Tuesday 27 November 2012

A Visit from the Goon Squad and Point of View

I am reading Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and have noticed that the novel uses point of view in an unusual way. Current wisdom says that a writer should not switch point of view in the middle of a section. That is, point of view in a third-person mode should be third-person limited omniscient rather than omniscient. Egan goes against this current wisdom. Although her text tends to be limited omniscient within sections (chapters or divisions within paragraphs), once in a while point of view shifts in the middle of a section.

I am not sure what to think about this. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, so I would categorize it as literary, but I tend to view breakers of the limited omniscient rule to be older writers (nineteenth century and earlier) or nonliterary: weak writers or writers of formula fiction.

Perhaps this rule of keeping a point of view stable is unnecessary. Furthermore, Egan's book breaks all kinds of rules (genre rules, chronology rules), so that the nonstable point of view is just one of many experiments. Arguably these point- of-view shifts are a sign of a possible negative criticism of today's standard approach to narrative point of view.

The book's shifts in time and its multiple characters can be confusing at times--people who like realist narratives would find the point of view and time shifts distracting, gimmicky and ultimately unnecessary. I still recommend that writers not shift point of view within sections. Each section can have its own point of view, though. Multiple shifts in point of view is risky, so writers who use it must be aware of the risk and perhaps be clearer in other areas (setting, time) to help readers keep track of the narrative's overall arc or theme.

It's fine to break the rules, but the rule breaking needs to have a reason; Egan's book is about memory and the fragmentation of lives, so the rule breaking makes sense.

Monday 19 November 2012

Writing Exercise: Abstract to Concrete

Concreteness leads to specificity; in writing, concreteness usually means representation of sensory inputs.

Here is an exercise in concreteness.  Take an abstract sentence and increase its concreteness word by word. Do this in several stages, so that the next sentence is more concrete than the first.

1. The structure had negative qualities.

2. The building was inadequate.

3. The house was too small.

4. The bungalow had too few rooms.

5. The white bungalow had only four rooms.

6. The white square house next door had four rooms--a kitchen, a bathroom, a sitting room and a bedroom; the basement was a dugout for the furnace and a small storage room. Six people shared these rooms.

7. The Callaghans lived in a dingy white one-level house next to the abandoned gas station at the end of our block. The house had four small square rooms--a kitchen, a bathroom, a sitting room and a bedroom; the basement was a mere dugout for the furnace and a small storage room. Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan slept in the bedroom with the two youngest children, while my friend Peter shared the flowery-print sofa bed in the sitting room with his older brother Matthew. Peter claimed that everyone except himself and his little sisters snored; even the Alsatian and the tabby, who slept at the foot of his and his brother's bed, snored.

Concreteness leads to more words and to more personality.

Monday 5 November 2012

Creativity in One's Life

stock.xchngCreativity means thinking of new ways to achieve a goal or communicate an idea. In that sense, creativity is a key part of everyone's life. This definition of creativity is broad, but its broadness arises from the centrality of creativity in people's lives.

Artists depend on creativity for a large portion of their productive output--the word creativity has the word "create" as its root, after all, which just means "to give birth to."

Not all births are big births, I would say. An artist has to think seriously about creating, though at times self-consciousness can be prohibitive. In that sense, thinking of creativity as normative rather than abnormal is both realistic (true) and useful (conducive to production).

Art may at times have a bad reputation, but creativity rarely does. Some people resist the idea of experimental creativity--extreme newness that threatens tradition. In the Western world after Romanticism, extreme newness became associated with all artistic creation. I am in favour of experimentalism--I like the avant-garde--but not everyone needs to go that way to agree with the value of creativity.

Tuesday 23 October 2012


Genre theory informed my dissertation on nineteenth-century American literature (civil war literature to be precise). The course I am teaching on academic writing has a textbook that uses genre theory to explain how to write for post-secondary institutions. I will say more in future. This is a warm-up of sorts to introduce the idea of genre, which I am adding to my repertoire of subjects for this blog.

Monday 15 October 2012


Freewriting is a way to record one's thoughts as they occur. Rather than letting one's inner editor interfere with one's writing (something writers often do), freewriting disallows editorial intervention in oneself.

This is a form of stream-of-consciousness writing. Physician, psychologist and philosopher William James (brother of, guess who, Henry James), invented the term "stream of consciousness." A famous bout of stream-of-consciousness writing ends James Joyce's Ulysses. Note, though, that literary stream-of-consciousness writing may actually be edited.

For my purposes here, free writing is not literary stream of consciousness. It is actual stream-of-consciousness writing (as close as one can come to recording one's own thoughts in words, which I realize is an imperfect art).

I recommend using a pen and paper rather than a keyboard, for keyboards make deleting text tempting, and frequent typos will make one's inner editor wake up screaming from its slumber. In freewriting, one cannot go back and change anything: spelling errors, weird words, embarrassing thoughts, nonstandard grammar, improper punctuation must all remain. Just keep writing, without stopping or going back to change things, for at least 15 minutes.

Pure freewriting has no topic at all. The results can be weird and disturbing, but pure writing is useful for unblocking yourself or working on a problem that you are not sure you have or when you are not sure what the problem is.

Focussed freewriting has a topic. Focussed freewriting is beneficial for working on specific ideas. Unlike pure writing, focussed freewriting could be clear enough for someone else to read, but again, without fussing about grammar or even logic.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

The word mimesis (imitation, representation) has remained in currency mostly due to Aristotle. He and Plato are influential early philosophers of art in the Western tradition. They did not always have good things to say about representation (by "they" I really mean "Plato''); nonetheless, their ideas still circulate. I am not an expert in either of them. Read them for yourself or look at secondary sources about them.

Aristotle's significant discussion of art is in his Poetics. For Aristotle (and people of the classical Greek period), verse (poetry) was the mode for artistic composition, so that in Poetics Aristotle also discusses drama (which the Greeks wrote in verse). Aristotle made famous the idea of catharsis, the idea that representation has a positive psychological effect on the individual viewer of drama, purging negative energies, so to speak, from the audience, and creating beneficial energies and thus doing an overall cultural good. Aristotle speaks of catharsis in tragedy (a type of drama, remember, not just "sad events"), but people today use the term in a more general sense, even applying it to gaming.

Plato also discusses mimesis, though Aristotle tends to be more systematic than his teacher Plato, who framed his philosophical views in the form of discussions (actual or not) between Plato's teacher Socrates and Socrates's followers.  Plato most famously discusses mimesis in The Republic. Plato did not think mimesis was a positive force; instead, he thought mimesis, as a copy of the real, was a degradation of the real, itself a degradation of the ideal, and Plato took the ideal very seriously. In The Republic (Book X) Plato recommends (with the slightest of regrets) that all poets be banished from the polity--that's how seriously he took the ideal.

Aristotle is more of the artist's philosopher than Plato. Still, some people who do not like art will use an argument similar to Plato's. The idea, for example, that fiction is lies and nonfiction is truth (or "real") is basically Plato's argument.  Know the enemy.

Links: Plato's Republic; Aristotle's Poetics.

Thursday 27 September 2012

I am in a writing group now, as I mentioned in a previous blog posting. It is small, but The Carrot (the sponsor) is helping us to do more promotion and perhaps flush out the writers in the area. There is a Facebook page as well (which I am mentioning simply to promote it here).

What are the benefits of writers' groups? As the Haliburton Highlands Writers' and Editors' Network say in their website, writers circles allow people to "share knowledge and resources"--people with a common interest gather together socially, true, but members can get feedback (formal or informal) about specific pieces of writing, and they can seek advice or make contacts related to professional concerns (marketing, that is).

Our group meets at and is sponsored by an arts collective that runs a community cafe (The Carrot). I certainly have been writing more than I did before I starting meeting with the group. Sometimes writers circles  are ephemeral, but some of them last a long time or become somewhat famous, such as the (sort of writers group) Bloomsbury Group and the Algonquin Round Table.

Thursday 13 September 2012

I have not followed any writing blogs until now, but I am going to follow three blogs as of today.

http://thewritepractice.com/   This is a finalist of the best writing blogs of 2011/12.
http://advocacywga.wordpress.com/ This is the blog for the Writers Guild of Alberta.
http://alitchick.blogspot.ca/ Michelle Alfano's blog. I looked at it and liked it.

Monday 10 September 2012

Writing Group

I am trying to start a writing group at the Carrot Cafe in Edmonton on Tuesdays from 7 pm to 9 pm. Writing groups encourages self-discipline. To attend regularly a writing group already demands discipline, but the group itself reminds you that writing is important. Having acquaintances and friends (even strangers) acknowledge your own commitment helps you maintain a commitment. The first meeting was last week. Right now a total of two people (including me) are in the group. The plan is to do writing prompts during the session--that is, the group will actually write rather than talk about writing. I had hoped to do manuscript reading (workshopping) once a month too. We need more than two people, though.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Are pictures worth a thousand words?

 The statement "a picture is worth a thousand words" has an obscure derivation, but people have pinpointed a moment when the phrase saw print; Wikipedia offers a similar derivation to the early 1910s and an association with advertising.

I like the idea that a character created by Ivan Turgenev germinated the idea of images having more content than words, as found in the 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. Turgenev and Henry James were good friends.

Pint glass inverted (from stock.xchng)
Inverted pint glass (from stock.xchng)
I disagree with the idea that images have more content, because the specificity of the picture and the words are what is at issue. I have had some film and literature students argue that film is superior to printed text because a film image contains more information than words can represent.

I think that people are comforted by film images because people tend to absorb visual information faster than written words. Visual images don't have to be symbolic, whereas writing requires decoding (the ability to read a specific language through symbols).

Yet some images are not easy to interpret, even the nonsymbolic kind. (See the caption on the image to the right.)

Besides, a film image is not the same as an image that people normally see during the day just by walking around and living. Film images are stylized (even for those films that claim to be documentary in approach). Cameras give the illusion of objectivity because they mimic human sight, but mimicry is still a form of mimesis (representation or imitation).

from stock.xchng
Security camera footage might be closest to a kind of pure objectivity, but even then, security cameras are positioned in specific places rather than randomly. Their location is selected. As well, note that security cameras will often not record much new information at all (the same unused doorway may well have the same image for days at a time). Security camera footage only becomes interesting when something happens that catches security personnel's attention.

 Human attention (even if programmed into a computerized alarm system) is what makes that footage significant--what human attention considers worthy of being recorded and reviewed. That judgment of significance is what makes any particular sequence of footage (or even of a single still) worthwhile of being described in words. Once an image requires judgment, the possibility of mimesis arises.

So--I like pictures and words: together, alone, whatever.

Friday 24 August 2012


I have just subscribed to Narrative, a web magazine that claims to be "the PBS of literature." The subscription is free. I joined so I could read in full Cynthia Ozick's piece on Henry James's story "The Lesson of the Master."

Narrative seems to like stories, so Narrative is good by me.

Monday 13 August 2012

Banished Words

Cliches (familiar phrases that have been emptied of originality due to overuse) may be easier to pick up and harder to drop because of the Internet. But the Internet can be a good source of information on new cliches. Lake Superior State University has been running a cliche contest in which people vote for their least favorite word or term of the year. (I am happy to see "amazing" on this list. I have seen this word in much student writing in the last few months.) See the 2012 List of Banished Words. For more fun, look at past years' lists.Writers should beware of using words that people are tired of seeing and hearing.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Black Mountain College

I have just finished reading Martin Duberman's Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, a history of Black Mountain, an experimental college in North Carolina that ran from the 1930s to the 1950s. 

Charles Olson, who was a significant force during Black Mountain's last years, said something that warrants notice here: "good expression is not a quality of language but of the experience that initiates it....Banality is a lack of profound emotion before the object. The problem is how to restore yourself into a state of clean experience, how to open the latch unto the outside world which makes feeling and involvement possible" (qtd. in Duberman 398).

I often tell my students to avoid verbal cliches (a kind of banality), but quite possibly the problem lies not in the language but in the writer's attitude towards the event being described (whether a fictional event or a historical event). The act that leads to the "opening the latch" doesn't have to be extreme, I don't think: for some people freewriting or meditation may be enough. Physical isolation in a cash-poor college among productive artists--what the Black Mountain College offered in later years especially--may be what people need. Cliches may be a sign of some writers' inability or unwillingness to figure out their actual emotional or intellectual responses to characters and events. ISuch writers have shallow responses to their own writing and represent those responses in shallow terms (namely, what other people--nonwriters--tend to say about such experiences).

Friday 20 July 2012

Two days ago I watched the documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren. Maya Deren was an avant-garde filmmaker who influenced many other filmmakers, avant-garde or otherwise. She used the medium of film for poetic ends. She is worth mentioning on the blog because she valued many other art forms as well, especially dance and music, and she incorporated these art forms into her work and life. Such interdisciplinarity expanded the film genre forever. Crossing boundaries helps creativity.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Five Writing Books I Recommend

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I have used this book to supplement writing advice in textbooks for courses that I have taught. Browne and King talk about the evils of trailing participial phrases and cliched writing and about the goodness of proper dialogue formatting and concision. Its exercises are useful because they are practical and have suggested solutions.

Word Menu by Stephen Glazier.  Glazier's book is a thesaurus-style dictionary that is organized not by word so much as by discursive category. For example, I have always been fascinated by the terminology of religious clothing. I can look at the liturgical vestments section and find out what an amice or tunicle is. Then, if I ever have to describe a priest getting ready for mass, I can  use these words.  Each word entry has a definition (an amice is a "priest's square cloth worn over the shoulders"). Answers.com seems to have bought the rights to this book, so you can do electronic lookups. (I have only ever used the print version, but that may change.)

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.  It is organized into short chapters that explain how Goldberg goes about her writing life. It offers practical advice but is also, in part, a member of what I like to call the emotional support category of books about writing. For example, it has chapters entitled "Original Detail" and "The Action of a Sentence" but also "Don't Use Writing to Get Love" and "Doubt Is Torture."

Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk. Yes, grammar is important. Writers need to know the rules so that breaking them is an act of choice rather than an act of ignorance. For example, to understand the evils of trailing participial phrases, one must know what a participial phrase is.  To find out, you can look up "participial phrase" in Kolln and Funk's index. This book uses some linguistic terminology, so the book has educational value as well. On that note, this book's exercises have answers.

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland is a full-fledged example of the emotional support category of books about writing. It gently explains why writing is the best thing a writer can do. Unlike many people in one's life, most likely, Ueland says that the creative act is important. She discusses William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh, and rather than describe them as crazy people (which noncreative people like to do), she lauds them as creative geniuses who loved imagination and treated art as the highest form of  human participation in the world. Chapter titles include "Everybody Is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say" and "Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing." Isn't that nice to hear for a change?

Friday 13 July 2012


A writing prompt is a topic for people to write about. Writing prompts give writers something to write about when they are stuck. Prompts can also force people to write about things they don't normally write about and thus take people out of their writing habits. A habit can be good, but a habit can be habit-forming in a bad way. You can make up your own prompts, but the temptation is for you to create a prompt that keeps you in your habit. Creative Writing Prompts (http://creativewritingprompts.com/)  is one of many websites that contain prompts other people have written. Choose a prompt at random. I did this, and I found myself writing an open letter to a high school teacher. That piece of writing was something that I would never have written otherwise.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

The title of the blog

The title of the blog is a pun on the term "mimetic capital," which comes from Henry James's 1890 novel The Tragic Muse. James uses the term to describe an actor. Marxist writers have used this term too, but James used it first.  "Mimesis" is the ancient Greek word for "imitation" or "representation" in the sense that artists and theorists of creativity use the terms. The word "capitol" refers to a building. A blog is not a building, but a blog is a space. Therefore, this blog is a space for creativity. I will write not about myself but about writing and creativity.