the next writer in the series: october 1, 2013

the saddest music ever written

In  The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading

await your reply 4: image

From Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, how an image can make words come alive:

Without the image:

Her thoughts were not clearly articulated in her mind, but she could feel them moving swiftly, gathering.

“What are you thinking about?” George Orson said, and when he spoke, her thoughts scattered, broke up into fragments of memories.

That’s good, right?

With the image:

Her thoughts were not clearly articulated in her mind, but she could feel them moving swiftly, gathering.

“What are you thinking about?” George Orson said, and when he spoke, her thoughts scattered, broke up into fragments of memories, the way that the birds separated out of their formation and back into individual birds. (219)

A passage we will remember.

PS:

Dan Chaon’s words recall Toni Morrison’s from Beloved, and not wanting to miss an opportunity to share one of my favorite passages of all times, here it is:

She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind. (272-273)

~4th in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 3: repetition with new detail

In Await Your Reply, published in 2009, Dan Chaon uses repetition in a very cool way. Instead of bogging down the original scene, he pushes the action forward first, then a bit later, moves in for a close-up or two, adding additional details.

For example, on page 246, Miles wakes up in bed with a woman and gropes for his underwear, which he puts on. So the assumption is they’ve had sex.

On page 248:

He was standing there in his underwear, still a bit groggy, still a bit dazzled by the fact that he’d had sex for the first time in two years… [new detail bolded]

Then on page 249:

He was standing there in his boxer shorts with their ridiculous hot pepper print… [new detail bolded]

What this technique does is to roll the scene along, allow the reader to move in for a quick close-up, and then continue along with the story.

It keeps things moving. It adds texture. It reinforces image.

~3rd in a series
~Cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 2: nods

In the surprisingly interesting Reader’s Guide at the back of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, Chaon writes:

As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read.

Yiyun Li, the author of The Vagrants, feels the same way: “I believe a writer writes to talk to his/her masters and literary heroes.” About William Trevor, she wrote:

I write stories to talk to his stories. And a story can talk to another story in many ways–a line, a character, a few details, or sometimes it is the mood of the story, the pacing and the music of the story…”

I found two of these nods by Chaon as I was reading Await Your Reply. When I found two, I got such a warm feeling inside. Here they are:

On page 81: “She might’ve been a good mother, Miles thought, if their father had lived.” >>>Flannery O’Connor, from “A Good Man is Hard to Find:” She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” [Here's a very cool link to Flannery O'Connor reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" at Vanderbilt University in 1959--amazing]

On page 203: “Your jitters are starting to rub off on me. I’ve got the fucking fantods, man.” >>>David Foster Wallace throughout Infinite Jest.

A lovely practice.

~2nd in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 1: three threads

From the first page of Dan Chaon‘s novel:

On the seat beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight-quart Styrofoam cooler.

Enough said?

Dan Chaon’s second novel and fourth book, Await Your Reply, which was published in 2009, intertwines 3 seemingly unrelated narrative threads that exude echoes of each other, assuring the reader that they will eventually come together. And they do. But no spoilers here.

3 threads. 324 pages. 3 parts–each one divided into numbered chapters.

Chaon gets each of the threads off the ground in a hurry: the 1st chapter is 2 pages; the 2nd is 5 pages; the 3rd is 3 pages. Bam. In 10 pages, the reader is aware of all 3 plot lines.

The “severed hand” scene comes first and takes place at night in a car. Chapter 2 begins with Lucy and George leaving town in the middle of the night. “Not fugitives–not exactly.” AND “They would make a clean break. A new life.” (Chaon has a sense of humor.) In Chapter 3 again a character is driving a car. And I wish I had time to count how many times the word hand or hands is used in each of the threads.

As I said, because of the repetition of images and details and echoes of themes, the reader knows that these threads are related. So the reader’s mind is fully engaged as she is reading, trying to answer the question of how. It’s like a treasure hunt. We’re looking for clues, reading carefully because we don’t want to miss anything. All of this creates energy and narrative drive.

In July in Vermont, Dan said that with Await Your Reply, he began with 3 images and a story, but that he had no idea how they were connected until the end of the first draft. He said that the second draft is always “super important” to him because he’s looking for iconography, like tarot cards, to signal where the power is–where an image and/or a moment is important.

Each image distinct and capsulized, like tarot cards laid down one by one. (147)

Read it, if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.

~1st in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

busy being alive

from the archives: july 28, 2010

Ellen Gilchrist‘s first book was not published until she was in her forties. In “A Reading Group Guide” at the back of Nora Jane: A Life in Stories, she is asked about this:

“I didn’t begin to write seriously and professionally until I was in my forties because I was busy being alive.”

Now she has been writing for thirty years: stories, novellas, and novels. In these books, she often writes about the same characters. In 1999, Margaret Donovan Bauer published The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. In it, she wrote:

“Gilchrist’s point of uniqueness is that all of her work is interrelated to the extent that her whole body of work…is part of an organic story cycle, a story cycle that continues to evolve as each new book appears, comparable to the roman-fleuve. It is a story cycle in the full sense of the word: there are no definite endings to the individual books and, distinguishing her work from the roman-fleuve, there is no clear beginning to the cycle.”

In 2005 all the stories Gilchrist had written to that point about Nora Jane Whittington were collected into one volume and organized in chronological order of Nora Jane’s life. I had read these stories before and had copies of them. But to read them all in a row and in the “right” order felt a little like seeing that wick that Mary Gordon referred to…I did find one or two inconsistencies, but those felt more like proof that this wonderful thing–Nora Jane Whittington’s life–was real.

In the same reading guide referred to above, Ellen Gilchrist was also asked if she had planned to write about the same characters over and over again. She said that she planned her writing the same way she planned her life:

“On a day-by-day and obsession-by-obsession basis.”

Obsession-by-obsession. I like that : )

[In similar fashion, all the stories about Rhoda Manning were collected in 1995.]

~cross-posted at the Contrary Blog

summer reading

Summer Contrary is online with new fiction, essays, and poetry, as well as reviews of these books :

Poetry: Northerners by Seth Abramson

Essays: Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer and A Journey with Two Maps by Eaven Boland

Fiction: And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips, You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon, and The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen

Here’s the beginning of my review of The Bird Sisters:

When they were teenagers, Milly hoped to marry and have children, while Twiss hoped to stand on the Continental Divide and “to be the world’s most interesting spinster.” Rebecca Rasmussen’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, opens at least half a century later with Milly and Twiss living together in the house where they grew up. Perhaps, as Twiss concludes, they just didn’t want those other things enough.

To read more…

then, suddenly

In 1999, my first writing workshop: Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Yes, in the Napa Valley. St. Helena. Mark Doty was there. David Lehman. Jane Hirshfield. Richard Bausch. (I always get him and his brother confused, never remembering which one it is I met. Which is terrible, given that we actually had a conversation at the picnic about Atlanta.) Elizabeth McCracken. Lynn Emanuel.

To write this post, I pulled out my file on the conference and found notes on a lecture Richard Bausch gave on the “Value of Exposition vs. Show Don’t Tell.” Which is basically what I wrote my critical essay on for VCFA in January. I didn’t know enough in 1999 to take it all in. Which was not the intended point of this post. Still, a good craft essay is worth rereading every six months or so, when we might be ready to absorb the next piece of the puzzle or when we might be struggling with some new aspect of writing.

In any event, I began this post to write about the poet Lynn Emanuel, who visited VCFA during the winter residency. I had a book of her poetry on my shelf that I had been rereading in the fall even before I knew of her visit. She had signed it, but I couldn’t remember where or when. At some point, I thought: Napa. 1999.

And yes, when I introduced myself after Lynn read on January 7, 2011, she confirmed what I just reconfirmed by pulling out my file. We were both there. In St. Helena at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference in 1999.

Her book, Then, Suddenly, is filled with poems about writing, about inhabiting the other whom we become as we write. Lovely quotes from Italo Calvino, Albert Einstein. And from Edmond Jabes:

The book is the subject of the book.

Two excerpts from Lynn’s poetry:

Far 
from The Dig and Hotel Fiesta
 
I will study her longing for far, for everything
to be more
 
must travel by eye and she (that more distant
I) will set no limits
 
 
Persona
 
from Then, Suddenly
 
… On my finger I bore the tourniquet
of  his ring, and I was happy inside my lonely 
rayon blazer when a voice said suddenly–
 
LYNN EMANUEL, IS THAT YOU IN THERE?
 
No, I said, standing there clothed in the raiment
of a dead man. No, said the voice of the dead
man limping up and down the stairs of my voice.
No, No, No, said the voice of the dead man limping
down the long dark corridor of my throat.
 
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

this won’t take but a minute, honey

If you haven’t visited the Harvard Book Store,

take a minute and pop over there.

Watch the shutters open and the store come to life.

See what books fill their front windows. Click for a close-up; double click to look inside a book. With your mouse, you can zoom in or out. Amble to the side street, just right of the two vintage-looking mail boxes. The site is almost almost as much fun as being there in person.

The Harvard Book Store is independent and has been family-owned since 1932. And green, green, green–offering same-day delivery by bike.

And they have a book-making robot–the Espresso Book Machine–nicknamed Paige. It can print a book in about 4 minutes, and you can watch. It can switch between different covers if you have more than one. It costs an author about $5.00 a book.

Steve Almond‘s book, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, which is only available from Steve or from the Harvard Book Store, is created by Paige. In May of last year (I’m a touch behind writing this post), I called the bookstore, and for $9.41 + $5.00 postage, I was soon holding a copy. It’s a nice quality paperback, 6 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches. Turn it one way; it’s 30 stories. Turn it the other; it’s 30 essays.

I highly recommend the book. Most of the stories and essays are no longer than a page. My favorite story was

“I Want to Buy the Guy a Drink Who” 

In the dead of a scowling New York January spots my great aunt Meta on 64th and Central Park West staring doubtfully at the icy crosswalk…

Overall, I preferred the essays to the stories. In “Bullshit Detector,” he writes, “Writing is decision making.” In “POV:NBD,” he writes:

POV is nothing more than a tool, a way of getting close to the turmoil of your people.

And in “Fuck Style, Tell the Truth,” he writes:

…your artistic unconscious is about ten times more powerful as an imaginative tool than your conscious mind. But it only comes out to play when you forget yourself and focus on your people.

In the July/August 2010 Poets & Writers, Almond calls himself “Self-Publishing Steve” and explains why he chose Paige for this book of his: “smaller, more personal books should move into the world in smaller, more personal ways.”

In the Spring 2011 Third Coast, Steve gives a Craft Talk, where he is again asked about his decision to self-publish this book:

The book isn’t a commodity; it’s an artifact. And when I do a reading, if people want it, then I hand it to them, and they hand me ten bucks. It’s a really nice feeling. I’m not going to get rich off of it. That’s not the point. The point is to get the work out there, the ideas and emotions.

And about publishing literary fiction and non-fiction in general:

…the whole model of publishing is changing. There aren’t enough readers of books–certainly not enough readers of literary fiction and non-fiction–for it to be a going concern at this point. And so it feels to me like getting a corporation involved is incredibly inefficient…this is one way of doing it that makes more sense.

Oh, and the telephone number for the Harvard Book Store is 1.800.542.READ.

Cross-posted at Contrary Blog

reality hungry or good hungry

So, David Shields‘ manifesto Reality Hunger.

Structure: 618 short sections grouped into 26 chapters.

Subject: our hunger for the real as opposed to the invented.

Shields makes some strong points and shares some controversial ideas, most of which, in the real world, would require a cite. But Shields does not believe that reality–words, music–belongs to anyone. Random House forced him to credit the sections–there’s a list in the back of the book. But he begs you to cut that section out. Or at the very least not to read it.

Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.

That’s pretty cool. Of course, then there’s

  • the novel is dead #327

But perhaps he’s just reading the wrong novels. Still, it’s true, as Martha Cooley wrote in “Novel Anxiety,” in The Writer’s Chronicle

In content and form, too many novels published today fail to startle, unnerve, or exhilarate us, or to speak in fresh ways to the actual complexities of our experience.

The sense of novel-fatigue out there seems palpable to me…

Shields is FOR a blurring of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction #3. He thinks memoir is as far from real life as fiction is, and that selection is as important a process as imagination #104.

Reality Hunger is repetitive and would have been more powerful if shorter. The stronger ideas would have shined rather than been buried. Still, I’m glad I read it.

I want to explore my own damn, doomed character. I want to cut to the absolute bone. #517

~cross-posted at Contrary

things we think with

Sherry Turkle asked scientists, humanists, artists, and designers to “trace the power of objects in their lives, objects that connect them to ideas and people.” In Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, published in 2007, you’ll find thirty-four essays on objects such as a rolling pin, a yellow raincoat, an axe head, a suitcase, a stuffed bunny, an apple.

In “Knots,” Carol Strohecker writes, “I understand being pulled; it is something that I know.”

In “The Archive,” Susan Yee writes about studying Le Corbusier’s drawings and how fortunate she feels to belong to a generation that has both created drawings on paper and on the computer. Drawings now, she writes, “are born digital. They will never be touched.”

Turkle divides the essays into six categories: objects of design and play, objects of discipline and desire, objects of history and exchange, objects of transition and passage, objects of mourning and memory, and objects of meditation and new vision.

My favorite essay was “Death-Defying Superheroes,” written by Henry Jenkins and placed by Turkle in the section on Objects of Mourning and Memory. Jenkins had read comics since grade school but became attached to them the week his mother died.

Retreating from the emotional drama that surrounded me, I found myself staring into the panic-stricken eyes of a young Bruce Wayne, kneeling over the newly murdered bodies of his parents. I had visited that moment many times before, but this time, our common plight touched me deeply.

Over the years, as he ages, the comics remain the same.

As such, they help me to reflect on the differences between who I am now and who I was when I first read them.

As Turkle writes in her introduction to the essays, “We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.”

~cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

under the mercy trees

Spring Contrary has sprung… And with a brand new look. Plus five book reviews, one of which is mine on Heather Newton’s debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees:

I once stood at my grandfather’s knee, watching him do tricks with rocks. Later I backpacked by myself in France. I married at twenty, became an attorney in a high-powered Atlanta law firm, then the mother of four. With one friend, I walk and talk; with another, I hike mountains and go to clubs in San Francisco. In Mary Gordon’s novella, The Rest of Life, the old woman Paola searches for the wick running through her life that makes her “the same person who was born, was a child, a girl, a young woman, a woman, and now she is old.”

Bertie, however, one of four point-of-view characters in Heather Newton’s debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees, prefers to focus on the mystery of how different we can be…

To read more…

dear latimes: this is a photo of Jennifer Egan

Dear Los Angeles Times,

Regarding your headlines* today on the National Book Critics Circle Awards, the photo you posted is not Jennifer Egan. In addition, I would also like to point out that you mention the name of Mr. Franzen’s novel, the one that didn’t win but it’s true was written by a male, while you merely allude to the novel that in fact won the award as “work.” Granted, A Visit From the Goon Squad has more words in it, but it did win. May I suggest the following changes:

Egan Wins National Book Critics Circle’s fiction prize

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad bests Jonathan Franzen’s work. The nonfiction award goes to ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.’

Sincerely,

Cynthia

*

cross-posted on The Contrary Blog

contrary blog

The Contrary Blog–the blog of unpopular discontent–is up and running. Click over and take a look at this new voice on the internet, the brainchild of Jeff McMahon, Contrary‘s Editor. It’s a multi-author blog, anchored by David Alm. Its focus is broad–on arts and letters–rather than only on the the journal itself. And its aim is to engage with the wide scope of ideas. We welcome comments and of course disagreement.

Here are the three most recently posted articles: Why know-it-alls make bad authors, Let’s talk about Shop Class (a review of Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry Into the Value of Work), and Piko in Page–ancient Swahili lady lessons on pleasure and painA misplaced medias, a report on AWP that blends fiction and nonfiction, is one of my favorite posts. In Bad writing, defined, David Alm quotes the poet D.A. Powell, who then comments on the post. If you find an author whose writing you like, you can follow the RSS feed of that particular author.

While you peruse the site, click on the video in the upper right corner to listen to the poet Gwendolyn Brooks read five poems.

Instead of leaving a comment here, leave one over there. Go ahead. Be contrary.

Winter Contrary

The Winter issue of Contrary is live, and there’s lots to celebrate. First, Writer’s Digest voted Contrary one of the 50 Best Online Literary Markets. Second, my story, “The Empty Armchair,” published in the Autumn 2009 issue, was one of the top ten most viewed pieces for 2010. Thanks to all who clicked over to read it. Third, I’m the new Review Editor for the journal. I had no idea how much I would enjoy editing. Lots of interesting books reviewed in this issue too–Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes; Horse, Flower, Bird by Kate Bernheimer; Voices at the World’s Edge edited by Paddy Bushe; and more…

Finally, my review of Susan Froderberg’s debut novel, Old Border Road, appears in this issue. Here’s the first paragraph:

It’s not unusual for a character in a book to find herself in an unfamiliar place, but what is unusual is for a reader to experience firsthand the sensation of unfamiliarity as she reads about the character. In Susan Froderberg’s début novel, Old Border Road, the reader finds herself in the unfamiliar world of repetition. Repetition—which Froderberg wields like a wand, transforming familiar words into unfamiliar sentences.

Read more…

Happy New Year to all of you!

stiltsville

The new issue of Contrary Magazine is online with my review of Susanna Daniel‘s first novel, Stiltsville. Here’s the first paragraph of the review:

A stilt house off the shore of Miami is a wondrous and fragile thing, built against all odds of survival. As is a marriage. Although we know that nothing lasts forever, still we hope that some things will. Stiltsville, the debut novel by Susanna Daniel, is straightforward and unsurprising, and each day that I was reading it, I could not wait to return to it.

There was nothing there but sea and sky, but then a few matchbox shapes formed on the hazy horizon. They grew larger and I saw that they were houses, propped above the water on pilings.

Read more…