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A colleague once gave me some wonderful advice before a job interview. She said 'Be yourself, but be yourself emphatically'. Reflecting on today's newsletter, it strikes me that's pretty good advice for finding 'your voice' in fiction, too.

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Love that, yes. "Be yourself emphatically." Perfect.

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My high school chemistry teacher wrote "This above all: to thine own self, be true" in my yearbook the week before graduation. This, of course, from Hamlet. Took me forever to figure out what he meant, how it applied, but it has been without a doubt the best advice I've ever received. Or, I came eventually to discover, anyone can receive.

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Kind of a rant here. Apologies.

The questioner writes: "I've been told not to think too hard about my prose." And i want to say, who told you that? If you are a prose writer, ALL you are doing is thinking about your prose. That's the job; the mission. Find the prose that tells your story, and then hone that prose until it's exactly right. George's stories work because of the strength of his prose--he's found the ONLY way to tell the stories he wants to tell. (And also they work because he's just plain a fantastic writer.)

A story runs on voice and rhythm. And every story demands its own voice and rhythm. You have to discover it every time. Even if you eventually find what may be called "Your Voice." You still have to re-discover it every time you write a story, because every story is different.

Every time I hear someone advise people to just "write the way you talk," I want to say, yeah but i scream and make noises. If I wrote the way i talked, it would be only this: Fuck, fuck, fuck, aaarrggghhhhh!

God, people are so hard on themselves. Everything's gonna be okay. Write as much as you can write, and then look at it and see what you think. What YOU think, not someone else. Practice writing in all kinds of ways. See what fits, what works, what makes you happy, what gets your point across.

The best advice I ever got was from the poet Marvin Bell: Read and then write, using what you read. (Yeah, another aphorism. But this one works for me.) That's the way to hear voices and sentences. And if you do enough reading and then writing, eventually you'll find a "voice" that works for you, at that moment, for that story.

I know that I seem very full of myself around here. But really I'm just a work in progress, and putting my thoughts in these little boxes of Story Club often helps me find clarity.

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I am thinking about many people I have known who were certain beyond any reasonable doubt they knew what good writing was made of, and would snuff out any flame that did not burn properly in the wood stove of their parameters.

I was lucky tonight to have been able to experience Percival Everett and Aimee Bender talking about books and writing on the California Book Club: most refreshing!

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Wasn't it wonderful! I loved Everett's observation that "The reader is where the meaning gets made," (referring to his own novels). And then Aimee Bender's comment at the conclusion that, for her, fiction is trying to construct a little house for her to dwell in--the feeling is real while the house itself is fiction, a dream construct.

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They were both lovely, separately and together. And his observation of the pain and fear when you know you can’t save your child from so many things. Pure bliss to be able to be there, cyberwise. My reading list is once again increased by leaps and bounds!

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And their comments about dreams!!

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What did they say about dreams David?

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Oh no, I have slept too many times since then!

It was something about the dream world as another reality that is vivid and valid, but cannot be translated into the language of this world…I think I can access the recording at californiabookclub.com

but it might take me a while to find the time. I will get back to you!

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I hear what you're saying, but to me, the worst stories are ones that are over-written, not under-written. I think everyone's different in this way, but in my case, I always run the risk of thinking too hard about what I'm writing, and leading myself to gangly, unnatural-sounding prose.

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Balance in all things. When i say that a writer is thinking about their prose all of the time, i mean that the prose is what reveals the story. You can't not think about the way you are putting it on the page.

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founding

You're so right here. Just as a guest can overstay her welcome, so can a writer overwork the copy. Knowing when to stop is as valuable a skill as knowing something needs work. It comes with learning how to fairly judge your own work. It also goes without saying that it's always good to have valued readers who can give you helpful feedback.

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I don't know if you slush read, but the worst I see are poorly written and not edited :)

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I think I know what you mean, Brad: the thinking gets in the way of the doing. I can (still!) do a pretty good single-time step, which took me ages to learn. So long as I don't think about it and just let go & do it, trust that everything I need to know about how to do it is already in my brain. But the second I start to think about how to do it (shuffle hop jump step step step shuffle hop jump step step step), as soon as the thinking starts up, I go all two left feet and jerky middle-schooler moves. If you can maybe find a way not to think, trust that you already know how to do it, & just let it rip, you can always fix it later. "Don't Think!" that was a sign Ray Bradbury said that he kept over his typewriter. I'm not big on Bradbury but I'd say that's pretty good advice.

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I guess I admire what you’re saying here but the truth is unfortunately I’m not always thinking of my prose. I’m thinking I have to get my dogs out so I can exhaust them. I’m thinking I need exercise, and to get the groceries, and how my patio flagstones are coming undone, and how much moss there is growing in the cracks, and that my wood floors need to be refinished and when is that going to happen and even if it does where will I go for two weeks while it’s being done, and those two cans of paint I bought two years ago, I need to take them back to Lowe’s so they can shake/mix them up again before I paint anything, and then there’s my son with a severe medical problem and how can I help him maintain his house and on and on. Ha!

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ha! I guess I should have been more specific! This anxiety-wracked mind salutes you!

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Hi again, Mary

You don't seem full of yourself, just full of conviction. And that you've had to wrassle for the wisdom you live by. Besides, you're right. I'm pretty much constantly thinking about my prose. I'm guessing that what the advice our questioner received meant was: Don't second guess yourself; let things flow. That's what I hear, at least, being a chronic second-guesser. Barry Lopez said something like, "If I catch myself thinking, I'm not writing." Given his extraordinary intelligence and the sparkling clarity (and soundness) of his thought, it's hard to know what he meant. What it means to me, though (and you allude to it), is: Listen to your muse, transcribe as best you can.

I too read before I write. Usually poetry. Works for me too.

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Thanks, Dan! And wasn't To the Lighthouse just brilliant? I can't stop thinking about it.

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Yeah - but a nice rant not to mention how well "fuck, fuck, fuck, aarrggghhh" scans. Today's haiku

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"God, people are so hard on themselves."

I hope She's listening.

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Lol. (Me, too!)

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Thank you, Mary!

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The point about not thinking about the prose too much is to make sure the reader can’t detect the writer’s machinations. The “natural” voice is what happens after you’ve labored over it enough and you hit it and it becomes second nature to you. It’s consistent in its context: none of the “purple prose” that might be pretty, but just doesn’t fit. The easiness of a well-wrought voice is like a perfectly executed double play in baseball: it looks simple and inevitable, but it took many hours of hard work to make it that way.

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God damn I love how liberating the guidance here is.

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You know what? I hate Hemingway. I hate his writing, I hate his characters, and I loathe almost everything I can think of about him as a human being. I find that opening paragraph affected, performative, posturing, and boring. Now, maybe he was necessary as an antidote to what came before him, and served a useful purpose in the history of American literature. But I will never understand who set him up as this oracle and shining example of what good writing is supposed to be for all time, and how so many in our generation bought it - and still struggle against it. I declare my stand against bombastic, phony, toxically macho bullshit as practiced by "Papa" (gack). And I'm gonna use all the adjectives and even <gasp!> adverbs I feel appropriate. So. There. (Whew. I feel better now.)

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Fair enough! I appreciate your passion & honesty. ❤️

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May I very politely suggest that in some quiet, tolerant moment you read "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" -- just for fun?

I am ducking the pots and pans .. but, he was "set up" because he's a brilliant writer. All the other stuff can be ignored.. more or less. Definitely less for some.

I believe he is not responsible for the ban on adjectives. Which was always an incredibly stupid thing to say. Whoever said it first.

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For me, Hemingway’s prose cleanses the palate, reminding that much can be conveyed in few words. I do not recommend him to my fellow diners as a course in virtue.

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I have. I have tried. Truly. A dear friend tried to explain it to me... nope. nope. nope.

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Mmm... as the thunder of the third "nope" dies down is that the first glimmer of "hope" that's rising on the dawning radar to the East?"

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Perfectly valid opinion!

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That's one of my favorites. And one of my favorite opening sentences is from "Now I Lay Me": 'That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silkworms feed'.

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May 19, 2023·edited May 20, 2023

My fav of his stories🌷 Thank you for mentioning it. I could never hate a suicide period. I don't care how bullying or whatever they were. A suicide is a tortured soul. My father was one.

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O, hell, yeah! My "local" bar is called Hemmingways [sic]. It is a stone's throw from his birthplace. I frequently rib the owner and the staff for NOT knowing that story. What a gem. The genius of recasting the lord's prayer into nihilistic Spanish and yet the rhythm of the prayer survives the translation and the deliberate mangling. Makes a good case for "revealed word" if it's hallmark is passages in scripture that defy all manner of translation and mangling. So glad you mentioned that story.

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Sorry, y'all. I had to return and like my own thing. Somebody's got to do it.

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I've never been able to read anything by Hemingway w/o laughing ever since I watched Midnight in Paris. Now everything I read of EH's reads like part of a Woody Allen screenplay. LOVED that movie (but am saving comments about WA for another time...)

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Yep, me too! I thought I would just steer clear of WA myself here, but the EH bit in that makes us roll on the floor... X-D

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Thank you for sharing this, Mary. I appreciate Hemingway the man and the writer even more after reading it.

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Thanks for sharing this, Mary. I’m now going back to read those stories mentioned with interest.

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I remember seeing this when it came out. Lots of sexual dynamics trying to unconvolute themselves in the poor guy. I recall reading somewhere, eons ago, that his mother used to dress him up in little girl clothes. I tend to doubt it. Still he did seem to be overcompensating for something.

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Oh, you can find the photos online of him dressed as a girl. The Ken Burns doc was fascinating, if you haven't seen it. Hemingway really struggled with his feelings about himself.

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Maybe that's where I saw it. It was fascinating.

If you're interested in another fascinating piece on Hem, here's something from Lillian Ross from 1950, well before his brain got scrambled by the TWO plane crashes he survived: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1950/05/13/how-do-you-like-it-now-gentlemen

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Thanks for sending. I really liked the part where he talks about learning to write by looking at paintings and listening to music: “I can make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cézanne. I learned how to make a landscape from Mr. Paul Cézanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut, and I am pretty sure that if Mr. Paul was around, he would like the way I make them and be happy that I learned it from him.” “In the first paragraphs of ‘Farewell,’ I used the word ‘and’ consciously over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint."

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As we, seem, from a writerly perspective,to be venturing into the many layered realms of Paul Cezanne may I signpost you towards Billy Collins' poetry collection 'The Apple That Astonished Paris'?

Key point being... how natural a poet's voices can each be?

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Baby boys of Hemingway's generation were normally dressed in 'girl's' clothes until they graduated to shorts and knee socks at about age three and to long pants or trousers some years later. The graduation to long pants for boys was a mark of coming of age or a mark of maturity. Common pejoratives went something like "when is your mama going to let you wear long pants?" / "So your mama finally let you wear long pants, did she?", etcetera.

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Explains a lot. People still tell me, "Go put on your big boy pants!"

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My grandfather was the youngest of 5 boys (until his 2 sisters came along) and his parents grew his hair, styled it with ringlets and bows and had family portraits taken with him as the ‘girl’. Not uncommon in families of that generation - though it didn’t seem to create any conflict for my grandfather, he was very comfortable in his body... he loved a good naturalist holiday!

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Yes, I remember seeing a photo of my former husband's uncle dressed as a girl while small. For Hemingway, though, it seemed to have lasted longer than the norm in those days. And his being dressed like a girl seems to have been about more than the fashion of the times. His mom liked to pretend that Hem and his sister were twins and dressed them alike throughout childhood. I found this online: "....as Hemingway biographer Kenneth Schuyler Lynn writes, Grace Hemingway’s “elaborate pretense that little Ernest and his sister were twins of the same sex” was very unusual."

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Julie - however, take a look at Joan Didion's parsing and take on that paragraph (it was published in the New Yorker) and you might see a glimmer of what others see in the best of Hemingway. If he had written a handful of short stories, parts of Farewell and parts of A Moveable Feast and then shut up on the pontificating - we all might feel better in the morning.

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Ah, so he was a Pontificator was he?

I thought that was a role reserved for the Incumbent Head Honcho, The Vatican, Italy?

"A word in your ear Signore Hemingway: this Blue Planet's only got room for one, true, Pontiff. Capiche?" said the soft spoken Emissary from behind the velvet glove on the iron fist which he'd, diplomatically, raised to cover his mouth and further soften the words he spoke, sotte voce.

Imagine if something like this had been said, by someone in the hearing of Hemingway? Might a penny have dropped, made a splash in the pond of his imagination, and "made all the difference"?

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May 19, 2023·edited May 19, 2023

Bravo, JuleS! Thanks for speaking your mind (one of the blessings of SC is that you can do that without retribution) and for speaking half of mine as well. I could never figure out what the big damn deal was. So, he could write a simple declarative English sentence. Okay, so he could write several of them. And for this he was awarded the Nobel? A head-scratcher, that!

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Okay, it's been a long time since I read Hemingway, college maybe? And I'm George's age. But as I recall, The Sun Also Rises was about a man accepting his impotence (war wound, I think), and A Farewell to Arms was about walking away from war, because it's stupid and inhuman. Maybe it was the prof I had then, but I don't see Hem as waving the flag for machismo. The opposite, really, at least a lot of the time.

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May 19, 2023·edited May 19, 2023

You feel passionate, you articulate your critique but quite how you get to "I hate" any writer, particularly any one widely considered to be significant literary merit defeats me.

Fine, Hemingway's words don't cut the mustard for you, are antipathetic to your taste, irritate since because of them he's been put on a pedestal and you mistrust iconic status... that's all okay but to loathe almost everything I can think of about him as a human being is, well, rather extreme.

Makes me wonder Julie, which writer you might chose a the one you love as polar opposite of Hemingway, and what words you would choose to express your boundless admiration?

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Often, I have found when "hating" a writer, that there is something else under that feeling. Fear, sometimes, envy - I read Hemingway and know that my female life is "lesser" in some way, and need a dose of say Morrison to unwind me. But the fear is of the power. As is the envy.

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I think you're right about the hating, whether a writer or anyone/thing else, that there's often (not always, but often) something else going on. I don't hate Hemingway. He's just, for me, a big meh. Meh. Blah.

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If Hemingway did set out to make those who read his stories, in particular female readers, feel that their lives are somehow "lesser" then he was but a brute bully. I've not read enough of Hemingway to be sure that I haven't missed some vital insights but for example in the quoted opening paragraph from 'Farewell to Arms' and in our collective close reading of 'Cat in the Rain' its the forthright beauty of his lean published prose that struck me and has stuck with me. In 'Cat in the Rain' my lasting sense is of the only two, complicated, American characters staying in that rather desolate out of season seaside hotel. So I think Hemingway's writing amplified certain realities rather than promulgated one gender being 'lesser or 'greater' than another. I guess I'm saying that to his words ring of the true writer rather than the sleaze ball sexist progandist. But do take my POV with a pinch of salt being as I've but a passing acquaintance rather than a deep knowledge of Hemingway's writings. '

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Generally, I find that its easier to hate something than it is to like it.

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To all of us who responded - man, poke papa bear and sit back and watch the torrent of debate. Is there another writer you can think of that could generate such passionate pros and cons? I can't think of one.

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So Brad care to spew forth the bile words of hate on some literary figure you find 'easy' to hate? Go for it, do not hold back...

And after the catharsis that comes after the igneous extrusion of hotly articulate hate has given way to sentience...

Go again and, tip toeing lightly through tulips, tell why - should you do so - like some literary short fiction or other?

N.B. Brad... these are words written with tongue very much in cheek 😜

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Well, I think Underworld stinks.

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May 20, 2023·edited May 20, 2023

Look, or perhaps look again, at the opening of 'Perfume' by Patrick Suskind?

Use the power of the voice that Suskind writes for the Narrator and expand, richly and articulately, on what you infer by 'stinks'?

Just a suggestion Brad (and, BTW, great question posed which evoked great answer in response from George) 👍.

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Oh, JulieS. I struck that same nerve sometime while slogging through all of the build up pieces and all of the episodes of the Kenneth Burns / Lynn Novick Hemingway documentary.

You will love the title "Would you please please please please please please please stop worshipping this jackass?" :-).

You will find it here: https://johnpoplett.com/blog/2021/04/08/notes-on-the-burns-novick-hemingway-documentary/. And you will love it.

There is a lot that is reprehensible about him. As the documentary makes clear, he viewed everything as a battle for survival. Challenging F. Scott to boxing matches and putting down Stern and Sherwood Anderson after they generously helped to advance his career are two examples that come to mind. It is not too surprising when we consider that this point of view makes other writers his enemies. In this last Office Hours, George mentions one piece of bad advice he gave on writing. I have always thought most of his advice on writing smelt bad and often seemed like it was intended to misdirect other writers.

Throughout that whole series we were treated ad-nauseam to Tobias Wolf's "rearranged all the furniture" metaphor explaining to bring home the impact he had on the writing business. Yet, he deserves that credit however much we begrudge the acknowledgment.

Not just the "telegraphic" "lapidary" prose style but his successful advance of writer as celebrity, the first guy-writer to build himself into a "brand" and curse everyone to follow with a concern about having one.

This was mostly my mood until I joined the "club". I am grateful that George started us off with Hemingway and dragged me through one of his stories V-E-R-Y slowly and reacquainted me with his talent.

If nothing else he gave us Carver, Saunders, O'Brien, and Elmore Leonard.

John

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Thank you for this. I agree. And I agreed with this 40 years ago as well, so it's not just the times we live in.

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Coming from someone that definitely "bought it"—you sure found your power here!

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George, I love the way you circle a point - in widening and narrowing spirals, until you reach the center. This struck me: "What I found . . . was that something went missing from my work when I hewed too closely to watchwords like “natural” and “simple” and “straight,” and that missing thing was humor – or, really, humility (the feeling that life is not under our control and that all human damage gets done when we think it is under our control; the connected belief in the primacy and centrality of the self)." I have spent a month in and out of the hospital, with sepsis, being tortured in my failing old body to save my life (which they did, but I lost my "self" in there somewhere - at least for awhile), and find myself thinking of "human damage." To self and other. Even in the throes, while this familiar old body was rejecting one antibiotic after another, and my veins were getting burned out by chemicals, I knew I could not write about the experience. Not directly. But I think I can follow the spiral and get back to my voices. They make life worth living, for me, in the long and short runs. And I find I want to find one(s) to describe that strange experience. Thank you.

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Ack, Sally, very sorry to hear about this but very glad you are here with us and writing again, or soon. We really value you and your kind, wise presence here in SC.

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For what it's worth, Sallie, when I was battling lymphoma (with a mass) I found learning the guitar to be a meditative, spiritual way back into myself. In fact, I became a fuller, more (I don't know) surprise to myself. It was a person I didn't know but was proud to know. And I think it also helped heal me. And eventually that $150 Ibanez lead me back to writing. While I went through treatments, I strummed new chords that led to new songs that led to a new Norm. I'm not saying to learn the guitar, but is there something that you can pick up to help raise you, distract you, heal you?

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Thank you, Norm. A wonderful suggestion. Some new challenge to work on every day. I will try it. Not sure it will be a guitar!

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Maybe try making collages? I make a lot of them out of ripped paper and little things cut from magazines, etc. It's a very focused endeavor, meditative in its own way, I end up with a completed piece, and there are no editors in my head telling me what to do. The entire activity is enjoyable and the endpoint doesn't matter. It's both a daily challenge and the opposite of that. (Norm's idea to actually learn something is wonderful. The ukulele is a million times easier than guitar, so if music sounds good to you, that might be fun and satisfying as well.) Note to Norm: glad you are recovered and that the "new Norm" is on this earth.

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I love this idea. I'm thinking of a quilt. A collage quilt, like the wondrous work of the quilters of Gee's Bend. There's a video of them, their lives and works, from the NY Times of some years ago. Here's a link, if you're interested. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/opinion/quilts-while-i-yet-live.html I like that title: while I yet live. My quilt will be in words, though. . .

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Hi Sallie, you may already know of the artist Faith Ringgold and her story quilts but thought to share as you mention the quilters of Gee's Bend. She's an inspirational 92 years old. See links below if interested:

https://www.faithringgold.com

https://www.artnews.com/list/art-news/artists/contemporary-textile-quilting-artists-to-know-1234647693/faith-ringgold/

reading her story quilt book, Tar Beach, 1991 https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/350

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Nan, I love these. Yes, I know Ringgold's work, but some of these were new to me and wonderful. Imagine flying along past a bridge!

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this may interest you: https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-collage-1689762

I love the Gee's Bend quilts and have seen some of them in person. "While I Yet Live"--you can steal that title!

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I'm so sorry that you've been in an out of the hospital and glad to hear you are doing better. Thanks for your contributions here.

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Sallie-- I’m so touched by the way that you jumped back on the Story Club life raft as soon as you could. AND with hopes of wrangling what must have been a god awful experience into language. I hope the healing continues and you feel “back” to yourself soon.

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Thanks, Gail. Life raft - yes indeed. I really did have strange experiences in my head in that hospital. Probably hallucinations, but certainly otherworldly.

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Sally, I do hope your recovery is going well. That sense of losing oneself, physically or emotionally is so profound isn’t it. There seems such a dichotomy in all of this. We lose ourselves to find ourselves. Getting lost in our writing to find our voice. Attention and dreaming. I do hope your body is healing and coming back to you in a useful way. I too send you spiritual soup.

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Thanks, Tom. I'm - well, I don't really know yet what "I am" at the moment. Writing, though, and gardening. And getting stronger. But I'm faced with odd decisions. How much medical stuff am I willing or able to go through at my age? I'm going to follow all directions on getting rid of the sepsis and preventing another from the same cause. But then I think I will say "no more, thanks," and let nature take her course. Whatever that may be. If you let others take over, doctors, even family, they may save your life, for a while. But not your living days. So add some elixir of courage to that soup!

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I have a very special recipe for courage that I'm sending you, though it sounds like you have your own recipe cooking up on the stove nicely. I'll mix in a little strength, because we all need that, and send it over now.

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Hey, Sallie---I'm so sorry! I'm glad the docs were able to bring you around. And here you are, after a terrible month, writing all of us, not only coherently but with something important to say: your voices, that they make life worth living, and that one of them will be able to describe your experience. Wishing you continued improvement! And welcome back!

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Oh, Sallie, I'm sorry for your pain and struggles. You are an important part of Story Club. I'm pulling for you.

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Sallie! I am so sorry to hear this. Sepsis--what a nightmare. Do you live near Los Angeles? Can i bring you some soup? Thank God, you are better now. Here's to you following the spiral back to your voice. Stay well, Sallie. Glad you are here again.

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Thanks, Mary. I'll take Spirit Soup! (I'm 600 miles from LA!)

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on its way!

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Makes me think of driving. Sometimes you’re very aware of every turn, every light, every pedestrian. Other times you roll into the driveway and realise you have no memory of the journey.

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Thanks for the answer to my question!

In some ways, Story Club works like therapy for me. Not just in the sense that it feels good to have these kinds of insecurities addressed in so thoroughly and conscientiously, but also because the most important parts of these responses are often things I (sort of) already know. Does that sound arrogant? Does anyone else feel that way?

What I mean is, the thing I struggle with most in writing is just remembering all the basics. To be honest, to try hard, to pay attention. What’s difficult is waking up day after day for, I think, six years now, and remembering to stay present and committed. There’s nothing better for that than Story Club. So thanks!

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oh i can so relate to this. I forget everything over and over again. And yes, remembering to stay present is the hardest thing as I'm constantly living in the past or the future. Except when i'm completely focused on something which is why, I think, i love story club so much.

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I often prefer to live in the future or the past, but the present moment has this obnoxious habit of forcing itself into the mansion of the mind, despite my desperate struggle to make it go and exist somewhere, anywhere else.

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It's the deep sea diver's boots you insist on wearing David... but hey they anchor you in the here and now... save you from finding yourself stuck only with Proustian Remembrance of Things Past or with faux Future Worlds of the dystopian Simon & Shencke sort... tread lightly and you'll do the 'Soft Iron Boot Shuffle' with joy in your heart David!

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Long time ago, now. Guy going by name of George suggested we enjoy collecting but not worry overmuch about details of particular points of process and technique.

I bought his counsel, have found it good, and have found his patented 'Infinitely Expandable / Yet Weightless / Writer's Silo Backpack / Simply Indispensable'.

For writers, each and every one and all of us, who don't know, indeed more often than not haven't the least clue of what they're going to need next... "Get with the Beat Baghee"... But a Saunders' Writers Silo Backpack... Today!

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I love all these thoughtful comments, and I know I should try for my own, but my ADD mind has to get this out first: I love that beautiful dog leaping into the woods! Straight up gorgeous! Okay. This is a generous post, and I love the idea that the right aphorism will validate your efforts and not the other way around. I will say, my mind birdwalked again when I read the Hemingway opening. I thought it was lovely, but mostly what I thought of was a writers’ conference I’d been to where agents sat in front of an audience of writers and listened to the opening pages of novels. These pages were submitted anonymously by audience members. The agents would raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading and reject the submission. Without exception, every submission that began with a description of nature, no matter how poetic or lovely was immediately rejected. So—the agents would never even know if the novel was a good one. Honest to God, that was one of the saddest reality checks of my life.

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Ugh to that process, Victoria. I would have also found it really disheartening, also. Why was Hemingway allowed to start with all that gentle description of nature? But these agents would have immediately rejected it?

Sadly, I think that's present day capitalism at work. They're not looking for the most gorgeous prose; they're looking at what will sell. That's their job. And apparently, slow writing doesn't sell. You need to "grab the reader in the first line" etc. as THAT aphorism goes.

I don't think it's a great development, but it seems to be our reality now.

I'll still write in my own voice, though, even if it needs to describe the natural scene!

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Agree on that dog! And thank you for the insight about starting stories with nature descriptions. I had no idea that was so trite it calls for instant commercial rejection.

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Yes! That dog! Pure joy.

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For my day job, I teach ESL. My students there want to learn how to sound natural in English, and so I teach them common usage and proper grammar and efficient phrases for everyday communication. One of the joys of teaching new English speakers is being surprised by the ways they find to communicate deep truths with only some of the most basic tools of the language. However, in my writing life, I don't want to struggle with the limitations of common vernacular. English is an extravagant language! When I'm writing, part of what I want to do is just have fun with this insanely unwieldy vocabulary we have to work with. I want all the colors in the palette and I want to lay on the paint thick.

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Hi Rachel,

I absolutely relate to what you say here, both about the human potential to communicate deep truths with basic language and also the joy in the extravagance and ever-evolving richness of the English language. I don't hate Hemingway but I don't love him either; I simply appreciate his efficient pared-back style as ONE possible way to handle the English language. Equally (or perhaps a little more) I appreciate writers who handle it like a circus master or a designer of a spectacular firework display, glorying in all that insanely unwieldy vocabulary available to them.

Another Rachel

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Exactly! Language is full of rich potential, and I would be a total grump of someone forced me to limit my usage, despite how much I admire concision and the bare-bones approach when it's done well. Incidentally, one of the other joys of teaching ESL is picking up scraps of a second language. There's a perfect word in Spanish which we don't have a translation for in English except the approximation "name twins": tocayo, for a person who has the same name as you. ¡Hola, mi tocaya!

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Hola, mi tocaya!

...as the Germans would say, Danke gleichfalls!

That's a lovely new addition to my vocabulary.

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May 18, 2023·edited May 18, 2023

I was reading along about the flawed metaphor and racing into the woods, when I saw a picture of my dog. My 'dog to be' actually. We're picking her up in two days. She'll be running, jumping, tolling, swimming—all 'ing' words. A woman in my critique group calls all 'ing' words gerunds and being gerunds, they must all be wrong. One day, I had to tell her that sometimes the prose calls for an 'ing', to make everything an 'ed' is to kill it, at least in my work. She's got all the aphorisms

down pat' and her writing is boring. I totally believe in going with the magic when it comes through. Just write it all out as long as it's flowing (and revise later). I think that's what Nabokov meant by 'aesthetic bliss'.

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Yes!

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Dang, George, you're good with words

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author

Well, it are what I do. 🤪

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"Short's the best position they is." (ya had a great teaching aye.)

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May 18, 2023·edited May 18, 2023

Thanks for sharing! As a physicist writing in spare time to become a writer, here are my thoughts on "natural" voice. 1) Literature is performative just like acting in theatre or on the screen. Verisimilitude (to internal monologue or actual dialogues) on pages (or stage/screen) does not sound natural to me --> still figuring out why. Like when I read my own writing out loud, it sounds unnatural even if it's a real conversation recorded verbatim. Some polish and restructure does not make it fake but more "natural" on pages. Again, don't know why linguistically/psychologically this is the case but I am trusting my ears. 2) I am taking a similar route as early Georges's to find my own literary (and performative) voice -- I started from a grandmaster (Hemingway or Chekov and for my own case Donna Tartt/Charles Dickens ) that I enjoy reading more so than others --> imitate the sentence structure/plot/character --> find natural prose/plots and keep working on the unnatural ones --> wrap up and repeat on new stories. I am still am amateur without any literary publication, but the story from last month sure reads a lot more "natural" to myself than the stuff from three years ago when I had just started.

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Great question. I love this subject. I'm thinking about the poet Frank O'Hara who often seemed to be just writing down everything he was doing in his poems, where he went, what he bought, saw on the street. And yet the voice doesn't sound anything like the way we speak. I like that you mentioned compression, George. It's another way of saying choice. Writers and poets have to make choices about what's allowed to come in and what's not, and those choices reflect a mind at work. Voice is what it's usually called. I often feel, when writing a poem, that I become a different person, and the deeper I get into the poem, the closer the attention I pay to how that person sounds.

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I'm reading "Monsters, A Fan's Dilemma" by Claire Dederer. I love her conversational style...I feel that I'm inside her brain trying to sort these difficult things out with her, stuff I've thought so much about myself. Whenever I read a book that gives me that feeling, I want to try to get there, too, in my own writing. Complicated subjects told in this way, like we're hashing it out together, works so beautifully. At least to me it does.

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This was another gem of a post.

You’ve got me thinking about the relationship between humor and humility. And the underlying honesty that can be found in both. (We are all a mess, we are all in this mess together.)

You’ve also got me thinking that, for a person who tells stories in both pictures & words, there might be different natural voices for each medium. That different aspects (like humor) might come forward more easily in one form than the other. So interesting! Thank you.

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May 20, 2023·edited May 21, 2023

So much great advice here, per usual. Thank you again, George.

I've mentioned before that I spent some of my professional writing life in Hollywood writing for television. When I got my first job, I had a novel about to be published (long since out of print now) and years before that, I honed my writing as a journalist. I pretty much faked my way into this TV job -- I had written a novel while living in LA and my agent pushed me to try writing a script which I'd never done. Even back in those days there were dozens of books on writing and, it seemed, a writing guru on every corner hawking their latest "paradigm". I bought a couple of those books and started reading and quickly discovered that the favored way to "teach" scriptwriting was to reduce it into equations. Literal equations as in X+Y=million dollar script.

These books were revered in the LA writing community so I thought I needed them to succeed. They were very specific -- inciting incident by page 30. Instructions on how/when to introduce characters and Venn diagrams on arcs and action sequences and false endings and ... well, on and on like that. I felt like I was back in my least favorite place in school - math class.

I almost gave up, thinking I was too stupid to "get it".

This is all to say most of the stuff people write about writing isn't worth your time. Reading writing is a way better way to figure it out (I ended up finding a TV script, taking it apart -- literally taping the pages to the wall of my tiny apartment -- and breaking it down that way). And yes, script writing is a lot about structure and some of that is useful but George's point -- that your writing should be about what moves you, what grabs you, what leads you to gallop with joy (if not confidence) into those woods -- is the best kind of advice. And if you think about it, it's a lot less weight on your shoulders to write like YOU as opposed to writing [fill in the blank famous writer].

Going back to previous posts by George on the subject of finding your voice/style, your voice won't necessarily come out of you whole (I mean if it does, we'll likely all be reading you). This part takes work. Writing is rewriting and rewriting your rewrites. It's in this where you find your voice and the more you try to trust your own gut as opposed to trying to be like Hemingway or someone else, the more likely you are to find a voice/style that makes you happy AND tells a good tale. As one seasoned writing once told me, nobody is going to write like Hemingway except Hemingway. You might be able to sound like him or seem like him, but you ain't him so don't try to be him. Be you.

Finally, while I know this is a bit of fawning over our Fearless and Kindly Leader, but I cannot recommend his most recent book on writing, "A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life"enough. I'm on my third read and second listen (it's a FABULOUS audio book read by George himself with many super cool guests). To my mind, this is how you write about writing -- by exploring the written word by the people who are freaking great at it and then having a guide like George to help you better understand the choices these authors made to create master works. As I work through my current project, it's my number one resource on how to be a better writer. And I think it's helping truly.

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Best book on writing ever! (I believe you left the word "enough" out of the first sentence of your final paragraph....but everyone knows what you meant.) And also, yes to everything you've said here!

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As a useful lesson on 'the reader' I want to say that I was totally enjoying Elizabeth's post and never noticed the missing word. For me, the reader, the omission did not exist. I'm hoping that's re-assuring and a reminder about technique vs message.

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I hear you, Kurt. And i definitely understood her message. But I am a slow reader--I hear every word in my head as I'm reading. So...I noticed. But yes, absolutely, the intent/message/meaning was always there for me (and I hesitated to point out the missing word--but, being a writer/editor, I couldn't stop myself).

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May 22, 2023·edited May 22, 2023

Oops. I think I trashed my reply by accident. Well, it went something like this: Please don't stop. Your feedback is great and I think pointing out issues is helpful, as long as it's done w/ compassion. And I hope my comment came across as kind too. I was amused that I missed the missing word. I was in the reading groove and filled it in for myself I guess. Anyway, we probably all worry more than necessary about omissions or comments that we regret and that the 'audience' didn't even notice.

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"we probably all worry more than necessary." Yep! If only i could turn off my worry-brain... I don't know if I'd recognize myself. But it would be a much nicer way to live. Thanks for your comments, as always, Kurt.

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Thanks for catching my typo. Ugh, what a long and convoluted sentence. LOL

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