• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Is That You Baby, Or Just a Brilliant Disguise

When I was fifteen, I went to an arts camp and developed an enormous crush on a guy until we got into a huge fight about what was more important: the authenticity of the feeling in a poem or the craft. He was for feeling; I was for craft.  Feelings shmeelings. Everyone has feelings. I count on artists and writers to put those feelings into exquisite form, whatever that form and style may take. I want an author to be in control so  I don’t have to worry. Of course I want to moved. We all want to be swept away, dazzled and destroyed.  But the only way to slay me is with great craft. A perfect adjective can move me more than a whole megillah. Bleeders need not apply. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in love with my feelings, I’m just saying they don’t equal good writing.

Am I saying that all writing is manipulation? Am I wrong?

47 Responses

  1. When you’re right you’re right!

    Wow, how’d I get to be first? I’m not worthy.

  2. You’re right and you’re wrong.

    Split the baby with a sword and hand each one half.

    I’d druther read cogent writing, but it would be drudgery if it were simply travelog. Writing that’s all about feelings is all over the map – but sometimes it can be quirky and fun.

    It’s like saying “which blade of the scissors scisses?”

  3. Since that title’s from a favorite Springsteen song, I’ll use him as an example.

    His concerts are legendary, and he made them that way by using a trick he picked up from reading about Elvis – he’d not only endlessly rehearse his band, but also rehearse running across the stage and sliding on his knees, or the stories he’d tell between songs. He’d do it over and over and then pass it off in concert as something spontaneous.

    In short, everything was craft, everything manipulation. And as long as you got the soul behind it, to fill that form so it shudders and shakes, it works.

  4. I think of writing as less manipulative communication than as an open invitation to come along for the ride.

  5. I guess finding the right words and the right place to put them is manipulative, but in a completely acceptable way. You’re not suggesting manipulating feelings. Just using the skill of manipulation to express them well.

    What’s the most perfect adjective you’ve seen lately?

  6. Betsy, the scale tips in your favor. In writing, craft staves off chaos. The rest is a matter of taste.

  7. Why do you pose these dilemmas Betsy? Are you playing god to us weaklings.
    IMO, before craft you need to have the sensitivity to understand others, and their emotions. Once you have that you need the craft to make us swoon over you.
    Writing with no feeling will be lifeless; and that without craft shall be unpublishable.

  8. It’s not manipulation, it’s art! The marriage of the two is ideal–but the marriage won’t appear traditional, more like a loyal union between seven people and a dog.

    If there’s no passion, no feeling then I think the writing, while it might be gymnastically spectacular, will ultimately becoming unbalanced and miss the mark. Wow that’s amazing, wow that’s interesting, wow that’s fantastic is good fun until it isn’t. Angela Carter is one of my favorite writers and someone who managed to pull it all off most of the time–there is emotion, craft, surprise, absurdity, comedy, tragedy, horror, meaning, dance, drama, song, painting, echolocation, geography, astrophysics, history, time-travel, reality, writ small/writ large.

    As for manipulation. I loose control of stories in good ways so that I wind up being unable to manipulate them–or to premeditate in any fashion that winds up being true. To be true means the story has to change, sometimes the language within the story has to change, sometimes the structure, too, needs to change. I don’t know how to manipulate all that. I know how to make choices, but it really is true that part of writing is a process of discovery and surprise. Revision involves a certain degree of manipulation, I suppose, but unless there’s real emotion and the trajectory of passionate truths I find the story falls flat on the page. People don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read most things anyway.

    There is contemporary writer whose extraordinary novel I recently finished. This writer is capable of great manipulation and control; however he is also capable of great exuberance and surprise (unless he is such a skilled manipulator he’s just hoodwinked me into thinking he’s pulled off the latter). In any case, I just read a piece of art criticism he wrote and it is so woodenly set forth that I was disappointed. And I thought, well, maybe he’s just trying on this plain-writing fad for just a minute for a different readership, as is his prerogative, obviously. But reading it engaged me little–even though the subject was somewhat interesting. He has gotten static in the past for being flowery, purpley, overly intellectual, show-offy, etc. And I think that what people were really objecting to was a certain deficit of feeling or of compassion on some levels. But mainly these criticisms are those of people who seem to like only one shade of writing, who don’t like being challenged, surprised, who don’t want to go back and re-read a passage to understand it, who don’t want to be dazzled by strange and thrilling language. And I do want all that. I read different styles of writing all the time–and sometimes I read just for the story or to learn some “facts” or background. But what I want from reading, most of the time, is complexity, beautiful sentences, surprise and emotional heft. So yes, it’s true, with art I am greedy–give me levels of meaning, give me humor, manipulate me like you mean it. (Though if you do this to me in person I probably won’t like you.)

  9. a dichotomy as old as the ever loving Greek hills
    Must be transcended if I may be so elevated to create literature

  10. edits. that’s:

    become not becoming

    lose not loose

    oy, usually i read it back but i’m tired tonight, sorry.

  11. Funny that initially the image for this post was a unicorn, and now it’s Dylan (a unicorn with shades and a cigarette).

    Springsteen lyrics, Dylan pic, fierce Betsy intro … it’s a good night!

  12. Honesty vs. artistry… need they be mutually exclusive?

    In the framework of a “which is more important” question — honesty, I think — i.e. feelings. Art is artifice no matter what; feelings themselves aren’t poems (or prose), aren’t generated or experienced initially in language form, so some necessary translation goes on — how to give the feelings form (in this case, word form). I’m not even sure why the translation process needs to be manipulative. Conveying a feeling in poetry or prose seems like an honest effort to me.

    And I’m not sure, for example, Hayden was letting it bleed when he wrote, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

    I think the choice to add a second “what did I know” there might’ve been more felt than formal… I mean intuitive, not a purely formal consideration. It does read like exquisite craft in the end, but I’m not sure.

    I personally love to see feelings break through & take a hammer to the poetry or prose. Not relentlessly, but occasionally. Otherwise, I begin to feel like I’m moving through a literary landscape rich in beauty, short on truth — and I don’t need beauty at the end of the day, not even in my art. Honesty, though, however messy, I simply can’t do without.

  13. I’m here at 12:22AM and I’m THIRTEENTH???

    Hold my place — I’ll be right back (as soon as I’ve read the whole post).

    • I wonder if that guy from camp is still in love with his feelings, or if he’s gotten over his Holden Caufield phase and wised up that feelings are boring and cheap and ordinary and easy. A good sentence, however, is hard, rare, dear, and breathtaking.

      Is your time stamp here on Nova Scotia time?

    • Sorry Viv. I cheat. I’m on California time. You can have my place.

      I start out flippant and everyone is dead serious. I go serious and eveyone is hilarious.

      My therapist told me my problem was I “never learned to MANIPULATE.” Honest. So what do I know?

  14. Advertising, a lot of the time, shows you nothing but craft. Superb craft, maybe, but craft. Craft craft craft. It’s not enough, not for me.

  15. It’s the age-old debate about technique vs talent, Apollo and Dionysus, intellect and emotion. You need the balance, as Nietzsche said. There was a good post from a friend on Facebook the other day about chaos and how chaos rules; but when I saw him later, I said, “What about the artist?” The artist needs discipline. And in acting school they said forget about the emotions, never try to cry, let the audience cry. I’m with you, Betsy. We’ve got to find an artful way to express our emotions, and that requires a lot of work.

  16. This is such a great job description:

    “I want an author to be completely in control so I don’t have to worry. Of course I want to moved. I want to be moved, swept away, dazzled and destroyed.”

    Thanks, Betsy, for your profane & useful blog.

  17. Well the two are intertwined, are they not? In a good piece? Craft taps into the raw stuff, without flattening it, or shoveling heaps of received text on it, and sinks its incisors in mercilessly. Throttles it, really. But the danger is, sometimes it kills it.

    Good craft knows when to ease up, invoke the faeries, and move to the next bit of viscera.

  18. What do you think when a particular passage elicits totally different responses from readers, eg. strong likes and dislikes of the same material? Is that writer not controlling her material? Or is she just presenting complex material that pushes different in people?
    Anne Pfeffer

  19. When my lit tutorial leader asked us what we liked most about reading, I said it was ‘The feeling of being manipulated, but being happy to let the writer do whatever the hell they wanted to me’ – or something along those lines anyway. I probably didn’t say hell, I was shy. But it’s still true, and I want to be able to have the same effect on a reader some day.

    I mean, there’s got to be feeling, but feelings are messy and pretty repetitive a lot of the time. It’s craft that makes them worth sharing with more than just your best – and long suffering – friends or therapists.

  20. It must start with the feeling. Without that truth, there is nothing. There is no wizardry that can create it. It must be organic. It must be experienced. If you’ve got that under your belt, you can move on to the poetry. And, yes, it is most definitely manipulation. The better you do it, the more loyal your audience.

  21. The “really happened” defense comes up a lot in workshops and it always annoys me, too.

  22. To write effectively we must be able to connect with our pain.

  23. You can be in a lot of pain and still write, ‘Mrs. Smith really loved the nice little sympathy card sent to her by her wonderful neighbor and her neighbor’s cute little dog.”

  24. This made me laugh so hard, because yesterday I took the Dickens vs. Bulwer-Lytton “good/bad writing” test, and I only missed one. I got a 92. My criterion? Sappiness. I went through and attributed all the sappy excerpts to Bulwer, which left the balance for Dickens. I am definitely for craft over feelings!

  25. Writing worth reading, particularly more than once, is well-crafted, of that I am certain. (And God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of.)

  26. Are you wrong? Nope.

  27. The craft lies in arranging the words in such a way that they carry the feeling trapped inside for anyone to tap and recreate while reading.

  28. I always wondered why I didn’t care for Bruce Springstein. Thank you Maine Character! I don’t think manipulation and art belong in the same breath. Feeling and craft, yes. Feel+Craft=Art, maybe a couple of times a century. Manipulation is not honorable, no place for that. Or at least find a more palatable word for it….

  29. I’ll take the brilliant disguise. I’m thinking Breece DJ Pancake vs Snooki isn’t much of a contest.

  30. Yes. The craft is in putting one’s feelings into delightfully unexpected yet somehow perfect words.

  31. A. The vast majority of the greatest literature survives because it has captured authentic experience (even extreme, abstract, psychological experience) and represented that experience in effective strong elegant form. Occasionally the experience is false but the form so good the work stays alive; occasionally the experience is so undeniably authentic and important that the form matters not.

    B. William Matthews (some days ago) did NOT say in your MFA days “FIFTEEN PERCENT of nothing is nothing” because agents’ fees then were TEN PERCENT. Very interesting that you would forget that.

  32. if there’s no emotion in well crafted sentences it reads flat. “like a clock in your book”.

    who said that?

  33. Words entice. A good come hither first line stimulates and invites you to come along for the ride. Manipulation? Yes, but there’s nothing as disappointing as a clumsy seduction. Inept writers are unfavorably dismissed, often with a chilly rejection. And you can’t just be good, you have to be interesting as well. The reader chooses the book and it’s up to the author to provide satisfaction. No pressure, though.

  34. Betsy, you’re in love with your feelings? I seem to prefer eating my feelings.

  35. I think you need to use that adjective to move the reader somehow. Otherwise why read it? Or listen to? If it’s well done, like Bruce’s lyrics, I don’t feel manipulated:

    Down in town the circuit’s full with switchblade lovers so fast, so shiny, so sharp
    As the wizards play down on Pinball Way on the boardwalk way past dark

  36. Used one of your quotes in my blog, and yes, you did say something worth nominating for my credo of 2011 and no, it is NOT going to make you infamous. If you wanted infamy, sorry.

    i enjoy reading your blog.

    And craft is learned as way to shape and tame the talent into something worth reading. 🙂

  37. Take Picasso. A few scant lines become a masterpiece because he understands craft. He knows how to draw reaaaalllly well. Proportion, scale, composition: these things are so intrinsic to his skillset that he can take his art to the next level. He can let feeling take over but still have total control.

    A writer shouldn’t have to over-contemplate where the semi-colon should go. Her grammar is perfect, her; punctuation is second nature. Paragraphs are naturally birthed in individualized balls, like puppies. Sure, you can play with them later, train them, feed them. Get drunk with them. Ride them until they turn into Pegusi and fly you through the moth-riddled night.

  38. And that wasn’t so convincing with some balls-ups in the punctuation now, was it? Sorry, dudes.

  39. Craft every time. I don’t care what you are felling. I care what you make ME feel.

  40. Anyone can express his or her own feelings in a piece of writing. But art expresses other people’s feelings as well. I think the intention has to be there to build something that will house a community, of whatever size, like a church or a park. And that requires planning, design, and some kind of generosity of spirit.

  41. Craft trumps feeling. Feeling is the gleam in the eye; craft is the hard (and sometimes fun) work of baby-making and child-rearing. When feeling is so refined and polished by craft that the work seems as effortless and natural as breathing, it’s called genius.

    I’ve written one song in my life. Whenever I sing it, a few people invariably cry, then tell me afterward that I sing it “with so much feeling.” But I don’t sing it with any feeling. At least, not the same feelings that impelled me to write the song. If I did, I’d be crying too. It’s craft that draws the tears. I think about how long I should hold a note, how much of a sigh to let into a phrase. I recollect and render the mood, but I don’t succumb to it. I use craft to keep myself from succumbing. I sing in service to the song first, the audience second, and myself last, if at all.

  42. I think probably writers should take their cue from Eliot and that whole batch, on the importance of egolessness to the writer at excelling at his/her craft. It’s when you get some manic, freshly heartwounded gusher that you end up with emo tear-stained pages and bad writing about “feelings” in which case you may as well publish your diary, because diaries are overloaded with sentiment. Sentimentality, I guess, is the real scourge to art that elicits a genuine response in a reader. For ideal example, Hemingway, forget misogyny, whose style is so fantastically bare, yet who manages somehow to evoke thunder claps in the heart of his readers: Yes, it is so.

  43. Craft and feeling are important, of course. Either/or statements are always wrong and write.

    And there’s this, which I keep coming back to:

    “If what’s always distinguished bad writing–flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.–is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then [Bret] Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

    Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage… The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years.

    We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent.

    You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.

    A U. S. of modern A. where the State is not a team or a code, but a sort of sloppy intersection of desires and fears, where the only public consensus a boy must surrender to is the acknowledged primacy of straight-line pursuing this flat and short-sighted idea of personal happiness.”
    — David Foster Wallace

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