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The Jewel-Hinged Jaw

Based on the recommendation of Neil Gaiman, via his blog, I read The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, a collection of criticism and other essays by Samuel R. Delany on sf and the craft and mechanics of writing. It boggled me. His fresh, lighting thought, his ability to strike to the heart of whatever he was reading or seeing, the power and wisdom of his analyses… Delany, along with Alberto Manguel, Harlan Ellison, and Jorge Luis Borges, gives the impression that he reads everything, and thinks genius thoughts about all of it. He reads a new book of poetry either once a week or every day, I can’t remember which.

So, naturally, I didn’t understand some of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, but the rest—especially Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words, an essay on language & sf, and the chapter of excerpts from his journal—proved inspiring, both in terms of story material and a desire to think better about the world around me.

Harlan Ellison once said, all a writer needs to know he can learn from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: pay attention. Notice the small things. This book had me stopping every few pages to write something down in my pocket notebook—which, due to its long residence in a certain pocket has taken on the shape of certain curved, pocketed body parts.

A notebook is essential to any writer, especially one with a memory as poor as mine. I keep it on me at all times, and interesting snippets of conversation, spontaneous lines of (admittedly terrible) poetry, short story ideas, the interesting way the light hits a patch of ice or the way a leaf skitters, spider-like, across the hood of a car—all of these go into the book, which is in its eighth iteration. I bought a stack from a certain Machiavellian superstore when I couldn’t find them elsewhere. I use 99 cent, stitch-bound mini-marble composition books (though if I had more class I’d use Moleskines or something. I do have a fountain pen, so sweater-vest crisis averted), but anything the writer will use works, so long as he uses it regularly.

Delany spoke of language as a breathing entity. Each word carries with it a picture, and each subsequent word modifies the picture created by the previous.  So then, he says,

A novel is a picture modified forty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-nine times.

His essays are full of such quotable sound-bytes, such as:

A story is a maneuvering of myriad micro-memories into a new order.

Stew on that for a minute. He’s saying a story is a way for the writer to get people to remember events or perceptions his way, structured his way, to mean what the writer wants them to mean. Redacting history—personal or communal—for effect. Memory shuffling. Reading is getting more like dreaming all the time.

Throughout the book, Delany, like Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison, gives me plenty of new writers to search out. One such is Joris-Karl Huysmans, who wrote ‘A Rebours, a book Delany cites as an example of using expertise in a range of subjects to lend your characters verisimilitude. I’ll have to get that particular book from ILL, as it’s too obscure for our public library, which is usually excellent.

In one of his essays, he wrote that Wilde’s Salome is linked to Edgar Allen Poe’s Politian, that Wilde “took cadences and repetitions in the dialogue” from Poe. I’ll need to read Politian to further illuminate the significance of the rhythms I noticed, but that’s a good example of the insights Delany casually throws away.

Another chapter I particularly enjoyed was his criticism of The Dispossessed, one of my favorite books by Ursula Le Guin, who is one of my favorite authors. Delany ends his essay—which ripped through flaws in the book I hadn’t noticed; flaws which stem from Le Guin not fully realizing certain facets of the characters—by praising The Dispossessed, and saying it was worthy of its awards, but if she had fixed those few problems, it could have been “one of the greatest books of the last three hundred years.”

That’s the standard and the spur. Write as best you can; dig deeper into your characters; fix the problems, never take the easy out. Above all, understand what you’re doing, and why. Leave nothing to chance.

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