February 22, 2018

Your state of mind while writing is crucial

Posted in Creativity, Fiction Writing, flow in writing, Literary Commentary, Momentum in writing, Tone tagged , , , , at 9:31 am by Rebecca Hein

What’s driving your state of mind while writing? This element of your work process can make or break your short story, novel, or nonfiction narrative. Both War and Peace and Crime and Punishment are excellent illustrations of this phenomenon.

It’s not too hard to guess what Tolstoy was thinking when he wrote War and Peace: “I want to make people think in a new way about history and the nature of power.” His vehicle, an epic historical novel, might have better fulfilled his mission if he’d kept to one genre throughout the story.

However, periodically he jumps out of the plot to deliver an essay on what power really is versus what we think it is, and how historical events prove his point. Thus, we find we’re reading two books in one: a novel about Napoleon’s invasions of Russia, and a string of nonfiction essays.

The novel is okay, though not the best ever written, despite the scope of the story. The essays are fine too, except they belong in a separate book. Possibly they would have more impact if presented in a collection of philosophical essays.

It’s obvious that Tolstoy had to express his convictions, and that the novel, as a literary form, couldn’t contain them. His failure to separate the two genres diluted them both.

Dostoyevsky also had strong convictions. But why would you want to slog through Crime and Punishment to discover the overriding conviction that clearly powered the book? Because the force of that one idea gives the story irresistible forward motion and absolute credibility.


February 14, 2018

War and Peace: Worth the Slog?

Posted in Fiction Writing, Literary Commentary tagged , , at 2:55 pm by Rebecca Hein

In a pithy commentary on perhaps the most long-winded composer in history, Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (reputedly) said, “[Richard] Wagner has beautiful moments but terrible quarters of an hour.”

Perhaps other artists also inflict the same problem on their audiences, hence, the listener, viewer, or reader may not stay around, and shouldn’t be expected to.

When I recently re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I wasn’t thinking about Wagner, although the book is long. Rather, I was curious: The blurb on the back cover claimed it is “the greatest novel ever written.” That felt like a red flag: I had to know if it was really that good—and why the story elicited a rave.

I remember from my first reading, 38 years ago, that by the end of the story, I felt like the characters had become members of my family. In addition, during my more recent second reading, I encountered an event so suspenseful that I couldn’t put the book down until the episode was resolved. How did Tolstoy render his character so real that I cared so much what happened to her?

It was a compelling moment—a little masterpiece. But to get there, I had to trudge through some confusion and a whole bunch of characters and their circumstances that sometimes seemed not quite connected to each other. What else did I discover was wrong, and right, about this epic historical novel?

February 8, 2018

Why Crime and Punishment is a Better Novel than War and Peace, and Why Writers Should Care

Posted in Creativity, Fiction Writing, Peak Experiences tagged , , , at 2:52 pm by Rebecca Hein

These days, highly intellectual novels such as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s War and Peace aren’t likely to attract many readers. “Too long and boring; too full of unpronounceable Russian names;” these are a few of the objections I’ve heard inside my own head, and from others. However, my reading habits seem to be subject to a stronger force than the legitimate desire of a reader to be entertained.

It’s the same phenomenon I encounter when listening to a wonderful piece of music. That beautiful concerto, sonata, or folk song reaches deep inside me and sets up an enduring memory of the experience and a craving for more.

How did the composer do that to me? I always wonder this, and have wondered the same when a writer pulls me so deeply into his or her story that I forget where I am.

This is another form of the perennial question, What is a great work of art, and how do we recognize it? If you want to write, you need the answer. Both Crime and Punishment and War and Peace can help us learn some of what we want to know.

October 14, 2013

Recognizing the Trade-Off, Part Three

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:12 pm by Rebecca Hein

When my traditionally-trained cello student told me that her fellow orchestra students who were Suzuki-trained couldn’t read music, I knew she was probably right. I’d been teaching Suzuki cello for several years and had been struggling to introduce music reading at the right time, and then to get those skills caught up with their technique, which was far ahead.

Until that conversation with my traditionally-trained student, I’d believed that Suzuki was superior, because a well-trained Suzuki student typically has much better technique than a traditional student who has been playing the same number of years. But traditionally-trained music students can read music.

Many excellent Suzuki teachers work hard to close, or prevent, the technique/music reading gap, but even with the best teachers, delayed music reading is built into the Suzuki approach and therefore will always be a pitfall.

So which is better: great music reading and so-so technique? Or great technique and crippled music reading?

July 25, 2013

Recognizing the Trade-Off, Part Two

Posted in music and writing, Revising at 1:30 pm by Rebecca Hein

As noted, problems in our writing pop out even when we try to improve it. For years I fought this reality in both cello playing and writing, and didn’t progress in my understanding of the problem until I began to think seriously about music pedagogy and the difference between various approaches.

All are designed to smooth the early path of technique and performance, and all have their limitations. For example, the Suzuki approach delays music-reading until the student is comfortable with the instrument and can play in tune and with good tone. By contrast, traditional study introduces basic technique and music reading all together at the beginning.

I really thought the founder of the movement, Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, had solved the problem of laying a strong foundation for good pitch and tone, until one of my junior high cello students told me, “Suzuki students can’t read music. In school orchestra, my Suzuki-trained stand partner watches me and copies what I do, a split second after I do it. It looks like she’s reading the page of music, but she’s actually faking it.”

This was an early clue that there’s always a trade-off. With the Suzuki approach, in pursuing good technique first, the important question of how to teach music-reading was not solved but delayed.

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