Arrestingly Beautiful

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Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

I don’t use the highlight feature on my Kindle very often, and when I do it’s usually for something funny or interesting I want to remember. Sometimes, it’s for a sentence or paragraph I find particularly literary and beautiful and poetic, though that is rare when reading contemporary works. Last night, after a shitty day to end all shitty days, I opened my Kindle to continue reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and stumbled upon the most arrestingly beautiful line I think I’ve ever read.

And here it is:

I wonder, as I look up at this softly enameled sky, so faintly tinted, which does not bulge today with heavy rain clouds but smiles like a piece of old china,

I don’t know if appreciation of language is affected by mood and temperament, but somehow this line was more alive than the others around it. I think it’s the word enameled that does it. It immediately evoked an image in my mind that I could not only see clearly, but that I could also taste.

No, I wasn’t drinking. I just have no other way to describe it.

And then to follow it up with so faintly tinted… I don’t know. It stopped me dead and made me incredibly sad. To understand that sadness requires a confession.

A Confession

My most recent books, including the one I’m currently working on, are written in a style I can only describe as manufactured. The style comes partly from repetition of learned habits gleaned from books like On Writing and How Not To Write a Novel. As I write Science Fiction, I tend to read a lot of Science Fiction, which while awesome and exciting, teaches a style that is more action-based, more bombastic than what I would call literary fiction. (God only knows if I’m using that term correctly.)

Reader feedback also dictates changes to my style. They don’t like it wordy. They don’t like my awkward sex scenes. They don’t like all the “relationship shit.”

What this produces is a style that is manufactured to be the most appealing to the widest audience. And why wouldn’t you want to do that? More readers means more money and more money means more Whataburger.

But, as I suspect is the case with a lot of writers, I also have a style that I only use in private, on rare days when I’m not working on the book, when I’m writing just for myself. Those days, the language stretches like dissipating contrails “in an enameled sky,” and the words flow in a way that would make most readers reach for something easier to understand, perhaps Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. (Seriously, have you tried to read that?)

And I tell you what: I miss writing like that. I miss verbosity and poetry and stringing together metaphors and similes in an ever-increasingly clever sequence that ends with a halting breath and shaky hands.

Even with a manufactured style, I still try to focus on the communication of emotion, which I’ve always felt is the most important aspect of writing (and art in general). But perhaps I’m too focused on it… at the expense of a secondary notion that the writing itself can be beautiful, that prose can be poetry. You don’t have to choose one or the other.

A Sadness

So yes, the line made me sad. And it’s the sadness of lost opportunities to write honestly. When you’re done with your marketing and your social media and your brand awareness, all you’ve really got is an arrangement of words on a page.

Sometimes, in our quest to realize our dreams of grandeur, we forget we’re supposed to be producing art. And we forget to question whether that art is honest. Whether we’re proud of it.

I know… that sounds haughty as hell. Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for other writers.

I, Daniel Verastiqui, forget to question.

 

Related: Recommended Reading: The Introduction to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer

Recommended Reading: The Introduction to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer

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I had only ever heard of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (and the sequel Tropic of Capricorn) from that one episode of Seinfeld where you heard of it. Not once was it ever mentioned in high school or in the many classes I took as an English major at UT Austin. So what was this book? Context suggested it was erotica, on par with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. After all, the version I bought on Amazon has a preface by Anais Nin. Not that I haven’t read Delta of Venus front to back and sideways, but as a Science Fiction author, erotica isn’t really up my alley.

The introduction to Tropic of Cancer was written by Karl Shapiro, an American poet who died in 2000. At first, I misread and thought the Intro was written by Anais Nin, which is the only reason I read it in the first place. I’d read her work, so I was curious to hear what she thought of Miller. Two pages into the Intro, I sank into a deep depression.

Here is a quote from Shapiro’s introduction:

I call Henry Miller the greatest living author because I think he is. I do not call him a poet because he has never written a poem; he even dislikes poetry, I think. But everything he has written is a poem in the best as well as in the broadest sense of the word. Secondly, I do not call him a writer, but an author. The writer is the fly in the ointment of modern letters; Miller has waged ceaseless war against writers. If one had to type him one might call him a Wisdom writer, Wisdom literature being a type of literature which lies between literature and scripture; it is poetry only because it rises above literature and because sometimes ends up in bibles.

There is a type of writing that I learned about throughout college that I’ve long forgotten. It’s easy to read the classics and then break away from them in favor of what is easy, marketable, and universally appealing. When I sit down to write a novel, I ask myself, will anyone find this interesting or entertaining? I’m starting to wonder if that’s how art is supposed to work. Who, ultimately, are we writing for?

I also got the sense from the Introduction that one of the greatest thing modern indie writers are missing out on is a sense of community.

Orwell has written one of the best essays on Miller, although he takes a sociological approach and tries to place Miller as a Depression writer or something of the sort. […] Orwell adds that the Tropic of Cancer is almost exactly opposite! Such a thing as Miller’s book “has become so unusual as to seem almost anomalous, [for] it is the book of a man who is happy.”

I can just imagine all these writers, poets, and artists getting together to critique each other’s work. Okay, maybe not getting together, but being on a level were Orwell is critiquing you? Please. Imagine having insight like that to help you understand your writing.

Still, as I reread some of the Introduction, I can’t get over how Shapiro speaks of Miller. It’s less an introduction and more of a glimpse into a literary world that most of us will never visit, and perhaps no longer exists. That was the world I wanted to be a part of when I started writing in overlong, self-reflective sentences that seemed to wind and zag with no rhythm but somehow ended up in exactly the right place. Now that type of writing only shows up in dialogue as a character flaw.

It’s not every day that you realize you’re no longer writing honestly, that you’re more concerned with the number of reviews on Amazon than sharing emotion straight from the heart. It’s nice to have a reminder now and then, and if you haven’t had one in a while, pick up this book and feel shitty about yourself for a day or two. Then pick up your Mac and get back to work.

Oh, and as for Tropic of Cancer itself, I’m only 40 or so pages into it, but it’s excellent. Much like the introduction, it’s a whole ‘nother world. I could see the style being applied to Tech Noir, with a seedy, neon city replacing Paris. I don’t know if some of Miller’s language will appeal to you or whether his blunt description of lady parts will send you running for Harry Potter, but the writing, the stream of consciousness, the thoughts that come at you from left and right… it all fits together very well. What a shame I’m only discovering it now.

Grab a copy. It’s the best $9 you’ll spend today.

EDIT: You know what it reminds me a lot of? The Ijon Tichy books by Stanislaw Lem, that same kind of rapid-fire narration. Check those out too.