Dylan, Ear-Worms, and More on Draft 12.1

Credit: bobdylan.com

Bob Dylan’s star is shining bright since the announcement that he has been chosen as the 2016 laureate for Nobel Prize in Literature. Congrats, Bob! Well deserved, and thrilled that literature, in the eyes of one of the most visible literature prize committee, has been expanded to include song composition! Readers of these pages will know that I often use examples from song lyrics in my posts because I find that they connect us more tightly than words that live only (mostly) on the page.

Which brings me, in a round-about way, to a strange ear-worm of mine, strange because I’ve heard the song only a handful of times in my life. Oh, but what a powerful song Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man is, with it’s dirge-like tempo and angry insistence!

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

(Pa-pa-pam pam pam!)

It comes to me at odd moments, a stray thought about a misunderstanding big or small, and the lyrics will pop into my head and stay there for a day or two, pa-pa-pam pam pam!

And speaking of words that live beyond the page, if only fleetingly, a reminder that Draft 12.1 is only a week away. Check out Draft’s newest related post, The Writer’s Unblocking: 4 Authors Share their Ideal Writing Spot.


Points of You

The Year of the Cat

Omniscient, third-person, third person limited, first person… As writers we all make choices about points of view and reap the benefits or navigate the limitations of these choices.

Second person narration is rare in novel unless it’s a “choose your own adventure” story. That said, “you” is used in creative writing in three major ways:

In addressing readers directly to draw them in or dispense wisdom. An example from song-writing is All you Need is Love by the Beatles.

A second way is in addressing a single person, usually in conjunction with one or more first-person narrators. A sub-genre is epistolary novels such as the chilling We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003) and the diabolically clever Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782). Another sub-genre takes the form of imaginary monologues. In Brendan Matthews’ short story, My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer (Cincinnati Review, Summer 2009), an unnamed clown addresses a trapeze artist while the reader listens in. Kim Echlin also uses this narrative device with great success in her 2009 novel, The Disappeared. Looking at song lyrics, Hey Jude by the Beatles is one among a sea of great songs addressed at one particular individual.

A third way is in putting the reader right in the action. Apart from the aforementioned “choose your own adventure” genre, this device can be used to great effect in short stories and flash fiction. Song lyrics can sometimes be seen as flash fiction in that they tell a very short story from beginning to end. One example is The Year of the Cat co-written by Al Stewart and Peter Wood:

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime

More lyrics here.

Share your examples of points of you.

From Zola to Korea

Gisaeng Dancing on Gwanwhamun Plaza Seoul 2012A letter to my sixteen year-old self

My dear Josée,

What I remember most clearly about being sixteen is wondering who I was and who I would become. The answer seems quite simple now, plain to see in the books you read, the music you listen to, what you write and even what you draw.

At twelve you devoured the collected works of Jules Verne. At sixteen you’re into Emile Zola: thick tomes, complex stories, vivid descriptions and thought-provoking scenes. Passion. Social commentary on class differences and most of all, heroines who will settle for nothing but what is real and what is just. The novels are not what your friends read and they are not, God forbid, required reading at school. The nuns frown on Monsieur Zola. His books are branded as immoral by the Church. Immoral? Well, yes, Nana, the man-eater will be immoral when you get around to reading her story, but not Angélique in The Dream with her religious zeal, not Catherine who toils in the coal mines of Germinal, and certainly not Denise who works at the The Ladies’ Paradise department store to feed her two brothers.

Just as books are an integral part of your life, so is music. Switch on the radio and before the afternoon is over, I’m sure you will turn up the volume for Color My World by Chicago, with its dreamy romanticism, and Lay Lady Lay by Dylan, with its troubling invitation and just as troubling tenderness. You will get up from your chair and waltz to What the World Needs Now, but when the DJ plays Ball of Confusion you will hold your breath to try and follow the rapid-fire lyrics.

You are the sum of these books and songs, by turns idealistic, optimistic, individualistic, passionate, confused and, most of all, romantic. You are in love with the idea of love and yet as uncompromising as Zola’s heroines. Your brothers say that no one will ever be interested in you. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Well, never mind that silly saying. Do you remember a drawing you made in grade four? You still have it somewhere, I am sure. Look for a young man with a foreign slant to his eyes, The Jade Prince, named for the shade of Prismacolor you used for his jacket. Figment of your imagination or premonition? All I can say is that your brothers will eat their words.

People say many things about words, that they have the power to destroy and heal, and the power to change the world. You wrote: Les mots vous livrent et vous délivrent. Words betray you; they set you free. In French, livre also means book: Words “book” you and “un-book” you, or something to that effect.

You have tinkered with the idea of writing a book but it is such a monumental task that you have abandoned each attempt after only a few chapters. How do real writers do it? My sense is that they are, or were, geniuses. In 2014—such is progress—we have personal computers and we use them for computing, yes, but also for writing. I have written this letter not on a typewriter, as might appear to you, but on a computer and I can tell you this: it may look nice and polished but I have re-written at least one word out of every three. I have moved text around. I have deleted whole sentences and brought them back after realizing that they were needed after all.

That said, a computer does not a writer make and you are fated to walk a different path … for a time. What that path is, I will let you discover, but one day, many years from now, something unexpected will happen. It will start innocently enough with a television series that would never have come to your attention but for your best friend, your lover, your husband, your Jade Prince who, incidentally comes from Hong Kong. The year is 2005 and a portion of the world is captivated by the trials and tribulations of a semi-fictitious woman named Jang Geum who lived in sixteenth century Korea. She is everything Zola’s heroines were, and more.

Jang Geum will be just the beginning. By the time you write this letter you will have logged over 4,000 hours absorbing what makes the people of South Korea sweat, swear and shed tears, through books, magazines, film and television. You will have learned some basic Korean and visited the country twice. And for the past seven years, you will have been writing a novel set in Korea. It is a monumental task, no questions about it, a journey fraught with contrary winds, course changes and bodies thrown overboard, otherwise known as killing your darlings.

How does it end? I don’t know. I’m not there yet. All I can say is that it’s worth every second spent navigating the rocky shoals of mixed metaphors, telling rather than showing, tired clichés and the dreaded adverbs that others kindly point out are “not needed.” At times it is worse than rolling a boulder up a hill but at other times the story seems to write itself. You are merely a conduit. Your characters—your creations!—take you in directions that you had never imagined. Links you had never intended get forged. And they seem so right, so inevitable.

See how I get carried away! Writer’s high.

But now it is time to say Goodbye. I wanted to tell you what I thought you longed to know—who you were, whether you’d find love, what you would become. I see now that it’s the other way around. You are the one who told me, reminded me, what I longed to know. Les mots vous livrent et vous délivrent. Words have betrayed me by telling the world who I am and freed me to be myself: idealistic, optimistic, individualistic, romantic, confused, and most of all, passionate.

Thank you.



WRL Season 3-4 Thumbnail   This letter was read at the Women Writing Letters Series on April 13th, 2014 and appears in Women Writing Letters: Celebrating the Art Seasons 3 and 4, edited by Tara Goldstein and Amanda Greer. Copies are available here.

WRL Season 1 Thumbnail  For Season 1, click here.

WRL Season 2 Thumbnail  For Season 2, click here.