“It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.” —John Steinbeck in a letter to a writer seeking his advice, circa 1963
If I could go back and sit down with the younger version of myself—say, the me who was flitting up and down the sidewalks of the Rollins College campus at nineteen or twenty, having just discovered that writing was not something one was left to struggle with alone at a keyboard but could be discussed with other like-minded souls around a long oak table—what might I say? What aspects of improving one’s writing most eluded me at the time, and if I had to boil down the most transformative implementations of craft or habit to a few key pieces of advice, what would they be?
Over the past several weeks I’ve flipped through dozens of tattered notebooks and files in my office, the sort of spring-cleaning that ought to happen every six months, but doesn’t (at least not very thoroughly); I get down to a serious purge in those years when there’s a dip in the compulsion to write, when my brain demands de-cluttering so it can imagine clearly, free from all those tired story-starts trapped beneath rusting paper clips. I came across drafts from the two years spent attending workshops at conferences and residences, studying for the MFA, and before that—frightening—drafts from my tenure as an undergrad. As a seasoned writer and college instructor, one can make the mistake of believing our own writing must have been superior to the drafts our wide-eyed students turn in. Certainly ours would have ranked among the best. Alas, a cursory glance or three over my papers on Modernism, early story attempts, and professors’ comments—spot-on, by the way—shattered this illusion for good.
For my whole career as a student and throughout college, I had always been told my writing was good. And it was, if by good one means competent with an occasional flash of style. But now, from my lofty perch as a creative writing instructor at that same college, I see that I wasn’t the best, in no way could have been. Like many, I had been a competent writer with more talent in the well than on the page; probably I hadn’t been the most innately talented in the Writing minor program, either. How does one transform from average “But-you’re-such-a-good-writer!” English major to something more—literary excellence. Not that I’m in the ranking of Alice Munro and George Saunders, mind you. But once you see how far you’ve come, it becomes easier to believe you might one day get there.
What I wish now, at thirty-four with my first story collection coming out, is that I had read more widely but also closely. For most of my life, I gobbled books up; not until I entered the MFA program at Vermont College did I earnestly learn how to slow down and see what writers were up to as architects of literature. Only after I saw their techniques could I grapple with implementing them (i.e. steal) in my own writing. That’s when my pages took a big leap forward. As for reading widely, I’d always thought I had—but again, not really. I hadn’t read comic books or plays or famous foreign writers, didn’t take literary magazines seriously until I wanted my work featured in them. So if I were to sit down for a straight-up talk with my younger writer self, I’d say: get on this, daylight’s burning. Practice the patience to read closely, to take more time agonizing over drafts, to honestly compare your writing to the best if your heart’s desire is for your work to rank among theirs. Because who are you, really, but another average English major?
This may sound stern. I don’t mean for the words to come across that way. But I’m one of those writers who ardently believed that she’d have at least one book out by thirty, and the fact that I’m having my first come out now, four years later, has inevitably unearthed insights both uneasy and reaffirming. I’m sure I’m not alone.
What’s been reaffirming? The observable truth that, while sifting through those bulging binders and faded drafts, that if one possesses a certain dollop of talent and keeps stubbornly working at improving one’s craft, keeps an open mind to criticism and hones his or her intuition on what to apply and what to ignore, that the average-good-writer-English-major can break through to something more—that beauty and truth which lives inside all of us, that is both of us and beyond us. Bullheadedness may work in one’s favor here, if one has the stuff (“it’s about 40% talent,” the writer Caroline Adderson admitted to me recently). So check your ego at the door, and be quick.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, is now available from Burrow Press. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. She has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
My friends often ask me “why translate?” with varying reasons for why not. My favorite is that Google can do it much more quickly, entailing as it does the criticism, “what use are you?” One friend, an architect, argues that Google performs at about 90 percent accuracy and that is good enough. And for his purposes, it is. There are basically two approaches to translation: what I will call here the literal and the expressive. Machines are capable only of the literal approach, which is sufficient for most tasks. However, I contend that literary translation is a special category, one for which the literal approach may not be sufficient.
Take the first two paragraphs of Rimbaud’s prose poem, “A Season in Hell,”
for example. The syntax is straightforward and it lacks any effects such as rhyme or meter:
Jadis, si je me souviens bien, ma vie était un festin où s’ouvraient tous les cœurs, où tous les vins coulaient.
Un soir, j’ai assis la Beauté sur mes genoux. —Et je l’ai trouvée amère. —Et je l’ai injuriée.
Translated by Google, it becomes:
Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast or opened all hearts, or vines all flowed.
One evening, I sat Beauty on my knees. —And I found her bitter. —And I cursed.
That seems to meet my friend’s 90 percent assessment, and more of the rhythm has survived than I would’ve expected. Compare that to Louise Varèse’s classic 1945 translation:
Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened and all wines flowed.
One evening I seated Beauty on my knees. And I found her bitter. And I cursed her.
The similarity demonstrates a shared approach with an emphasis on the literal level of language. Unlike Google, Varèse’s translation maintains the coherence of the original voice as well as its suggestive power simply by rendering the direct objects that Google leaves out. Bertrand Mathieu’s more recent work (1991) presents another approach:
A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing.
One night, I sat Beauty down on my lap.—And I found her galling.—And I roughed her up.
Mathieu makes Rimbaud new again for an audience whose use of language had changed enough for Varèse’s voicing to seem old-fashioned (as Mathieu’s “galling” does now). I would also point out that Mathieu’s choice of “roughed up” for “injuriée” might take too much license, changing the gesture from insult to assault.
What if we test a traditional sample—something in rhymed, metrical lines with more complex syntax and other effects. For this experiment, I’ve chosen the first stanza of Paul Valéry’s “Le Cimetière marin”:
Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes;
Midi le juste y compose de feux
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencee
O récompense après une pensée
Qu’un long regard sur le calme des dieux!
Translated by Google, it becomes:
This quiet roof, where doves walk,
Between the pines throbs between the graves;
Just composes the afternoon lights
The sea, the sea, constantly renewed
O reward after a thought
A long look at the calm of the gods!
Suddenly Google’s performance drops below that 90 percent mark—in this case, I’d say closer to 50 percent accuracy, and I’m not addressing any of those features, such as sound patterns, that account for much of the beauty in the original language.
C. Day Lewis’s 1932 translation demonstrates the literal approach to translation again, yet here we can see the difference between human and machine more clearly than in the Rimbaud examples:
This quiet roof, where dove-sails saunter by,
Between the pines, the tombs, throbs visibly.
Impartial noon patterns the sea in flame –
That sea forever starting and re-starting.
When thought has had its hour, oh how rewarding
Are the long vistas of celestial calm!
The difference between Lewis’s work and Google’s is striking. Ironically, this 80 year old translation defies one of my contentions regarding the role of translation: that each generation recasts a work in its own linguistic light. For fun, let’s compare this to a contemporary rendering—Tony Brinkley’s translation, published in the Summer 2011 issue of Cerise Press:
This tranquil roof, this quiet ceiling where doves
march among the graves, among fluttering pines —
midday, the just moment, writes in fires —
sea, the sea always — once again beginning —
recompense after thinking — the prolonged
regard across the quiet of the gods!
Brinkley’s approach might be described as expressive as opposed to literal as he attempts to recreate the same experience in a different language with different sounds and associations. While some things are inevitably “lost in translation,” focusing on the losses obscures the work of good translation, which is to find another way to produce the original effect for the reader in a new language. In “Reading Valéry in English,” Brinkley’s essay accompanying his translation, he discusses the inability of English to produce the same homonym of toit for toi, roof for you (or “thou” as he says), and describes his reasoning for the liberty he takes with with the poem’s first line: “For me the repetition is a kind of notice, a way of noticing, that the English is only a translation because repetition (as Wordsworth said) can be a way of indicating as an excess what the words themselves cannot say.” Negotiations like this require making the kinds of choices a machine cannot make and demonstrate why literary translation will remain essential work.
Darren Jackson’s poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Circumference, The Pinch, The Laurel Review, The Offending Adam, Bluestem, and other journals. He has translated Life in the Folds by Henri Michaux (Wakefield Press, forthcoming Fall 2014); “The White Globe,” an essay by Bertrand Westphal, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in The Planetary Turn: Art, Dialogue, and Geoaesthetics in the 21st Century; and A Free Air by Albane Gellé. He also collaborated with Marilyn Kallet and J. Bradford Anderson on the translation of Chantal Bizzini’s Disenchanted City (Black Widow Press, September 2014).
Lately I’ve developed a new social mutation, a kind of internal timing reflex when it comes to the low art of hanging out. It’s a close cousin to the one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi count I used in college to time how long it took at a party for someone to ask “What’s your major?”, or the one that kicked in a few years later for how long it took coworkers to ask, in the months following my wedding, “So: how’s married life?” But these days the setting and the people have changed. I’m at a bar, or a dinner, or having a smoke, and the players aren’t extras in my daily life anymore. They’re close friends, people I’ve known for sometimes decades, and what I catch myself gauging now isn’t how long it takes for them to ask about my status, but instead about the status—or the profile photo, or the link, or the comment, or the “like”—of real humans we know in common, and how those humans filter their distant lives through a crude, blue web portal.
“Thing is, A.’s just preaching to the choir with the liberal outrage links…”
“Did you read that thing B. posted? Oh, you shared it? Oh then that’s how I saw it…”
“Yesterday C. liked a page for ‘Sluts.’ Right under D.’s kids’ birthday party pics in my feed, I just see C. likes Sluts—”
And so on.
It used to be that this sort of conversational turn would come paired with a doomed complicity, a reluctant break from the standard regimen of TV / work / books / movies / that last time we hung out / work. But it lasted only as long as it took for someone to point out “we’re talking about fucking Facebook,” after which the topics thankfully snapped back to the real-world order. I don’t know when it happened (2010? 2011?) but the shift was heavy and insidious, and now it seems like “talking about fucking Facebook” has become the new conversational order. Depending on the context and how well we know each other, my time spent with friends now goes from zero to full-tilt-Facebook in less than ten minutes. And once the topic’s breached, there’s talk of little else. It’s as boundaryless as it is genderless—male friends, female friends, all of us in the vicinity of our thirties, all of us locked into some indignant semi-gossip about who’s got the funniest statuses, the best pics, the cutest kids. Whose updates are obnoxious, or whose seem sad and dire in their insistent joy. Whose posts make us feel useless, whose make us feel better, and, most importantly, whose we’ve unsubscribed to entirely.
“We should really stop talking about Facebook,” someone will say now.
“I know, I know,” someone else will say.
Then, as a group, we proceed to do no such thing.
But what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about how people “are” on Facebook? A decade into its existence, its seems that those of us Zuckerberg originally built the thing for—mid-aught undergrads and twentysomethings—still seem at a crossroads in our acceptance of not just the medium and its pull over us, but also the power of Facebook as a sly innovator of the social more. Relationship statuses, birthday wishes, check-ins, the utterly useless “poke”— as early adopters, we gave over to it all jaggedly, and with no shortage of guilt and shame. (I didn’t relent until 2008, at age 30, after everyone I knew had stopped apologizing for enjoying it.) Probably because we still remember a time where we got along without Facebook, the residue of that shame still haunts our activity there, even while the reach and etiquette of Facebookery continues to evolve into something formidable. The web is clogged now with listicles and SEO clickbait featuring tips and no-no’s: how to post, how not to, who to fear becoming, how to comment, when to “like”, etc. — all of it swirling into a stew of nebulous, Fanny Burney-type decorum logic. To a generation who came to Facebook with little beyond an itch to spy on the evolution of people we once saw naked in high school, its not hard to see how that shift in language—and that’s what Facebook interplay has become now, a language—might provoke a response not unlike the one we had when Ice Cube started headlining family comedies: Oh, so this is like, a real thing then?
Which could explain why, to us, Facebook still feels like less of a given and more like a social experiment. Only for this one, we’re both the experimental group and the moderator, responding to our surroundings while at the same time gauging that response, providing real-time commentary on it. To one another. A lot. Yet of all the Facebook conversations I’ve had, none are more thorough than the ones I have with other writers, like me—people attuned to the reflexivity of experience, the power of mannerisms to create character and, above all, story. The talks are exhausting, and can last for hours (I’m not discounting myself here), but the bulk of it is less gossip and more in the spirit of Aristotelian detective work, searching for the holes in the stories of Facebook characters and how they apply to their real-life counterparts—what doesn’t add up. And once we get past the general status-and-photo talk, we arrive always at some version of the same question, one that’s plagued every Facebook conversation I’ve been a part of in the last year or so: How can X be such a nice person in real life, yet such an asshole on Facebook?
It’s a question that’s usually answered with heaps of praise for the real-life person in question; how they’re “really just an awesome person, so nice, seriously, but fuck: if I see another post about how lucky X feels to be married to the amazing Y, or how Z fought the indignities of a grocery line to triumph in their unstoppable quest to be their own biggest fan—and it goes on like this, devolving into some armchair, semiotic no-man’s land where none of us can tell which of the two—the person or the profile—advertises the “real them” more effectively.
Which points to the core problem with Facebook’s goal to be the most lifelike avatar of our true selves. With every effort Big Blue makes to deepen its humanity with photos and videos and widgets and timelines that stretch back to the very moment of our births, it greater exposes an unsettling schism in its depiction of us. Facebook captures everything about us but our essence, in effect creating an uncanny valley of human personality, where the tiny ways in which our profile fails to fully broadcast the “soul” of our being nullify the ways in which it succeeds. We exist in on Facebook only as flat characters, robbed of any arc, converging in a themeless, expressive limbo. Unlike with Twitter, which is somehow empowered by its ephemeral break from anything resembling a true identity (See: @nottildaswinton, @mayoremanuel, @drunkhulk, etc.), Facebook has become handcuffed, as its evolved, by its commitment to the opposite.
As such, an expression of id-like emotion on Facebook—So very happy for Jenny Decker and Scott Raner!—lacks, to the real-life person reading it, any of the drive, psychic tension, or context that led to that emotion. Like with all flat characters, in the storyline of Facebook there are no hurdles or denouement for any of us. And worse: there’s no way to concoct a moment that’s truly shared, which, given the goal of Facebook, can lead to an acute, dissonant kind of irony.
More than once I’ve heard friends confess to spells of deep loneliness and alienation as a result of steady Facebook exposure, that ticker stream of cleverness, cluelessness and self-promo scratching at something nameless and aggravated in each of them. And while I’m sure that’s no doubt triggered by something at least a little FOMO-related, it’s just as possible that the Facebook brand of loneliness could also be a result of inching that close to versions of people you care for, then realizing you’re helpless to tap in to the layers of intangible depth that brought you so close to those people—your friends—in the first place.
The whole predicament creates a distance fuzzy and subtle enough to be immeasurable, but that doesn’t stop me and my friends from huddling in perplexed circles, talking it out as if we’re psychotherapists. But I can’t tell if what we’re doing in these conversations is trying to measure that fuzzy distance, or if we’re mourning the loss of our perceptions of someone’s personality, or if, instead, what we’re really doing when we talk about Facebook is nothing more than plain and simple longing—missing our friends, wishing they could crawl their real, 3D selves through our gleaming little phone screens, have a seat, order a drink, and settle the issue for us once and for all.
Mike Scalise’s work has appeared in Agni, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Wall Street Journal, Indiewire, and a bunch of other places. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Yaddo, Ucross, and was the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University a while back.