Monster of the Year

The material forms of our collective nightmares are subject to fashion. This year would have to be the year of the vampire. Zombies are also popular.

But just as low-waisted flares get the shove from the fashion scene to make way for armpit-hugging granny jeans, there isn’t room for all our monsters at one time.

A monster we don’t hear much from lately is the cannibal.

Body parts for sale
Body parts for sale

I work in a library, and whenever I go to the water fountain, there’s always a reshelving cart parked right there, full of intriguing titles. This week’s winner was, ‘Our Cannibals, Ourselves,’ by Priscilla L. Walton.

Walton traces conceptual origins of the cannibal to Homer (Polyphemus the Cyclops enjoys the occasional meal of raw sailor), but notes that the word doesn’t enter European languages until Columbus.

As you might expect, there is a lot of ugly racism/colonialism hovering around the representation of cannibals, from H. Rider Haggard through Gilligan’s Island. But there is also the possibility that cannibalism doesn’t have anything to do with actual eating at all:

The admiral says that he well believes there is something in this [report of cannibals], but…they must be an intelligent people…He believed that they may have captured some men and that, because they did not return to their own land, they would say they were eaten.” -from Columbus’s diaries, Walton, p.2ocos_plw

I really love that. That being ‘eaten’ could mean being swallowed by another culture. In many ways, that would make the US, the British, the French, and all the other dominating cultures, the true cannibals, not the poor guy in the palm leaf sarong and the finger-bone necklace.

So where does that leave us in monster-movie land? I’m not sure, but from where I’m sitting, it looks like cannibals are due for a re-examination.

More good advice

This month’s Glimmer Train bulletin is just chock full of good advice.

Several good tips here from Bruce McAllister, writing coach & former director of creative writing at the University of Redlands. I was most intrigued by this one:

  • Copy out sections or whole stories they love. (It’s “play and mastery”—we know it as children, as we know joy and passion in creative work, though we often block it as adults)

I’ve seen it before, and have always been tempted, but never done it. My obstacle is an efficiency fallacy. There is only so much time available for writing work (especially right now) and I tend to feel that I should be spending it getting my own stories on paper, not doing homework (Steps towards being a novelist:  #1. Write novel.) Exercises are for that mythical “extra” writing time I expect to have, separate from actual writing time.

I have been noticing lately when reading how other writers approach their stories, usually thinking along the lines of “I would never choose those words to tell a story” or “those sentences are so different from mine.” Maybe I’m halfway there. But I can see how actually typing would be like inhabiting someone else’s body for a while. Which is one of the reasons to be a writer in the first place, so maybe I’ll try it.

Anyone else done this one?

Doing It Again

Revision is something I struggle with. For years, I didn’t know what it meant. I thought it was some sort of advanced authorial copyediting, where I leaned back and admired the matchless sheen of my prose and gave the 100-watt corners an extra buff with the word-chamois to bring them up to 110.

That wasn’t revision, that was narcissism. It was also kind of boring. Real revision – taking apart your story, your characters, your presumptions, your plots, your locations, your motivations piece-by-piece, can be exhilarating.

It’s also – for me, at least – a miserable, tooth-gnashing, soul-destroying self-flagellation. In life, I’m a hard-core pessimist. But in first drafts, I’m sunshine pollyanna. I absolutely believe that I can write anything I like, that the good stuff comes from the uninterrupted, unmediated unconcious, and that I, as writing manuals are so fond of instructing, “can always fix it later.”

Good advice. Except they never mention just how hard that fix is. Maybe there’s some zen koan secret to it, where if I would just give up and stop struggling, stop fixating on my original inspiration, stop believing that the finished product should have a passing relation to why I wanted to write the story in the first place, I would be writing better stories.

I have been helped, psychologically, by watching some writer friends go through the same thing. Seeing their work taken down 19 or 20 pegs in critique, and seeing them come back with a whole new manuscript, re-thought, re-considered, and re-written. The act of watching it happen in someone else somehow makes it more possible. Because I know in the end my problem with revision is not about craft: it’s about fear.

As Karen Outen says in this article from Glimmer Train, “The general fear of revision is, of course, simply our fear that what we want from our stories cannot be achieved.” She’s 100% right. And while I think I’m a long way from the “joyful” she’s talking about, every little bit helps.

Any of you other writers want to comment on your feelings about revision? I would really love to hear how it works for someone else. I even understand that there are some people/loonies out there who claim to love revision, and say it’s their favorite part of the process.