Or the Whale

mobydickIt is not a coincidence that I finished Moby Dick (FINALLY) on a day when I began my day reaching for my phone and reading this. (I don’t recommend reaching for the phone while still in bed, by the way, but it’s just how this day began). I read that Daily Beast article and thought, Melville.

I am not really a Dave Ramsey person (I have reasons), but many of my friends are and his ideas have done them good, as far as they witness.  I am not even sure there is any truth to this Daily Beast article, but the idea behind the story, like the idea I read behind Moby Dick, is just true, yo.

Never have I come across a book that drew such strong reactions from people. “You’re reading Moby Dick? My sister had to read that and she said it was torture,” was, in its essence, a common response when people realized what I was reading. Though I’d attempted to read it about four times, two of those times making it past the first 100 pages but then losing interest as soon as Melville started to describe the ship, I only just made it all the way through. It took me five months.*

I started it after I had to teach “Bartleby the Scrivener” to a literature class for college sophomores. I knew that the story was in some way a response to Melville’s experience with Moby Dick. I loved that story so much—its language, its mantra (“I’d prefer not to…” how true so much of the time!)—that I thought, okay, I’d better read Moby Dick now.

Again, I read this book slowly. Each chapter was like reading philosophy, not only because there is a ton of philosophy on its pages, but because the language is thick. I am not going to say I don’t understand it when people say they hate this book. It was the most difficult book I’ve ever read and the idea that high schools would assign it as summer reading material is just super crazy. But I will say that it’s sad to hear people say that they hate it, because this book is amazing. And important.

Not only is it difficult because of the language, which, at times, resembles Shakespeare in its depth and beauty; it’s difficult because of what it reveals about the impact of imperial power upon humans.

(The ship! The hearse! The second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”)

I am amazed at how well the book diagnoses the sickness of wealth and power; some call it “worldly ambition.” Of COURSE it would be unpopular; it brings the hardest truth about humanity into light: that this kind of (monomaniacal) power corrupts.   It is a sickness that all artists (and non-artists, like Dave Ramsey) battle all of the time. We want our work to bring us recognition, fame, glory—all the things that I believe Moby Dick represents. This empirical (significantly white) whale is what filmmakers call the MacGuffin. If we just have that thing, then all of our problems will go away (that book publication, that good review, that tour, that Pulitzer). Of course someone who reveals this uncomfortable truth in such a masterpiece would die poor and unpopular. Of course.

(“Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.”)

As a writer, I often ask myself if it would be better to write like Melville or to be famous and loved but forgotten? Is it better to produce the masterpiece and live poorly? Is it better to have little light while living but to leave the world (in book form) a light that will never go out?

Regardless, Moby Dick demands a reevaluation of how we live and decide what is important. Why do we want what we want? Does this thirst overpower our ability to interact with others, to acknowledge other people at all? Reading Moby Dick is a complex journey into our own darkness.

Ben Marcus on Reading Like a Writer

Ben Marcus say some good, practical things here in this interview from Knopf’s “Writers on Writing” series.

I appreciate, especially, his reminder to write what we’d want to read.  It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to get bogged down with irrelevant /tension-killing information while we’re in the middle of a paragraph. It’s more than just thinking about communicating to an audience when we write; it’s about choosing phrases that captivate, challenge, and entertain appropriately according to the moment we’re writing.

Marcus also draws our attention to the fact that those of us who learned to write in college/university workshops are used to having audiences that must finish our work. I’m glad he mentioned this, because I am teaching a summer college workshop at the moment and I think it’s good to keep in mind what school-habits my curriculum formulates and propels.  I’m teaching seniors, so they are about to go into the world and adjust to writing outside of the classroom.

Marcus reminded me to think about what happens when my audience becomes someone that doesn’t really like to read that much, but thought my book sounded interesting so they read the first paragraph in the bookstore?  Or before that, I’m going to have to get that first paragraph (and entire book) past an agent and hopefully editor.  The solution? I stated it yesterday but I’ll state it this way today: Learn to recognize what it is I’m reading, how it impacts me, what it can teach me about writing.

Books are the best teachers.

 

Day Three Thought: The Illusion of Deadlines

There is a lie that writers/all kinds of people believe, which is that our life is full of deadlines.  Grad school is great proponent of this lie.  So are day jobs with deadlines. Lots of things have deadlines but your great novel does not.

In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass reiterates again and again that what separates a great book from a mediocre one is pretty simple: the quality of the writing.  This thought is related to yesterday’s, but great work doesn’t really have a deadline, except for what the term implies: write it by the time you die.  (And if you don’t, well, you’ll be dead and it probably won’t matter to you much.) Writing takes a balance of working like there is no tomorrow and working as if you’re never going to die.  Life requires this balance, too.

As a writer, I’m prone to think up phrases like, “By the time I’m 40, I will ______” — fill in the blank.  As an unmarried 30 year old woman, I’ve had to accept the fact that those fantasies I coined up as a kid of being married and having a house by the time I was 20 (I really did believe this!) were, well, just fantasies.  We have no real time frames, no real deadlines for by when our work, our monumental life experiences, must occur.  We don’t know when things will happen.  To think that I will have a book published by the time I’m 35 is an illusion. I can still be a great writer, like Alice Munroe, and not have my first book published until much later.  The New Yorker’s Best Under 40 Series is a toxic pit of lies.  We hear it said again and again, the first thing to kill the quality of your work is to think about how it’s going to be published and when while we write it.  We must rid our minds of these thoughts if we are going to produce great work.  Again, patience and hard work is what creates great work.