Daniel Williams

Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

Not Much Of A Blog/Notes About John Green

In American, Essay, Literature, Writing on 24/03/2013 at 20:52

Not Much Of A Blog

I’m aware that I’m not very good at updating this blog regularly, even at the best of times it can be weeks before I post something new,  so if you have been waiting I’m sorry for the wait. But I have excuses. The biggest one is, perhaps, that I haven’t felt like I’ve had much to say. I’ve been taking baby steps to get back into writing, but my development as a writer never seems to go forwards, just sideways. In an overly priced creative writing handbook I bought there was one piece of advice that struck me and that was that you shouldn’t write only about yourself and your experiences. Again, I’m aware I’m failing at this advice, but only recently has my life opened up again and I’ve been able to think about things that aren’t myself. I’m hoping not thinking about myself too much will get the writing forward.

Instead of a full blog post I thought I’d try and make it up with two short posts. This is the first one. The second is about an author I’ve gotten into. His name is John Green.

Notes About John Green

Last December I picked up John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars (2012) after reading somebody likening it to The Great Gatsby (1925). I don’t take comparisons with Gatsby lightly so I decided to read it and see. The Fault In Our Stars completely knocked me out. It’s a brilliant, funny and tragic look at the relationship between two cancer survivors. The tone is a perfect blend of tragedy, love, comedy and poetry. I loved it. I loved it so much that I spent January working my way through his three other novels- Looking For Alaska (2005), An Abundance of Katherines (2006) and Paper Towns (2008).

My favourite of his works, or at least, the one that affected me most personally, was Paper Towns. Quentin (referred to as Q) is in love with the girl next door, Margo. One night she breaks him out to join her for a night of pranks. The next morning she goes missing and Q is determined to find her. John Green keeps the audience on their toes about where this part-quest part-detective story is going until the sad, beautiful ending which brings together everything the novel has been subtlety pointing towards. To say anymore would risk spoilers. Q’s journey is one worth joining with as little foreknowledge as possible.

My theory of why an author can become one of somebody’s favourite authors is that they write about things you want to read about in a style that you want to read. John Green is that for me. These wonderful books moved me and made me laugh and inspired me and made me curse that he put into words so effortlessly what I have wanted to say.

The elephant in the room with John Green is that his novels are Young Adult novels. This really put me off them at first. I admit I looked down at YA because a mature young man such as myself should not been seen reading teenage books. But it is wrong to say that John Green writes about teenagers. Yes, his characters are teenagers, but what Green writes about is being human. The characters are relatable as they deal with the same things we all must- sex and love and death, and he writes about this with humour and poetry.

Much has been said about John Green so I don’t have much more to add other than I believe in 50 years people will still be reading The Fault In Our Stars. It is not just a modern classic but a straight up classic.

So take yourselves off to the YA section of your local bookstore and do not be ashamed- these books are not just for teenagers, they speak to a much wider audience that than.

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The Secret Genius of Rowlf the Dog

In Essay, Writing on 24/09/2012 at 10:54

New article on What Culture! about the underrated Rowlf the Dog- http://whatculture.com/film/the-secret-genius-of-rowlf-the-dog.php

4 Classic Films That Are More Fun Than They Sound

In Essay, Writing on 19/09/2012 at 11:47

My article ‘4 Classic Films That Are More Fun Than They Sound‘ has been published on the What Culture! website. I’ll probably be posting more articles on that site, so please check it out.

In other news, I’m now on Twitter, so follow me @DRWilliams14

Music and Writing

In Essay, Miscellaneous, Writing on 07/06/2012 at 17:20

I always listen to music when I’m writing. Sometimes I can spend hours putting together a playlist before I even write a word of what I’m working on. The music I pick allows me to really think about what I want my work to feel like, and music helps shut off pesky outside thoughts.

Of course, my own musical tastes play a large part in what I listen to, which would not necessarily be what you would pick. The musicians I really like tend to be storytellers, like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. I really love albums that are tied together with a theme. A few years ago, every time I wrote a short story I would listen to Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. All the songs are about relationships, ups and a lot of downs, which is what I wanted to write about. It helped that some of his lyrics could serve as openings for stories: ‘Early one morning the sun was shining,/I was lying in bed,/Wondering if she’d changed at all/If her hair was still red.’ (Nerd bonus- Dylan has hinted this album was inspired by the short stories of Anton Chekhov, another great influence of mine.)

Lately, I’ve found then when I’m editing work, I listen to completely different music. I’ve been listening to the first two albums of She & Him. I find their music quite easy-going. That and my crush on Zooey Deschanel plays a part.

I imagine I’m not the only one who needs music to help write. If you write and have to have music, what do you listen to?

(In case you were wondering, the playlist I listened to while writing this is one of my short story playlists. The albums in it are: The Beach Boys- Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan- Blood On The Tracks, Frank Sinatra- In The Wee Small Hours and No One Cares, and She & Him- Volume One and Volume Two.)

Links:

Lyrics to ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ by Bob Dylan: http://www.bobdylan.com/us/home#us/songs/tangled-blue

Video of Dylan performing ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ live: http://youtu.be/YwSZvHqf9qM

“A Damned Soul In Moonlight”- Eugene O’Neill’s ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’

In American, Essay, Literature, Plays, Theatre, Writing on 15/03/2012 at 17:22

I’ve blogged about playwright Eugene O’Neill before, but this time I want to say something about my favourite of his plays, A Moon For the Misbegotten (1943). Most critical work on O’Neill I’ve read name his plays A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941) and The Iceman Cometh (1939) as his masterpieces and call A Moon For the Misbegotten a minor work. I like Long Day’s Journey… and The Iceman Cometh, but both plays are drama– serious, intense and a hell of an endurance test for an audience. A Moon For the Misbegotten is not a short play (brevity is not associated with O’Neill) but doesn’t have the three-hour plus running time of the others. It is a beautiful and sad work that I can revisit more than his others.

Taking place over a day and night at the Hogan farm, A Moon For the Misbegotten is about farmer Phil Hogan and his daughter Josie, a large ‘freakish’ woman with a quick wit. Their landlord is Jamie Tyrone, an alcoholic, but like Josie, a witty cynic. The joy of the play is how it evolves from a strange comedy, to the promise of a love story in Josie and Jamie’s moonlight date, but then the play evolves again into something quite different. The real heart and soul of the play only becomes apparent in its beautiful third Act. The play becomes deeper than a romance. It’s about “a damned soul…in the moonlight” with an unacknowledged need “to confess and be forgiven and find peace”.

A Moon For the Misbegotten is a sort-of-sequel to his semi-autobiographical Long Day’s Journey… as it features all four of the Tyrone’s (based on the real-life O’Neill’s). Jamie is the only one who appears in both plays. O’Neill felt his brother as portrayed in Long Day’s Journey… did not get a good enough deal. So, he followed it up with A Moon For the Misbegotten and gives his alcoholic, dead-beat, washed-up, loafer of a brother the requiem and forgiveness that he never received in real life. To me, this is where the play’s power stems from. O’Neill did not make peace with Jamie O’Neill (who drank himself to death at 45), but he gives peace to Jamie Tyrone through Josie Hogan.

O’Neill’s ‘masterpieces’ end cynically- with the Tyrone family lost in the fog, or the suicide and hopelessness of The Iceman Cometh. A Moon For the Misbegotten ends with a deep melancholy, but it is also very beautiful as, at least for a night, one of O’Neill’s haunted heroes finds peace.

A Few Words About Sydney Carton

In English, Essay, Literature, Writing on 07/02/2012 at 16:30

I’m not a fan of Charles Dickens. It’s mostly because I don’t like Victorian prose. I’m sure many people will disagree with me, but I find Victorian prose too knowing and self-conscious, and the characters flat and unconvincing. But, as it is Mr. Dickens’ 200th birthday, I’ll be nice and write about the one character of his that I really love.

Most of Dickens characters, to me, fall into types- the virtuous ones, the crooked ones, etc. But in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is the character of Sydney Carton.

Sydney Carton is a brilliant lawyer. But he lacks self-confidence and cannot resist a drink. He falls in love with Lucie Manette, knowing that she is in love with his doppelganger, the impossibly good aristocrat Charles Darnay. Sydney loves Lucie quietly, knowing that she would not requite his love. Carton is very self-aware. He knows that he would not be good enough for her or bring her any happiness.

This is where we get into spoiler-territory. If you don’t know the ending of A Tale of Two Cities you should go and read the book. If you do know the ending, I shall continue.

For me, Sydney is one of the few heroes in literature I believe in. Charles Darnay is meant to be the ‘good’ one, but I find his goodness to be blind, naïve and he’s not smart enough to see the trap laid for him in France. But Sydney Carton comes through, despite it been contrary his public character and not really what he wants to be. Charles Darnay is to be executed, so surely, he could let him die and then catch Lucie on the rebound? But he knows, even with Charles dead, she would not return his love.

This is how Sydney Carton becomes a hero. Hemingway said heroics is ‘grace under pressure’ and I think Sydney Carton shows that. He calmly sees the only thing left to do to save Charles- to take his doppelganger’s place in waiting for the guillotine. I’m not doing him or the novel much justice, but the end is so beautiful and sad. The famous last lines of the novel made me cry. He calms goes to his death knowing the happiness of his loved one is secured.

Maybe I’m just a romantic old fool, but I really love the character of Sydney Carton. He does the right thing not because he’s a pure ‘good’ character like Darnay or Oliver Twist, but because he wants peace for his failings and to find meaning in his life. He struggles with himself more than external forces. He’s a well rounded character. He is a hero not because he is good but because he is good in spite of himself.

‘Men Without Women’ (1927) Ernest Hemingway

In American, Essay, Literature, Writing on 09/01/2012 at 18:30

This short story collection contains two short stories that are not just my favourite Hemingway stories but two of my favourite short stories by anybody. So, this look at Men Without Women (1927) will be less of review, more in praise of Ernest Hemingway’s style and its effect on my own writing.

If you don’t know Hemingway’s style then this, his second collection of short stories, is an excellent place to start. There is a tonne of critical work and essays about Hemingway’s style that’s much more educated than this. To me, Hemingway’s style is short sentences, simple words, repetitive dialogue, and packing a hell of a punch. For me, the pinnacle of this is the story ‘Hills Like White Elephants’. I try to reread that story every couple of months just to remind me of how much I admire it.

I can remember first reading ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ some years ago for my Creative Writing class. On first reading I thought, ‘Huh?’ Then got what the story was about. I reread and it and that was it. It all fell into place. All the tension and action is under the surface and in the subtext. It’s a story about an abortion but the word ‘abortion’ is never mentioned once. That has had a great impact on me. One of the few rules I try and write by is to decide what the story is about and then try not to mention in the story. I hope that if I write well enough it should be apparent. I think I’ve achieved this twice, maybe three times. Still, I keep trying.

There are stories in the collection I think don’t quite hit the mark. I didn’t really get ‘Che Ti Dice La Patria?’ which I think realises too heavily on knowledge on the politics of Italy in the period before World War 2. That may just be me, though.

The best praise I can give the book is that as soon as I finished it I started Hemingway’s next collection of stories, Winner Take Nothing (1933). I preferred Men With Women, but Winner Take Nothing had some brilliant stories- ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ and ‘Fathers and Sons’. My copy of Hemingway’s The First Forty-Nine Stories (1938) is one of most treasured books. It was a Christmas present from a great friend and contains the majority of Hemingway’s published stories. Hemingway at his best is a great read.

Like so many others, Ernest Hemingway has been a big influence on my own writing. But the trick is to not to imitate him. Nobody can write like him. I just try to learn what I can about his techniques and apply them to my own stories. I can only hope I am successful without been derivative.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon

In American, Essay, Literature, Writing on 18/09/2011 at 16:13

It don’t think it’d be fair to review an unfinished novel. If truth be told, I still don’t know how I feel about unfinished work been published posthumously. As a writer myself, I’d hate to think of my unfinished work been read. But if it were posthumously published then I wouldn’t be in much of a position to care. As a reader I can’t help but be interested in reading whatever else an author I like has written, especially in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald- I’ve read his four completed novels, so it only remained to read the unfinished one. I enjoy reading the fragments of the novel. There were flashes of Fitzgerald doing what he does best- quiet lyricism.

I think my opinion of The Last Tycoon (1941) was always going to be a positive one. Not only as a fan of Fitzgerald but also I really like stories about the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was Fitzgerald who got me started on this with his short stories about the down-and-out screenwriter Pat Hobby. The Last Tycoon is not nearly as cynical about Hollywood as the Pat Hobby stories and reveals more about the process of running a studio and the making of a picture.

Reading The Last Tycoon means that I’ve now read all of Fitzgerald’s novels. I’ve loved all of them apart from Tender Is the Night (1934) which I felt was all over the place, but I was all over the place when I read it, I’ll have to come back to it in a few years. The Last Tycoon seems more of a fitting epilogue to Fitzgerald’s work than Tender Is the Night because of the central character of Monroe Stahr- a gifted producer who gained early fame, much like the author himself. Like Jay Gatsby, Stahr is a dreamer; unlike Gatsby this does not lead to his ruin but certainly plays a part in it.

This is personal conjecture, but I always see F. Scott Fitzgerald as an outsider, but an outsider on the inside. He writes about the rich so often you could believe he was a part of them, but there’s too much observation in his work to make me believe he was truly an insider. Sometimes, especially in the short stories, he wants us to see him as a F. Scott Fitzgerald character rather than F. Scott Fitzgerald. I like thinking of him as an outsider. I like an outsiders view because I try to write with one myself. Reading The Last Tycoon made me realise that his work appeals to me so much because it’s what I’d like to write myself. In stories and plays I’ve written I’ve had writer characters who want to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of their generation. I never thought before that it might actually be me who thinks that.

The Last Tycoon is only really for completists, fans and critics. But if that’s why you’re reading it, it won’t disappoint.

Eugene O’Neill: The Playwright’s Playwright

In American, Essay, Literature, Playwrights, Theatre, Writing on 09/09/2011 at 16:39

Eugene O’Neill had balls. I could probably find a more literate way of expressing this sentiment, but it gets the point across- Eugene O’Neill had balls, more so than any other American playwright of his time. His ambition exceeds every one of his contemporaries.

He started off writing naturalistic drama and won the Pulitzer Prise for Drama twice in three years; he moved onto writing experimental expressionist plays before digging deeper into the history of drama by writing a nine-act soliloquy-fest, Strange Interlude (1928), then writing a trilogy of plays, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), which updates The Orestia (458 BC). O’Neill then planned to write a play-cycle following the fortunes of a family; his plans grew to include eleven plays in this cycle. Illness forced O’Neill to abandon the cycle and only two unfinished plays survived his burning of material. Whilst working on the play-cycle he also wrote The Iceman Cometh (1939), one of the most highly regarded plays in American theatre. With his magnum opus abandoned and a tremor in his hands making writing painful, he turned to write about what he had really been writing about his whole career, namely his own family. The play was Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941), for which he wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama four years after he died. What other American playwright has a career like that?

Like many of the great American writers O’Neill was a big drinker. Unlike many of them, O’Neill gave up drinking and wrote his most well-known work sober. Yet these later-plays, written while sober, are probably the drunkest plays in the history of theatre. The Iceman Cometh is set in a bar and A Touch of the Poet (1942) is set in a tavern. Long Day’s Journey features a family of two alcoholics, one heavy drinker and one morphine addict. His final play, A Moon For The Misbegotten (1943), follows one of the alcoholic Tyrone’s from Long Day’s Journey and features copious amounts of drinking. I suppose with sober eyes he could really see the effects of alcohol that caused painful tremor in his hand and caused the death of his brother. But these plays are not finger wagging ‘alcohol-is-bad’ plays. They are works of a damaged man writing about damaged people.

Sometimes my feelings towards O’Neill’s work are mixed. There’s a lot of good to say about him, but his work can be quite dry and the length of his plays really can be an endurance test. The later-plays of O’Neill’s are intense. Because they are intense and lengthy they can be painful plays to watch. I like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but it’s so exhausting to read, I couldn’t imagine been able to sit through a full-length production. The play is quite humourless. O’Neill never really gives the audience a break. This, and other of his works, feels like O’Neill barking ‘THIS-IS-DRAMA!’ He reminds me of Dostoyevsky in that, despite the flaws, you have to admire the sheer power they create.

My favourite of his plays is A Moon For The Misbegotten. This play gets unfairly forgotten. In what material I’ve read on O’Neill, it’s normally dismissed as weak in comparison to Long Day’s Journey and Iceman, but I prefer it to both of them. I think A Moon for the Misbegotten is one of the most beautiful, sad and haunting plays I’ve ever come across. It’s not as long as the others and offers something different at the end than the other two.

Recently I finished writing a play for my thesis. This play was about a dysfunctional family. I looked at Long Day’s Journey a lot while writing this play, because, despite its problems, it is the touchstone for all semi-autobiographical plays about family.

My perspective on O’Neill is a playwrights’. I imagine an actor’s response or a critic’s response would vary. As a playwright I stand by the belief O’Neill is a playwrights’ playwright because of the sheer scope of his ambition. To conclude- Eugene O’Neill had balls.

Thoughts On Richard Yates

In American, Essay, Literature, Writing on 10/08/2011 at 12:51

Nobody writes about dreamers quite like Richard Yates. His characters are caught up in their dreams so much and never quite achieve them, this can make his novels very depressing reads. Revolutionary Road (1961) is full to the brim of unfilled ambitions and dreams that never work. Frank and April Wheeler are hard characters to like, as are many of Yates’ characters. Yates makes the reader fully aware of the tics, neurosis and flaws that will make them unable to realise their dreams. It can be hard to sympathise with these characters but Yates really makes a reader empathise with them through the structure of his work. His novels have been criticized as episodic, but I like the episodic nature of his work and it really shows how these characters live- we see the characters through decades and how an action in Chapter One reverberates and echoes again in later chapters when the characters are at a different station in their life.

There is a quote I read by C.S. Lewis I saw a few days ago and thought it relatable to Yates. Lewis writes that ‘To be concerned with been grown-up, to admire the grown-up because it is grown-up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.’ His characters often are very concerned about been grown-up, and find themselves admiring the more successful of their peers. In a great short story from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962) a child finds that whilst playing cowboys and Indians it’s more fun to lose and be the one who gets shot, then the story skips forward to the boy as an adult as he loses his job and has to spend weeks pretending to his wife that he is still employed.

Yates writes of people whose ambitions outweigh their talent, of ones who dream of success without wanting to put effort into achieving it. A lot of Yates’ dreamers dream of been artists- writers, painters, sculptors, etc. And those that are artists are often without merit, like Michael Davenport in (probably my favourite Yates’ novel) Young Hearts Crying (1984), he refuses his heiress wife’s offer to support him so he can focus on his poetry, because he wants artistic success on his own terms. This novel is probably my favourite because its characters are either aspiring or professional artists, writers and actors. These characters reflect people I have known through doing a Creative Writing course. I’m not very familiar with all the biographical details about Richard Yates’ life, but I do know he taught Writing at several universities during his life, so I can’t say for certain he drew on his former students for this novel, but I know I certainly recognise people from my course in that novel- people whose ambitions really do outweigh any kind of talent.

I think what draws me back as a reader to Yates’ novels is, despite the unsympathetic characters, that there is a truth in them. I often see a reflection of people I know, have known and myself in them. I’m surprised to find the characters of Yates dream as big and as often as I do. Sometimes the reflection I see of myself in his characters is an uncomfortable one. I do see a truth in what I read of Yates, of people who moan about been in a nine-to-five world, but never take any chance to break out from it. The person who introduced me to Yates turned out to be very much like a Yates’ character, very much like the younger Grimes sister in The Easter Parade (1976).

Yates only published nine books during his lifetime. I’ve read six and a half of them. There has been, so far, only one I haven’t liked. He is one of my favourite novelists. I find his prose wonderfully straightforward and quietly engaging. But, sometimes, I’ve felt very miserable at the end of his novels- I wouldn’t describe them as humourless, but sometimes they are very much hopeless.

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