Terence Clarke

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Learning To Write About New York

Childe Hassam, "Allies Day 1917"

Childe Hassam, “Allies Day 1917”

“Excuse me,” the man said. He stood across from me in an elevator of the building in which I was working, at 8th and 34th in Manhattan. “I think you are not American.”

His accent was Hispanic.

“How so?”

A large smile appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?'”
I had seen him many times on the elevator in the few months since I had moved into my office, but we had not spoken.

“Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?” I said.

“Could be, and I am from Cuba.”

“Yes, and you say ‘Good morning’ now and then. I’ve heard it.”

“Occasionally, even though I’ve lived in New York almost all my life.”

“Well, you’re right,” I said. “I’m from California.”

“Ah, that explains it.” The man’s grin exposed many perfectly aligned teeth.

“Explains what?”

“Your seeming so foreign.”

I lived in Manhattan for two years during the late 1990s, and felt—the whole time—that I was little more than a tourist. I was aware of John Updike’s remark that “the true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” Now that I was living in New York, I understood how accurate his observation was. There is no town in the world like this one. Sure, San Francisco has its rattling cable cars and Golden Gate. Paris its Louvre and that famous revolution. London its now-sapped British empirical glory. Dublin its James Joyce. Istanbul the Straits of Bosporus.

But hey! None of those is New York.

I came back to San Francisco and sat on my experiences of New York for 10 years, thinking that surely I’d be kidding myself if I attempted to write anything about the place. To do so, I thought I would have to have lived there all my life. I worried that the city is too enormous and too varied to be understood by anyone, without his having walked its streets since birth. But then I learned that almost half of New York’s population was born not only somewhere else, but in a language other than English. Hundreds of places somewhere else. I figured, if they can live here and not be kidding, so could I… and moreover, I had the ability to describe the experience.

Almost all the stories I’ve written about New York feature characters who are from elsewhere, almost all of them speaking English as a second language. But as was the case when I lived in Manhattan, these people in my stories are citizens of New York City in essential ways, the fact of their exotic birthplace being one of the most important. The languages alone in New York City (perhaps every language in the world is spoken in those few square miles by somebody) exemplify its ethnic and cultural madness…a very good thing, in my view. Those of our citizens who decry ethnic diversity, and who grasp desperately at the idea that the United States is an English-speaking, Christian nation whose white people are its political and cultural arbiters, clearly have not enjoyed a couple days in Manhattan. Of course, with such ideas as theirs, those few days might be terrifying for them. But for those who realize that the United States is, as touted, a nation of immigrants from every continent, New York is the city where you can find the resultant burst of extraordinary world fruition.

Two books helped me immensely, although neither had much to do with flights of fictional fantasy in contemporary New York. Eric W. Sanderson’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City contains everything you ever wanted to know about Manhattan as it was on September 12, 1609, the day that Henry Hudson dropped anchor off the island. The geological history of the island, how it once lay on the ocean floor, then was part of a vast mountain range, finally the sea-level vestige of that mountain range, and many other iterations along the way, are all included in this book. As well, the book tells how the verdant natural settings of the island have been changed by the influx of human beings since that day in 1609.

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace is THE history of what those humans did in New York up to the end of the 19th century. Overall it is my favorite book of history ever, and I had the pleasure of reading it while I was living in New York. That allowed me to go to places and surround myself in my imagination with occurrences that are so vividly portrayed in Gotham.

Both these volumes are fueled by the juggernauts of geology and history that made New York what it is today. For my fictional purposes, both presented the fluid, immense noise and excitement of New York, whether it be an island propelled by a tectonic plate into the east coast of what would become the American continent, or an explosively imagined settlement where much of the history of the American continent would be determined, written…and written about.

For a writer of fiction, one of the beauties of living in San Francisco, as I now do, is that San Francisco is a small, sophisticated city holding—barring the next earthquake—to the edge of the west coast. It has fine music, great opera, a ton of writers, wonderful art and terrific food. In my case, because of its relative quiet, it also provides a place of one’s own in which to think calmly about New York.

(Terence Clarke’s story collection New York will be published in book form next year. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.)

On Art That Isn’t There

Notorious Dream CoverCritics, ever in the back seat, have yet written marvelously about the graphic arts. When I first read E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, I thought that being an art historian would be something to which I could aspire. The book is still a must for anyone who knows little about the history of Western art and wants to know a lot more. At the time, I knew almost nothing about that history, having survived university without ever taking the time to go to the school’s art museum.

The trouble was that, by the time I did read Gombrich, I was in my mid-20s and married to an artist who had insisted that I read his book, maybe to make myself less embarrassing at art openings. I had also written a couple of unpublished novels. Those agonizingly arrived-at works nonetheless had convinced me that, really, I would be happier making my own art. The only disappointment was that my art would be made of the ever un-beautiful, gracelessly utilitarian typewriter script with which I had to work. The tools—and the talent—that resulted in Velásquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja were not to be mine.

I was able eventually to read sufficient criticism and history—John Ruskin, Robert Hughes, Kenneth Clark and others—to have serviceable enough knowledge to write about art. But it required my own imaginative powers to express how I truly felt about what I was viewing. I simply did not have the technical chops to explain how a painting works, either in terms of its shapes or the materials and tools used to make it. In the time-honored phrase, I knew what I liked.

The Mexicans interested me tremendously. For one, they weren’t Europeans, a single fact that goes a long way to explaining why they are so special. The unique mixture in Mexico of the vernal, myth-fueled sensitivities of the indigenous peoples and the crazy otherworldly enthusiasms of the Spanish conquistador artists made for something entirely unique. When I saw the great Rivera murals in the National Palace in Mexico City and the heart-chilling Orozco depictions of The Conquest at the then-orphanage in Guadalajara, I realized a more earth-bound pagan-animist consciousness than what I had read about in so much of western European, heaven-touring art. Diego Rivera’s earth-mothers and colossal Indian cityscapes and Jose Clemente Orozco’s flame-wrapped, man-angel swirling into the Guadalajara universe struck my heart.

I recently completed a novel in which I created a fictional Mexican artist whose work has the same combination of fruitful grit and celestial transformation of these and so many other Mexican artists. He comes to San Francisco, California and determines to paint murals across the entirety of the outside of the Cathedral of Saint Mary in that city (which actually exists, at the corner of Gough and Geary Streets). The local archbishop thinks the artist and his ideas crackpot, and therein lies the tale. Jesús Lázaro is the artist, and The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro is the book I’ve written about him.

When I started it, I knew that I would have to describe Jesús’s fictional art. What I had always thought necessary in writing about actual art became, precisely, the task at hand. But while the Mona Lisa has qualities that are abundantly evident, in my case the paintings I describe do not exist at all. So my writing took on all the responsibility of providing for the reader’s emotional response. The reader of my book can only imagine the painting, and I have to give him/her the words that bring that imagining to flower.

That’s difficult enough when you’re presenting some sort of social scene, which is the basic stuff of almost all fiction. But describing an entire individual piece of art that is so ephemeral as to not be there at all is a different task. Luckily for me, it was a lot of fun, which lightened the burden considerably. But nonetheless, I would love to see Jesús Lázaro’s paintings, wherever they may be, to see if I got them right.

(The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published in May 2015. This piece originally appeared in Huffington Post.)

How’s That Novel of Yours Doing?

09_01_52.jpgThe wish for fame, so illusory a thing, can kill you. Or at least, it can kill your novel.

In an essay in The Spectator in 1711, Sir Richard Steele wrote that it is “the worst way in the world to Fame, to be too anxious about it.” For almost all of us who took up writing in order to be like Ernest Hemingway, this is good advice. The Hemingway goal hasn’t worked in my case or, I suspect, in that of most others who have had so markedly specific an intention. Perhaps all others. This is so because such a goal has nothing to do with writing well. It has an awful lot to do with churlish envy, as well as what we know about Hemingway, that he marketed himself almost from the beginning in order to get where he got.

Perhaps his remarkable fame derives from the great interest there has always been in his adventurous life. But I think his adventures had little to do with his ability to write well, as he so often did. In his writing, he sought to please his one greatest fan, which was himself, and for this steadfastness he deserves the congratulation he gets.

When I began writing seriously, I had the theory that writing fiction was a public, not a private, endeavor. Because it is so intense a form of communication, it seemed foolish to me to write without the idea of getting published. Publishing with an established firm, either major or minor, was then the only way of getting your work in front of a public. So, without publishing, there was no communication, and without a public, writing to me wasn’t worth doing.

But then, as now, there was a gauntlet that writers had to run, to get to the golden moment of publication by a major U.S. publisher. Like a great moat surrounding an obdurately faceless castle, the army of literary agents floats about, thick with weeds and goo. Any writer who has spent time in these waters has a library of favorite phrases that he or she has learned from agents. “Your work has significant integrity, but needs to be fleshed out a bit more.” “Though excellent, it’s just not right for us at this time.” “You’re clearly a writer with great promise, and we wish you the best in your search for representation elsewhere.” “Couldn’t possibly sell this in today’s difficult market.” And many more.

The single best one my work ever evoked came from an agent employed by a West Coast firm, both now very long gone. The entirety of his communication to me read, “Wooden, foolish, a little bit trite… But, thanks!”

Until the advent of self-publication on the internet, two-thirds of the manuscripts published in the United States in any given year by major companies were represented by literary agents, and to this day, when you look at the submissions guidelines for most major publishers, they say that they will not consider “unagented” work. So that seems pretty open and shut. If you want to publish with one of the Big Six, you need an agent. Thus you go swimming — because you must — in the moat, an experience that, if you do not have a ribald, very well oiled sense of confident humor, will drive you nuts.

Dealing with the major publishers themselves — should you survive the moat — is much easier because you have a goal, they are demonstrably interested and they know who you are. It’s just you and your editor, and you have a common wish.

There is a second problem with the Hemingway ideal, a problem spelled out succinctly by Richard Steele. If you write to be famous, the quality of your work will almost certainly be damaged by the anxiety with which you’re writing. You have the memory of all those great books, written by writers you admire tremendously, and there comes the time, often, when you worry that what you do will never come up to the level of what they did. You finish writing a paragraph or two, then you recall Joseph Conrad writing about something similar, or Joyce or Greene or Ellison or Dickens or Austen, Eliot, Nabakov, Baldwin, Faulkner… You stop writing. Or you continue on, the shades of all these others standing behind you, dark, celebrated, bookish shades brimming with talent, writers now long dead except for their great fame. You sense them watching what you’re doing.

It doesn’t work, and you won’t make it.

When I finally understood this and backed off, my writing improved and I started getting published. Right away. It was a simple, one-to-one relationship. Now I pay occasional attention to the idea of fame, when I’m reading about Lady Gaga or some such. But I never allow such a thing to affect what I’m doing. Fame is something others bestow upon you. Good writing is what you bestow upon yourself, your own most faithful, loving, and observant fan. If you don’t write for the emotional benefit of that reader, I believe your chances for fame will vanish.