Each month The Monarch Writers, here on our .com and also on our Discord, will focus on a specific theme. This month it is CHARACTER. And specifically how to make strong characters.
First, to sum up the issue:
So what is the issue of character?
A character must have DESIRE. And a character, in the course of a story, must CHANGE.
That clip is from the incredible film ‘Adaptation’ (2002) of course, written by Charlie Kaufman. He specializes in kind of meta- self-dissecting arthouse turmoil, rainbeaten soil of the frustrated honest soul, everyday absurdity, the transcendent beauty of… mundane revelation-avenging angel of humanity kind of thing. Not your typical writer, perhaps, but he goes to a screenwriting workshop in his own film, as himself, and listens to one of the master teachers, Robert McKee, played by Brian Cox.
Here’s the real Robert McKee’s thoughts on signing on for a script that was written quoting him, using his name, which he had his own conflicts with the screenwriter about before their individual characters came to terms on a workable resolution that became the film, incidentally changing the ending to the script of said film!
This month I plan to look into and discuss a few pieces of art related in an interesting way to character and its specific relationship to the author, to tease out some interesting themes that might spark something in your process as you build up your own characters.
Well, as McKee said, he doesn’t want to be loved, on principle. He wants a redemption scene. Perhaps as writers we have to go from wanting to be loved by the reader to wanting something similar… To find that redemption through the connection.
After McKee yells at Charlie in the seminar scene, Charlie, wanting redemption and daring to change, sticks around after the show and hassles McKee, says ‘remember me, I’m the guy you yelled at’ and asks him to get a drink with him in the bar. This is the ensuing scene.
So, I’ll leave you with the advice of Robert McKee, a writer, about adapting a book about flowers ‘The Orchid Thief‘ by Susan Orlean (“that sprawling New Yorker shit”) into the enigmatic and blissful film ‘Adaptation’. Robert McKee telling it like it.. when life hands you orchids… or, doesn’t. Again, McKee being played by an actor, as a character in a movie about a writer playing the writer who wrote the film about adapting a book that he has trouble writing into the movie script he needs help making into the movie he’s in…
“Sadly for books in the current times there are more writers than readers, so it seems.” ― B.S. Murthy
“I’m not so arrogant to think I’m the only guide someone needs … but I might be the guide that someone needs.” ― Laura Anne Gilman
In this piece I will gather some good advice from a few web resources on Writing A Compelling Author Bio or Short Blurb to help you Pitch Your Work, to include with cover letters and such. Many publications ask for a brief bio, or a paragraph or two, and often with specific info they want included. We’ll go over what you should generally include to get the point across about what you’re all about as a writer, and include a couple of templates of varying lengths.
If you, my friend, are ready to present yourself to the world as an author, one of the first things you will have to do is write an Author Biography or author bio. Oftentimes, this is the first part of your proposal or pitch that an editor reads, so it must be gripping and cover the most important aspects of your credentials, writing experience, and platform.
It can be vulnerable and weird, and even kind of agonizing, to write about yourself and talk up your achievements or abilities. Authors have told me that it feels like they’re bragging. But you must do it. Your bio is an important part of your publishing career that you need to consider carefully.
When you start to think about your writing as a business as well as a craft, your author biography (in short and long forms) will help you establish your brand, your focus, and your voice as an author. Your bio will tell the world who you are, and more importantly, reveal the why behind your work.
In simple terms, your author bio is a paragraph or two of text that will eventually appear along with your book’s description and your photo on online product pages, the back cover of your book, or the inside back flap of the dust jacket.
However, long before you get to that point, you will have to create an author biography for your book proposal and/or pitch letter. If you or your agent are sharing it with editors and publishers, the bio in your proposal can be short, perhaps around 250 words or a bit longer if there is relevant experience or platform data to include. For query letters to literary agents, however, your bio should probably only be a couple sentences, at most.
As I mentioned above, these days the author bio is often one of the first pieces of information a book editor will review, especially for nonfiction projects. Why?
Due to the increased competition for attention and the sheer number of books published each year, editors need to make a strong case to their publishing teams for each book they acquire. Therefore, they will want to know what other writing you’ve done in the past, and also what experience or education gives you the credibility to write this particular book. Also, editors want to know how you’re already reaching people with your writing. This is often referred to as your author platform and can include social media followers, a podcast or blog, appearances or hosting duties on a popular radio or TV show, speaking at live events, a large email list, publishing articles through major outlets, leading an organization, and a number of other things.
Knowing how critical your author bio can be, here are 10 elements you should consider adding to your biography:
Your Name and Current Job – List your name at the top and write about what you do for work, especially if it’s relevant to your writing career or the book you’re currently pitching.
Education – If you have a degree or certification that is relevant to the book you’re writing, make sure and include it. If you’re writing a crime thriller, and you have a degree in criminology, add that information! Alternatively, if you’re writing a crafting book about basket weaving and you have a degree in history, it’s not as important to list.
Experience and Credibility – Include any professional experiences or work history that may apply to either your ability to reach readers, or your credibility as the author of this particular book.
Previous Writing – If you’ve published books before, include a list of them in your bio. Or if you’ve written published articles, columns, or essays, consider including them in your bio as well along with the magazine or publication where they appeared. The most recent books or articles are going to be much more relevant, so if your published works are more than ten years old, they may not warrant a mention.
Awards or Honors – Feel free to include any relevant awards or honors you’ve received in your writing career thus far.
Author Website and Platform Details – These days, it’s critical to have a home base online where potential readers can connect with you. Unlike social media profiles, you are the sole owner of your author website and therefore, it can evolve as your writing career develops. In addition, it indicates to publishers that you are serious about becoming a published author. Publishers and editors will also want to know how you’re reaching potential readers now, so include followers counts and engagement metrics from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and any other relevant social media platforms. If you have a dedicated email list, be sure and include those numbers as well.
Personal Information – While it’s not absolutely necessary, many authors include a few details about their family, personal hobbies, and hometown in their author bios. For example: “John Smith lives on a farm in rural Iowa with his wife Jane, and sons Mike and Ike.” Don’t go overboard and don’t share details you’d be uncomfortable making public.
Endorsers and Associations – Do you know any influential friends who might help you promote your book? This could include other authors, professors, journalists, colleagues, actors, podcast hosts, leaders, or others who’ve built large audiences. If so, consider including a brief list of these people who will help support your book launch. Also, think about including any associations, networks, groups, or organizations you’re a part of that are relevant to your book or will lend credibility for future promotional efforts.
Social Media Links – If you’ve grown your followers on a particular social media channel to more than 20,000 or so, you should consider including your handle or profile name in your bio.
Interesting Details – If you were attacked by a shark and lived to tell about it, and the book you’re writing is a memoir of that experience—then yes, you should mention it in your bio. But try to keep it focused and relevant.
DEEP RIVER BOOKS Makes Some Great Arguments About the Finer Points of Writing an Author Blurb or Bio
Before you even write the first word (and after you’ve decided on perspective), take a moment to consider tone. If you’ve written an academic appraisal of a current issue, you’ll want your bio to reflect that. If you’ve written a humorous short story collection, let that shine through. This is especially true for fiction authors, whose books may not have a specific “message” per say. Find a small tidbit that speaks to your personality or hobbies, but don’t run wild. A quick phrase is enough, often mixed together with professional accomplishments, as we see in this biography by Kevan Lee.
It’s Not Actually “About You”
Oddly enough, your “about you” blurb is not about “you” at all. It is entirely about your reader. What is important to your target audience? What might they connect with? This is your chance to tell them about your qualifications, why they should trust you, or pick up your work. Establish your credibility. If you’ve written a book about children, don’t hide the fact that you’re a child psychologist. If you’ve written a fiction novel about a character going through rough circumstances, mention what first-hand experience you bring.
Accentuate the Positive
Yes, we know that writers are a humble bunch. But your own bio is no time to be demure! If you published before, include the titles. If you received a pertinent award or recognized by a group that would appeal to your readers, let the world know. Obviously, don’t go over overboard. People probably don’t care that you got first place in a clarinet competition in college (unless, of course, your book concerns clarinets), but they probably would care if the Wounded Warrior Project endorsed your book concerning veterans issues.
Call to Action!
The last sentence in your biography, especially for social media platforms, should include a “call to action” or “CTA.” Try something like “Follow me on Twitter @yourhandle.” Or relate your CTA to your view of life like “spread God’s love.” This is a wonderful moment to connect with you reader on a “mission” level, or to get them engaged with you. Depending on the venue, this may be a good time to mention that your book is on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, especially if whatever article you’ve written doesn’t directly mention that you are an author beforehand.
REPLACE EACH CONTENT PROMPT WITH A SENTENCE UNTIL YOU HAVE A PARAGRAPH THAT DESCRIBES YOU AND YOUR WRITING CURRENTLY, WHICH YOU CAN PRESENT AS AN ENCAPSULATION
Name and Current Job___________________________________________________________ Education__________________________________________________________________ Experience and Credibility________________________________________________________ Previous Writing_________________________________________________________________ Awards or Honors________________________________________________________________ Author Website and Platform Details_____________________________________________ Personal Information____________________________________________________________ Endorsers and Associations______________________________________________________ Social Media Links_______________________________________________________________ Interesting Details________________________________________________________________
TRY TO CREATE A COUPLE VERSIONS OF THIS FORMULA OF DIFFERING LENGTHS
MOST BIOS ARE UNDER 300 WORDS
OFTEN WHEN YOU GET PUBLISHED, EDITORS WILL ASK FOR A PARAGRAPH TO ACCOMPANY YOUR PIECE THAT TELLS READERS WHAT YOU ARE ALL ABOUT. THIS USUALLY INCLUDES
Previous Writing_________________________________________________________________ Awards or Honors________________________________________________________________ Author Website and Platform Details_____________________________________________
Social Media Links_______________________________________________________________ And may be heavy on the –
The Paris Review’s “My First Time” video interview series. Writers talking about their first big work’s success and what it took. Watch the trailer for the series, and fifteen installments in the video and playlist below.
The act of storytelling has always been with us. Anthropologist Joseph Campbell took stories from around the world and found they all shared the same basic structure. Campbell’s Hero’s Journey laid out each of the fundamental steps in this story structure. A few decades later, Dan Harmon took this same idea and created the Story Circle. In Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, there are 8 essential steps that can guide almost any story from Fade In to Fade Out. Let’s walk through each step with examples so you can apply this foolproof structure to your next great idea.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL STORY STRUCTURE
The universal language of storytelling
There are two universal languages. One is math…the other is story. Storytelling is built into the human experience. It’s how we pass on our history, where we can learn how to live, and answer questions about “right” and “wrong.”
It doesn’t take a PhD in English Lit to understand what makes a story good or bad. We all know what a story should do, even if we can’t articulate it. Perhaps the most common storytelling element that “makes or breaks” a story is structure.
Our goal for today is to lay out one such narrative formula: the Dan Harmon Story Circle. Let’s start with a quick definition.
Here are some sources that discuss what an Essay is, from its origins, and pulling it back from being a totally cookie cutter form used by uninterested students when given an assignment to choose a thesis and defend it. An essay, literally ‘an attempt’, is an exploration of a subject, to do with life, that brings in the personality and experience of the writer to some degree.
The essay occupies an odd place in the history of literature. One moment, the essay is a marginal form, barely alive on the fringes of poetry and fiction, the next, the trendiest thing in town. Recently, its fortunes have been on the rise. Wherever you look, the essay turns up: in graphic memoirs, in blogs, on the radio, in poetry. Its proponents range from Ira Glass and David Sedaris to Andrew Sullivan and Julie Powell, not to mention filmmakers such as Agnes Varda and Harun Farocki. No other genre is as infinitely adaptable as the essay.
In its directness and intimacy, the essay is the ideal literary form for the twenty-first century. Overwhelmed by an endless flux of information, we inwardly crave the momentary stay against confusion promised by the essay. We relish, as Scott Russell Sanders wrote, “the spectacle of a single consciousness” confronting the chaos of cultural overload to which we awake each day.1 The trademark of the essay is its intimacy, the human voice addressing an imagined audience. We also relish the opportunity to lose ourselves in the wandering thoughts of the writer. In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson defined the essay as “a loose sully of the mind; an irregular indigested piece.” What Johnson saw as disorder we see as an experiment in form and sensibility. We eagerly embrace the essay’s nonlinear quality, losing ourselves in its unpredictable twists and turns and moody swings. Yet getting lost in an essay is not the same as getting lost in a novel. Novels have plots; the essay is famous for rambling, its paratactic structure favoring breaks and digressions over continuity—the kind of disjointedness criticized by Johnson. What Johnson didn’t like appeals to us now. It is the mindful-ness of the essayist, no matter how digressive, that offers us a refuge from the hullabaloo of the world, the discursive slippage from one thought to another.
Most readers know that the word “essay” comes from the French essai. The verb form, essayer, means to attempt, to experiment, to try out. The standard definition of the genre holds that an essay is essentially a way of trying on a thought or an idea like a hat. The fitting room in a French clothing store, by the way, is called a salon d’essayage. On an artsier note, the Club d’Essai was the name of an experimental sound studio directed by the inventor of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, in Paris after the war.
In a way, all thought is experimental and remains so until it can be fixed in a sentence. We are all essayists for a brief moment. As O.B. Hardison, Jr. has noted, Roland Barthes suggests that the essay may have even preceded the concept of genre, owing to its ability to emulate the genesis of thinking.2 If there is something that is fundamental about the essay to the play of the human mind, as Montaigne insisted also, one wonders why it took so long for the form to evolve. Why wasn’t there a Bronze Age essay, for instance, something written by the hero in retirement (surely Nestor would have had something to say after the burning of Troy) or perhaps set down by the stay-at-home wife, the caretaker of the oikos, a meditation on crushing olives or weaving while waiting the warrior’s return? Given the wanderings of Odysseus, his irrepressible digressiveness and curiosity, not to mention his fondness for the personal anecdote, the Odyssey might have been that Ur-essay. It could at least have contained essay-like intervals—“On Cyclopes” or “Of Listening”—enlivened by shrewd reflections on the credulity of men and the cleverness of fish.
I don’t often give actual tips on how to compose stories. I tend to focus my lessons on storytelling to things that you can’t learn elsewhere. Yet from time to time, it might be worthwhile to actually give a few technical tips. Today we will go over one on how to improve your dialogue.
A few years ago, I listened to a bestselling writer give perhaps the worst advice on dialog tags that I’ve ever heard. He told new writers, “Never use the word said. It’s boring and repetitious. Worst of all, it doesn’t really tell us much about the feeling behind what has been spoken.”
His advice was that you should “mix it up, and never repeat verbs that deal with speaking on the same page. If you are forced to use the word said, he suggested that you add an adverb to it in order to define the quality of the words spoken.
Given his advice, you might have a teen “mumble” one sentence:
“I don’t want to go to church,” she mumbled.
While the reply would use a different verb:
“Well you’re going to go, Missy,” Dad retorted.
The problem that arises is that we find ourselves using a lot of verbs that seem rather silly when put into a string of tags. Thus, you might have people mumbling, shouting, profaning, teasing, snarling, squealing, averring, blaming, and so on in rapid succession.
FIYAH is a quarterly speculative fiction magazine that features stories by and about Black people of the African Diaspora. This definition is globally inclusive (Black anywhere in the world) and also applies to mixed/biracial and Afro-appended people regardless of gender identity or orientation.
We publish poems and stories between 1k-5k words in January, April, July, and October. We also hold monthly flash fiction contests between the 1st and 15th of each month. Flash stories must be under a 1000 words and be inspired or based on the chosen theme. Full details for submission guidelines at https://apparitionlit.com/submissions/.
As writers, we have to consider not just the work we do on our projects -creating worlds, characters, and plots- but also must take consideration of marketing our stories to the world. So let’s talk a little bit about trying to get our work published going into this new year 2021, and make a resolution to not let our stories sit on the shelf, but to put in a reasonable amount of effort into sending them on their way into the world. Whether submitting to publishers and calls for specific deadlines which our work may fit, or making connections with agents, and putting together queries and packets to send off to our dream publishing house, or keeping a blog and self-publishing some items to keep in contact with a readership, PUT IN SOME WORK on GETTING YOUR WORK OUT THERE!
Some people may have a reticence to share their work, out of fear of rejection or a related fear that their voice isn’t strong enough yet. This is totally natural, but the best way to overcome this, AND make your voice more confident, is to just keep going AND send your work out. PLOW AHEAD and keep trying! If you get rejection slips, don’t worry! You can’t win if you don’t play!
Try to find a balance between working on your vision and reacting to criticism when it comes in. If you get rejection slips that are impersonal, known as “form rejections” which have no content telling you how your work might improve, it most likely does not mean your work is so horrible it doesn’t deserve response. Far more likely is the reality that that particular publisher had so many submissions that they couldn’t respond personally to them all. So take it in stride, and don’t hyperfocus on that setback. Don’t use it as an excuse to slow down and get discouraged about your work.
The best way to gain confidence in your work is to find a group of people who will read your work and give you CONSTRUCTIVE feedback. If you are interested in joining a group that aims for this, you can JOIN THE MONARCH WRITERS DISCORD CHAT GROUP
I am at a point in my work on my novel project right now where I am having a lot of ideas, and want to keep track of them.
I already do multiple bulletin boards and note taking methods, from notebooks as I read to apps like Google Keep which is easy to stay on top of. There is so much going on in the world it seems and so many ideas going through my head each day that my main issue is getting back to all these thoughts later on without losing track of them. Taking notes is great and facing the fresh insights of the ever-passing moment all good, but the content of a lot of these thoughts involves the dilemma itself I’d like to address here: The need to remind myself to spend time with yesterdays ideas. To not just chase after the fresh and new but to sit down and spend time with things in a deeper, more resolved way.
Does anybody have similar issues with keeping a course and making your inspiration turn into practical output?
This essay by Nobel Prize winning poet Octavio Paz addresses the idea of feeling like we are always on the cusp of a new tomorrow while being pursued by both the plagues and the consolidated wisdom of all that has come before. Past fault lines rolling up onto the idea of a modernity that is different, exciting, and new, but is also an aplification of what already is; I invite you to experience it with me and respond with your thoughts in the comments or in a reblog with commentary. How does this feeling of being alive in interesting times affect your calling and role as the artist/shaman of the tribe?
Marshall McLuhan believed artists see the future before it arrives as they are attuned as a type of living antennae of the race to changes and shifts in media, technology, and art. More than translating an interpretation of things half-perceived coming from the future, the task of the artist is trying to set down future values for the world in flux, I believe. And thus the artist needs to be ahead of the game on knowing what she or he wants, and what world one would want to bring about. With that in mind, please enjoy this piece by Octavio Paz written on acceptance of his nobel prize, titled ‘In Search of the Present’.
I begin with two words that all men have uttered since the dawn of humanity: thank you. The word gratitude has equivalents in every language and in each tongue the range of meanings is abundant. In the Romance languages this breadth spans the spiritual and the physical, from the divine grace conceded to men to save them from error and death, to the bodily grace of the dancing girl or the feline leaping through the undergrowth. Grace means pardon, forgiveness, favour, benefice, inspiration; it is a form of address, a pleasing style of speaking or painting, a gesture expressing politeness, and, in short, an act that reveals spiritual goodness. Grace is gratuitous; it is a gift. The person who receives it, the favoured one, is grateful for it; if he is not base, he expresses gratitude. That is what I am doing at this very moment with these weightless words. I hope my emotion compensates their weightlessness. If each of my words were a drop of water, you would see through them and glimpse what I feel: gratitude, acknowledgement. And also an indefinable mixture of fear, respect and surprise at finding myself here before you, in this place which is the home of both Swedish learning and world literature.
Languages are vast realities that transcend those political and historical entities we call nations. The European languages we speak in the Americas illustrate this. The special position of our literatures when compared to those of England, Spain, Portugal and France depends precisely on this fundamental fact: they are literatures written in transplanted tongues. Languages are born and grow from the native soil, nourished by a common history. The European languages were rooted out from their native soil and their own tradition, and then planted in an unknown and unnamed world: they took root in the new lands and, as they grew within the societies of America, they were transformed. They are the same plant yet also a different plant. Our literatures did not passively accept the changing fortunes of the transplanted languages: they participated in the process and even accelerated it. They very soon ceased to be mere transatlantic reflections: at times they have been the negation of the literatures of Europe; more often, they have been a reply.
In spite of these oscillations the link has never been broken. My classics are those of my language and I consider myself to be a descendant of Lope and Quevedo, as any Spanish writer would … yet I am not a Spaniard. I think that most writers of Spanish America, as well as those from the United States, Brazil and Canada, would say the same as regards the English, Portuguese and French traditions. To understand more clearly the special position of writers in the Americas, we should think of the dialogue maintained by Japanese, Chinese or Arabic writers with the different literatures of Europe. It is a dialogue that cuts across multiple languages and civilizations. Our dialogue, on the other hand, takes place within the same language. We are Europeans yet we are not Europeans. What are we then? It is difficult to define what we are, but our works speak for us.
In the field of literature, the great novelty of the present century has been the appearance of the American literatures. The first to appear was that of the English-speaking part and then, in the second half of the 20th Century, that of Latin America in its two great branches: Spanish America and Brazil. Although they are very different, these three literatures have one common feature: the conflict, which is more ideological than literary, between the cosmopolitan and nativist tendencies, between Europeanism and Americanism. What is the legacy of this dispute? The polemics have disappeared; what remain are the works. Apart from this general resemblance, the differences between the three literatures are multiple and profound. One of them belongs more to history than to literature: the development of Anglo-American literature coincides with the rise of the United States as a world power whereas the rise of our literature coincides with the political and social misfortunes and upheavals of our nations. This proves once more the limitations of social and historical determinism: the decline of empires and social disturbances sometimes coincide with moments of artistic and literary splendour. Li-Po and Tu Fu witnessed the fall of the Tang dynasty; Velázquez painted for Felipe IV; Seneca and Lucan were contemporaries and also victims of Nero. Other differences are of a literary nature and apply more to particular works than to the character of each literature. But can we say that literatures have a character? Do they possess a set of shared features that distinguish them from other literatures? I doubt it. A literature is not defined by some fanciful, intangible character; it is a society of unique works united by relations of opposition and affinity.
The first basic difference between Latin-American and Anglo-American literature lies in the diversity of their origins. Both begin as projections of Europe. The projection of an island in the case of North America; that of a peninsula in our case. Two regions that are geographically, historically and culturally eccentric. The origins of North America are in England and the Reformation; ours are in Spain, Portugal and the Counter-Reformation. For the case of Spanish America I should briefly mention what distinguishes Spain from other European countries, giving it a particularly original historical identity. Spain is no less eccentric than England but its eccentricity is of a different kind. The eccentricity of the English is insular and is characterized by isolation: an eccentricity that excludes. Hispanic eccentricity is peninsular and consists of the coexistence of different civilizations and different pasts: an inclusive eccentricity. In what would later be Catholic Spain, the Visigoths professed the heresy of Arianism, and we could also speak about the centuries of domination by Arabic civilization, the influence of Jewish thought, the Reconquest, and other characteristic features.
Hispanic eccentricity is reproduced and multiplied in America, especially in those countries such as Mexico and Peru, where ancient and splendid civilizations had existed. In Mexico, the Spaniards encountered history as well as geography. That history is still alive: it is a present rather than a past. The temples and gods of pre-Columbian Mexico are a pile of ruins, but the spirit that breathed life into that world has not disappeared; it speaks to us in the hermetic language of myth, legend, forms of social coexistence, popular art, customs. Being a Mexican writer means listening to the voice of that present, that presence. Listening to it, speaking with it, deciphering it: expressing it … After this brief digression we may be able to perceive the peculiar relation that simultaneously binds us to and separates us from the European tradition.
This consciousness of being separate is a constant feature of our spiritual history. Separation is sometimes experienced as a wound that marks an internal division, an anguished awareness that invites self-examination; at other times it appears as a challenge, a spur that incites us to action, to go forth and encounter others and the outside world. It is true that the feeling of separation is universal and not peculiar to Spanish Americans. It is born at the very moment of our birth: as we are wrenched from the Whole we fall into an alien land. This experience becomes a wound that never heals. It is the unfathomable depth of every man; all our ventures and exploits, all our acts and dreams, are bridges designed to overcome the separation and reunite us with the world and our fellow-beings. Each man’s life and the collective history of mankind can thus be seen as attempts to reconstruct the original situation. An unfinished and endless cure for our divided condition. But it is not my intention to provide yet another description of this feeling. I am simply stressing the fact that for us this existential condition expresses itself in historical terms. It thus becomes an awareness of our history. How and when does this feeling appear and how is it transformed into consciousness? The reply to this double-edged question can be given in the form of a theory or a personal testimony. I prefer the latter: there are many theories and none is entirely convincing.
The feeling of separation is bound up with the oldest and vaguest of my memories: the first cry, the first scare. Like every child I built emotional bridges in the imagination to link me to the world and to other people. I lived in a town on the outskirts of Mexico City, in an old dilapidated house that had a jungle-like garden and a great room full of books. First games and first lessons. The garden soon became the centre of my world; the library, an enchanted cave. I used to read and play with my cousins and schoolmates. There was a fig tree, temple of vegetation, four pine trees, three ash trees, a nightshade, a pomegranate tree, wild grass and prickly plants that produced purple grazes. Adobe walls. Time was elastic; space was a spinning wheel. All time, past or future, real or imaginary, was pure presence. Space transformed itself ceaselessly. The beyond was here, all was here: a valley, a mountain, a distant country, the neighbours’ patio. Books with pictures, especially history books, eagerly leafed through, supplied images of deserts and jungles, palaces and hovels, warriors and princesses, beggars and kings. We were shipwrecked with Sinbad and with Robinson, we fought with d’Artagnan, we took Valencia with the Cid. How I would have liked to stay forever on the Isle of Calypso! In summer the green branches of the fig tree would sway like the sails of a caravel or a pirate ship. High up on the mast, swept by the wind, I could make out islands and continents, lands that vanished as soon as they became tangible. The world was limitless yet it was always within reach; time was a pliable substance that weaved an unbroken present.
When was the spell broken? Gradually rather than suddenly. It is hard to accept being betrayed by a friend, deceived by the woman we love, or that the idea of freedom is the mask of a tyrant. What we call “finding out” is a slow and tricky process because we ourselves are the accomplices of our errors and deceptions. Nevertheless, I can remember fairly clearly an incident that was the first sign, although it was quickly forgotten. I must have been about six when one of my cousins who was a little older showed me a North American magazine with a photograph of soldiers marching along a huge avenue, probably in New York. “They’ve returned from the war” she said. This handful of words disturbed me, as if they foreshadowed the end of the world or the Second Coming of Christ. I vaguely knew that somewhere far away a war had ended a few years earlier and that the soldiers were marching to celebrate their victory. For me, that war had taken place in another time, not here and now. The photo refuted me. I felt literally dislodged from the present.
From that moment time began to fracture more and more. And there was a plurality of spaces. The experience repeated itself more and more frequently. Any piece of news, a harmless phrase, the headline in a newspaper: everything proved the outside world’s existence and my own unreality. I felt that the world was splitting and that I did not inhabit the present. My present was disintegrating: real time was somewhere else. My time, the time of the garden, the fig tree, the games with friends, the drowsiness among the plants at three in the afternoon under the sun, a fig torn open (black and red like a live coal but one that is sweet and fresh): this was a fictitious time. In spite of what my senses told me, the time from over there, belonging to the others, was the real one, the time of the real present. I accepted the inevitable: I became an adult. That was how my expulsion from the present began.
It may seem paradoxical to say that we have been expelled from the present, but it is a feeling we have all had at some moment. Some of us experienced it first as a condemnation, later transformed into consciousness and action. The search for the present is neither the pursuit of an earthly paradise nor that of a timeless eternity: it is the search for a real reality. For us, as Spanish Americans, the real present was not in our own countries: it was the time lived by others, by the English, the French and the Germans. It was the time of New York, Paris, London. We had to go and look for it and bring it back home. These years were also the years of my discovery of literature. I began writing poems. I did not know what made me write them: I was moved by an inner need that is difficult to define. Only now have I understood that there was a secret relationship between what I have called my expulsion from the present and the writing of poetry. Poetry is in love with the instant and seeks to relive it in the poem, thus separating it from sequential time and turning it into a fixed present. But at that time I wrote without wondering why I was doing it. I was searching for the gateway to the present: I wanted to belong to my time and to my century. A little later this obsession became a fixed idea: I wanted to be a modern poet. My search for modernity had begun.
What is modernity? First of all it is an ambiguous term: there are as many types of modernity as there are societies. Each has its own. The word’s meaning is uncertain and arbitrary, like the name of the period that precedes it, the Middle Ages. If we are modern when compared to medieval times, are we perhaps the Middle Ages of a future modernity? Is a name that changes with time a real name? Modernity is a word in search of its meaning. Is it an idea, a mirage or a moment of history? Are we the children of modernity or its creators? Nobody knows for sure. It doesn’t matter much: we follow it, we pursue it. For me at that time modernity was fused with the present or rather produced it: the present was its last supreme flower. My case is neither unique nor exceptional: from the Symbolist period, all modern poets have chased after that magnetic and elusive figure that fascinates them. Baudelaire was the first. He was also the first to touch her and discover that she is nothing but time that crumbles in one’s hands. I am not going to relate my adventures in pursuit of modernity: they are not very different from those of other 20th-Century poets. Modernity has been a universal passion. Since 1850 she has been our goddess and our demoness. In recent years, there has been an attempt to exorcise her and there has been much talk of “postmodernism”. But what is postmodernism if not an even more modern modernity?
For us, as Latin Americans, the search for poetic modernity runs historically parallel to the repeated attempts to modernize our countries. This tendency begins at the end of the 18th Century and includes Spain herself. The United States was born into modernity and by 1830 was already, as de Tocqueville observed, the womb of the future; we were born at a moment when Spain and Portugal were moving away from modernity. This is why there was frequent talk of “Europeanizing” our countries: the modern was outside and had to be imported. In Mexican history this process begins just before the War of Independence. Later it became a great ideological and political debate that passionately divided Mexican society during the 19th Century. One event was to call into question not the legitimacy of the reform movement but the way in which it had been implemented: the Mexican Revolution. Unlike its 20th-Century counterparts, the Mexican Revolution was not really the expression of a vaguely utopian ideology but rather the explosion of a reality that had been historically and psychologically repressed. It was not the work of a group of ideologists intent on introducing principles derived from a political theory; it was a popular uprising that unmasked what was hidden. For this very reason it was more of a revelation than a revolution. Mexico was searching for the present outside only to find it within, buried but alive. The search for modernity led us to discover our antiquity, the hidden face of the nation. I am not sure whether this unexpected historical lesson has been learnt by all: between tradition and modernity there is a bridge. When they are mutually isolated, tradition stagnates and modernity vaporizes; when in conjunction, modernity breathes life into tradition, while the latter replies with depth and gravity.
The search for poetic modernity was a Quest, in the allegorical and chivalric sense this word had in the 12th Century. I did not find any Grail although I did cross several waste lands visiting castles of mirrors and camping among ghostly tribes. But I did discover the modern tradition. For modernity is not a poetic school but a lineage, a family dispersed over several continents and which for two centuries has survived many sudden changes and misfortunes: public indifference, isolation, and tribunals in the name of religious, political, academic and sexual orthodoxy. Because it is a tradition and not a doctrine, it has been able to persist and to change at the same time. This is also why it is so diverse: each poetic adventure is distinct and each poet has sown a different plant in the miraculous forest of speaking trees. Yet if the works are diverse and each route is distinct, what is it that unites all these poets? Not an aesthetic but a search. My search was not fanciful, even though the idea of modernity is a mirage, a bundle of reflections. One day I discovered I was going back to the starting point instead of advancing: the search for modernity was a descent to the origins. Modernity led me to the source of my beginning, to my antiquity. Separation had now become reconciliation. I thus found out that the poet is a pulse in the rhythmic flow of generations.
The idea of modernity is a by-product of our conception of history as a unique and linear process of succession. Although its origins are in Judaeo-Christianity, it breaks with Christian doctrine. In Christianity, the cyclical time of pagan cultures is supplanted by unrepeatable history, something that has a beginning and will have an end. Sequential time was the profane time of history, an arena for the actions of fallen men, yet still governed by a sacred time which had neither beginning nor end. After Judgement Day there will be no future either in heaven or in hell. In the realm of eternity there is no succession because everything is. Being triumphs over becoming. The now time, our concept of time, is linear like that of Christianity but open to infinity with no reference to Eternity. Ours is the time of profane history, an irreversible and perpetually unfinished time that marches towards the future and not towards its end. History’s sun is the future and Progress is the name of this movement towards the future.
Christians see the world, or what used to be called the siècle or worldly life, as a place of trial: souls can be either lost or saved in this world. In the new conception the historical subject is not the individual soul but the human race, sometimes viewed as a whole and sometimes through a chosen group that represents it: the developed nations of the West, the proletariat, the white race, or some other entity. The pagan and Christian philosophical tradition had exalted Being as changeless perfection overflowing with plenitude; we adore Change, the motor of progress and the model for our societies. Change articulates itself in two privileged ways: as evolution and as revolution. The trot and the leap. Modernity is the spearhead of historical movement, the incarnation of evolution or revolution, the two faces of progress. Finally, progress takes place thanks to the dual action of science and technology, applied to the realm of nature and to the use of her immense resources.
Modern man has defined himself as a historical being. Other societies chose to define themselves in terms of values and ideas different from change: the Greeks venerated the polis and the circle yet were unaware of progress; like all the Stoics, Seneca was much concerned about the eternal return; Saint Augustine believed that the end of the world was imminent; Saint Thomas constructed a scale of the degrees of being, linking the smallest creature to the Creator, and so on. One after the other these ideas and beliefs were abandoned. It seems to me that the same decline is beginning to affect our idea of Progress and, as a result, our vision of time, of history and of ourselves. We are witnessing the twilight of the future. The decline of the idea of modernity and the popularity of a notion as dubious as that of “postmodernism” are phenomena that affect not only literature and the arts: we are experiencing the crisis of the essential ideas and beliefs that have guided mankind for over two centuries. I have dealt with this matter at length elsewhere. Here I can only offer a brief summary.
In the first place, the concept of a process open to infinity and synonymous with endless progress has been called into question. I need hardly mention what everybody knows: natural resources are finite and will run out one day. In addition, we have inflicted what may be irreparable damage on the natural environment and our own species is endangered. Finally, science and technology, the instruments of progress, have shown with alarming clarity that they can easily become destructive forces. The existence of nuclear weapons is a refutation of the idea that progress is inherent in history. This refutation, I add, can only be called devastating.
In the second place, we have the fate of the historical subject, mankind, in the 20th Century. Seldom have nations or individuals suffered so much: two world wars, tyrannies spread over five continents, the atomic bomb and the proliferation of one of the cruellest and most lethal institutions known by man: the concentration camp. Modern technology has provided countless benefits, but it is impossible to close our eyes when confronted by slaughter, torture, humiliation, degradation, and other wrongs inflicted on millions of innocent people in our century.
In the third place, the belief in the necessity of progress has been shaken. For our grandparents and our parents, the ruins of history (corpses, desolate battlefields, devastated cities) did not invalidate the underlying goodness of the historical process. The scaffolds and tyrannies, the conflicts and savage civil wars were the price to be paid for progress, the blood money to be offered to the god of history. A god? Yes, reason itself deified and prodigal in cruel acts of cunning, according to Hegel. The alleged rationality of history has vanished. In the very domain of order, regularity and coherence (in pure sciences like physics) the old notions of accident and catastrophe have reappeared. This disturbing resurrection reminds me of the terrors that marked the advent of the millennium, and the anguish of the Aztecs at the end of each cosmic cycle.
The last element in this hasty enumeration is the collapse of all the philosophical and historical hypotheses that claimed to reveal the laws governing the course of history. The believers, confident that they held the keys to history, erected powerful states over pyramids of corpses. These arrogant constructions, destined in theory to liberate men, were very quickly transformed into gigantic prisons. Today we have seen them fall, overthrown not by their ideological enemies but by the impatience and the desire for freedom of the new generations. Is this the end of all Utopias? It is rather the end of the idea of history as a phenomenon, the outcome of which can be known in advance. Historical determinism has been a costly and bloodstained fantasy. History is unpredictable because its agent, mankind, is the personification of indeterminism.
This short review shows that we are very probably at the end of a historical period and at the beginning of another. The end of the Modern Age or just a mutation? It is difficult to tell. In any case, the collapse of Utopian schemes has left a great void, not in the countries where this ideology has proved to have failed but in those where many embraced it with enthusiasm and hope. For the first time in history mankind lives in a sort of spiritual wilderness and not, as before, in the shadow of those religious and political systems that consoled us at the same time as they oppressed us. Although all societies are historical, each one has lived under the guidance and inspiration of a set of metahistorical beliefs and ideas. Ours is the first age that is ready to live without a metahistorical doctrine; whether they be religious or philosophical, moral or aesthetic, our absolutes are not collective but private. It is a dangerous experience. It is also impossible to know whether the tensions and conflicts unleashed in this privatization of ideas, practices and beliefs that belonged traditionally to the public domain will not end up by destroying the social fabric. Men could then become possessed once more by ancient religious fury or by fanatical nationalism. It would be terrible if the fall of the abstract idol of ideology were to foreshadow the resurrection of the buried passions of tribes, sects and churches. The signs, unfortunately, are disturbing.
The decline of the ideologies I have called metahistorical, by which I mean those that assign to history a goal and a direction, implies first the tacit abandonment of global solutions. With good sense, we tend more and more towards limited remedies to solve concrete problems. It is prudent to abstain from legislating about the future. Yet the present requires much more than attention to its immediate needs: it demands a more rigorous global reflection. For a long time I have firmly believed that the twilight of the future heralds the advent of the now. To think about the now implies first of all to recover the critical vision. For example, the triumph of the market economy (a triumph due to the adversary’s default) cannot be simply a cause for joy. As a mechanism the market is efficient, but like all mechanisms it lacks both conscience and compassion. We must find a way of integrating it into society so that it expresses the social contract and becomes an instrument of justice and fairness. The advanced democratic societies have reached an enviable level of prosperity; at the same time they are islands of abundance in the ocean of universal misery. The topic of the market is intricately related to the deterioration of the environment. Pollution affects not only the air, the rivers and the forests but also our souls. A society possessed by the frantic need to produce more in order to consume more tends to reduce ideas, feelings, art, love, friendship and people themselves to consumer products. Everything becomes a thing to be bought, used and then thrown in the rubbish dump. No other society has produced so much waste as ours has. Material and moral waste.
Reflecting on the now does not imply relinquishing the future or forgetting the past: the present is the meeting place for the three directions of time. Neither can it be confused with facile hedonism. The tree of pleasure does not grow in the past or in the future but at this very moment. Yet death is also a fruit of the present. It cannot be rejected, for it is part of life. Living well implies dying well. We have to learn how to look death in the face. The present is alternatively luminous and sombre, like a sphere that unites the two halves of action and contemplation. Thus, just as we have had philosophies of the past and of the future, of eternity and of the void, tomorrow we shall have a philosophy of the present. The poetic experience could be one of its foundations. What do we know about the present? Nothing or almost nothing. Yet the poets do know one thing: the present is the source of presences.
In this pilgrimage in search of modernity I lost my way at many points only to find myself again. I returned to the source and discovered that modernity is not outside but within us. It is today and the most ancient antiquity; it is tomorrow and the beginning of the world; it is a thousand years old and yet newborn. It speaks in Nahuatl, draws Chinese ideograms from the 9th century, and appears on the television screen. This intact present, recently unearthed, shakes off the dust of centuries, smiles and suddenly starts to fly, disappearing through the window. A simultaneous plurality of time and presence: modernity breaks with the immediate past only to recover an age-old past and transform a tiny fertility figure from the neolithic into our contemporary. We pursue modernity in her incessant metamorphoses yet we never manage to trap her. She always escapes: each encounter ends in flight. We embrace her and she disappears immediately: it was just a little air. It is the instant, that bird that is everywhere and nowhere. We want to trap it alive but it flaps its wings and vanishes in the form of a handful of syllables. We are left empty-handed. Then the doors of perception open slightly and the other time appears, the real one we were searching for without knowing it: the present, the presence.
A quote that caught my eye, particularly since I make a joke of telling people I dropped out of a college whose motto is ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well’, is this quote by G.K Chesterton:
“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
Which means, if you set yourself the goal of doing NaNo, that means you have a desire to write, and giving up on that dream is no plan! If it isn’t working out as best as you thought it might at the beginning of the month, still, stick with it, keep writing as well as you can. Try for less than 50 thousand words. But keep trying. Because abandoning things you want and moving on to a new project, is another way of ending up with a pile of unfinished projects and not finishing anything! Stick with the things you truly want to do. Moving from one project to the next is a great way of finding out more about yourself and what you want, but also, sticking with things is a way of building depth of that dream you know you really do have.