Archive for the 'Openings' Category

Time-traveling with Harlan Ellison

When you return to a writer you loved in your youth, it is also in some sense to return to the person you once were. If you’re lucky, the cringe factor will be slight in both cases.

I’ve had the opportunity to do a little literary time-traveling with the recent release of the bio-doc Dreams With Sharp Teeth, which is an entertaining look at the life and world of science fiction author Harlan Ellison. Has there ever lived a more pugnacious, irascible writer? ‘Prickly’ would be another apt word. (The film’s trailer is embedded below — you’ll get a pretty good sense of the type of guy he is in two-and-a-half minutes.)

It’s been said that if we’re really lucky, not only do the books from which we will most benefit find their way into our hands, they’ll do so at exactly the most opportune moments of our lives. I’ve always thought Ellison had pretty good timing that way. I was a geeky, outsider adolescent in the 1970s when I first stumbled on his work and I was immediately transfixed by that voice: clear, angry, fearless, smart — and with a conscience.

Here was another apparent outsider who felt the same way about many of the things I did. I nibbled at his short fiction but positively devoured his essays and other non-fiction, such as his scathing indictments of ’60s and ’70s television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. I can remember buying his short story anthologies just so I could read his introductions; now and then I’d finish one of the stories, too, but more often than not I’d put them away until the next impassioned diatribe came along.

After watching Dreams With Sharp Teeth I thought I’d dip back into his work and see how it’s held up. Tellingly, despite the many culls my book collection has undergone over the years (seven boxes punted before the last move), I’ve never quite managed to let go of the handful of Ellison books I own. These now have faded, creased covers, missing dust jackets and some with a shaky name inscribed by a 14- or 15-year-old mini me.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the short story collection Approaching Oblivion, which encapsulates both Ellison’s tone and worldview. He refers to a letter he received from a James Chambers, who has described the four Kent State university students who were killed when the National Guard opened fire at a demonstration as “communist-led revolutionaries, hooligans and anarchists.”

Now that scares the piss out of me.

That is approaching oblivion. It is reaping the whirlwind of half a decade of Nixon/Agnew brainwashing and paranoia. It is a perfectly apocryphal example of the reconditeness to which The Common Man in our time clings with such suicidal ferocity. I won’t go into my little dance about the loathesomeness of The Common Man, nor even flay again the body of stupidity to which “commonness” speaks. I’ll merely point out that the Ellison who believed in the revolutionary Movement of the young and the frustrated and the angry in the Sixties, is not the Ellison of the Seventies who has seen students sink back into a charming Fifties apathy (with a simultaneous totemization of the banalities and mannerisms of those McCarthy Witch-Hunt Fifties), who has listened long and hard to the Chambers letter and hears in it a tone wholly in tune with the voice of the turtle heard in the land, who — when the defenses are down in the tiny hours after The Late Late Show — laments for all the martyrs who packed it in, in the name of “change,” only to turn around a mere five years later and see the status returned to quo.

I still find that compelling, but maybe not quite as much as I once did. Can any indignation burn as hot or self-righteously as adolescent indignation? And the angry writer, angry Jew schtick in Dreams With Sharp Teeth strikes me at times as simply wearisome. OK — everyone in the world has their heads up their butts except him. Whatever.

The short stories in Approaching Oblivion are uneven. (Yes, all these years later I’ve managed to read all 11.) Despite the strange and bleak futures they depict, they serve as strong indicators of the age in which they were written. Many carry the burdensome freight of a really important MESSAGE. Some show signs of quaintness, a susceptibility to which science fiction, as it ages, seems particularly prone. For example, in “Hindsight: 480 Seconds,” one man is left alone on earth to record for posterity the death of the earth when an asteroid hits. And what does he record his thoughts on? “Memory cassettes.” I guess at least they weren’t “Memory Eight-tracks.”

In “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty,” a successful man travels back in time to visit the persecuted boy he once was. Like re-reading Ellison, the experience is tinged with various parts excitement, nostalgia and sadness. You really can’t go back again. Sometimes it’s the memories of things that are best savoured, and not the thing itself.

But I’m still not getting rid of his books.

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It was a dark and stormy writing book

Writers and aspiring writers know the first sentence is where they should deploy their freshest bait, their best pickup lines and, when all else fails, their most irrefutable strong-arm tactics.

20789862_b9c013396b.jpgWhether it’s seduction, fishing, or just grabbing them by the lapels, first sentences succeed when they lead readers to the second sentence. This holds true for novels, short stories, newspaper articles, letters, news releases, magazine features, essays, works of non-fiction, backs of cereal boxes and ransom notes.

OK. Maybe you’d read the entire ransom note regardless of the quality of its first sentence. Assuming it’s to do with someone you care about. But everything else needs to be compelling enough to draw you in.

Which is why I find most of the examples that follow a little disappointing. They are the first sentences in books about the craft of fiction writing — some by reasonably well-known authors, others not so well-known at all.

Have a look at these five and see which inspire you to run out and read their writing books or, better still, their works of fiction.

You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to write, so let’s write.

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.

I have listened to smart, well-educated people talk in circles, obsessively, even angrily, on the subject of the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

The sound of the language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to.

To teach creative writing, or to be taught it, is a paradox.

Hmm….some of these sound like tough-sledding, don’t they? It’s unfortunate because they are all quite respectable writers with valuable insights to share. Is it too much to want them to communicate a little passion for something they’ve devoted their lives to?

Shouldn’t their first sentences be lit fuses?

Feel free to share your own examples — good, bad or tough-sledding.

Amuse bouche*: Lorrie Moore

Here is a strong opening from a short story by Lorrie Moore called “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

self-help.jpg11/30. Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you. She takes on love with the whiskery adjustments of a golddigger. She is just a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend. Recall how just last month when you got her from Bob downstairs, after Bob had become suddenly allergic, she leaped into your lap and purred, guttural as a German chanteuse, familiar and furry as mold. And Bob, visibly heartbroken, still in the room, sneezing and giving instructions, hoping for one last cat nuzzle, descended to his hands and knees and jiggled his fingers in the shag. The cat only blinked. For you, however, she smiled, gave a fish-breath peep, and settled.

‘Oh well,’ said Bob, getting up off the floor. ‘Now I’m just a thing of her kittenish past.’

That’s the way with Bob. He’ll say to the cat, ‘You be a good girl now, honey,’ and then just shrug, go back downstairs to his apartment, play jagged creepy jazz, drink wine, stare out at the wintry scalp of the mountain.

There are a couple of things conspiring here to quicken a reader’s interest:

  • A dated, diary-like entry, but with a curious use of the second-person perspective, which comes with all those imperatives — “Understand…,” “Recall….”
  • Strong imagery, such as “Guttural as a German chanteuse,” “familiar and furry as mold…,” “wintry scalp of the mountain”
  • And some well-observed details about cats: “a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend.”

The first sentence also begs the question — Why does the narrator need help, anyway? The diary device promises privileged, inside information and narrows the gap between writer and reader. At the same time, the unique prism of the second-person perspective filters the speaker’s voice into a weird and compelling light.

I haven’t read anything else by Moore, but after reading “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” I plan to.   

* “An amuse-bouche, also called an amuse-gueule, is a tiny bite-sized morsel served before the hors d’œuvre or first course of a meal. These, often accompanied by a proper complementing wine, are served as an excitement of taste buds to both prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” -Wikipedia

Amuse Bouche: G.B. Edwards

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Voice rules.

Whether it’s the writer’s voice, or the writer’s characters’ voices, we can’t help but be drawn by the sound of another soul manifesting itself through voice. Sometimes characters figuratively grab us by the lapels and sometimes they quietly charm. However they choose to draw us into their worlds, their primary medium is voice.

I’m starting a feature I’m calling Amuse Bouche — a little sampler of compelling voices that tantalize and awaken the senses. I’ll serve a few of these up, from time to time.

See what you think of this, the first paragraph of a strange and wonderful book by G.B. Edwards called The Book of Ebenezer Le Page.

Guernsey, Guernesey, Garnsai, Sarnia: so they say. Well, I don’t know, I’m sure. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I know I don’t know nothing, me. I am the oldest on the island, I think. Liza Queripel from Pleinmont say she is older; but I reckon she is putting it on. When she was a young woman, she used to have a birthday once every two or three years; but for years now she have been having two or three a year. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how old I am. My mother put it down on the front page of the big Bible; but she put down the day and the month, and forgot to put down the year. I suppose I could find out if I went to the Greffe; but I am not going to bother about that now.

I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly looking forward to what the rest of that meal might hold. Conversational, slightly gossipy, and from someone who is above all from a different time and place — this voice promises to give us a story. Or two. The first-person allows for greater intimacy but compelling voice can be heard in all the POV’s. More examples to come…