Thursday, March 31, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Marciano Guerrero (Part 4 of 20)

Mario Vargas LlosaImage by dadevoti via Flickr
In the early 1950s, General Odria having consolidated power and been legally elected president of the republic, my father —and consequently our family— began to receive the benefits of being a loyalist. Much like Giambattista Vico tell us in his Nova Science how the nobles and feudal fiefs bestowed land and favors to their minions, my family received favors and prospered.

To begin with, my father “bought” for a token amount a half-block lot of land in the sparsely populated locality —near the port of Callao— called La Perla Alta. The adjective ‘alta’ (which means high) was added to the name to distinguish it from La Perla Baja, which was a town densely populated by people of the lower classes. In La Perla Alta my father was to build our new house.

Almost on a daily basis I would accompany my father to inspect the progress on the construction of our new house. And in a matter of months we moved in to our brand new house, a house that was the envy of those who laid eyes on it, for it was it was isolated —no other houses were visible around it, for nothing surrounded it but vacant lots— and was totally landscaped in grand splendor: green lawns, magnificent hedges, and a gravel road to the front door flanked by weeping willows and tamarind trees. And since the sea was only three blocks away, I could always hear the roar of the surf, and see and feel the fog as it lifted and steal over the house. In clear days I loved to climb to the roof and watch from the turret the shimmering green vastness of the Pacific ocean; I could also distinguish the Colegio Leoncio Prado, a military high school that much like my own high school —Colegio Guadalupe— accepted generations of rebellious children whom parents would place there more as punishment than for the rewards of education. Years later when Mario Vargas Llosa published his novel The City and the Dogs (about the life of those cadets), I felt a jolt of nostalgia, for clear in my mind were the images of those cadets marching, double timing, and conducting maneuvers and war games of attacks and retreats around my house. In the distance I could also see La Punta, a popular beach-town resort much favored by the populace of Callao.

Now that I look back, I cannot help feeling coldness, hurt, and a resentment in my heart, resentment that for many years I had transferred to the house rather than to the real culprit of my aching heart: my father’s women dalliances. Also, young as I was in those years, an incipient consciousness and distaste for corruption and power began to fill my soul. Soon I realized that I wasn’t happy living there.  Confused and disheartened I lived in that house from the age of 12 to my last year of high school, which I finished at the age of 16. But since during the school years I boarded in my high school, in reality I can say that I lived in that house for only four summers.

If our house occupied half a block, the residence of the vice-president of the republic extended to about four blocks. Most of my summer days I spent there, with my cousins whose father was the steward of the property. Since there were but a few receptions and ceremonies during the summer, we had the residence and all its facilities to ourselves, which included a game room, a library, smoking rooms, and a magnificent swimming pool. Sometimes the vice-president would throw gala parties for celebrities, Government officials, and foreign dignitaries.  From the second floor corridors, my cousins and I would watch —mesmerized by the glitter and gayety of the balls— the behavior and misbehavior of the adults. On one occasion, for the president’s birthday party, the vice-president flew in from Spain Los Churumbeles de España, a famous orchestra whose music we knew only through records. The singer, Juan Legido —Nick-named El Gitano Señorón— had become just as famous as the orchestra. How well I recall his renditions, that night, of his most acclaimed hits. And not only was he the lead singer, but he also acted as master of ceremonies, delighting the audience with a torrent of jokes, both decent and indecent.

Herman Hesse in his novel Stepphenwolf says, “every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms …” I like this. I’ve never accepted the notion —like Leibnitz’s monads, or Freud’s ego— that our individual consciousness is one, a unity. No , sir. My consciousness is made up of infinitude of events, among which the hurtful ones nudge us in different directions, pushing us to choose our own destinies.

To my ill or good star, my destiny is being fulfilled in the United States (where I toil incessantly to become a writer) and not in Peru, the country where I was born. It isn't that I love my country less, it is that I never had a chance to love it more.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Andre Breton's Nadja

Andre Breton à la PompidouImage by germeister via Flickr

Brief biographical notes(1896-1966)

 Andre Breton (1896 - 1966), was a poet, essayist, critic, who with Paul Eluard, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dali founded the Surrealist movement.
André Breton was born in Tinchebray (Orne)  to a modest family. But from an early age he showed a preoccupation for intellectual endeavors, studying medicine and psychiatry. His interest in psychiatry led him to literary studies, founding the magazine Littérature. In 1924 he published his Manifeste Du Surréalisme.

Obsessed with the inner functions of the unconscious mind, he saw in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and James Ensor glimpses of what writers could achieve with text, which explains his poetic fugues into the irrational, dreams, l'humour noir, and the bizarre.

In 1927 Breton became a member of the French Communist Party, breaking with it in 1935 as a reaction to Stalinism. When the Nazis occupied France, Breton together with Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernest came to the United States. He returned to France in 1946 where he lived most of his productive life.

André Breton died in Paris on September 28, 1966.

How to become a writer

A man of conviction, Breton wrote every day on different topic. As an opinionated writer he became a magnet for artists and intellectuals.

So sure was he of his studies and opinions that he bordered on arrogance, often alienating some of his followers.

Having met Sigmund Freud and studied his works, he sought other luminaries —the revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example— to observe their minds.

Nadja (1928)

Labeled a romance rather than a novel, Nadja is really a literary hybrid: mixture of romance, novel, fantasy, and poetry. If one wished to capture its essence in a few words, we could say that Nadja is the diamond of surrealism. Not perfect, not the most brilliant of all of Breton’s work, nor dazzling in its style—yet it is a literary masterpiece.

To complement Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism, with Nadja Breton concretized what the surrealists were trying to convey as an avant garde movement. In this novel we find the major elements of surrealism: ordinary life, ordinary artifacts, art, and human emotions all woven in a tissue of dream and reality. The novel is told by a first-person voice which presumably is the author’s.

Nadja is a character, a fictional entity —though based probably on a real person— a gossamer of a heroine that moves around Paris. At times she is a free spirit, restless, haunting, and demanding; at other times she becomes an incarnation of madness. What gives Nadja depth is the mixed media that one finds in the text and between the covers— a veritable artistic collage, its prose is supplemented with photographs (44 in total), including sketches of Nadja herself, transcripts composed of paintings, photographs, all presented in unexpected chaotic flights that leave the reader’s mind reeling with disorder and wishing for logic. Yet the work only follows the logic of dreams—displacement, condensation, and symbolism.

In his novel Aurelia, Gerard de Nerval writes in his opening sentence: “Our dreams are a second life.” What Breton seems to say in Nadja is that dreams are our first life.

Other works

In the 1940s and 1950s Breton published many essays and collections of poems: ARCANE 17 (1945), and CONSTELLATIONS (1959).

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Patrick White's Voss

Voss (1957). The cover art was the first of se...Image via Wikipedia

Brief biographical notes

Patrick Victor Martindale White (28 May 1912 – 30 September 1990) was born in London to an English-Australian father and a English mother. But by all rights he is an Australian since his family moved to Sydney, Australia when he was only six months old, though he was sent to a public school in England.

Because he was plagued by asthma during his childhood and adolescence, he kept to himself and — according to his biographer— he only had one friend: an older boy with whom he spent most of his free time.

From 1932 to 1935, White studied French and German literature at King’s College, Cambridge. At the University, he fell in love with a young man who was studying to become an Anglican priest, and to his ill or lucky star he was corresponded, engaging then in his first homosexual liaison.

From 1935 until his death, he published 12 novels, two short-story collections and eight plays. Towards the end of the 1930s, White spent time in the United States, including Cape Cod Massachusetts, and New York City. During World War II he served in Royal Air Force as an intelligence officer, with Foreign Service in Egypt, Palestine, and Greece. While in the Middle East, he had an affair with a Greek army officer who was to become his life partner.

How to become a writer

From this selection of reviews one can get a good understanding of the value of his work:
  • "But re-reading Voss also demonstrates again that although White wasn't "a nice man", and indeed was -- perhaps rightly -- scathingly dismissive of my and other Australian writers' work and origins unless they were his friends, he was a genius, and Voss one of the finest works of the modernist era and of the past century." - Thomas Keneally, The Guardian
  • "White writes beautifully, precisely, and Voss is a heroic, brilliant novel. At its core is a haunting love story between the messianic Voss and Laura Trevelyan, the awkward young orphan he meets in Sydney before his journey." - Richard Rayner, The Los Angeles Times
  • "The pace of the book, the strength and power of the prose, the tension and dramatic force, were all there, but when the book strikes off into the deserts of mysticism, I am one of those people who would sooner slink home." - Kylie Tennant, Sydney Morning Herald
  • "The main virtue and justification of his novel lies in his profound and moving portrayal of the relationship that binds Voss and Laura, and also in his poetic and perceptive description of the Australia of a century ago." - David Tylden-Wright, Times Literary Supplement


Perhaps Patrick White’s most acclaimed novel gained international fame when it unveiled the rough terrain and reality of the Australian continent to a European readership.
The novel dramatizes a wild expedition into the heart of Australia in the 19th century, led by Johann Ulrich Voss. Yet, by a leap of the imagination, the author interjects romance: a relationship between Voss and Laura Trevelyan, rich daughter of one of the sponsors of Voss for the trip. How do the lovers communicate? By mental telepathy!

Much like what Mario Puzzo did with his novel The Godfather, Patrick White made accessible two worlds that then were but alien territories: the roughness of the Australian land and the drawing rooms of colonial Australia—wilderness and domesticity.

Though an original piece of fiction, readers cannot but compare and contrast Voss to Joseph Conrad’ novel Heart of Darkness in which Marlow—the narrator— penetrates the African landscape and heart.

Other works

Patrick White was a prolific writer and left an enormous literary legacy, much of which is forgotten, yet Voss deserves to be rescued and read by newer generations. After all he was a Nobel prize winner.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.
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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch QuoteImage by embeemb via Flickr

Brief biographical notes

Iris Murdoch (1919 - 1999), was a British —born in Dublin, but Oxford-educated— novelist, university lecturer, and philosophic writer who grappled with serious ethical or moral issues. Her background in the classics, ancient history, and philosophy, made her a well-rounded scholar. Murdoch took up a postgraduate studentship in philosophy under Ludwig Wittgenstein, and in 1948 she was elected a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she worked as a tutor until 1963.

How to become a writer

Her novelistic success brought her financial success, enabling her to dedicate the rest of her life to writing. And even though she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease (at the end of her life) she continued to write. Her editors were often intimidated by her towering intellectual presence and were reluctant to change anything she turned in. As a result, some of her work showed redundancies and other imperfections that marred what could have been masterpieces.

The Bell

Critics and scholars generally agree that The Bell is Iris Murdoch's best novel. The protagonist is Michael Meade, an ex-priest, schoolteacher, and latent homosexual tortured by his closeted feelings. The novel portrays an Anglican religious and insular community in Gloucestershire engaged in the mundane action of replacing a bell to be hung in an abbey tower. After much travail and difficulties, the task remains incomplete when the bell suddenly falls into the water and sinks without a trace.
The characters in this unstable —though apparently happy— community represent a cross section of humanity torn asunder in the end by the arrival of outsiders: Dora Greenfield (an unhappy wife) and Toby Gashe, a young man who finds himself attracted to both Dora and Michael Meade.

Other Works


Murdoch published her first novel Under the Net in 1954, in which she portrayed Jack Donaghue, a sort of existentialist hero. Another novel followed, A Severed Head (1961), which experimented with Jungian archetypes and Freudian theories of sexuality much in vogue at the time. In The Red and The Green (1965) Murdoch turns to Irish history, chronicling the Easter Rebellion in Dublin. In The Time of the Angels (1965) Murdoch explored devil worship. By manipulating time-fragmented narration, Murdoch creates a hybrid worl in which contemporary characters interact in a medieval accidental world. The Black Prince (1973) is another experimental novel in which the narrator is an aesthete- writer. The Good Apprentice (1985) was uses the problem of good and evil as the protagonist’s battlefront.  The Sea, The Sea, may just be Iris Murdoch’s other major work.

Philosophical works

In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) and her collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good and Other Concepts (1967), readers encounter the deep and thoughtful side of an anguished writer reaching for enlightenment. Her book Existentialists and Mystics includes a long essay entitled “The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists,” which is a careful meditation on reinstating the arts as rightful means to truth.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Alain Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy

The Erasers by Alain Robbe-GrilletImage by Crossett Library Bennington College via Flickr

Brief biographical notes

Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922 - 2008) was born in Brest, Finistère, in northwestern France, to a family of scientists and engineers. In 1944 he received a diploma from the National Institute of Agronomy, pursuing later advanced studies in agronomy, and actually working in that field in Martinique, West Indies.
But a decade later he turned into literary studies, working for Les Editions de Minuit, a famous publishing house which also employed writers such as Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, and Jacques Derrida. What these writers have in common is their distaste for the traditional 19th century novel, advocating an advance form of the novel later known as the nouveau roman.

How to become a writer

Jean Paul Sartre had already stated that for a novelist to be true to his work, the novelist had to own a personal philosophy. Robbe-Grillet developed his own personal philosophy about writing. In that, he showed disdain for the traditional structures of the 19th century novel. His works disregarded plot, psychological depth of characters —conscious or unconscious motivation, for example— and the strictures of linear time.
Instead, he focused on the chaotic presentation of images of cold objects through which readers could gather enough information to make their own judgments and inferences. All psychological narration he saw as intrusive and abusive of the readers’ time, and disrespectful of what readers could bring into the work. Objectivity was what mattered. To him the omniscient narrator was a thing of the past. Another peculiarity of his philosophy was his rejection of similes, metaphors, personalization, and other techniques he saw as tricks to depict human thought, which to him cannot be presented but only inferred.


Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy is an example of the nouveau roman ("new novel").
 Anyone familiar with Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon will recall that Hammett featured the objective, camera-like type of narration in which the narrator never entered the characters’ heads.  Robbe-Grillet took this objectivity to an extreme by almost eliminating the narrating voice; an impossibility for in the final analysis someone has to tell the story.

The voice has no ax to grind and limits itself to the visual description of flora, fauna, and objects and artifacts (planes, surfaces, shapes, shades, and colors) of the material world. The characters we get to know only through their mannerisms, gestures, and overt acts.

“Jealousie” may be translated as a type of venetian blind through which the cold eyes of the observer-narrator engages in a sort of voyeurism as he watches his wife carry on an affair with a neighbor. Yet neither feelings nor reactions of any kind are conveyed to the reader; the reader must infer the action and possible reactions. Like a subject under hypnosis, the nameless narrator obliterates the self, which often in novels is presented by the pronoun “I.” By the agglutination of pithy details, the deep emotion that is jealousy is unfurled, presumably touching the engaged reader.

Other works

The Erasers uses the legend of Oedipus and transforms it into a detective story. The Voyeur is a mystery novel in which the reader plays detective. Djinn (1981) is a spy story that reveals the works of a secret society of latter-day Luddites dedicated to fighting the power of the machine.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Become a Writer: Sir Walter Scott

Statue of Sir Walter ScottImage via Wikipedia

Brief biographical notes

Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) was in Edinburgh; his father was a solicitor and his mother the daughter of a doctor of medicine. Inclined to reading and writing from an early age, he studied for the law under his father tutelage, becoming a clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh in 1806. Despite the fact that he was born with a deformed leg and visible limp, he became a man of great physical fortitude.
Although he achieved fame as a writer, his attempt to become an entrepreneur landed him in near bankruptcy. Laden with enormous debts, he managed to pay most of them through his writings.
With an international towering reputation Scott was considered Scotland’s beloved son. To honor his name, a Scott’s statue was placed in the center of Edinburgh.

How to become a writer

Not only was Sir Walter Scott a prolific writer of essays and fiction, but he was also a much admired poet. His enormous reputation grew beyond the United Kingdom. Textbooks and anthologies propagated his works through school, colleges, and universities. Some of the selections became aphorisms that the public in general would repeat, as for example, this stanza from Marmion:
Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!
When Scott was at the peak of his glory as a writer, he wrote a fair of review of Jane Austen’s Emma, which solidified Austen’s fame as a serious novelist of manners.


The success of novel Waverley (14th published work) established Sir Walter Scott as Scotland's most famous serious writer.
Waverley (subtitled 'Tis Sixty Years Since') is a historical novel that has the distinction of being the first of its genre. In this novel Scott combined real events with fictional episodes. The novel deals with the rebellion of 1745, which attempted to restore a Scottish family to the British throne. The hero young Edward Waverley, an army officer, falls in love with Rose the daughter of a local noble. Later as he moves around he meets Flora, the daughter of a Highland chieftain. Young Waverly finds himself in the midst of intrigues and conspiracies from which he escapes by following his moral compass. In the end he returns to Rose. The chieftain is convicted of treason and his daughter Flora goes into a convent.

Other works
In 1802-03 Scott's first major work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border appeared. In 1805 he published a book of poetry entitled The Lay of the Last Minstrel about an old border country legend. In 1808 he published Marmion, a historical romance in tetrameter. The Lady in the Lake appeared in 1810 and Rokeby in 1813. Rob Roy (1817) a portrait of one of Scotland's greatest heroes. The Heart of Midlothian appeared in 1818, followed by The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) and A Legend of Montrose (1819). Ivanhoe (1819), set in the reign of Richard I, may well be Scott's most read novel today. In the 1820s appeared Kenilworth (1821), The Fortunes Of Nigel (1822), Peveril Of The Peak (1823), Quentin Durward (1823), The Talisman (1825), Woodstock (1826), The Surgeon's Daughter (1827), and Anne Of Geierstein (1829).
To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Marciano Guerrero (Part 3 of 20)

Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair International, 1988Image via Wikipedia

Moments of Epiphany in a Writer’s Life
Life during my pre-teen years in my sleepy town where I was born, rolled along as tranquil and inexorable as the river and the brooks that encircled and traversed my parents’ lands. During certain parts of the year the melting snows from the Andes would cause the river to grow and roar like an enraged beast, the infernal din becoming louder at night. Frightened and half asleep, on those nights, I would beg my parents to let me sleep with them.

To make me understand the degrees of noise and energy that we find in nature, my father, in a casual manner once said to me, “The noise of the river is nothing compared to the surf of the sea.” I could only imagine the sea, for I had never seen it. Yet I had a child’s idea of the immensity of the seas and oceans since I used to devour Emilio Salgari’s adventure stories and Rafael Sabatini's tales of pirates, buccaneers, swashbucklers, scoundrels, and corrupt officials.

I was but a mere lad of five or six years of age when for the first time I saw the sea. Such an eyeful left me startled, paralyzed, catatonic-like. Words, books, magazines, and films were no substitute for the majesty of the sea with its lapping white foam darkening the sandy beach. Now that I am in my golden years, I can still recall and replay in my mind that magic moment, a moment of revelation that Rudolf Otto (German Philosopher) calls a mysterium tremendum, where the holly meets the human. Without entering in philosophical speculations, and with the simplicity of a writer that uses simple words, I will just say that such experience was but a moment of epiphany.

Writers —says James Joyce in his Ulysses— must grasp and grab those evanescent moments of spiritual revelation—moments of epiphany. These moments if not clearly discerned and stowed away will blend and disappear into the ordinary. Sometimes, these moments reach us as what may seem visual and auditory hallucinations. On his way to Damascus, Saint Paul found himself surrounded by a mysterious light from which a voice asked him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" That moment of epiphany changed Paul’s life. Likewise, Saint Augustine in his Confessions tells us of God’s command to him to “Take up and read; Take up and read,” and realize his sinful ways and change.

One day I ran into something that Norman Mailer said in an interview: “But I never enjoyed a novel more than Captain Blood … Some years ago I was asked by a magazine what were the ten most important books in my development. The book I listed first was Captain Blood.”

How extraordinary! I wasn’t the only child who had been formed by that fabulous writer of my childhood: Rafael Sabatini! Gratified and happy that a famous writer like Norman Mailer would pay homage to Sabatini's Captain Blood, I ran to my local bookstore and purchased a copy of the mentioned novel. “I wonder if the magic is gone,” I thought, bracing myself to inglorious disappointment: “Now that I am reading the novel with eyes fraught with a lifetime of reading, learning, and experience.” In one sitting I re-read the entire novel. Not a single page, paragraph, phrase, clause, or sentence disappointed me.

With time on my hands, a few days later I once again picked up the novel. I wanted to see what, where, and how a master writer could hold a reader by the hand and not let him go until the last page is read. My conclusion was another moment of epiphany: It isn’t what a writer writes about —in Captain Blood about pirates and fights— but how the writer tells the story.

How did then Rafael Sabatini enchant his readers? He did it by his masterful use of the English language. He knew his grammar, syntax, and rhetoric. Grammar supplied him with an infinite variety of sentence openers. Syntax equipped him with a vision to see when to wisely alter the order of sentences. Rhetoric filled his mind with hundreds of figures of thought and speech.

Over the years I have developed a special fondness for Rafael Sabatini, Joseph Conrad, and Vladimir Nabokov; three masters of the English language who wrote not in their native language but in their acquired one: English. Speaking a second language well is no easy enterprise by any means; writing a second language well is is not only difficult, but often an impossible task for many. So, encouraged and inspired by these three writers, I continue to defy the impossible: to write English well. By paying attention to their techniques and style, I challenge myself to become a serious writer of English prose.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser, 1933 by Henry Varnum Poor, O...Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr
Brief biographical notes
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the ninth of ten surviving children.  His father had emigrated from Mayen, Germany in 1844, marrying Sarah, the daughter of a Mennonite family that had come to Ohio from Pennsylvania; he was seventeen and Sarah twenty-nine. From Ohio they moved to Indiana, where the family, for two decades, prospered in the wool mill business. But disaster hit home. A fire destroyed the mill, and the economic depression of 1870 brought the family hard times.

Dreiser's childhood wasn’t easy by any means, as he was to recount in his memoirs.

Besieged by lack of stability he had no opportunities to get a formal education. He never finished high school. Much of the wisdom one sees in his novels he acquired by reading and later by his experience as a journalist. Yet he never despaired and fought for what he thought was right, engaging in many feuds with censors, critics, and publishers.  Towards the end of his life, weakened by his many battles, he died of heart failure on December 28, 1945.

His latter years he spent in relative fame, befriended, and admired, and financially secure.

How to become a writer

Just as the French writer Zola was the leader of Naturalism in French letters, Dreiser became the leading practi­tioner of the school of writing called "naturalism" in America. Naturalism depicted a deterministic form of realism from which characters could not escape despite their efforts. By many critics’ accounts, Dreiser’s claim to fame is his originality, which he defended often to his detriment.

Because of censorship and lack of publicity, his first novel Sister Carrie was declared “D.O.A” — dead on arrival. Neither fame nor glory, or even less riches accrued to the embattled author. All that Dreiser gained was a tough reputation as defender of freedom of expression.

Main works

Dreiser's first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), focuses on a young woman who survives and gets ahead in the world as a concubine. The novel proved to be too risqué for a publishing house dominated by prude and timorous editors. An abridged version was published in England, a version that was well received by reviewers and critics. Such a victory propelled Dreiser to international acclaim.

In An American Tragedy (1925), Dreiser's most celebrated novel, gives a harrowing account of a murder and its consequences. Violence, sex, and unbridled ambition made the novel a best seller. Yet, not everyone was for it. Prudes and crusaders managed to ban the novel in many places.

The two film versions of the novel helped to extend the shelf-life of An American Tragedy.  And if I am not mistaken there’s talk of a third version being contemplated by Hollywood.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at age 69, painted ...Image via Wikipedia

Brief Biographical notes

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), German poet, novelist, playwright, courtier, and philosopher, was born in Frankfurt am Main. Influenced and encouraged by his mother, he enrolled (when he was 16 years old) at Leipzig University (1765-68) to study law. Although he practiced law fully—in Frankfurt and Wetzlar— he also kept a parallel career as a literary writer.  

In Weimar, when he was about 35 years old, he fell in love with Charlotte von Stein, an older married woman. This odd relationship caused him to neglect literary production and other studies, dedicating his time to civic affairs.  Later he traveled through Europe, with stays in Italy and France.

In 1812 Goethe met the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven in Teplitz, Beethoven declaring that he was an admirer of Goethe’s work.

A reversal of his early love affair —at 35 years of age— happened when he was 74 years old: Goethe fell in love with 19-year old Ulrike von Levetzow. Obsessed with her, he followed her with high hopes from Marienbad to Karlsbad, only to return to Weimar empty handed and disappointed.

How to become a writer

Despite of his growing up in an orderly household, Goethe's youth was hectic and emotionally draining, but he found an outlet to his turbulent internal life in literature. AT age 25, Goethe was already famous with the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). In Werther he created the prototype of the romantic hero whose life would end in despair and suicide.

Goethe was recognized as the leader of the Sturm und Drang, which celebrated the warm energy of the body and the spirit, moving away from the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Although Werther was a resounding success, his better and more serious work is is the poetic drama Faust.


Ever since Goethe was a child and saw a puppet show in which one of the puppets was Faust, his interest in old man Faust never waned, making the writing of the poem a lifetime project.

Part 1 he started in his early twenties, completing it thirty years later. It deals with the legend of Faust as an individual, with his love for Margaret, with his soul, with the old man as a seeker, with Mephistopheles’ temptations.

Part 2 is more universal, as it grapples with Western humanity, alluding to Homer, Helen, and the classical world.

Not only was Goethe a literary figure, but he was a politician and a polymath—"the last Universal Man."

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How to Become a Writer: JOHN LE CARRE (DAVID CORNWELL, 1931)

John le Carré at the "Zeit Forum Kultur&q...Image via Wikipedia

Brief biographical notes

David John Moore Cornwell —the author’s full name— was born on 19 October 1931, in Poole, Dorset, England.

David John Moore Cornwell was born to Richard Thomas Archibald (Ronnie) Cornwell and Olive (Gassy) Cornwell, UK. Born to curious and unorthodox parents, it is a wonder that he escaped his milieu to become a well-respected writer. John Le Carré declared that his mother abandoned him when he was five years old, only to be re-acquaintance when he was 21 years old. As for his father, he was a sort of flim-flam man scheming on the fringes of criminality: he had been jailed for insurance, was continually in debt, and ran confidence tricks that landed him in prison once.

How to become a writer

During the 1950s and the 1960s, David Cornwell worked for British Intelligence, and began writing novels under the pseudonym “John Le Carré".

What made his career as a writer was his determination not to just write another spy novel, not to repeat the same tricks of other hack writers, nor to imitate any of them, but rather to write espionage novels with a moral stance. With such attitude he created a fictitious universe in which readers had to immerse themselves and participate in the events to determine who were the black hats and who were the apparent virtuous white hats.

Many critics and serious scholars dismiss his works as popular spy novels of the entertainment type. The truth if that Le Carre is a fine writer. Discerning readers are enchanted by well written prose that equals —if not surpasses— the “serious” writers.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963)

His third novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold not only set new standards of quality for modern genre writers, but also for writers of serious literature whose work included mysteries.

The novel tells the story of humble, unpretentious British spy, Alec Leamas, who leaves the British Secret Service —dubbed 'Circus'— to defect to East Germany. As the story unfolds, Leamas finds out that the Director of the Circus ('Control') is sacrificing him to achieve his own nefarious secret goals. Framed, abandoned, forsaken and demoralized beyond salvation Leamas accepts his fate.  What Le Carre portrays is a world of betrayal and unclear enemies, so unlike the fictitious world that Ian Fleming will create with his prototype James Bond.

In this novel readers meet the character of George Smiley, who would later appear in several novels. Although Smiley —a bureaucrat more than a spy— has relevance, it is Alec Leamas who is the protagonist and the moral thread of the plot. The Le Carre’s universe is devoid of gadgets, glamor, and elegance; it is concerned with the inner springs of good and evil in government officials.

Other works

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Tailor of Panama
The Constant Gardener
Smiley's people

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

How to Become a Writer: Robert Bloch's Psycho

Psycho HouseImage by fillzees via Flickr

Brief biographical notes

Nothing in Robert Bloch’s background would even hint that one day in the 2oth century he would become the author of the greatest psychological thriller ever produced in print or in films: Psycho.  Robert Bloch was born on April 5, 1917, in Chicago, to a modest family: a bank cashier and a social worker.
To look for employment and better prospects —and skirting as well as they could the Great Depression— the Bloch family moved to Milwaukee in 1933.

As a teenager, Bloch was already writing stories that he pitched for publication. His baptism —at age 17—into becoming a professional writer came when the publisher Weird Tales bought his story entitled "The Secret in the Tomb."

How to become a writer

Disillusioned, despondent, and poor, Robert Bloch at age 41 suffered a mid-life crisis. Assessing what he had accomplished during his years of writing he listed hundreds of short stories —of all kinds, fantasy, horror, mystery, suspense, crime, and science fiction— and novels, screenplays, and even non-fiction articles. Yet he could not even support his family.

But like all true writers who must write to justify their existences, he never gave up, continuing with his daily production of stories. Writing to live for some men of letters is a truism.

Fame, glory, and fortune came to Robert Block published his psychological novel Psycho.


Often denigrated as pop writing and of minor importance, Psycho is a well written novel in which readers can find all the elements of fine fiction writing. A good deal of what happens in the novel is told with different points of view. Of particular importance is the Indirect Free Speech (IFS) that Bloch had mastered to allow readers into the minds of his creatures.

Although Robert Bloch's 1959 novel was overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock's enduring film adaptation, and while the violence and surprise of the film evanesce with time, the text, the actual novel grows in reputation. It is good for many re-reads. Contemporary writers can pick up excellent writing techniques from Robert Bloch’s style.

The plot contains two parts. In the first part the attention focuses on Mary Crane, who after absconding with a large sum of money from her employer, she reaches the Bates’ Motel. Norman Bates, the middle-­aged motel manager, seems to be an ordinary fellow, though a little odd. Later we know that first impressions are a way of misdirection, to augment the suspense.  When the run-away Mary Crane is murdered —a film episode that no one can forget— the plot seems to end. But recall that this is only the first part.

Tout and tense in the second part, the author leads readers into the mind of the loner Norman Bates, into his habits, his odd speech, his rants, his cunning, and his sexual proclivities. With adroit and terse prose Bloch dove into the mind of a serial killer to let his audience experience the horror of a deranged mind.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne had close ties to A...Image via Wikipedia

Brief biographical notes

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts. From Salem the family moved to Maine, where he attended Bowdoin College (1821-24). His circle of friends at Bowdoin included the poet Longfellow and Franklin Pierce (who became the 14th president of the U.S).

In 1842 Hawthorne became friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; in Concord, the small group —which also included Margaret Fuller— founded the philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. Influenced by English and German Romanticism, the transcendentalists brought a new way of looking at society, criticizing conformity, as well as stimulating a more serious engagement with nature. They also experimented with communal living —Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden— all social experiments that eventually failed.

Becoming a writer

Hawthorne once referred to his workroom as a haunted chamber where “thousands and thousands of visions have appeared to me in it." Despondent, disappointed, and disillusioned because his Seven Tales of My Native Land was rejected several times by publishers, he burned the whole collection of stories. But he continued writing.

Fanshawe (1828) --Hawthorne’s first novel-- he managed to publish it at his own expense, and under a different name.

Given that his writing could not pay the bills, in 1846 he got a job as surveyor of the Port of Salem, where he toiled at a job that he hated; it was of no surprise to anyone that he got fired from it.

The Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne’ novel The Scarlet Letter was a resounding success. Set in Puritan 17th century New England, the novel painted a sinful, guilt-ridden puritan society much obsessed with punishment rather than redemption.
The protagonists Hester's and Dimmesdale —an earlier American version of Tolstoy’ Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky— defy the social conventions of an unforgiving society. To handle a theme that was taboo, Hawthorne created a new vocabulary together with a new code of symbols. The scarlet letter “A,” --for Adultery-- which Hester had to wear for life symbolized the physical transgression against society and God.

Other works

In addi­tion to The Scarlet Letter, a few of Hawthorne's somber alle­gorical shorter tales are still popular. In particular, the following tales are much anthologized: "Young Goodman Brown ," The Minister's Black Veil," "The Birthmark," and "Rappaccini's Daughter."

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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