Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Quotability of Aphorisms

Today I taught seniors in high school what an aphorism is. (I taught the juniors a few weeks ago, but the seniors don't need to know.)

Aphorism [af-uh-riz-uh m]:
a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation. Could be a commonly used phrase, or an original phrase that is a universal truth.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
Your children need your presence more than they need your presents. (Jesse Jackson)
You are what you eat.
We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be. (Kurt Vonnegut) 
The early bird gets the worm.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Don't store all your eggs in one-

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you get it. In creative writing, we call these cliches, and you're not supposed to use them. 
But in English, aphorisms -like quotes- are useful for writing essays and focusing on a thesis. 
But in creative writing, to recycle an overused phrase is disappointing at best.
But in English, a universal truth could be the only thing out of the whole book you underline.
But in creative writing, if all you write are universal truths, your book won't be specific enough to say anything worthwhile. 

What is a writer to do? 

Some young writers struggle with this.  We see Mark Twain and William Shakespeare quotes everywhere -and, of course, we all say we didn't like reading their stories when what we really mean is that in school we procrastinated, we crammed five extensive chapters into one night, and then was surprised when we didn't do well on the quiz the next day. We want to be like Twain, Hawthorne, or Bronte without having to read them. We want to have the mythological glamor of being a successful, published author, someone whose works will be  read  quoted by schoolchildren in a hundred years.
But you have to say something worth saying. 

Parallelism and extended metaphor are more fun to teach. There's more art to a story when the specific details around, say, a fish are really talking about youth. Do we always underline those sentences? No, but does that make their meaning any less powerful? And should you write phrases only to have people underline them? 

Write something meaningful, and do it because you're an artist, not because you want to be immortal or because you have a romanticized notion of what writing truly means. Use your own words, not someone else's. Find what you want to say instead of writing something so universal that it's vague, overused, or confusing.

 You can't make a silk purse out of sewing words that don't fit. 

Wait, what?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dear Sylvia, I'm Sorry.

Writers work hard.

Yet we get rejection letters. Usually replies come in the form of "Thanks, but no thanks," but some of them are uncharacteristically harsh. So Writer's Digest started a new prompt for their writers. It's called "Reject a Hit" and the idea is to write a "clueless" and humorous rejection letter for a favorite hit or classic. Others that I've seen have been for The Godfather, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Befitting the requirement, they're crass, clueless, attacking, and, well, funny.

So here's mine: to Sylvia Plath regarding The Bell Jar.
(I'm sorry, Sylvia.)

January 29th, 1963

Dear Mrs. Hughes,

Sorry –is it Mrs. Hughes, or Miss Plath, or Miss Lucas?

Unfortunately, Prescott Publishers is unable to accept The Bell Jar at this time. 

Just as we don’t know which name to use for you, it likewise seems to be a problem with your main character. We don’t know that her name is Esther until thirty pages into the book, after you’ve already told the reader that even her roommate acts like her name is Elly. She lies about her name again later. If we don’t even know what her name is, how can the reader attach to her as a protagonist –or care that she’s in New York? In fact, the only thing we do know about Esther are her strange tendencies to eat. (At least avocados in her grandfather’s suitcase are interesting.) She is more believable as an adolescent male teenager than as a woman starting a career.

What’s this mantra, “I am I am I am I am”? If she knows who she is so well, how come we don’t?

The protagonist’s identity crisis is not the only crisis this novel has: it has no plot. From what I can tell, the only driving question is whether Esther will kill herself –something that doesn’t appear to have much risk for the reader.

You have one thing going for you: the writing voice. Even though what Esther says is bafflingly inconsistent, at least her curiosity remains. This would be much more powerful for a story that actually had plot. We may be willing to look at the manuscript a second time -once you create real structure. This winter is said to be the coldest in 100 years: stay indoors and rewrite.

Kristen Kauffman
Senior Editor
Prescott Publishers