created music (art) that was a response to their perceived sense of injustice and societal constraint. For others, the tension might be internal. An essential component of treatment for those with mental disorders is art therapy. The tension is eased when the internal becomes externalized, and one may feel reconnected with the larger world through the production of something concrete—something that can be shared. Seen in this light, art is not, as some claim, a frivolous luxury. There are, of course, scores of artists whose work is self-indulgent or derivative (enough with the Barbie doll installations already!), but that does not negate the necessity, the inevitability, of art.

It was not until I read Franz Kafka’s book, “Parables and Paradoxes”, that the true power of words became clear. The fragments and short stories that comprise the book are cloaked in ambiguity and spiritual mystery. Age-old problems of truth and meaning are approached tangentially, yet there is an undercurrent of wisdom that is beguiling, just out of reach. Kafka demonstrated to me that uncertainty could be met with still greater uncertainty, and that truth was not bound by the restrictions of logic.

Here is an example of a fragment from “Parables and Paradoxes”:

THE PIT OF BABEL

 What are you building?—I want to dig a subterranean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.

We are digging the pit of Babel.

And so, between games of darts (priorities, here), I entered the world of metaphor, writing little meditations on loneliness and love without mentioning either by name. I wrote secrets to myself: impressions, half-thoughts, and contradictions—a kind of coded diary. I was pleased with the mystery of my own musings, taking comfort in the knowledge that any attempt to define myself to myself must remain vague. To use a darts analogy: I would never hit the bull’s eye, so why aim for the board at all?

But the charm of such introspection soon faded. After a while, it occurred to me that what I was doing was the literary equivalent of playing air guitar in front of a mirror. Wouldn’t I really rather be up onstage, playing to an audience? Well, yes. But that would require a separate blog entry.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin Campbell

How Not to Get Published

April 10, 2011

Lovecraft in his twenties

H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was an influential writer of horror and science-fiction stories during the heyday of the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. One of the more curious things about Lovecraft (and there are many, many curious things about Lovecraft) was his inability to champion his own writing. So often was he the author of his own misfortune that any sympathy one might have for him quickly gives way to incredulity. As the following letter demonstrates, Lovecraft was his own worst advocate, and it comes as no surprise that he only achieved the respect he had due after he had died and gotten out of his own damn way.

Lovecraft sent the following as a cover letter for a submission of five of his manuscripts (MSS.) to Edwin F. Baird, editor of “Weird Tales”, in April, 1923.

My dear Sir:

Having a habit of writing weird, macabre, and fantastic stories for my own amusement, I have lately been simultaneously hounded by nearly a dozen well-meaning friends into deciding to submit a few of these Gothic horrors to your newly founded periodical.

Of these the first two are probably the best. If they be unsatisfactory, the rest need not be read.

I have no idea that these things will be found suitable, for I pay no attention to the demands of commercial writing. My object is such pleasure as I can obtain from the creation of certain bizarre pictures, situations, or atmospheric effects; and the only reader I hold in mind is myself.

My models are invariably the older writers, especially Poe, who has been my favorite literary figure since early childhood. Should any miracle impel you to consider the publication of my tales, I have but one condition to offer; and that is that no excisions be made. If the tale cannot be printed as it is written, down to the very last semicolon and comma, it must gracefully accept rejection. Excision by editors is probably the one reason why no living American author has any real prose style. But I am probably safe, for my MSS. are not likely to win your consideration. “Dagon” has been rejected by Black Mask, to which I sent it under external compulsion—much as I am sending you the enclosed.

I have written comedy, fiction, scripts, poems, articles, and technical stuff, but never song lyrics. My brother Jerry, a musician who can play many instruments with some level of virtuosity, changed all that. Though no slouch as a writer himself, he asked me to pen some lyrics for a three-minute piece of music that he had composed and roughly recorded (hope to provide link to song soon). I received the lyric-less music file by e-mail, listened to it, listened to it again, and then thought, “It’s a nice song, but there’s no way in hell that I can do this.” But I did do it. Here are a few tips that I learned along the way.

MEMORIZE THE SONG

I nearly fell off the rails right here, at the very beginning. Why? I tried to write along with the melody of the music, hoping that the words would pop into my head and that I’d essentially be taking dictation from a selection of personal muses. No chance! The stream-of-consciousness experiment was a disaster. No muse can maintain that pace.

Clearly needing some kind of creative anchor, I had no choice but to memorize the song. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but I highly recommend that you know the song inside and out before you even begin to think of lyrics. Know it until you catch yourself humming it. You will be rewarded.

BREAK THE SONG INTO DISCRETE SECTIONS

Writing lyrics for an existing music track involves a lot of heavy mental lifting. It’s not like going up to the store to buy a carton of milk. It can be frustrating, and feeling emotionally and mentally taxed can take a toll on your patience, and therefore your talent. I survived this far in the process by recalling that Jerry taught me the three essential parts of any pop/rock song. This gave me the structure I needed. The three essential parts, with lyrical examples from The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”, are:

  • The “A” part: This is your standard verse (“Little darling/It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter”, etc.)
  • The “B” part: Think of this as your chorus (“Here comes the sun…”)
  • The “C” part: This is the part that adds a bit of spice to the song. It might only be used once. (In “Here Comes the Sun”, it’s the part of the song that repeats “Sun, sun, sun, here it comes” several times in a kind of falsetto voice.)

WRITE

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. It’s do or die. It’s time to start hanging words on your musical skeleton. I offer only a few tips when it comes to actually writing the lyrics, since you’ll have your own ideas about how to express the ineffable. Generally, I take a playful approach with words, but I’m not a fan of obscurity for obscurity’s sake. I guess I sort of “de-construct” poetic conventions, but put them tidily back in their proper places before anyone notices.

I advise against overwriting. If something isn’t working, and you force it too hard, the strain will show. What could have been cool now sounds only unhinged. Editing is, of course, a must, but chisel gently. At this point, familiarity with your lyrics may have bred some contempt, but now is not the time to let it show. Just let it flow.

A few words about choruses. As a lyricist, you’ll want your chorus to showcase your best writing. Musicians might appreciate that, pat you on the head, and give you an “A” for effort, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t hesitate to rip it to shreds or rewrite it entirely. Why? Because, you see, this is the musician’s moment to shine. Sometimes, simple is cooler than fancy. A simple “Yeah!” might be all that’s needed. Let’s look at the Beatles’ song: “Here comes the sun/Here comes the sun/I say/It’s alright”. Very simple, very nice.

WAIT AND LISTEN!

So you send your lyrics to your version of my brother, hoping that you’ll hear a completed draft of the song within a couple of weeks. Don’t get your hopes up. I wrote that song four years ago, and my brother still hasn’t gotten around to recording it. I shrug and persevere.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

A beginning

January 31, 2011

I have two young children, and I’m always impressed by their fearless approach to creativity. Maybe even a bit envious. As a writer, there have been far too many times when I’ve stared at a notebook or computer screen waiting for the words to come; sometimes thinking that I’d sell my soul if only the damn words would come. But my children, like all children, have not yet felt the sometimes paralyzing press of self-consciousness. They lack a self-censoring mechanism. They’re still in Eden. While I agonize over characterization and converging plot-lines, my eldest daughter has already written two books, each with a beginning, middle, and end. They’re even illustrated.

Of course, children are also notorious for playing obsessively with something, then dropping it and moving on to something else. This approach doesn’t work very well in the adult world, but I’d like it to work on this blog. I don’t want to say that this blog is a “playground for ideas”, but I suppose that’s what I really want it to be. If you have a crazy idea for a novel that you never intend to write, post it. Half-finished and half-baked ideas have a home here.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll come back. If you find yourself scratching your head and wondering what I’m rambling on about, this might just be the place for you.

I was happy, but happy is an adult word. You don’t have to ask a child about happy, you see it. They are or they are not. Adults talk about being happy largely because they are not. Talking about it is the same as trying to catch the wind.”

Jeanette Winterson, “The Passion”