[narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, vanity]
Unsolicited Advice (for Eliza Blair)
Much moved today by the writer and scientist Eliza Blair's birthday post. At 25, Blair has already published award-winning science fiction while pursuing a dream to go to the moon. (Via.)
She's worried about the Amazon/Macmillan mess, and about the Obama administration's gutting of manned lunar missions.
I can't say much about the latter, except that it's disappointing. What I want to address is her concern that this most recent tempest in the publishing world's teapot is going to make it impossible for her to write "in a world where it is getting progressively harder to get paid" to do so.
Publishing is a big enmeshed family. Nobody knows for sure who's really dependent on what from whom. You might think writers, as the "content producers" at the very start of the supply chain are its most important part. This idea, while attractive, is not correct.
The most important part of publishing's supply chain, so to speak, is whatever you want to call this sacred and ornery mystery that once and a while bursts through the fog and confusion and incarnates in the form of a story on your page or screen.
It belongs to no one. This is as it should be. Sometimes the incarnated mystery sees the light of day, in the form of publication. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes it takes a long time. Blake had to wait for Rossetti. And so on.
I once did an informal survey of dates of first publication for modern novelists. Conclusions: For early success (before age 30) in writing, it helps to be white, male, and rich. Many, if not most, women writers published little to nothing until their 40s, after peak child-care years.
This survey was by no means definitive, but I took heart from it. I was 27, with three writing workshops under my belt, a handful of short stories on my hard drive and precious little else to recommend me to readers, not to mention editors and agents.
I made a spreadsheet and began to send stories out, keeping track of the responses. For every rejection that came back, I sent out another short story. For every rejection that came back with a personal note, usually scrawled across the form response, I made a note in my spreadsheet: This person likes my work. Eventually I started to publish, but I want to insist that this point is neither here nor there. With enough persistence, it's possible to publish a great deal, but you have to keep writing and sending stuff out.
What is a writer? By my lights, you are a writer if you write and you publish. But by my lights, publication includes sending "unpublished" material to editors and agents, who form, in essence, an early focus group for the work. Participating in workshops counts, too. For me, anyway.
My mother wrote short stories on her typewriter while my sister and I were at school. She participated vigorously in local writing workshops. Her stuff was really good. Due to living in a small town, I've met a few of her teachers, who have also been mine on occasion, and to a one, they remember and admire her talent. She could write short, which is a great gift, and she was funny. I am a different sort of writer -- more digressive, more interested in the possibilities of the sentence, and more open, I think, to mystery and ambiguity in my work. My mother's stories all ended the same way, with the evildoer, usually a younger woman who is first aided and then hampered by her disarming innocence, getting her comeuppance, often in a rather surprising way.
You can guess who the "evildoer" was, can't you? Like I said, she was funny. Often I felt like the person she was trying to reach with her stories was me, and the message she was trying to convey was: The world doesn't actually revolve around you, kiddo. You can see how the message could seem a little ambiguous, I hope. I struggled to write in her shadow; I still do. This struggle with shadows -- whatever form it takes in a writer's personal life -- is exactly the point.
It is easy to undermine writers with ideas about money, because so few writers make a living from their work. "None but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," is one of my nightmare refrains. But people do lots of things without a thought for recompense. Having children, for instance, is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Yes, you'll need to support yourself while you write; that's part of what it means, at this point in history, to be a writer. The other part is exposing yourself to a lot of rejection. Admittedly, sacrifice and rejection are awful, but that energy can be channeled usefully back into your writing. (This is why, when a rejection comes in the mail, you should send another piece of writing out as soon as possible.) Indifference helps. Armor helps. Experience helps.
My larger point: Amazon and Macmillan are a sideshow. If you miss it, don't worry: there will be another one just like it next month, or next week, or next year. I'm pretty sure it's safe to ignore, in favor of the other mysteries that are clamoring for your attention. Only you know what they are -- and people like me are out here, enthusiastically anticipating your new work.
Postscript: Writer and literary agent Nathan Bransford has collected some interesting responses from writers to the general problem addressed in this post: if you write, are you crazy?
The main thing is to make a fuss.
At The Rumpus, Elissa Bassist posts a hilarious, mostly imaginary interview with Elaine Showalter. The focus, as you might expect, is on women and writing, but like both, it is also so much more than that.
I often explain to my mother that to be a writer means to suffer mercilessly and experiment with prescription medication.
Go read. Just do it. It's that good.
At The Millions, Sonya Chung posts a sane, smart response to Katie Roiphe's recent NYT essay, in which she complains about the tentative approach to sex preferred by four contemporary American novelists. (In Roiphe's essay, this handful of writers is taken quite wrongly to be somehow representative of the whole of current American fiction).
Chung's essay is worth reading in its entirety, not least because she generously includes a hilarious catalogue, with examples (!), of ways that eros goes all wrong on the page. More seriously, she draws the reader's attention to the under-recognized writing of James Salter, and rightly so, because he does get it right, and spectacularly so, in his novel A Sport and a Pastime.
Chung: "The first time I read A Sport and a Pastime, just two years ago, I knew I'd experienced something unusual, alive, difficult in its directness; not something to look upon 'fondly,' but a story that, like all great art, connected me more deeply and truthfully to my whole human self -- sans irony or 'cool.''
The Moviegoer, C'est Moi?
THE ZODIAC OF PARIS available at Amazon!
THE ZODIAC OF PARIS is now available for pre-order on Amazon!
"This book makes a major contribution to European scientific, intellectual, and cultural history. Buchwald and Josefowicz have wrested from oblivion a subject that no previous author, French or English, has analyzed in this form or breadth. The Zodiac of Paris not only embodies interdisciplinarity at its very best, but also exposes the nineteenth-century roots of many concerns of the twenty-first century." -- Darius A. Spieth, author of Napoleon's Sorcerers: The Sophisians
He crossed the Danube on his cloak ...
"Legend has it that he was the son of a king, from Dacia or Denmark, who married a French princess in Paris. During the wedding night, the story goes, he was afflicted with a sense of profound unworthiness. Today, he is supposed to have said to his bride, our bodies are adorned, but tomorrow they will be food for worms. Before the break of day, he fled, making a pilgrimage to Italy, where he lived in solitude until he felt the power to work miracles arising within him [...] and went over the Alps to Germany. At Regensburg he crossed the Danube on his cloak, and there made a broken glass whole again; and, in the house of a wheelwright too mean to spare the kindling, lit a fire with icicles. This story of the burning of the frozen substance of life has, of late, meant much to me, and I wonder now whether inner coldness and desolation may not be the precondition for making the world believe, by a kind of fraudulent showmanship, that one's own wretched heart is still aglow." -- W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
"Method of this project: literary montage. I need not say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulation. But the rags, the refuse -- these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them." -- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Twelve thousand words into a new novel and I'm at the first serious tangle. There's a fragile madness to starting books. This time around I'm struck less by the madness -- I've been here before -- than by the fragility. The story's just a bubble until it's real.
Ears to Hear
"What we ask of writers is that they guarantee survival of what we call human in a world in which everything appears inhuman [...] Literature is like an ear that can hear beyond the understanding of the language of politics." -- Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature.
Another Day, Another 750 Words
A good result. I shall not push this. The material -- the title story to Malediction -- is fragile and still forming.
Two Pages, No, Make That Three (Plus Idea)
A story's been in my head for month and I can't say what has kept me from writing it. Distance from mind's eye to screen seems impossibly far sometimes. But now that I've started, I'm reasonably happy about it, meaning happy enough to look forward to doing more with it tomorrow. Need to start a sentence and not finish it -- leaving myself a sort of trail to follow on my way back into the work. Tomorrow.
Later: Took a walk, came home, wrote another page. Yay.
On a wholly unrelated note: a commenter on Betsy Lerner's blog notes that writing letters is, among other things, an identity-building activity: "My brother, in and out of prison, never responds to family letters, but, I can vividly imagine him writing someone he doesn’t know, has never known, in the hopes of becoming someone else in the exchange."
I like this idea.
What She Said
"Perhaps all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but in any home where one person usurps or is given more than a fair share of the oxygen, the others must find ways to go on breathing: denial, secrets, control, use, anger... As a writer, no question my anxiety, my concern for my children, my sometimes longing to escape and leave no forwarding address, were the initial energies that caused me to try to make this world on the page, but right from the beginning, the story came to me
as a novel ..." -- Ginnah Howard, author of Night Navigation
Writing my novel, I left the hardest scene for last, and there's nothing left for it now except to write it, or give up.
I doubt it could have turned out any other way.
Time narrows to a point, specifically my mother's right pupil on lithium-stelazine-mellaril and I can say with complete confidence that the gimlet gleam in her eye has nothing whatsoever to do with me.
Still I need a paragraph, another hundred words...
A Girl Who Can Write
Fry & Laurie, Really Only Slightly Mad
Over lunch today with a friend, as I was picking over ideas for a new novel, I realized I was dreaming up a mash note to psychoanalysis wrapped around a murder mystery. (Oh, come on -- what else could it be?) My friend pointed me to Fry & Laurie's psychiatric sketches. These guys sure had a lot of fun with psychoanalytic psychiatry. I see their sketch "Slightly Mad" as a riposte to the question posed in Freud's "On Creative Writers and Daydreaming": What is the difference between the "normal" work of the creative writer and the pathological productions of, say, a writer like Daniel Paul Schreber, on the one hand; and the work of the psychoanalytic psychiatrist, on the other? (The title image on that last link is emphatically NSFW, unless you work in a Dadaist art gallery. What was Penguin thinking?)
The crux is the business about writing letters to the paper, about 3 minutes in.
Freud kept the patient on the couch, kept himself out of view, and recommended only the occasional provision of interpretations. Modern face-to-face psychotherapies don't protest so much. Here's Fry & Laurie on the result -- the relevant bit starts at 0:57:
At 2:21 there's a playful reference to the "Bender Gestalt Test," which is real, but Fry's invitation to draw a line seems more like a request to play Winnicott's Squiggle Game. Laurie retorts that Fry is using "some sort of psychiatric jargon that you've picked up from the Reader's Digest," which at once notes the confusion and elides it, in a send-up of just the sort of incomplete repression Freud sees in jokes and parapraxes. At 3:00, the preamble ends on the word "masturbation," and the power struggle comes to the fore. "I'm the doctor, and you are the patient." The roles reverse dizzyingly. The question of names comes up at this point: Who is "Dr" and who is "Mr"? The rest of the session raises, only to deconstruct, every piece of stage business in the psychoanalytic psychiatrist's theater: the authority to summon the secretary, to make clinical notes, to prescribe medication, to end the session, to offer appointment times. By 4:53, the joke's on us -- but I won't spoil it. Take a look.
So I am looking at my file of "final" revisions for EASY JOURNEYS and noticing that starting every writing session with a fresh duplicate of the last file I worked on means that I now have a list of dates and times at which I actually sat down and worked on this book.
In the past year, I've made sixty duplicates. That's about one session of writing per week. Not a whole freaking lot, in other words. What has happened to the time? Did I spend all of it shopping online and eating bonbons?
And then, as I am beating myself up, I remember that this year, I also finished TWO OTHER BOOKS. And, while finishing these books, and in addition to the sixty sessions I just mentioned, I spent four solid forty-hour weeks working on line-edits to EASY JOURNEYS, a task that takes place on paper before it goes to the screen.
So, revising upward, that's a total of sixty writing "days." How many work days are in a year?
About two hundred.
But, oh yeah, I've got a kid and a husband who travels a lot of for work, which means that my time isn't exactly under my control.
And I've been careful enough to make a backup of my novel every damn time I sit down to work on it, which ought to say something about my seriousness. Maybe one day in every three isn't so terrible, given everything else that's going on. Or maybe the real miracle is that I haven't given up yet.
I wish I could be like Annie Dillard, who writes so well about not writing. But of course this is not what I am doing. I am, in fact, working hard, and I'm making progress. What would happen if I stopped looking for evidence that I'm useless? Would I write more, or would I just read celebrity gossip all day?
Either way, I suspect I'd feel better.
Yet More Hot Type! READING HYPERTEXT available on 15 August
It's official: READING HYPERTEXT, a collection of essential papers about literary hypertext, edited by Mark Bernstein and Her Nibs, will be available on August 15. I'm biased, of course, but I think this anthology fills an important gap in the hypertext literature. We don't yet know nearly enough about how links change reading, but over the last twenty years, some very smart and thoughtful people have tried to map the territory, and this book brings a number of those essays together in one place.
Mark has posted the lowdown, including the table of contents, on his blog. Snippet: "Today, we all read on the screen, and we find what to read by following links. The Web is continuing to transform the world, artistically, commercially, technically, and politically. But the Web is not print, and it's certainly not television. What makes new media new? The link: the most important new punctuation mark since the comma. How do we write for a medium when we can't predict what the reader might click? How do we read well, when we cannot read exhaustively?"
If you're attending HT09 in Turin, you'll get a sneak peek!
You can preorder a copy online -- the first copies will ship on August 15.
Incredible Shrinking Novel
Cutting continues. The novel is some 15,000 words lighter than it was a year ago. That's sixty manuscript pages, or ten ounces, if we're talking actual poundage.
6/30/08 137,000 words
6/17/09 121,457 slow, slow, slow
6/26/09 118,988 ring the bell, first goal reached!
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana Annotation Project, initiated by Eric Ketzan, is an online concordance to the novel, organized by page and chapter. This site is a godsend, since the annotations in the print novel are skeletal and there is a great deal for allusion-hunters (allusionists?) to track down. Anyone may contribute. Brilliant.
Hot news about one of my books!
The Great Diminution, Part 3
After a long interval of work on other books, I return to my project of trimming my novel to 115,000 words.
6/30/08 137,000 words
The goal may be too ambitious. I'll be pleased if I can get within striking distance of 120,000.
A day of intrusions and interruptions, time managed or not managed or managed badly, phones and calendars and schedules and the usual demoralizing effort to find a stretch of usable time while engulfed by chaos.
The time, even if found, is not always fruitful; so much depends on what goes before. A hard morning can obliterate a perfectly free afternoon, making it useless for anything but errands and busywork.
Knowing I am unlikely to have the opportunity to complete a thought, I struggle to begin. There's always the knock at the door, the doorbell ringing, the phone, perfectly reasonable requests for this or that.
At the same time, Jane is learning, again, where she ends and I begin. On her own, she goes further now than she did at two or four, on trips that require more complex supplies. Her development is relentless. As it should be. I fail to adapt quickly enough, which I know is also fine, and inevitable. Still, the guilt.
Outside, the sky is densely white, holding back a foot of snow.
Back to the novel.
I was in it. I was doing it. And, once again, the terror and the silence and the solitude became too much.
Mistakes! Imperfection! Failures of understanding! And technique!
Agh! Run away!
I need to learn to tolerate these things long enough to fix them.
A friend of mine calls her agent when this happens, and he says, "Take a Valium and keep going."
Maybe it's the weather. My imagination froze over this week.
After hours of sitting around, considering the problem -- try a new antidepressant? not enough sunshine? too much reading? too little? the wrong sort? -- I laced up my skates and slid onto the pond.
Meaning: I set the kitchen timer for 45 minutes. I sat down before my work. I told myself:
Yes, you suck, but you will write anyway, in and through and with your insufficiency, your failures of will, your dissatisfaction, your wish for cheap succor, for cigarettes and scotch.
Immediately, I was interrupted. I growled and put on my noise-canceling earphones. I pushed on.
And then I was in it. And I was doing it. And the terror and the silence and the solitude became too much and I went over to Facebook and tortured myself in the various ways that one can torture oneself on social networking sites. (Don't ask, okay? Just don't ask.)
I hate and fear this novel.
This is a good sign.
I'm getting more coffee. I'm gonna reset the timer. I'm going back in.
Procrastination at the End
I am coming to the end of a long stint of editing and with seven pages to go, I am procrastinating. This, despite the fact that the holiday madness begins tomorrow, and even though finishing up early means I can get a head start on holiday preparations. I seem resistant to the idea of having a "whole" experience - I would prefer to leave the editing undone and live with the continued pressure of the unfinished task than actually finish up, which entails decisions and compromises and so on.
Later: It's done. It took all of thirty minutes. Sure, the edit did require some thinking, which of course is not something I do except under conditions of duress. Was that my hangup, the actual thinking part? Gah. That's brain fog.
the register slips and --
My inner therapist brandishes a prescription pad.
"Go away," I tell him. "I got past it."
"This time," he says. His expression is faintly superior, like he's about to quote Milan Kundera.
For a split second I think about sharing my theory that procrastination is a way of symbolizing, through enactment, the idea of death, the one appointment everyone hopes to miss, but I don't. The idea is morbid enough to confirm his working hypothesis, and surely he will also feel the aggression in it and retaliate in some way that I hesitate to imagine. Even though, of course, this entire conversation is imaginary.
"Look at it this way," I say. "It is just possible that therapy is working."
Now to relax by making spicy chocolate cookies and candied pecans.
"You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. 'Floods' is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding: it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory --- what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our flooding." -- Toni Morrison
Photographer Eamonn McCabe has done a series on writers' rooms.
I have always enjoyed photographing loners. When I was covering sport it was boxers in their gyms. Now I'm older, I enjoy photographing writers, poets and artists. The one thing they all have in common is that they work alone.
The latest from Her Nibs, hot off the press: a review of Samuel Shem's new novel, The Spirit of the Place at
Gently Read Literature; and a new Metrotwin list of fun off-Broadway venues for your next trip to NYC. Because what you don't need, this season, is to sit through yet another performance of The Lion King.
I've lately become so translatlantic that I've been tapped to write for Metrotwin, a website for travelers in New York and London.
The "twin" aspect of this project excites me very much. The site operationalizes the metaphor by letting you correlate sites between cities, so a favorite boutique hotel in Clerkenwell can be matched to, say, the Soho Grand. Sure, it's not a perfect match. The mirror is always a little cracked, a little warped -- but this is the point, is it not? To see what is produced by such ambiguity.
I'll be concentrating on NYC hotspots, at least at first. That's the city I know best, after all. Still, I like to mix things up. My latest list features things to do, see and eat when you're in NYC but would rather be in London: For Anglophiles and Homesick Brits.
To the Finland Station
[another cheese sandwich] [also, a kind of primal scene]
Of course, it wasn't anything like that, or even like that.
I had taken the Moscow sleeper to Helsinki. Embarked at Petersburg. I saw the sun rise from the train, as we rolled through a blasted landscape -- all the trees had been cut down -- punctured by the occasional long-abandoned monastery or, more frequently, clusters of tin-roofed shacks. I was in the top bunk. A couple slept below.
Here I am in Russia, I thought. This is Russia.
That's what it was, perhaps is, all about for me, that slight shift in point of view -- and the infinitely generative mistake contained within it. Here I am ... This is. And the moves that follow: Are you? You, really? And, where? Is it?
(There's a joke here, about dialects and dialectics. Not to mention dielectrics. Damned if I can find it, though.)
Anyway, to specify: I -- if it was "I", if one can say "I" -- was on my way to the border. At Vyborg, police would board the train. There'd be traffic in passports and visas. I had euros, rubles -- and a fistful of dollars, if it came to that. I wondered about the language in which the border transaction would occur. Last time, it had been in Russian. Mine had been passable, a thoroughly convertible currency, and I'd gotten some obscure extra cultural credit for speaking it. This time, I wasn't sure. (I am never sure, at these moments, if my language will be good enough, as if the currency on my tongue might be petrodollar or worthless paper or something in between, according to an exchange rate over which, strangely, I feel I have no control.) I stared at my passport, at the visa that had taken so much to procure. After days without documents in Petersburg, days in which I wondered whether my payment of a "passport tax" -- which the hotel had required, in American dollars, along with the surrender of my passport -- was actually going to be enough, I was just relieved to have the passport back. Not that I knew, in any significant way, who I was. Not that anything on my passport could tell me. Still, I could write my own name in Cyrillic. If it was mine. If it came to that. Would it come to that? How to tell?
I was on the border, and still making prison art.
Below me, the man and the woman woke slowly. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and adjusted the pretty scarf at her neck. He shrugged into his coat. They were shy with each other, and oblivious of me. Are marriages the same the world over? They discussed her sister, his father, family matters, all the while speaking gently to one other, almost formally, as if courtesy were everything. Perhaps it is. When they finally noticed me, I spoke in haltingly in Russian, to show I had not understood what I'd overheard. This was important. A courtesy, also. But I'd screwed myself, in a way, because now I could not speak more fluent Russian to the border police.
I now wonder if this was not perhaps the most artful thing I'd done on the whole trip.
I had Osip Mandelstam on the brain. ... I am suddenly transitionless ... He died in a gulag, an imprisoned artist who managed somehow not to make prison art. A freedom he took, illicitly, and paid for - what currency - with his life. No dawn trains for him, no reliable velocity taking him across the border, out of the country. No dull, sweet conversation waking him up, either. Instead, just ambivalent wishing for a place in which to have a conversation of, I think, a different sort: We shall meet again in Petersburg, as though there we'd buried the sun, and for the first time, speak the word, the sacred meaningless one...
[for extra credit, tell me what's right and wrong, at once, about the title of this post. hint: prepositions of motion can be very hard to translate into russian]
Man on Wire
"To me it's so simple-- life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise in rebellion. To refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself. To see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge and then you live your life on a tightrope." -- Philippe Petit, in Man On Wire
Dana Stevens' review of the film conveys both the irresistible beauty of le coup and, it must be said, the high personal cost of its success. After the WTC walk, Petit abandoned Annie Allix, his longtime lover and chief source of moral support, and J-F Blondeau, the childhood friend and secret sharer who came up with the ingenious idea of using a bow and arrow to send the wire across the void. While this idea solved a technical problem, its sheer homeliness may have also gone some way toward lowering the ambient anxiety, making the feat seem -- as I suspect it had to, for all of them, on some level -- like, despite the danger, it might still be just a prank, a lark, child's play.
I'm of two minds about whether the result was worth the sacrifice. Without the wound of 9/11, I might be inclined to say that while Petit's walk was beautiful, it was probably not worth the pain it caused, especially to Blondeau and Allix. One might object that they knew what they were getting into, or should have, and one would not be wrong. A small but necessary correction might be simply to give credit where it's due: everyone who helped Petit deserves gratitude, praise, admiration, not just Petit himself.
But there's more to it than that. It would be intellectually dishonest to fail to acknowledge that, after 9/11, Petit's walk seems like a profound gift.
I'm on a wire myself, writing this -- Petit's walk was certainly full of beauty, yes, but it was also a rebellion, full of rage and defiance. Crossing empty air, he was making his way through scary, primitive territory. If he'd fallen, would it have been "for us"? (For "our own good"?) The religious implications are clear enough; and no man should be a religion; one would hope that 9/11 alone would once and for all put the lie to messianism. Petit's walk seems questionable for just these reasons - it is easy to imagine how it could be put to a terrible use, as a justification for terror. But this would pervert it. There's an important difference between symbolic engagement with wild energies, and their mobilization in the service of terrible aggression in the real. The difference must be understood, and upheld - if only in defense of a world, now lost, where the incredible hubris of building two enormous towers on the south tip of Manhattan could be convincingly addressed (not bested, certainly not redeemed) by a daring man and a handful of no less daring accomplices, with no loss of life and, arguably, an increase of it.
So maybe the question becomes: Was the address convincing? Did Petit's act carry conviction? Or was it just a stunt?
As far as I know, Petit asked for nothing from his audience, not even their attention - he just stepped out into the sky. (It was Allix, from the ground, who cried, "Regardez!") He demanded no money, no press, not even the attachment of his name to the work. In this sense, at least, it was a kind of gift -- even before 9/11. At the same time, the gift still isn't unalloyed. I mean, why choose the towers, if not in acknowledgment of how wonderfully they would serve as a vehicle for his immortality, should he survive the crossing?
My friend, the poet Richard Katrovas, writing on prison art, has thoughfully pressed the same question even further, exploring the difference between art without conviction and the sorts of art that can get you, well, convicted. (Do the latter have more claim to our attention? More purchase on the truth? Is this linguistic register even useful? Claims and purchase -- this is the idiom of property.) Anyway, the essay I've just linked to is nominally about art programs for the incarcerated but more deeply about the problems posed by defiant art, including whether such art is even possible under the conditions of late (very late) capitalism. A witness to the Velvet Revolution, the son of a chronically incarcerated con man, and no stranger himself to real and symbolic imprisonment, Katrovas suggests that, especially in a so-called "free" society, the deepest freedom comes through the artist's embrace of ephemerality, the renunciation of the ambition to use art to build monuments to the self. Instead, there is the production of gifts, in Lewis Hyde's sense, best of all coming without a name attached:
Most art is prison art, if William Blake's famous 'mind-forg'd manacles' are taken seriously as endemic to the human condition. The truly free man or woman doesn't make art the way any 'serious' artist does, because any serious artist, any constant (in both senses of the word) maker of Small Art, does so because she or he is chained to compulsions and egocentric ambitions no less securely than the prison laborer or slave is chained to his Big Art task. Perhaps only when the work of art is conceived not as a commodity or monument or testimony, or prophecy or admonition, but as a gift, a true gift, does the artist, the giver, achieve something we may call freedom, though the product of such freedom certainly will not have purchase on 'greatness,' 'profundity,' 'wisdom'; such art will certainly be ephemeral.
(Which is not to say artists should not be paid for their work - but that is a subject for another day.)
* It now seems perfectly inevitable that I should be reading the late novelist Rocco Carbone's Libera i miei nemici, his last novel before his cruelly untimely death this summer, based on his work in the Rebibbia women's prison.
The Short Story's Napoleon Complex
Steven Millhauser has a wonderful essay on "The Ambition of the Short Story" in today's NYT.
The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe. It seeks to know that grain of sand the way a lover seeks to know the face of the beloved. It looks for the moment when the grain of sand reveals its true nature. In that moment of mystic expansion, when the macrocosmic flower bursts from the microcosmic seed, the short story feels its power. It becomes bigger than itself. It becomes bigger than the novel. It becomes as big as the universe.
Not only does my new short story, "Eleven, The Spelunker" appear in the new issue of The Saint Ann's Review, but the SAR has very generously made the story available in its entirety online.
This is a heck of an issue, with ELEVEN (!) new pieces of short fiction -- a bonanza according to current literary periodical standards -- plus a slew of breathtaking poems, including a translation of "Ghosts of the Palace of Blue Tiles" by Jorge Fernandez Grenados, and art by Phillis Ideal, Tina Eisenbeis, Maggie Tobin and Jayne Holsinger.
All this, for just eight bucks - a feast. Subscribe.
The Great Diminution Continues
Must trim 137,000-word novel to 115,000 words.
7/31 129,947 words
[interval of insomnia, hives, other work, in which a mere 10 words were shaved off the ms., oh, the shame]
8/17 129,937 words
Goal: 115,00 words
The Saint Ann's Review
The Great Diminution
Must trim 137,000-word novel to 115,000 words.
7/14: 137,263 words
[break: in which I fretted over the existing 134,473 words; finished a chapter in a different book; and pondered an interpersonal paradox]
7/24: 133,871 words
7/30: 130,872 (after four hours in the studio!)
RIP, Tom Disch
Gone, suicide, handgun.
"Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, [Disch] has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank sf writers." -- 1993 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
His blog. The despair is all there, and so obvious now, hindsight being what it is.
My friend Steve is engaged in a lovely collaborative project, 100 Images, which combines a plein-air watercolor a day from the artist Carianne Mack with an original poem by Steve. I hope they turn this project into a limited-edition artist book. It's the sort of thing I'd love to have, for winter afternoons.
Boredom Not So Boring
Have just remembered one of Richard Howard's wonderful bits of advice: When a piece of literature bores you, be alert. Something important is happening there.
A point that might apply more generally, perhaps.
Oooh! Mark just sent me a new notebook for my field notes. Hard not to hold this baby and think, the whole world is my field. But that will not do. Specificity! There are crops to predict (easy: 1 ear of corn, 100 zukes, a bean), landscaping and further renovation plans to make, wish lists to compile, trips to the beach, French classes, afternoons at the Ath, sweaters to dream about, and lots of new things to cook with our fresh farm-share vegetables. Oh, summer! Thank you, Mark!
The Good Sentence
Rx for Joy, Way Better Than Zoloft
No End of Ways to Go Wrong
A great post by Dan Visel over at if:book: Dan learned to set type this weekend, and in the process learned a whole lot about the haptics and temporality of the most persnickety aspect of book production, getting the letters and spaces on the page in the right order. Legibility being just about the most basic condition of possibility for any book of the usual sort (leaving art books and their ilk out of it).
Visel: "There's no end of ways to go wrong with manual typesetting. With a computer, you type a word and it appears on a screen; with lead type, you add a word, and look at it to see if it appears correct in its backward state. Eventually you proof it on a press; individual pieces of type may be defective and need to be replaced. Lowercase bs are easily confused with ds when they're mirrored in lead. Type can be put in upside-down; different fonts may have been mixed in the case of type you're using. Spacing needs to be thought about: if your line of type doesn't have exactly enough lead in it to fill it, letters may be wobbly. Ink needs attention. Paper width needs attention. After only four days of instruction, I'm sure I don't know half of the other things that might go wrong. And at the end of it all, there's the clean up: returning each letter to its precise place, a menial task that takes surprisingly long."
I Lack Executive Function Today
First Drafts & Imagined Audiences
After four hours of steady work, I have a new story of 4200 hundred words. Right now, it's just a dialogue in which a story happens, and not a proper short story yet. In other words, it's a first draft with a long, long way to go. But what a pleasure, what a relief, to write like this, letting the piece simply unfold as a conversation with a kind and sympathetic person rather than writing with, say, Deborah Treisman's responses foremost in my mind.
It's 7:30 AM. I'm in the middle of a pleasant dream, in which a cherished person grants me a wish.
Jane wakes me. She doesn't want to go to school. She wants to go out for breakfast, wants a pain au chocolat, wants above all for me to do this special thing with her.
Honestly, selfishly, I want to go back to my dream.
"Sure," I tell Jane, pushing myself out of bed. "Let's go."
I got a wish and gratified one. But this was not a two-party transaction. It was neither tit-for-tat, nor win-win, but something else entirely. A little like paying it forward.
Now the whole world seems wonderfully bewitched, pregnant with magic. My next book might just be possible after all, and today might be a great day to begin!
I should stop here. There's a nice aesthetic quality to this conclusion. But it's too neat. And it's untrue. The truth is, I immediately cast a rather liverish eye on my own exhilaration, telling myself that maybe it is just a fantasy of omnipotence fueled by my own grandiosity.
Or, what the heck, it could just be hope.
Closing In, But Not Closed In
In the off-hours, I'm completing a last (truly) pass through the novel, clearing up lapses in the fictional dream (as well as typos). Something's happening: the psychological texture of the book is coming out in higher relief, is more coherent and consistent.
Soon, I will have to stop: there is a point beyond which further editing of this sort risks choking off the reader's flow of association -- which, once established, is guided by the text but separate from it -- so the book becomes dull and controlling.
A delicate operation, this business of knowing when to stop.
Mise en Place
"One of the reasons I love the world of the kitchen is because so much of the work of cooking has a metaphorical component. I believe that cooking well, or striving to, is a metaphor for living well. Having good mise en place is a metaphor for being organized in your life and in your mind. Its goals are to ensure preparedness and efficiency of action." Ruhlman.
I love how this observation deepens the idea of "getting things done," makes it seem more wonderful, more meaningful, and less about the metrics inevitably attached to "what gets done".
Another Lesson Learned
I'm revising the novel so I can submit it for my degree, at last.
Here's what I just figured out: The perspective shifted all over the place in the early drafts. I followed these shifts, correcting them where I could, and wondering how in the world I had managed to become such a crummy writer. Now I understand what was happening: In a third-person narrative, slight, subtle, almost unnoticeable shifts in perspective actually happen all the time. And that's okay. More than okay. It's how you show, rather than tell, that the characters are changing.
We do this all the time in real life, and our ordinary language captures it: And then I saw things a different way. My perspective shifted. I changed my mind.
Another Way of Looking At It
Work-Life Balance? I Think Not.
Jane's been home sick three days solid with a fever.
So I truly sympathize with The Work-Life Cha-Cha, a blog by a mom who blogs about her efforts to "balance" her work, which she does outside the house, with her "life," meaning the work she does at home. Her categories are telling and hilarious. Among them: sick kids, sick day, sick-time, working family, working breakfast, working dinners, diarrhea, ear infections, self-doubt, multitasking, memory loss.
I would add to this: not-napping, tantrums, whining, wiggling, babbling, arguing, insisting, bargaining.
Work-life balance is a bullshitfancy way of saying there aren't enough hours in the day. Let's face it: Work is work. Life is work. A good day in a family with two working parents is not a joyous one; it's not a day that makes you feel vital and alive. No. A good day is when the work gets done. The work-work, the life-work.
For the past three days, my life has been all "life" and no "work," which makes me really, really crazy. The Zoloft dose that used to work for 18 hours now works for perhaps 3. My system can only handle two doses per day; after that, I'm nauseated beyond belief and sometimes I can't sleep. So, in between my carefully titrated infusions of heavy-duty pharm, I drink water and eat dark-chocolate covered espresso beans, which at least help with the lethargy. I count to ten. I breathe slowly. I try to avoid snapping at Jane. It's not her fault she's sick.
Most of my energy is going toward being patient and keeping my mouth shut. I am throttling various urges, knowing they are not productive.
On Not Working
Cary Tennis' columns at Salon are a reliable source of juice on dry days. And boy, was today ever a dry one.
It's way meta, but Tennis had a great response to a person who wrote to confess that all of a sudden, she just stopped working.
"Why do we suddenly stop working? Sometimes it is because some essential linkage to us has broken or worn down; the cam that was to prod us into movement no longer brushes against us, and so we come to a slow halt, and freeze, and find to our amazement that as the rest of the engine hums with admirable harmony, we sit quietly, doing nothing, untouched, unsupervised. Or it may be that rather than a physical cam or rod that no longer prods us, it was a link of information that has decayed, so that we are no longer receiving instructions. Again, in the lack of instructions, we simply stop working. Or we may be receiving instructions, but in Mandarin. We do not speak Mandarin. How odd. But we wait. We wait for better instructions. Or the instructions may be in our native language but indecipherable, written by another cog who was daydreaming.
"So we simply stop working. Those adjacent may be too busy to notice that we have grown quiet and still. In fact, because the machine was poorly designed, it may turn out that the machine works better when we do nothing..."
Tennis confesses that once he did the very same thing -- came into work faithfully every day only to sit there, shoving his mail into a cardboard box underneath his desk.
RIP, Madeleine L'Engle
Note to Self by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881)
Oh, how I dislike the sort of writing that asks you to love it, to approve of it, while pushing you away - humorless stories about self-destruction in the service of rebellion, of telling it to the Man. The writer forgets the basic instability of the reader's position, how easy it is to go from sympathy for the narrator to identification with the very thing that oppresses her. I do not understand why people bang on about, for instance, Baudelaire, who whines quite a bit about being -- get this! -- unlucky in love. Which happens to everyone, and certainly is not a cause for whining.
Often, when reading Baudelaire, part of me wishes I had lived in nineteenth-century Paris & had the opportunity to dump him. Imp of the perverse and all that.
When this happens, I reject everything, hating to be made complicit in a story that I came to all opened up and vulnerable and ready to listen.
This post is not meaningfully linked, it accuses without pointing a finger, it whines and complains. Fittingly, I suppose.
Not That I Would Know Anything About This
"Writing a thesis is a lonely obsessive activity. You live inside your head, nowhere else. University libraries are like madhouses, full of people pursuing wraiths, hunches, obsessions. The person with whom you spend most of your time is the person you're writing about." -- Hallucinating Foucault, Patricia Drucker
Tillie Olson's Reading List
In Silences, Tillie Olson lists a bunch of books by women writers, many of whom I hadn't heard of before. I decided to make a project of reading the whole list, starting with Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and, with Jane, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (which I had read before, many times, in my childhood). I'm going to blog about this reading now and then, and I've created a rather prosaic tag to keep track of those entries. The point, originally at least, was to read with an eye toward figuring out just what causes periods of silence (sometimes prolonged, sometimes permanent) in women writers especially. But I think I already know the answer -- childrearing, domestic responsibilities. There is more to it, though. I'm interested in articulating this "more" and fleshing it out, putting words and images to this vague feeling of foreboding that I have when it comes to sitting down with my own writing, especially lately. The other point is to expose Jane to these writers as early and often as possible, to normalize (if not erase?) the category of "woman writer," & eliminate the residual peculiarity that's still associated with it. My thoughts on this subject are irritatingly vague and unformed, though. All I can say is, bear with me. Maybe all this reading will change that somehow.
That's My Kid, Yup
i'm tired of capitalization today. still hanging onto punctuation, though. barely
the difference between here and every other place where I've lived: nothing is referential, nothing reminds me of anywhere else.
but this existential flatness is merely a surface effect (what else could it be?) - like being in a raymond carver world, where it is surpassingly tempting to scrape away at the clear lacquered surface of things, not to get at what's underneath (there is nothing underneath) but only to rough things up, create a texture.
(fifteen minutes of staring into space, and it comes to me that this is a critique of realism)
Yet Another List of Totally Incomprehensible Desiderata
Would like to capture, in a series of signs that come one after another in time, e.g., writing, the following:
1. Morning light outside Smithfield Market, London, the slightly foggy way the light reflects off the plastic awnings, on a cloudy day in June. How cool that light is, how thoroughly unsaturated. Later, the sky turns clear blue. Perhaps call this: British Summer Time.
2. The few days I spent with my mother after she was diagnosed with Pick's disease. The evenings I sat outside, on the back step, after she fell asleep. The blackness of the trees in full leaf against the night sky, not quite so black, in the backyard of the house I grew up in. The leaves rustling. A different June.
3. A certain quality of my relationship with Jane. Things pass between us so fast, without words. How wonderful this is, how occasionally it is also useful, how it is also scary, to be so close. How she is not scared.
4. Falling into a painting. Finding oneself alive in it. Waking up in it. Smell of turpentine, linseed oil. Suspicion that this is a dream belonging to my mother. Explore relationship of this idea to painting as problem solving (Lee Krasner). Louise Bourgeois' journals.
5. The experience of being in thrall to an idea. The moral ambiguity of this. Compared to being in thrall to a person, perhaps. (Even more morally ambiguous.) Thomas Mann wrote a short story about this - "Mario und der Zauberer," I think. Also Iris Murdoch -- all her books are about this, in one way or another.
Breakfast With Jane
I am one-third of the way through my first cup of coffee when Jane announces: "Cinderella isn't real."
"No. She's just a story."
"When I turn five, I want to visit Cinderella's castle."
When I hear "I want," I think: Run Default Child Deferral Module #244: "We'll see."
I don't think anymore. I just reflexively "parent." Jane calls this "mommying."
"But she's not real."
"Who's not real?" The coffee is slow to kick in this morning.
"Oh! Of course. I guess if she's not real, her castle isn't either."
"No." Jane twirls her hair. "That gives me an idea."
"It starts with Once upon a time..."
Used Books Are Nice
Jane is flipping through my latest purchase, Roger Chartier's The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe Between the 14th and 18th Centuries.
She points to a page on which the book's previous owner underlined a sentence in pencil. "There's writing in it."
"It's a used book," I tell her. "That's part of the charm."
"Used books are nice," she says after a moment. "They remind you of other people."
Paula Scher's Diagram of a Blog
Could also be the diagram of an academic Q&A. In any case, a sad vision of the online so-called life of the mind. So-called.
I dreamed I was looking through my notebooks, the ones from when I worked in the archives at Goettingen. Carl Friedrich Gauss, 1837: I am so tired I can hardly open a can of figs. It's not CFG whose tired, of course. It's me. The "can" refers to my ongoing problem with our new electric can opener, which is only slightly easier to use than our old hand-cranked one. Life, after all, is full of petty disappointments. But still: figs? Anecdotal evidence that notebooks have a life in dreams.
Only the Coffee Counted
"'Bring on the lions!' I cried.
"But there were no lions. I spent every day in the company of one dog and one cat whose every gesture emphasized that this was a day throughout whose duration intelligent creatures intended to sleep. I would have to crank myself up.
"To crank myself up, I stood on a jack and ran myself up. I tightened myself like a bolt. I inserted myself in a vise clamp and wound the handle until the pressure built. I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgement of a skilled anesthesiologist. There was a tiny range within which coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.
"I pointed myself, I walked to the water. I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach log, watched a bird. That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month. Only the coffee counted, and I knew it. It was boiled Columbian coffee: raw grounds brought just to boiling in cold water and stirred. Now I smoked a cigarette or two and read what I wrote yesterday. What I wrote yesterday needed to be slowed down. I inserted words in one sentence and hazarded a new sentence. At once I noticed that I was writing -- which, as the novelist Friedrich Buechner noted, called for a break, if not a celebration."
-- Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Speed & Direction
Either I'm moving ahead too fast & forgetting myself; or I'm stuck on the past, wondering what the heck happened.
Revision Is Hell
Reading same 100 pages for what must be the fifteenth time. Still finding mistakes, too. Yeech.
Someone recently gave me a tip: Whenever you make a character do something, you should ask, Is this the first time? For the writer, it is always the first time -- with this character, in these words. But that's not the character's problem.
Stories Without Words
From a review of new and recent children's books in the NYT:
"Wordless books, it turns out, have their own tyrannies. Take Good Dog, Carl, the realist Rottweiler version of The Cat in the Hat. It is a book of few words: 'Look after the baby, Carl. I'll be back shortly' at the start, and 'Good dog, Carl!' at the end. Liberating? No. The tale can be read only one way, and you have to fill in the narration yourself: Mommy is leaving the house. Oh, that dog and baby are making a huge mess. Uh-oh, Mommy will be home soon. Better clean up, Carl. There's Mommy!
"At one point Carl pushes the baby down a laundry chute. He has no choice. He must push the baby so that the plot can survive. As Roland Barthes wrote of another plot and another character in his book S/Z, 'the character's freedom is dominated by the discourse's instinct for preservation.' In other words, the show must go on..."
[Well, this reading is funny but it may not give enough credit to readers, especially those who aren't overly impressed by the forward motion of a strong narrative. Jane routinely makes all sorts of interventions in her books, interrupting the storyteller, inserting new words or making major editorial changes, e.g., all male characters must be changed to female. And she has lately discovered post-its, which have plenty of interesting possibilities... Later: MJ reminds me that Jane also has inserted her foot into an open book and insisted that the characters adapt to the change in the story ("What is this giant foot doing here?")]
A few pointers to work on little-known, -recognized, and/or -understood aspects of whatever we're doing when we're not necessarily reading but -- for lack of a better way to say it -- just generally doing things with stories that whose endings might come sooner or later than we want them to (but never, it seems, right on time):
Carl W. Scarborough, Godine's book designer, on The Haptics of Reading. File under general problematique of What you read affects how you read it, AKA all reading is not the same activity (which opens the possibility that some it may not in fact be reading at all). A snippet: "There is a dramatic difference between the sensations inherent in reading a novella—necessarily a small, intimate book—and studying an overscaled art book, where the size of the illustrations plays an important role in the satisfaction we find in reading. [...] Another aspect of this haptic issue is the question of suitability of materials. I have beautiful twentieth-century books printed letterpress on exquisite eighteenth-century papers. Reading them is a special pleasure, but it is very different from reading an art monograph where a satiny, coated white sheet makes the illustrations leap off the page."
Rubin, D.C. (1995). Memory in oral traditions: The cognitive psychology of epic, ballads, and counting-out rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press. May suggest an answer to the question, why are so many epics so similar in outline, but not in detail? From OUP's blurbage: "Focusing in particular on their three major forms of organization--theme, imagery, and sound pattern--Rubin proposes a model of recall, and uses it to uncover the mechanisms of memory that underlie genres such as counting-out rhymes, ballads, and epics. The book concludes with an engaging discussion of how conversions from oral to written communication modes can predict how cutting-edge computer technologies will affect the conventions of future transmissions."
Rubin, Ciobanu, et. al., "Children's Memory for Counting-Rhymes," Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1997: A suggestive study of children's rhymes like "eenie meeny miney mo," which have to end a certain way, in a certain time-frame, but still support intra-rhyme variations. The rhymes are like games in their playful purposiveness, in being directed toward a goal. But they are also "oral traditions" & so share affinities with more exalted traditional oral forms, like epic.
A post at Obscene Jester arguing that "Lost" is pernicious narrative dreck because it flatters the viewer's (idea of) her own cleverness. If this person is correct, then people who like the show must be getting their satisfactions from somewhere besides the neat narrative closure we are all conditioned to expect from popular media forms. Sometimes the complaint "it goes on too long" (and its other variant, "this story is plotless," or even occasionally "it is too much like a hypertext") is shorthand for "this media makes me feel like a moron [so therefore I hate it]." Commandment Numero Uno: Thou shalt not trample upon thy audience's self-regard!
Recent updates on these topics from Mark, J Nathan Matias & Jill.
Terminable & Interminable
Exploring World of Warcraft, a game, Jill makes an interesting comparison between the game and long-running TV shows: Both could go on forever. There are few, if any, endings built in. As Jill says, they "simply pose puzzles and defer closure for as long as they can."
I worry about this "simply." Setting up a framework in which the same, or similar, interactions can happen over and over, with enough differentiation to keep participants interested, isn't simple; and I wonder what the opposite of mere puzzle-posing might be, what Jill has in mind here. A recent complaint about Lost from New York Mag opposes quick puzzle-solving (good) to slow puzzle-posing (bad): "Puzzles are meant to be solved, not prolonged. You can only tease viewers so long before they feel like they're being mocked." Slowness, waiting -- if these things make bad TV, can they do anything good for games?
Well, maybe they don't make such bad TV. Soap operas are like this -- they go on for years and years. Epics -- Roland, the Kalevala, the Mahabharata, to name just three -- are like this too. The Thousand and One Nights. Et cetera. Jill mentions Arthurian legends. All I take from this is that certain stories are epics by virtue of their scope. Not all stories are epics, however. Not all stories have that open-endedness, that support for generating other stories within a single overarching framework.
Jill mentions an idea, from the Peter Brooks playbook, about what stories look like: the end should be fully contained in the beginning, every outcome should be prefigured in some way from the start, which should contain only these seeds of the narrative and nothing else. A story, in this case, is a machine for unfolding consequences from initial conditions. This is also a game. (Think of chess. Of Nabokov.) This is not, to my mind, an epic, though an epic might contain a story of this sort, as perhaps a kind of set-piece, so long as the manner of its unfolding does not break the larger framework of the epic (does not, in other words, break the rules of the world imagined in the epic).
Brooks thinks the end of a story should make sense of its beginning. That this feeling of understanding is what signals "the end" of the story. Aha! That's the moment, the end. Tout comprende. A perhaps wishful idea. I can see how it might be comforting. But other comforts are also available: repetition, perhaps mastery. Onyxia, as Jill points out, always comes back. She's playing Freud's game, fort/da; and so are we. You may lose, or she might, but nothing is ever really lost -- a point ironically underscored by the title, in Jill's post, of the TV series that never ends, in which the loss represented by an actual ending is precisely what is not on the menu.
Perhaps medium and genre not especially powerful categories of analysis in any case.
It may not be a good idea to ask this question, but I will anyway: What is the nature of the relationship between the world of World of Warcraft and the lives of those who play it? The game seems like a kind of supplement, as if those lives would, in important ways, not be the same without it.
WoW already has a place in an academic economy where it is just like books and films and other artifacts of popular culture insofar as it gives people who talk for a living something to talk about. There is an extraordinary video of a recent conference on WoW, in which the conference-goers (Jill's there, too) were filmed looking distinctly uncomfortable as they sat around a table full of rifles, presumably loaded, which they were about to learn to use. (A fascinating curriculum for these mild-mannered educators!) It would be interesting to read this footage through a Derridean lens; it seems like a trace of an experience that constituted a sort of supplement to the conference, and it certainly stands in some relationship (but, what?) to the supplementarity of WoW to the academic discourse around it. Or, perhaps, vice-versa. (Of course.)
to the opening paragraph of Madame Bovary were, well, quite extensive. Courtesy of the University of Rouen, here are some early drafts, the final draft, the copyedited draft (which Flaubert was apparently still editing, no doubt to his publisher's dismay, at press time), and the published version of 1873, here:
"Nous étions à l'Étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d'un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d'un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre. Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail."
This opening moment -- the arrival of the Proviseur, the studied busyness of the students who greet him, and the stage business with the grand pupitre -- persists mostly unchanged. But in the earliest draft, the new student does not appear immediately; Flaubert seems to want to signal his appearance through the appearance of the desk alone. But when the student finally arrives, the book takes off. He's unnamed, a mystery, and already causing trouble. (Why does he need such a large desk, anyway?) In drafts, Flaubert adds details only to take them away later, summarizing when he needs to pick up the pace. In the copyediting stage, Flaubert cut the first clause, which rather delightfully located the reader precisely in time using the schoolbell, all the way down to the more direct and immediate "We were in class when..."
I can easily imagine the scene: the proofs on the desk, the pen poised over them. He's never really liked the first line but nothing else worked any better. But it's the first line, it has to be good. He should cut it, down to the essentials. Oh, but the schoolbell started everything off so audily... But no, again - it still won't do. All at once he sees a different way in. A breath, another, cut cut cut...
A Vague, Meandering Post
This year's Booker prizewinner Kiran Desai reports that her mother, the novelist Anita Desai, helped her write the novel that won the Booker, and I do not doubt it. One of my treasured possessions is a copy of the very first short story I published, marked up with Anita Desai's handwritten notes, in delicate purple pen; she was indeed a wonderful teacher. My own mother -- also a writer, also a teacher, also my teacher -- broke her knee last week, a problem that required major surgery under general anesthesia to correct. She is recovering in a hospital not far from her old house, where I, too, spent a portion of my childhood. The place figures in my novel the way it figures in my dreams -- crabgrass, poison oak, swing shifts, linoleum. I am tempted to say, dismissively, You get the picture, but I don't because it isn't true. In Joyce Carol Oates' new collection, High Lonesome, Oates does get the picture -- she has her finger on something important that otherwise resists lyric description, & fits better into the more familiar and more distanced and antiseptic discourses about jobs, economic insecurity, mandatory overtime, minimum wage. A place where reading novels (let alone writing them) is suspect and barely tolerated when there is so much else to do. I read Oates' stories with a tight chest, thinking about Oates' childhood (she was no stranger, I bet, to linoleum), her hunger for books, and about the books she has written, the sheer quantity of them, as if, finding the world lacking the books she wanted to read, she simply made them herself, as you might make furniture to suit an odd-shaped room. Also thinking about the fact of Oates' childlessness. Kiran Desai says she won't have children because then she would have to break her writerly solitude and "be sweet" , which gets in the way of her writing. Her mother, I want to remind her, wrote wonderful books with four children underfoot, along with teaching duties and office hours, including one session in which she gently insisted that yes, I had talent and yes, it was not only worth developing but probably the most important thing I could do -- and her encouragement made all the difference.
Working on two books, I'm a novelist by day and a historian by night. The projects have almost nothing to do with one another, except that first, I could not have returned to history except through the particular novel I have written, which began as a historical meditation on why it is currently impossible to do truly interesting and novel work in today's academe; and, second, the return to history as a mode of inquiry consoles the novelist in me because when I'm with the old books whose spines were last cracked a century ago, it reminds me that some things really are written not (or not only) for a contemporary audience, but for the ages.
Translator's Notes (The Mystery Guest)
After translating Grégoire Bouilliere's novel L'Invité Mystère, Lorin Stein created a web site that presents the messy story behind the seamless and apparently quite wonderful translation. (FWIW, here's a quick synopsis: A guy gets a call from his longtime ex, who disappeared without a trace five years earlier; she invites him to a birthday party for a woman he has never met.) The hypertextual presentation of the translator's notes is clunky and nonintuitive. You have to click each blog entry (though there is no obvious prompt or link marker) to get the window that contains all the good stuff. Despite the flawed presentation, it's exactly the sort of meta-book spin-off project that publishers should do more of. Strictly from a book marketing point of view, the site is useful. I wouldn't have known about Bouillier otherwise, and my next stop will be Amazon, where I may well buy the book.
There's something else, too -- a web site like Translator's Notes is a simple way to take some of the "shine" or commodity aura off books, making it less tempting to undervalue them because the labor of writing (not to mention publishing, marketing and distributing) is apparent. What if every book looked like a handmade craft item you might find at Zanisa or Sweet Thunder or Nest...?
Elizabeth Bowen, Notes on Writing a Novel
The Nut, The Moron, The Stylist and The Critic
The NYT has published snippets of Susan Sontag's diaries, which are fascinating. Had an AHA moment this morning while reading her observation that "the writer must be four people" -- nut, moron, stylist, critic.
The nut is the source of the material and the moron is the one who "lets it come out."
Notes to Self Re: Next Novel
1. In a late draft, do NOT move chapters around without getting a second, and possibly even a third, opinion. Rewrite if necessary. Add more information earlier, or take out information that should come later. But do not cut and paste, thinking only minor sutures will be necessary, because you are wrong.
2. Do not revise "out of character." For instance, if the protagonist doesn't talk about his or her feelings, describing this character's inner life only glorifies the writer's emotional intelligence. Like any other writerly narcissism, this glorification happens at the expense of both the story and the reader. I find that when I do this, I can't bear to read my own writing because I'm insulting my own intelligence, and that's when I feel really stuck and unable to move forward.
It's much better to let the character's inner life come through gesture and speech (and through observation and reflection if those things are true to character as well).
It's partly a matter of "show, don't tell," but also partly a matter of humility, of listening more than talking. There's a difference between truly and usefully giving voice to something, and the annoying, patronizing practice of "speaking for" another person or group.
One weirdly frustrating aspect -- for me, and for my students -- of teaching writing has been how to answer the question, "What is biased writing?" Exposure to biased writing often makes me too angry to coolly dissect the bias and explain it.
Thanks to today's piece in the NYT about how companies fail to provide working women with sufficient support for continuing to breastfeed their children at work, I now have a great example. Take a look at this assertion, and the evidence on which it's based:
Pumping breast milk has one benefit that cannot be quantified: it makes working mothers feel less guilt-ridden about leaving their children. 'There is a lot of satisfaction in knowing I am doing right by him,' Ms. Wurster said of her son, James.
We may infer from this that Mrs. Wurster is having a good time pumping her milk at work. She believes breast is best, and she is happy to be able to choose her infant's diet in accordance with her values. But can we really conclude, from what she has said, that she "feels less guilt-ridden about leaving" her son in order to go back to work? No, we can't. Her statement implies only that she is pleased with her infant feeding arrangement. She expresses no dissatisfaction at all about going back to work.
By framing the quote in this way, the author of the article implies that when a mother goes to work, she is abandoning her child. This position is patently sexist -- after all, fathers who work are good providers, and no one accuses them of abandonment.
Later: Had a couple more thoughts on 'bias'. Students tend to see it only when they read something based on beliefs with which they disagree. They don't take the next step, which is to generalize this insight to eliminate their own bias. Maybe here's a good rule of thumb: A biased article is based on or contains beliefs that -- whether one agrees with them or not -- are not supported by sound reasoning and evidence.
In which I put down the manuscript and back away slowly.
I will now stop futzing with the first five pages. After all, there another three hundred and ninety five that urgently need my immediate attention! So. Futzing concluded. End of futz. Now. Stop. Stop. Stop.