Friday, May 30, 2008

The Image
of a Writer
As Knock-
Around Guy

'You know, I grew up in a different generation. I grew up after World War II, and boys did different things in those days. You went camping. You went hunting. You boxed. And the image of a writer to someone starting off in those days was not some schmuck who went to graduate school. It was Jack London, Nelson Algren, Ernest Hemingway. Especially coming from Chicago, a writer was a knock-around guy. Someone who got a job as a reporter or drove a cab. I think the reason there are a lot of novels about How Mean My Mother Was To Me and all that shit is because the writers may have learned something called 'technique' but they've neglected to have a life. What the f__k are they going to write about?'
--Playwrite and screenwriter David Mamet, from a recent profile in GQ Magazine. This brilliant riff immediately reminded me of something the writer Mark Winegardner used to joke about during his stint in Cleveland. He once observed that the reason the only dramatic tension to be found in most debut novels is the tension between college roommates is that that's the only tension most 20-somethings had yet encountered in life. You can review earlier mentions of Mamet here and here.


At 9:36 PM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...


At 9:53 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You've gotta love Mamet, the poet of hardbitten reality. Can I assume that you loved Glengarry Glen Ross as much as I did?
In other news, congratulations on your Lakers. Wouldn't it be wild to have a Pistons-Lakers final? You've already explained where your heart would lie with that.

At 11:44 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hard to argue with any of this, as I think it gets at something core. Not that I think Mamet is particularly a genius, or even on my list of favorite writers.

On the flip side, another great writer spent his life going within, and although he traveled and lived and gathered experiences, his greatest work was plumbing his own depths. I'm referring of course to Rilke. Who of course was also not a graduate student in literature.

I recall Robert Bly basically saying the same thing years ago, as well, in the interview published in his book of critical essays, "American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity." He thought the MFA was the death of writing; I think he may have been prophetic.

At 1:04 AM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

Glengarry ... yes

Lakers vs Celtics = "dramatic tension"

At 11:32 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, Art, studying writing is fine, but you learn most of what you need to know simply by reading good stuff and then trying to duplicate it yourself. Then trying again, and again. It's a lot like plumbing, carpentry, or any other craft. Getting a master's degree in it seems rather precious. Anyway, good to see your name back in the comments, Art. Thanks for stopping by.

TJ, that does look to be shaping up as a delicious finals series, the kind that only comes along about once a decade.

At 11:15 PM, Blogger Maria said...

Most of the wonderful writers in the canon, whose work I am blessed to teach in some classes, had spotty educational backgrounds but imbibed language and the fragrance and charred remains of experience and juggled them in previously unimaginable ways. As in hearing beautiful music, great writing shakes one to the core. I was meditating on the resonant voice of Walt Whitman last night, noting how a poem of mine from my early, innocent years might have owed some of its rhythm to "Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road..." Fine writing is effortlessly memorized, a liturgy of life. I think some writers are called, as in a religious sense, and others work their way quite consciously but the source of inspiration: who can pin that down.

As for contemporary images of lesser (obscure) writers, how about a graying woman in a ragged flannel nightgown posting on blogs into the late hours? Sunken eyes, disheveled hair, and fingers tapdancing on the keys...

At 11:20 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow, how true, and how felicitously put! You've outdone yourself, Maria. Thanks for injecting a dash of bracing prose poetry into the conversation.


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