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Parks on Writing

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

There’s a great little piece by writer and translator Tim Parks (author of the book pictured above) at the New York Review blog site today about writing within, or without, a home culture. Of particular interest are the contrasting examples he gives of students in his creative writing class — one writing a historical thriller about a culture foreign to him in time and place, another writing about a group of family and friends in England now — and the relative merits of their work. Before introducing these examples, Parks writes that

For most of us, the set of behaviors we call personality, or self, forms initially in a family of three, four, or five individuals, then develops as it is exposed to the larger worlds of school and, in our teens perhaps, our town, our country. The richness of our individual personalities is a measure of the complexity of the relations that sustain us. A word spoken at home or school can be dense with nuance and shared knowledge in a way unlikely to occur in a casual exchange at rail station or airport, however fascinating and attractive an exotic traveling companion may be. This is not an argument for staying at home, but for having a home from which to set out.

Parks’ observation is loosely connected to a claim I have often made to Joel, that I am his working definition of a normal adult. He may, over time, revise this definition, but he’s stuck with me as his initial frame of reference.

Here I am presuming to trod on Parks’ turf. Sorry about that. Let me back off.

Parks picks up his theme again later with reference to the two students:

If there is a problem with the novel … the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture. That package may work for some, as I believe my student’s account of dramatic upheavals in the Mongol empire will work for many readers; it has its intellectual ideas and universal issues: but it doesn’t engage us deeply, as I believe my other student’s work might if only he could get it right. And this is not simply an issue of setting the book at home or abroad, but of having it spring from matters that genuinely concern the writer and the culture he’s working in.

Parks’ article is provocative. And short. I suggest reading it in full.

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Categories: Culture, Writing
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