If you’re a writer, count yourself fortunate that Mark Twain is no longer around to read your book and write about it (I’m looking at you Stephanie Meyer). James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, and others) wasn’t so lucky. In a famous essay titled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Twain skewers Cooper (and his work) without mercy, and while he’s harsh (and hilarious) there’s plenty of wisdom for any writer to take note of in his list of charges. What follows is the first part of the essay in which Twain lists each offense. Do yourself a favor, though, and read the rest of the essay as well. You can find it here in its complete form.
Excerpted from “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”
by Mark Twain
Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.
2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
I can’t wait for folks to hear this record. For those who don’t know, this is Ron’s new solo album, which he co-wrote with Rebecca Reynolds. We’ll be opening it up for pre-orders very soon. In the meantime, check out what Jewly Hight has to say in the liner notes:
Ron has composed and arranged his way across centuries of folk and popular lineage with his nuanced knowledge and modern ear, putting his playful spin on Celtic balladry, old-time romps, soul-searing Appalachian modal melodies, nimble folk tunes, tradition-steeped bluegrass, groove-driven newgrass and contemporary singer-songwriter fare. The music finds a perfect match in Rebecca’s elevated use of imagery and rhyme, her strikingly poetic, period-appropriate word choice and their shared interest in writing songs that speak to a rich range of human experience, the fun, fervent and contemplative moments alike.
It’s hard to imagine a singer sounding any more natural than Ron does delivering these lines, his phrasing crisp and his timbre light and warm. That’s to say nothing of the eloquent communicating he does with his hands; for him, playing is “a means of helping the song say what it wants to say.” And, for the first time, he’s playing all of the guitar and banjo parts, from the lighthearted solo runs laced through “Ivy” to the deliciously droll licks that give “Sunshine Billy” its spunk and the soulful simplicity he brings to an instrumental reading of the hymn “What Wondrous Love Is This.”
As for Ron’s accompanists, they’re every bit the dream team you’d expect from a picker/singer/songwriter of his stature: Sam Bush, Mike Compton and Sierra Hull on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes on Dobro, Barry on bass and no less than Alison, Dan Tyminski, Kate Rusby and Suzanne Cox singing harmony. Those familiar with the lineup of Union Station will read that abbreviated list of guests and know that it means sometime between the opening and closing notes, everyone in Ron’s longtime band gets a chance to back him while he does his own, singular thing.
Pre-orders begin soon.
A few years back, I taught woodworking to teenage boys. They’d come into my shop with big ideas about the table or the bookshelf they intended to make and they’d start cutting wood and hammering nails and glueing boards and as they went I’d see a growing sense of dissatisfaction in their faces. That crestfallen look was there because the final work wasn’t as pristine as the glimmering idea they’d walked in the door with. So I’d help them. We’d backtrack and talk about drawing workable plans. I’d introduce them to important tools like the tape-measure because “No. You can’t just guess.” I’d show them the importance of structural support and strong, solid joints. Later, rather than sooner, most boys would end up with a functional version of their original vision. But in the end, a table (or a bookshelf) is a lot more work than a teenage boy envisions.
Without any doubt, though, there was always one part of the process that was the hardest to teach: Sanding. In woodworking, sanding is something that is almost impossible to do enough of. It’s also tedious. Trying to get a teenage boy to sit down and sand a board thoroughly is a trial. Heck, trying to sand thoroughly is hard even for me. It’s just not much fun. But a fine job of sanding will elevate an acceptable piece of work out of the swamp of the hobbyist and onto the higher ground of the artisan.
In writing, we’ve got another word for sanding; it’s called revision.
For the past month, I’ve been knee-deep in editorial work for The Molehill Vol. 2. I’ve read a lot of great essays, short stories, and poetry. I’ve also written a lot of notes and letters about what needs to be sanded down, refined, reinforced, and polished. Revising is a skill, and it’s one that anyone who writes needs to spend time learning, because revision is the abrasive force that rubs the burrs and imprecisions out of a piece of work so that its texture, grain, and natural beauty can shine.
The following are a few notes on things that I, as an editor, find myself repeatedly trying to sand away. I hope they’ll be useful to anyone who wants to look more critically at their own writing.
My good friends Greg Greene and Wes Driver of Nashville’s Blackbird Theater (you may remember them from the “Theology of Theater” podcast) have a new show opening this weekend. I ran into Greg a few days ago as he was putting up show posters all over town and he let me in on an incredibly generous promotion they’re running for the new play. They are giving away 150 tickets for free, the only caveat is that they want them to go to people who haven’t seen a local theater production in at least three years.
Here’s what Greg has to say:
“There’s a problem with Nashville’s theatre scene, and the whole industry knows it. It’s the fact that the majority of Nashvillians aren’t aware of how good local theatre has become in the last few years. The theatre community is more energized, it’s drawing better talent, and it’s producing braver shows than ever before. So Blackbird wants to invite Nashvillians back to the theatre by offering 150 free tickets to our production of Oleanna, by Pulitzer-winning playwright and filmmaker David Mamet. If you haven’t seen a locally-produced play in the last 3 years, we have two free tickets for you.”
That’s an amazing deal!
So what’s Oleanna about?
The play is being put on in conjunction with the 2013 Christian Scholars’ Conference at Lipscomb University, and the theme of the conference this year is “Crises in Ethics.” And that’s precisely what Mamet’s script is: a crises of ethics. The play (confession: I’ve only seen the film version starring William H. Macy) is a two-man show (one woman and one man actually) that dives into a deeply unsettling confrontation between a college professor and a female student. It’s about political correctness, and sexual harassment, and prejudice, and miscommunication. It’s about how we (mis)behave toward and (mis)understand one another. More importantly, to me as a writer, it’s about the power of subtext. Mamet’s writing is a testament to the incredible and explosive presence of things left unsaid. Watching the story unfold is uncomfortable, and alarming, and I’ll even venture to say enraging at times. And rightly so. It’s a piece of art that confronts us with a situation we are programmed to feel strongly about, and it makes us look at and grapple with our reactions. It’s powerful stuff. Not for the kids. And not for the faint of heart. But I guarantee that you’ll leave the theater with a lot on your mind, and that’s a good thing. (Note: there’s some coarse language, and an act of violence, but it’s not wildy crude; its mature nature is in its theme and subtext.)
Here’s what Greg has to say about the production:
“OLEANNA is short, sinewy, and it’s definitely for mature audiences. With Mamet’s incendiary script in the hands of David Compton and Jennifer Richmond—two of the region’s best actors—we think our new guests will be surprised at how engaging and exhilarating theatre can be. Best of all, it costs nothing—the only risk is that you may want more.”
“One of the most incendiary plays of contemporary theatre, OLEANNA is Mamet’s unflinching exploration of the perils of political correctness as witnessed through the twists and turns of a power struggle between a university professor and his female student.”
The show opens this Friday and runs through June 15th. Here’s how you can claim one of those free tickets. Visit Blackbird Theater’s website and select tickets for the performance of your choice, then enter the promotional code “mamet4.” That’s it. I’ll be at the show on June 14th. I hope to see some of you there.
Saturday, June 8 − 2:30pm – Lipscomb’s Shamblin Theatre
Saturday, June 8 − 7:30pm – Lipscomb’s Shamblin Theatre
Sunday, June 9 − 2:30pm – Lipscomb’s Shamblin Theatre
Thursday, June 13 − 7:30pm – Lipscomb’s University Theater
Friday, June 14 − 7:30pm – Lipscomb’s University Theater
Saturday, June 15 − 7:30pm – Lipscomb’s University Theater
Today is Memorial Day, so it occurs to me that this may be an appropriate memory to haul to the surface. I resubmit it for your perusal.
It seems like pirates in are in the news every time I turn around these days. But when this story popped up a while back it really caught my attention:
You can probably imagine my interest in the report but my association goes deeper than simply being an author who writes about pirates. Almost twenty years ago, you see, I was U.S. Marine Sergeant “Pete” Peterson and I served on the USS Dubuque for a while.
Luckily, the time I spent on the De Puke (as we called it) was almost entirely taken up by sleeping, playing Spades, and reading Michael Crichton novels rather than fighting pirates or saving the free world. I remember a tattered copy of Jurassic Park making the rounds from jarhead to jarhead throughout the berthing area and it ignited all sorts of lively debate about how well Steven Spielberg had (or hadn’t) interpreted it. Crichton was considered high literature to us in those days. If I remember correctly, a copy of Congo was being passed along not far behind it.
[Stephen Lamb (no stranger in these parts) recently had an essay featured on the Art House America blog and it's too good not to share. Is it a record review? Yes, sort of, but it's also a lot more. The opening paragraphs are posted below; click over to Art House America and read the entire piece. It's great.]
The day I turned thirty, I met some friends for drinks and celebratory cigars at a smoke shop across the street from one of my favorite restaurants, an Asian bistro where the sushi bar offers a roll that uses raw filet mignon instead of rice to hold everything together. After a couple of beers, and halfway through my cigar, I responded to the question someone had posed, asking what I wanted from the future. For one, I said, I hoped I’d be married before another decade had passed. “I’m not looking for someone to take away my loneliness. I know another person won’t do that. It’s just that sometimes I think I’m ready for a different kind of lonely.”
* * *
I listened to Leonard the Lonely Astronaut seven times in a row the first day I heard it. A concept album from Andrew Osenga, it tells the story of a man named Leonard, set in the year 2365. While in the process of finalizing his divorce, his wife and child are killed in a car accident. Crippled by grief, Leonard decides to volunteer to pilot a transport shuttle to a distant planet. The trip will take a year—six months there, six months back—but due to the laws of relativity and such, everyone he knows will be dead by the time he returns to earth. “I’ll make some new friends / maybe with their grandkids,” Andrew (Leonard) sings, ready for a new start, hopeful things will turn out differently this time.
I loaned Andy my old 60s Rogers drumset for the project and helped him build the spaceship in which to record it (yes, you read that right), so he sent me a copy of the record as soon as he had the final mixes. A couple days after my first listen, still hitting repeat over and over, I read Terry Tempest William’s new book, When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice, in two sittings. A beautiful book, equal parts reflection on her own relationships and meditations on the ways women find their voice in a world that often says their voice is unimportant, she has this to say about her marriage: “I have never been as lonely as I have been in my marriage. I have also never been more seen or more protected.” That night, I e-mailed the quote to Andy (one of the friends who had been around the table when I’d answered that question), saying I didn’t think I could come up with a better short summary of Leonard, no matter how hard I tried.
We’re both excited and honored to announce that the special guest for Hutchmoot 2013 is author Leif Enger. Over the past decade, Enger’s two novels, Peace Like a River (discussed here in 2007), and So Brave, Young, and Handsome (discussed here in 2008) have found their ways into what many might consider the hallowed halls of American classics. They’re the kind of books whose voices settle in and stay with you like welcome friends inclined to linger. They’re the kind of books that you find yourself still talking about and recommending years after you first met them, the kind of books you pull off the shelf time and again to smell and smile over and reread. Good books, like good folks, are glad company, and we couldn’t be more pleased to have Leif Enger at the Moot this year.
My wife, Jennifer, and I sat down and watched the film Sunday night and I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts. I’m going to throw out a few things that jumped out at me and from there the floor will be open. Feel free to jump in and join the conversation. Let’s try to keep the discussion away from technical critique and aimed more toward an examination of story, character, and theme. Here we go . . .
Mark your calendars. Hutchmoot 2013 will convene on October 10-13. That’s a holiday weekend so we’re hopeful that travel plans will be simplified for return trips and everyone will be able to stick around for the closing session this year. The Hutchmoot website has been updated with preliminary schedules, dates, and (final) pricing. Look for registration to begin in early March.
Thanks to Nathan Willis and William Aughtry (makers of the “Rest Easy” video), here’s a couple of short videos from Hutchmoot 2012. I got a little teary-eyed the first time I watched them. Enjoy (and please share them with your friends).
And then there were was “The Epic.”
Tow’ring tall as titans old o’er lesser vessels wrought of clay, shaped by strength of learnéd hand, and long by kiln-fire glazed and made, this massive* stein may well inspire deeds of heroes fell and fair, songs of skald and bard alike, meter bold and rhythm right in e’en the poorest poet’s mind.
The Epic comes in two varieties: Dante (top) and Milton (bottom).
These and 4 other mugs styles are now available in the Rabbit Room store. Supplies are limited. Get them while they last.
One of the projects I was most excited about last year was The Molehill Vol.1. Putting it together was exciting and challenging and, in the end, hugely rewarding. I’m proud of it and I hope readers have enjoyed it.
We’re now beginning the process of putting together The Molehill Vol.2, and I thought it might be fun to collect some feedback that could potentially give us some guidance. So I’m turning to you: the readership. What did you like about Vol.1? What do you want to see more of in Vol.2? What do you want to see less of? If you didn’t buy Vol.1, why not? What would make you interested in Vol.2? Did anyone decipher the elvish and dwarvish quotes? Did anyone wonder where the Governor of Ohio’s leg lived?
The floor is open. Let us know what you think.
I’ve had a long-time fascination with and love for stand-up comedy. It’s every bit as much an artform as songwriting, painting, or swordsmithing. In this short video, Jerry Seinfeld (one of the great ones), pulls the curtain back and shows us a little of how the machine works. (If you enjoy the behind-the-scenes of comedy, you might also enjoy the 2002 documentary Comedian, which follows Jerry on his first stand-up tour after leaving TV.)
Rabbit Room Movie Night? Yep. Find time to sit down and watch (or re-watch) 1984’s Best Picture-winner, Amadeus. Then on February 19th drop by the Rabbit Room to join in the discussion. Don’t forget popcorn, and don’t miss the chance to come to Nashville and see Blackbird Theater’s live performance of the stageplay on March 9th. (Tickets available here.)
I love animation. Here’s one good Oscar-nominated reason why, courtesy of Disney studios.
We’ve secured tickets for opening weekend on March 9th in Nashville and are making them available in the Rabbit Room store at a discount. Pick up yours early; we don’t expect them to last. We’ve also got some fun stuff planned between now and opening weekend that we hope will generate some good discussion, and there will be a special Q&A with the cast and crew after the show.
Great music, great storytelling, great theater. We’ll see you there.