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Filtering by Tag: Josh Ritter

The Toil of the Porter

Aaron Guest

pexels-photoFour of the five years I spent selling myself to creative writing programs, I used this gem in my personal statement: I am overwhelmed by my bookshelf. Everything that’s been written in the canon of literature has said all there is to say. I do not purport to say anything new. It’s a wonder why they rejected me. Who wants a writer who thinks they have nothing new to say? Especially when that writer goes on to swing a metaphor as dull as a spoon: My aim as a writer is the toil of the porter… All I strive to do is haul my bookshelf up a floor.

However much it hurts to read that conjured bit of word magic, ten years removed, I wonder if it’s true. Do I have anything new to say?

Josh Ritter spoke candidly of a phenomenon I’ve been experiencing while at work on something that looks and smells like a novel in the same way a pickle resembles a cucumber. He called it feeding the monster, “a creature so voracious… it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path.” The sanitized notion of this is probably “research”. That process of pouring through books and essays and poems and personal experiences for information that you can use to fashion a story. But how do I use that?

A writer I deeply admire once told me about a particular line in their story, “I stole that from Denis Johnson. Here’s a writing tip: steal anything you can.” My head must of cocked at a visibly affronted angle because it immediately was clarified. “Obviously don’t rip it off verbatim. But steal the hell out of everything you like.” I went back and compared the lines in the two stories. Unrecognizable unless you knew the other author, the story, their love of Denis Johnson, and, even then, had heard the confession itself.

Stealing the hell out of other works has occurred throughout history. It goes back as far as Genesis and the story of the Flood, where non-Jewish cultures already had their own flood stories. The late literary theory wizard Umberto Eco believed that all works were birthed from other works: “The reader has to fill the blanks in the text and to relay it to the intertextuality from which [the text] is born and in which [the text] merges.” Texts are going to arise from other texts and then speak on behalf of or point to those other texts. Springsteen certainly helped point many unlikely readers toward Flannery O’Connor’s writing in his famous song Nebraska.  

For this novel project I’ve cracked a small notebook and filled it’s pages with lines from novels and memoirs and essays I’ve been reading. Ritter claims to satiate the monster is crucial, “If you don’t give the monster what it wants, the damned S.O.B. will never give you anything in return. But if you do a good job feeding your monster, it’ll occasionally let you have a little inspiration.” And my notebook is annotated with sentences and words and phrases I hope to alter the time signature of and make dance to the tune of my own work.

But it’s a fine line to tread between plagiarism and creative license, isn’t it.

So am I stealing? Or simply bringing ideas up to the next floor?

More importantly: do I really have anything new to say?

Feel the Pull of Darkness

Aaron Guest

Guest dakness I volunteered to drive the night shift during a cross-country road trip last year. That meant the long drive through South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. Maybe my enthusiasm to take the short straw was the prospect of what singer/songwriter/writer Josh Ritter calls being pulled by the American darkness/the mountains, the rivers, the fields at harvest. Or maybe it was the goal of meeting the sunrise in Missoula. (I had long ago been lured in by A River Runs Through It.) I didnt want to come to such joy by sleeping until the morning.

A writing mentor told me once, You really like to write about losers.I do. I like stories whose characters experience the weight of evil and suffering dragging them down far short of redemption. I like stories and books and movies where eviland Im simplifying herewins.

In a recent conversation in Granta, Ben Marcus and George Saunders discuss darkliterature. Both writers make no apologies about being pulled to stories that, in quoting Joy Williams, deal with the horror and incomprehensibility of time.Stories not fleeing from fear or hopelessness or sadness. Characters whose experiences do not bloom into rainbows and sunrises at the end. Marcus sums it up best, Relishing this kind of writing does not mean we do not love life. It means we love life enough to want to be present to its difficulty and complexity. We experience pleasure when we feel that someone has arrived at something essential.

Growing up with faith I have been assured I am part of a great cloud of witnesses. But too often this cloudis paraded around as a heavenly choir singing only of glad tidings of great joys. Faith, like literature, if it is to arrive at something essential,needs to be honest with darkness, allow space for doubt, and ponder questions with answers that leave us far short of redemption. As Madeleine LEngle says, pretending there is no darkness is another way to extinguish the light.

It was nearly 2 a.m. when I crossed the Montana border in March 2014. Rolling hills were covered in frost and sparkling in the starlight. Just passed the state sign I pulled the car over and stepped outside. And, right now, as Im thinking about what I felt out there, another of Josh Ritters lyrics rings true,

A sky so cold and clear the stars might stick you where you stand and youre only glad its dark cause you might see the masters hand you might cast around forever and never find the peace you seek.