Christopher Isherwood’s Prayer for Writers

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He’s always been one of my favorite authors and I never enjoyed him more than when I jumped into the deep waters of his journals.  In them, I found this short passage, which he calls his “Prayer for Writers.”

“Oh source of my imagination, teach me to extend toward all living beings that fascinated, unsentimental, loving and all-pardoning interest which I feel for the characters I create. May I become identified with all humanity, as I identify myself with these imaginary persons. May my art become my life, and my life my art. Deliver me from snootiness, and from the Pulitzer Prize. Teach me to practice true anonymity. Help me to forgive my agents and my publishers. Make me attentive to my critics and patient with my fans. For yours is the conception and the execution. Amen”

In his entry for that day, he continues on:  “Stop trying to use the conscious will.  Free the Ego from its attachments with expert gentleness, like a surgeon.  Remember that the strangulated Ego is everything you hate in others–so how can you hate anybody?  You are only hating yourself.  The surgeon doesn’t hate the hernia:  he simply reduces it…  Forgive yourself and then operate.”
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Finding That New Agent Who Is Just Right For Me: Plan A, “The Sweater Girl”

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So, here’s the thing;  I am stalking that rarest of game, the agent who actually believes in literary fiction and in my ability to write it (and sell it).

For some years now, it had been just Bob the Agent and me.  We laughed together, we cried together, and, once, a few years, ago, we went through an actual duel between two different publishers for one of my books.  I sat there in one publisher’s office with my sunglasses on, afraid that my eyes would give me away, as Bob nudged and noodled, trying to get the best deal.

How were we to know, like the husband and wife whose trip to Paris was their marriage’s highlight, that it would never be the same again.  When we ran out of the publishers’ and into a coffeehouse around the corner, each flushed from the meeting as much as from the running, sat down over lattes picked apart the two offers on the table.  We came to a conclusion, signed the deal and moved forward.  While the book that came out of that deal is still in print a decade later, and still selling, it was never the same again for me or for Bob the Agent.

Over the years, we grew apart.  He stayed true to himself and his attention to nonfiction books in the category of health and healing.  I strayed, I must admit, ever more longing for fiction, fiction, beautiful fiction.  Ever more wanting to not have to double check spellings and dates and come up with appendices to support the material in the book.

Bob the Agent is getting older now, doesn’t want to work very much, and who can blame him–so he’s pickier about what he takes on.  And I am pickier myself, wanting to limit my nonfiction work to few and far between.  So, while we remain good friends and a solid team, from time to time, our days as a hard-working team are now largely behind us.  Especially since, when it comes to fiction, I can’t help but think:  If not now, then when?

So now, in the middle of my life, I am out trying to get dates with agents. Sometimes I send them sweet query letters, filled with titles of books that they have sold or glowing accounts of their dedication to their authors and to the Art of Writing in general.  In those times, I am quite sure that my Paper Armada of queries will yield results.  And it does sometimes, some agents and I have dated briefly before we (they, usually) determine that we are not right for each other.

Sometimes I enter contests, quite sure that if my short story wins, it will carry with it an agent’s business card.  But not yet, my sweets, not yet.

Now I am planning other plans, as I become aware that one could spend the next fifty years honing a query letter until it is so sharp that it cuts, and still come away empty-handed.  (It doesn’t help that all too many agents now read–or, to me more honest–have their 23-year-old interns read incoming material just long enough to find an excuse not to work with it, which is sort of the opposite of the way it used to be, when readers read to find a reason why someone should pay attention to a particular piece of writing.)

Plan A right now is what I think of as the “Lana Turner Method.” Four younger readers, Lana Turner was once a movie goddess; she was known as the Sweater Girl, because she wore such tight sweaters and because she wore them so well. Legend has it that Lana was discovered in Schwab’s Drug Store in downtown Hollywood, where she was just sitting at the counter drinking a refreshing Pepsi. She looked so blonde lovely in her sweater set that an agent came right up to he and said, “Miss, have you ever considered being a movie star?”  She, as a matter of fact, had, and so they signed a contract and she soon was onscreen in full technicolor.  (If you haven’t seen her in Imitation of Life–well, what’s stopping you?)

So Plan A is this;  be not where the agents should be, which is in the office looking through all those query letters, but be where the agents actually are–which is a certain new book is to be believed, is in hotel rooms all over Manhattan coked out of their minds.  So let’s hope that that is not the case.  Instead, let’s hope that they are at nice dinner parties in the Connecticut Hills or the Hudson Valley, since the Hamptons are not what they used to be.  Let’s hope they are, as Bob the Agent was, stalking classes at places like the Open Center in Manhattan looking for new talent.  (It was there that Bob the Agent caught my act as I was teaching my heart out on the subject of holistic health.  After class, he called me and asked if I had ever thought of writing a book.  I had.)

So Plan A is to be where they are, where those dreamy, scrawny bespectacled agents are.  Since I don’t want to teach holistic health any more and don’t want to write nonfiction any longer, it may be harder to find their hunting ground. But my sweater is tight, my man-boobs are held high and I am on the prowl for that perfect literary other half.

May God have mercy on my soul.

 

Re: Ars Gratia Artis

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As careful readers will notice and know, the phrase “ars gratia artis” while written in Latin was not, in fact, a model philosophy that Roman writers followed.  It was, in fact, the latinized motto for MGM pictures, the motion picture studio that dominated Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s.

A actual idea of art for art’s sake being enough, that art needed not to exist for any reason other than TO exist is, of course, French, what else could it be?  The phrase “l’art pour l’art” was popularized in 19th century France.  It has been credited to a number of people, but most often to Theophile Gautier, although the idea behind the phrase pops up from time to time, place to place.

It perhaps originated in ancient Greece where, without saying so in so many words, the culture understood that art itself was sufficient and need not serve any purpose other than simple being.

And so, as I am trying to point out, writing at its highest form, at the point at which it is True Art, need do nothing more than mean.  It need not educate, elucidate, innovate or pontificate.  It needs to only communicate.