A Writer Goes to New Orleans—For Halloween

What is it about certain towns? You know, those that draw in writers? As places to write. As places to live. Or places to do a little bit of both…

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Internationally, there’s that perennial favorite, Paris. Then there are some of my favorites: Moscow, Istanbul, Madrid, Fes, Buenos Aires, Arequipa. (Why are so many of these former imperial capitals or ports? Or both?…Anyhow…) Man!—Any one of the towns I could (and sometimes have) set up shop in, find some cheap digs and just write, write, write. Closer to home, here in the U.S., there are lots of choices for literary towns. Dear to many an American writer’s heart is the Big Easy, New Orleans. And lucky me, I’m headed that way this weekend.

And not only is it NOLA, it’s Halloween in New Orleans!!! Which will be sweet. One of the biggest impressions of the city is just its overall spookiness. All those cemeteries with their stone avenues of mausoleums, the hints of voodoo practice in little shrines and altars, the old convents and parks with shut wrought-iron gates. Its whole atmosphere lends itself to Halloween.

Then, there’s the music and the food which are, let’s face it, the cornerstone of civilization once you’ve finished your morning coffee. For music, there’s jazz, as the obvious choice, but also lots more on offer. I’m going to try to find myself some good jazz piano this time around. (Let me know if you have any advice on where to go in the Comments section.)

As for food, my mission this time in NOLA is to really understand the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine. I think Cajun is the more rustic and country-food/gamey cuisine and Creole is more seafood-based and, well, mixed. But I will have to do a bit more hands-on research here. I also want to try trout—which is apparently a big thing I missed in my previous trips and some authentic Israeli food.

And finally that great literary heritage. There’s Chopin and Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and John Kennedy Toole—all these great mythologizers of the South, New Orleans and America—and all with some connection to this great city. Want to hunt down some of those places connected with them while I’m there.


Here’s a bit more on literary New Orleans from Huff Post. They do a good job of breaking down some of the highlights.

And PS, here’s the number one tip for doing New Orleans right: Get off Bourbon Street, and better yet, out of the French Quarter, and see what’s happening in the rest of town—you won’t regret it! And Gentlemen, don’t forget your dinner jacket, you’ll need it if you want to get into most of the decent restaurants.

See you next time,

DJ

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The Final Achievement: Simplicity

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” – Chopin

So let me riff, jam, groove, improvise on this theme today. Simplicity. What is it? How does one achieve it? Hawkins

Funny. Seems no one is aiming at simplicity these days. They seem to be aiming at money or success or something else. But simplicity? Who seems to be aiming for that? I can’t say many are, even me. But I like to think I try to follow this thought of  Chopin’s some of the time and Thoreau’s even plainer injunction to “simplify, simplify.” Not least, I hope I put some simplicity into my writing, but it’s tough. So surprisingly tough. But this week, I got a good reminder about doing just that.

I was over on the Guardian’s book section and I read a review of Paula Hawkins’ new book, Into the Water. It wasn’t exactly a glowing review. Now, it’s funny thing…I used to read book reviews from a different point of view, let’s call it a reader’s point of view. Then, I started writing and I started to read reviews from a writer’s point of view. So, I read the review and I empathized with (pitied?) Hawkins. I mean, here she is writing book after book, going through financial travails, not meeting with a huge amount of success and BAM!!! It happens. Her book becomes a bestseller!! And what a bestseller: it gets turned into a successful movie!

And all is well, until you have to sit down in front of that blank page. With everyone out there expecting you to do the same thing. Again. Whether you really want to, or can, is irrelevant. Everybody expects it.

I can’t say I know what happened, but I think I got a hint of it here (from the review):

It’s a set-up that is redolent with possibility. But that promising start fails to deliver, and the main reason is structural. The story of Into the Water is carried by 11 narrative voices. To differentiate 11 separate voices within a single story is a fiendishly difficult thing. And these characters are so similar in tone and register – even when some are in first person and others in third – that they are almost impossible to tell apart, which ends up being both monotonous and confusing.

I’m theorizing here, but I wonder if when it came time for Hawkins to sit down and write, she knew she had to go big, really big, in her next piece. So, she went all in on complexity. She tried to weave 11 (11!) voices into a coherent plot. And perhaps it was too much, I don’t know. (I have to admit I haven’t read her book).

The point is, I’ve been there. Of course, except, you know, for having the mega-bestseller that gets turned into a huge movie…Minor point, really! But I’ve felt the compulsion to keep adding stuff into my pieces: More plot lines, more characters, more voices. More scenes, thoughts and ideas. And sometimes, that’s not the point. Sometimes, it’s better to keep the plot to ONE PLOT LINE, to strip out voices, pair down characters and KEEP IT SIMPLE. There’s always this temptation to write convoluted plots with twists…Or to write in a heavy style that is super distinctive. But what happened to simplicity? To telling a simple story well without the overwrought stage dressing? And can I, as a writer, avoid those temptations? Give people a slice of life, yes, but get to the heart of a character and tell that one, simple story that changed their life.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

That’s something I’m going to be telling myself as I take up the pen this week. Maybe you should too???

Good Luck,

DJ