Category Archives: writing

From Wilde to Auden and then Where?

We all nurture certain oppositions in our minds, and one of mine is the oppositions between Oscar Wilde and W.H. Auden

The two men were not contemporaries. We may not think of Wilde as Victorian, but he lived from 1854 to 1900 and that places him squarely  in the late Victorian era. As a  late Victorian, he — among other artists of his day — were struggling to break free of what was perceived as old fashioned Victorian attitudes. Wilde did so on a personal level, and offered his views about social change,  though he did not live to see much social change. That would come later.

Auden was a man of the 20th century, born in 1907, seven years after Wilde’s demise . He lived through the major disasters of the 20th century, though these were not his main literary subject. In a rather infamous manner, he chose to leave England for the United States  in 1939 (just as the disaster of war was looming). His subject was more personal. You might call it a persistent attempt at honesty, despite the difficult circumstances that being honest may cause. Indeed, he seemed to exhibit  those difficulties in his dress and manner

Ellmann thought that Auden consciously wanted to be the opposite of Wilde. Perhaps he saw Wilde as old fashioned — and perhaps even dishonest. While Wilde delighted in mixing with high society, brought out in this alarming Beerbohm caricature

Image result for Oscar Wilde caricature


Auden chose the life of an academic wanderer. Wilde was flamboyant, Auden was rumpled and as he grew older, wrinkled behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.I like this caricature by David Levine

Image result for Auden caricature

Wilde was full of humor. Auden was ironic and diffident, And he thought that artists should not seek more.

So why keep this difference in mind?  Both artists embraced a form of modernity. But the two forms lead us to very different attitudes towards life and society. Wilde’s outlook is essential social., which made his humiliation in court and prison for gross indecency, even more painful. Auden’s outlook is essentially individual. Society may go made from time to time, but that is not the main concern of artists.

And I think we live more in Auden’s shadow, though perhaps, uncomfortably so. Artists are full of rebellion, but without much connection to society. And they tend to be hard to swallow at a cocktail party,  at least until they reach that certain age. Even then, they seem to feel the need to identify themselves as outsiders, usually through an odd article of clothing or by not shaving.

I was reminded of Auden’s style, and how different it is from Wilde, when I stumbled upon a collection of short stories by Auden’s student, Grace Paley. Just for fun, here is David Levine’s caricature of Grace

Image result for Grace Paley caricature

The book is called “Enormous Changes at the Last Moment”. Her story “Wants” starts off this way

I saw my ex-husband on the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.

“Hello my life,” I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.

He said, What? What life? No life of mine.

I said, O.k. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.

The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.

Notice the existential theme? Reality is out of control and the narrator shows it without complaining about it. It is the norm.  People interact who should know each other, but they are separated. The narrator declares that this is the best that can be done.  And that is the key point of difference. Wilde thought that we can live at a higher level, even if it means embracing dishonesty — a sin (as society understands the word).

Auden is rebellious, but he is not a sinner. And I wonder if the honesty that he asserts is so essential has uplifted us.


Told any Good Stories Recently?

We are all natural story tellers. We learn the skills that we need to tell stories at a very early age. And we use those skills in situations where it feels appropriate to do so. That, btw, is why most of us have difficulty sitting down and writing out a story.  Sitting down and writing out a story is not one of those situations And that can be frustrating if we feel the urge to write.

We can make this much easier for ourselves by understanding why story telling works. By learning what gives stories their value. This video gets into that issue, and is worth a look see. Enjoy!

A Brilliant Lead in by Steve Johnson

One of the great arts of the story teller is to lead the listener or reader into the story. The better the lead in, the deeper the trance that the story casts. Steve Johnson is very good at this, and in his book Wonderland, you get a great example of a lead in. Enjoy!

Roughly forty-three thousand years ago, a young cave bear died in the rolling hills of the northern border of modern-day S.ovenia. A thousand miles away, and a thousand years later, a mammouth died in the forests above the river Blau, near the southern edge of modern-day Germany. Within a few years of the mammoth’s demise, a griffon vulture also perished in the same vicinity. Five thousand years after that, a swan and another mammouth died nearby.

The reader cannot help but wonder, “what will tie these events together?! Aha! Steve has successfully planted a question. Let’s read on.

We know almost nothing about how these different animals met their deaths. They may have been hunted by Neanderthals or modern humans; they may have died of natural causes; they may have been killed by other preditors. Like almost every creature from the Paleolithic era, the stories behind their lives (and deaths) are a mystey to us, lost to the un-reconstructable past. But these different creatures . dispersed across both time and space – did share one remarkable posthumous fate. After their flesh had been consumed by carnivores or bacteria, a bone from each of their skeletons was meticulously crafted by human hands into a flute.

Suspense is suspended for jsut the right amount of time. Then, the great aha! We are not talking about animals at all! We are talking about ancient man and we get this rtaher interesting comment.

Bone flutes are among the most anicent known artifacts of human technological ingenuity.

Becauase we know the data supporting that conclusion, we nod our heads and begin to wonder at the context. Even at this early and primitive stage of our development, we craved music. BTW, way, way before we started writing.

I love it!

Lifewriting – A Few Basics

You may not be fully aware of it, but your life is a story. It is a story that you tell to others in pieces. Like when you get together with a friend to catch up!. It is also a story that others will tell about you, after you are gone.

If your life is a story, how well do you tell it? Who is the hero? What is the hero’s challenge? These are important questions that most of us don’t think about. And yet, our ability to answer these questions and others will dictate how memorable we are as people.  They sum up as well what value we see in what we do with others and for ourselves.

BTW, I do not propose that your life story has to fit  a Hollywood style formula. To the contrary. You are writing it. you can write whatever you want. Nor am I proposing that your life is all about a single thing. It is instead about multiple things that come together.

Here are several “tips” that you might consider if you want to think further about creating and telling your life story

  • stories emerge from character more than plot. In other words, plot follows character, not the other way around.
  • stories are broken into pieces. In books, these are chapters. In life, there are similar divisions. Each part connects to the last and to the next. You cannot suddenly jump out of the flow. The driver of that flow is often a mystery., but it is powerful.
  • stories take place in settings. Your attitude towards those settings re critical.

Here is a link for further discussion of these ideas.

Good luck!

BTW. you might want to consider this thought via Tom Peters

“The key question isn’t ‘What fosters creativity?’ But it is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything.”
—Abe Maslow

And finally, consider this

“If you want to build a ship, don’t gather people together to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but instead teach them to long for the sea.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince)

That longing for greatness drives progress and on a more human level, creates great  life stories.

Margaret Atwood Re-writes Shakespeare

From The Guardian

I’d thought about The Tempest before, and written about it as well. In my book about writers and writing – called, oddly enough, On Writers and Writing – there’s a chapter on the artist as magician and/or impostor called “Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co”. All of these figures are illusionists, as artists are. And illusionists always have a dubious side to them. The Wizard of Oz is only pretending to be a real magician: really he’s a fraud. But the magic in The Tempest is real.

Is You a Good Writer?

From Inc

When we think of essential business skills, delegation, time management, and networking are probably at the top of everyone’s list. However, a recent survey conducted by Harvard Business Review reveals that good writing is actually one of the most important, yet most overlooked, skills in the game, and not for the reasons you’d expect.

Good writing? Not great writing. Not the stuff that we dream of. Just stuff that gets other stuff done. Stuff that gets the stud muffins moving instead of kibitzing at the coffee machine.

Can you do that?

When Writers go Back to the Beginning

Rosellen Brown writes (in Writers on Writing)

Sometimes it’s a good thing — like reflecting on the kind of adult you thought you’d become when you were a child, when thinking wasn’t yet complicated yet by knowledge — for a writer to remember what writing felt like when you were back at the beginning.

I love the phrase “-… when thinking wasn’t yet complicated by knowledge”. But what does it mean?