Posts Tagged ‘The Hemingway Defense’

An Interview on Writing Lyrics and Verse with Richard W. Bray Conducted by Richard W. Bray

February 7, 2016

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxcat

Question: When you write in the first person, are you writing about yourself?

Answer: Not necessarily. The decision to use first or third person is often made for phonetic and/or syntactical reasons. For example, I chose first person for “It’s Better to Burst than Ripple Away” largely because it sounds better in first person. For example,

compare this

I’m a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
My boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line

with this

He’s a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
His boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line

The first person just sounds better. And going the from the bilabial m in my to the bilabial b in boots is a smoother transition.

Question: Is this what you meant when you wrote that poetry is a journey across syllables?

Answer: Yes. I can see you’ve done your homework. That’s important for an interviewer. You wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself like the time Charlie Rose asked a guy who had stabbed his wife: “What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your life?”

Question: You have referenced Robert Pinsky’s elegant little book called The Sounds of Poetry.

Answer: So you’ve read that book too. What’s your question?

Question: You need to stop being such a spazz and wait for the question. You’ve written that there’s always tension sound and meaning.

Answer: Yeah. It’s a constant tug-of-war between what you want to say and how you want to sound.

Question: Are you a rough and tumble cowboy in a civilized time?

Answer: Not really. I’m more of a “Can’t we all get along?” sort of a guy.

Question: Do you ever wish you were more of a rough and tumble cowboy?

Answer: Sure. And I’m very sympathetic to guys like that. And I probably wish I were less cautious and more mavericky.

Question:
So your writing is a variety of wish fulfillment?

Answer: Sometimes. But more often I write about the types of people and behaviors which annoy me. “Fastidious Fred”, for example. The genesis of that poem was a news feature I watched about an extremely uptight famous performer who was ironing his own shirt before going onstage.

Question: Who?

Answer: I’d rather not say.

Question:
Why not?

Answer: Because it wouldn’t be nice.

Question: But isn’t the pursuit of Truth and the creation of art more important than being nice to people?

Answer: No. It’s not even close.

Question: But there must be at least a little bit of Fred inside you.

Answer:
Not much. I hate ironing and I’m lousy at it. But like Fred I’ve certainly been guilty of idiotic stubbornness. In a more general sense, however, if you’ll pardon my circular reasoning, Fred comes out of me so he must be inside my. Adrienne Rich wonders about herself (and this applies to all writers): What kind of beast would turn its life into words? And writers turn their lives into words as spiders turn their lives into silk.

Question: You wrote “sometimes I think I have a long way to go when the poem suddenly informs me that I’m finished.” Can you give me an example of when that happened?

Answer:
Sure. It happened with the last thing I wrote, “Put the World in its Place” which I expected to be much longer. But after I inverted the order of the two stanzas I had written, the poem said, “You’ve made your point. There’s nothing to add. Now shut up and take a shower; it’s time to go to work.”

Question: You also wrote “Sometimes I begin writing a poem knowing exactly what I want to say and it turns out just like I planned. Sometimes. Other times I set out to write something, but I end up writing something else.” Can you give me an example of when that happened?

Answer: Sure. Originally “Unspeakable Things” was going to be an Emperor’s New Clothes narrative where someone, probably a kid or a newcomer to the town of Lidane, was going to ask why nobody ever talks about the giant box in the center of town or perhaps he was going to ask why they don’t just tear the stupid thing down. But after writing three descriptive stanzas, it was a little late to begin my narrative and the poem said, “Wrap it up, dude. You made your point.”

Question:
I notice Lidane is an anagram for denial.

Answer: You probably think you’re pretty clever for figuring that out.

Question: You write a lot about denial.

Answer: No I don’t.

Question: How do you decide if what you write is a song or a poem?

Answer: Usually I know from the beginning based on its structure. For example, if it’s iambic it’s probably a poem and if the stresses are more spaced out it’s a song. But sometimes I argue with myself right up until the moment I post it.

Question: Do you primarily consider yourself a songwriter or a poet?

Answer: Neither. I think it was Robert Frost who said you can’t declare yourself a poet; someone else has to do it for you. And no one that I know of has ever accused me of being a poet. And I can’t be a songwriter because I don’t know anything about music. Besides, I’ve only ever read one book about songwriting, and no one has ever set any of my words to music. So I’m just a frustrated would-be lyricist waiting for someone to email me saying, “I just have to make a song out of something you’ve written. Time to quit the day job.”

Question: I noticed that you write a lot about alcoholism and substance abuse.

Answer: I noticed that too.

by Richard W. Bray (and Richard W. Bray)

The Hemingway Defense

July 7, 2012

William Faulkner

According to William Faulkner, it is permissible for an artist to engage in all manner of malfeasance and loutish behavior because “An artist is a creature driven by demons.”

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates)

It is common for supermacho bibulous writers such as Faulkner, Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Christopher Hitchens to confuse self-avoiding cowardice and self-destruction with courage and an intrepid dedication to art. Amis, for example, wrote entire books celebrating the wonders of alcohol. Hitchens thought that crawling into a bottle every day was something to boast about and he was dismissive of people who lack the requisite foolishness to become nicotine addicts. In the sick, sad world of Christopher Hitchens, teetotaling joggers are the real losers.

Stephen King, a man who knows a thing or two about both writing and substance abuse, has a name for the hyper-masculine variety of denial celebrated by various dipsomaniacal American authors: The Hemingway Defense.

as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give into their sensitivities. Only SISSY-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.*

King explicitly rejects all such poppycock. He argues that “[t]he idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

Unlike writers such as Faulkner who lack the necessary self-awareness to confront their “demons,” when given the choice, Stephen King wisely selected his health and his family over the bottle. Thus he has no use in mythologizing the inebriated scribbler.

Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.

Faulkner asserts that it is perfectly natural and wholly acceptable for a writer to be a scoundrel because a true artist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.”

Sadly, people who think like Faulkner have gotten existence precisely backwards. As King notes, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

William Faulkner notwithstanding, no art is essential to humanity, and no poem, not even one as lovely as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is worth the well-being of a single old lady. Humanity will grope along with or without any particular work of art, and Earth will continue to abide long after we’re gone no matter what we do. It is expressly because everything we do is ephemeral that the artist’s humanity is of far greater value than anything he could possibly create.

Perhaps it is a longing for a false sense of immortality that leads people to engage in such diseased thinking. But it’s important to remember that although Hamlet will continue to live on for as long as humanity is extant, William Shakespeare is just as dead as the fellow buried next to him. As Groucho Marx pithily noted: “What has posterity ever done for me.”

Only love conquers death.

*All Stephen King quotations are from his marvelous memoir On Writing

by Richard W. Bray