Monthly Archives: February 2012

Pretenseville: The fArt of Pretension

Pretenseville(Spoiler: Not a real place) is a place many writers go, and I’m no exception, I’ll admit. Now it’s not a place we like to talk about–most of us just pretend it doesn’t exist, kind of like existentialism (pun intended). And now look, I’m getting all too comfortable in my visit to Pretenseville already, throwing around words like “existentialism.” But if I hadn’t brought you here, you wouldn’t know what to look out for when writing. Look out for Pretension. He’s pretty nasty, or should I say vicious, deplorable, reprehensible, or repugnant? No. I should not. I already said “nasty,” and it does the job well.

But where is the line between pretension and intellectualism? That’s a difficult question to answer, and there is no pocket response. I think in writing poetry especially, a writer should consider whether or not he or she finds the poem pretentious. If you do, chances are that everyone else will find it pretentious too. If you don’t, still have some objective party whose opinion in writing you value look it over to make sure. Also, think about specific words. Does each word–long and ostentatious, I mean pretentious, as it may be–add anything to the poem? Does using a larger word, or lesser known word, add more color or texture to an image? When I’m writing, I think to myself, “Stop trying to sound like an intellectual, and just realize what that word actually means.”

Another good exercise in humility I find helpful is to reread things I’ve written in the past, when I was years younger and didn’t know as much about writing. So try that. Then, after you read those pieces, assess your reaction. If you are reading over those pieces and find yourself laughing, ask yourself if you are laughing at your younger self for thinking you could write back then or laughing at yourself because your present self is so much wiser. If it’s the former, that’s harmless enough as long as you aren’t thinking about how great you are as a writer now, but rather appreciative of how far you’ve come. If it’s the latter, then your reaction is itself pretentious because you’re assuming a certain superiority in writing in the present. The best way to know that you’re not being pretentious is to remember Aristotle’s words: “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing, and in knowing that you know nothing, that makes you the wisest of all.” Now, don’t go thinking that if you say you know nothing that “Aha! I am now the wisest of all!” because that, my friends, is Pretension at his finest. Suffice it to say that you can never stop learning, and often–like when you’re rereading those old poems or stories–you’ll find that you can actually teach yourself a lot.

Lastly, if you find this exercise arrogant and at the same time beneath you in even reading, doesn’t that make your reaction to it by definition pretentious? Oh, yeah, and if you think I’m being pretentious, well then, haven’t I begun to make my point?

For your daily needs, I’ve just posted a sign outside all of your minds.
Sign reads:
Beware of Pretension. He will bite you in the ass.

~Emily Bowers,
Assistant Editor

Remember That One Time?

Hello again.

I’ve just started a new book today, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. I have to admit, although I’ve only just begun the novel, it’s already gotten me thinking about a vitally important topic in writing, memory. The novel’s narrator is a woman who wakes up every day without a trace of memory regarding what she’s been doing for roughly the past twenty years. She wakes up with a strange man next to her and thinks she’s just had a one-night stand. She’s even more ashamed to notice he has a wedding band. However, when she walks to the bathroom, she beholds in the mirror not a twenty-something face but a face that mocks her young thoughts with its wrinkles and gray hairs. Only after a mild freak-out does she realize that there are notes attached to the mirror telling her all sorts of little tidbits from her life. She’s 47. She has been married for 22 years. That man was her husband, Ben. Slowly she learns that she was in an accident at the age of 29 and has had amnesia ever since.

Basically, the struggle–I’m guessing–will focus on the idea of memory. How do we know who we are if we cannot remember our lives, our past? As a writer, I think this question is extremely valid when approaching a topic to write about. Sometimes when we try to write, we cannot. However, sometimes we are inspired by the sight of a tree or an old house we drove by or a deck of playing cards or a song. Almost anything you can imagine can inspire us, but it’s only because these images, these objects, center upon a feeling associated with specific memories–or at least that’s how it seems to happen for the most part. Most poems and prose I’ve read that carry nothing real, no tangible aspect I can ascertain from the writer’s experience within, have no real substance for me as a reader. We want to read what we identify with. So how do we identify with a piece unless it focuses on a memory or some real feeling that the author him or herself has connected with in writing it? We can’t. Plain and simple.

So, when writing poems or prose, I think it’s important to remember that one time. Take a stroll down memory lane–but please don’t you dare use that cliche. Dip your toe into the nostalgic lake of your childhood. Steal a cookie from that cookie jar, and then write about it. Write about things that move you, not just because they are pretty to look at, but because they awaken a spirituality or a fondness or an emotion you connected with in a different time, a different place, a different you. Or maybe it’s the same you, but, nonetheless, it’s still real, and that’s what makes writing more than just something you do “for fun,” for yourself; it makes writing something you do to connect with the world.

So, to get you remembering all the good times and all the bad times that make the good ones worth remembering, I’ll leave you with this quote that is in the book:

“I was born tomorrow
today I live
yesterday killed me.”
~Parviz Owsia

A “Crash” Course

Hello again!

I”m back with your weekly dose of Emily. I hope everyone’s reading and writing and absorbing as much knowledge as possible! Oh, yeah, and submitting! Don’t forget to submit your poems or prose to us.

So, I’ll begin today by resuming my “lesson” on syntax. I’ve been rereading Crash by J.G.Ballard again, since I had to choose a novel I’ve read that has a sex scene in it to analyze for my grad class, and I’ve found myself reminded of why I like it so much. If you haven’t read it–and you should!–it’s about the narrator, coincidentally named James Ballard, and his growing obsession with the car crash. You can classify this novel as auto-erotic because it sexualizes the car crash, but it’s not about that. It’s about humanity and how Ballard–the author–believes humans are being seduced by technology, being drawn away from the personal interactions that make us compassionate and caring, and being driven forward by technology, leaving us with a sense of tunnel vision. Imagine being in a car. When we are driving as we should be, we focus directly ahead, not daring to glance to the sides. Ballard believes this way of thinking desensitizes us because it doesn’t allow us to look at ourselves through that rear-view mirror, so to speak.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with this thinking, Ballard masterfully uses syntax to relay this message throughout the novel. The novel reads as one long sex scene, if you think about it. But you never get bored, nor do you actually find the scenes erotic because, just as Ballard intended, you too–the reader– have become seduced by the power of technology, desensitized so that you no longer feel what you should be feeling, and you still have not realized it until it’s too late. Syntax can do that in a novel just as it can do in poetry. So, I urge you to read and reread and reread again, to quote myself, and think about how you can use every word, every image, every thought to your advantage in writing. And maybe you’ll find yourself asking, “What would Ballard do?” I know I do.

I’ve also been reading Paulo Coelho’s new novel, Aleph, which reminds me of a couple good quotes from one of my favorites of his, The Alchemist, that I can leave you with, and I only ask that you think about them when approaching your writing.

“When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”  The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

“Courage is the quality most essential to understanding the Language of the World. “ The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”  The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

As always, I wish you the best of skill(not luck) in all your writing endeavors.

~Emily Bowers