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
For a long, long time, I’ve wanted to read all of Shakespeare’s plays–all 38. In June I was re-reading one of my favorite books, The Writing Life, by Ellen Gilchrist. And in it, there’s a chapter about “The Shakespeare Group.” Ellen … Continue reading
The first week in the month is reserved for the writer in the How We Spend Our Days series, but September 4th marked the 5-year anniversary of Catching Days! So for the rest of this month, we’ll be celebrating. I’ll … Continue reading
Richard Russo Straight Man Vintage paperback 1997 . On Super Dialogue (of which Russo is a master): (“as if” and other ways to give your dialogue more power) “that would be illegal,” Teddy said, but his voice didn’t fall quite right, … Continue reading
From Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, how an image can make words come alive:
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?
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.
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
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 pain. A 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.
Instead of leaving a comment here, leave one over there. Go ahead. Be contrary.
Get ready for some name-dropping rock star highlights from awp 2011 in Washington DC: running into Josh Ritter in the bar Wednesday night…ricotta pancakes with sour cherries Thursday morning…sitting behind Jennifer Egan on Saturday and hearing her read “You (Plural)” from A Visit From the Goon Squad…seeing the millions of real live books on the book fair tables…listening to Josh Ritter give his first reading and listening to him sing…a nice, long visit with Robin Black…dinner in Adams Morgan with Benjamin Percy and Pam Houston, and Fenton Johnson and Pam Houston…seeing all my VCFA friends and wonderful conversations with Dave Jauss, Sue Silverman, Patrick Madden…lunch with my niece and a friend, listening to Charles Baxter on book reviews “to say a book is boring does not say anything about the book; it says something about the reader”… Elizabeth Cox on the dialogue in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”…Jill McCorkle: “She’d a been a good writer if there’d been somebody standing there with a red pen her whole life”…Richard Bausch on Hemingway edits…quick visits with Sheri Reynolds, Hannah Tinti, Maribeth Batcha, Bruce Machart, Robin Oliveira, Tony Eprile, Ellen Lesser, Richard McCann, Vivian Dorsel, Robin Hemley, Connie May Fowler…going to the book fair again and again and seeing all the millions of real books out there in the world, meeting in person Mike Curtis, Cornelius Eady, Lucy Corin, Richard Peabody, Megan Sexton, Matt Bell, Diane Goettel …books, bookmarks, buttons, and more…
Another thing is the dialogue. In the early pages of By Nightfall, Peter is in bed with his wife, and they’re flipping channels on the TV. They stop on Vertigo. I’m going to cut into the middle of the conversation where the line that starts the conversation is repeated a second time by Rebecca:
“We can’t get hooked on this.” “Why not?” “I’m too tired.” “Tomorrow’s just Sunday.” “You know how it turns out.” “How what turns out?” “The movie.” “Sure I know how it turns out. I also know that Anna Karenina gets run over by a train.” “Watch it, if you want.” “Not if you don’t want to.” “I’m too tired. I’ll be cranky tomorrow. You go ahead.” “You can’t sleep with the TV on.” “I can try.” “No. It’s okay.”
By Nightfall is sharp and well-written. A delight.
My second residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts…
Monday, 6/28/10: Up at 5:15 to fly from Columbus to Atlanta to Boston. I rent a car in Boston and drive 3 hours to Montpelier, arriving just in time for the last few minutes of the fifteen-minute Orientation. Then a meeting for 2nd semester students and at 4:30, the first lecture–“How We Know What’s Done is Done” by David Jauss: Anne Lamott says that finishing a work of art is like putting an octopus to bed. You pull up the covers and there goes a leg slipping out. At 8:00 Connie May Fowler, new faculty member, reads from her recently published novel.
Tuesday, 6/29/10 (my anniversary and my son’s birthday!): The first workshop–I signed up for a special workshop on publishing led by Domenic Stansberry. In addition to discussing manuscripts, we will each do a presentation on a literary publication. Doug Glover gives a lecture on “Symbols and Image Pattern.” Look at Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood to see how she uses the title image to unify and add layers of meaning to the novel. Follow an image each time it is mentioned to see what story emerges. When you write, let your characters have different responses to an image.
Wednesday, 6/30/10: A poetry lecture by Leslie Ullman on “Dialogue: Engine of the Practical and the Mysterious”–there can be a dialogue between the title and the body of the poem and dialogue between parts of a sentence by using phrases and commas, dialogue between the known parts of ourselves and the unknown, between will and imagination. Our second workshop with presentations on City Lights and McSweeney’s and a impromptu visit by VCFA graduate Vivian Dorsel, Editor of Upstreet.
Thursday, 7/1/10: A lecture by Philip Graham on how to bring everyday skills to writing. A wonderful lecture on landscape by graduating student Robin MacArthur, who is also half of the band Red Heart the Ticker–“our obsessions are key to our art.” Our faculty preference forms are due by 3:00–as a 2nd semester student I list 5. Advisers are posted at 7:30 on a bulletin board. So excited to be working with David Jauss this semester.
Friday, 7/2/10: In our third workshop, we’re discussing manuscripts. Graduating student Rachel Mullis gives an interesting lecture on the novella. Visiting poet Claudia Emerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Late Wife, reads six poems from that book, a brand new poem she wrote this week, several poems from her book, Figure Studies, and an amazing poem from her book in progress, “Secure the Shadows,” about the photos that used to be taken of the dead. The highlight of the reading was the finale when her husband joined her on stage with his guitar and they put her poem “Aftermath” to music, adding the captivating refrain–if I had a gun, I’d a shot her dead…
Saturday, 7/3/10: I take the day off and drive a little over an hour to Ferrisburg to visit the Kingsland Bay State Park, which used to be the French Camp Ecole Champlain. I was there the summers of 1970, 71, and 72.
Sunday, 7/4/10: An exciting lecture by new faculty member Trinie Dalton on “How Easy It Is to Enter” the abject, the place where meaning collapses. I meet with Dave Jauss to discuss my semester writing and reading. In our workshop, we hear presentations on Kore Press, Glimmer Train, The Paris Review, the Iowa Review. I talk about One Story. There’s a softball game (poets vs prose writers–prose wins!), a craft fair, BBQ on the Quad and later the Talent Show–Red Heart the Ticker plays two wonderful songs. Later Montpelier fireworks.
Monday, 7/5/10: Lectures by new faculty members: David Treuer on “The Art and Sense of Style” (“we want to make style work for us”) and Connie May Fowler on “The Necessary Evil Called Exposition” (“we want a balance between exposition and scene and we want to render exposition in exquisite detail”) We’ve been here a week and everyone (including me) is starting to wear down. The heat wave is not helping. Vermont does not do air-conditioning as well as Georgia does. At the student reading, I read part of my recently finished story, “The Blue Parrot.”
Tuesday, 7/6/10: Wonderful lecture by new faculty member Patrick Madden on “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things” (“I’m in love with essays”). More student lectures and faculty readings and another workshop.
Wednesday, 7/7/10: Last workshop with presentations on Esquire and Harper Collins. Signed semester study plans must be turned in before we leave. At graduation, after the graduate’s name is read, an excerpt of their work is also read. Lovely. It’s time to hit the road for Boston. I arrive in time to see the sun set over the harbor.
[you might also be interested in the first residency]
In Ron Carlson‘s new novel, The Signal, a book that includes both clotheslines and abandoned places, each word counts, as each word should but often doesn’t in novels. The Signal packs a lot into its 184 pages: six days in the life of its main character Mack.
Its cover looks, as one of my children said, “like a book I wouldn’t read.” I’m not sure whether he meant it looks “sensational” or “like a guy’s book,” but I agree on both counts about the cover, not about what’s between it. In The Signal, it’s a toss-up whether the language or the story is the most alluring part of the novel.
“This was his life, riding out two hours from a ranch that itself was an hour from town and still knowing there were unknown hours ahead.”
“The tinted window went down and there was her face.”
The descriptions will give you goose bumps, and the dialogue is tight. Listen to this conversation between Mack and his father, whom he describes as “…his presence in the world was like order itself.”
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
“Are you going by your gut?”
“Do you think you can get a girl by showing her a bear?”
“No idea,” Mack said.
His father folded his arms and leaned on the doorframe. “Me neither. How many were there?”
Mack is also the narrator, and we’re right there in his point of view, a close third, yet without even a space break, Carlson zooms out seamlessly, giving us a little distance: “The two hikers stepped out into the high-atmosphere sunshine…”
Some will argue that there’s too much plot, but in my opinion The Signal offers a brilliant example of plot arising out of character: Mack’s choices drive the plot forward.
I’ll leave you with my favorite passage:
“The sun was weak light, and the chill was general headed for a real freeze. The watery yellow day wanted to break his heart. The season had foundered and each day was now a brave imitation of the day before. In September the year fell away and in the car you’d get a late baseball game on the radio as you drove to town sounding like it was coming from another planet, the static and the crowd noise and the announcers trying to fend off the fall shadows.”
On Friday, I read the essay “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life,” by novelist Alexander Chee who took a class from Annie Dillard in 1989. He writes, “By the time I was done studying with Annie, I wanted to be her.”
Over the weekend I kept thinking about that essay. Then on Sunday I saw that Moonrat had written a post to let her readers know about the essay. I wanted to let you know about it too.
With detail after detail, Chee conjures Dillard during class as she drinks coffee from the thermos cup and eats caramel after caramel, letting the plastic wrappers pile up on the desk. But the heart of the essay comes from Chee’s description of Dillard’s rigorous take-no-prisoners approach to the craft of writing. “Very quickly, she identified what she called ‘bizarre grammatical structures’ inside my writing.” She also identified his overuse of the passive voice and his “museum of cliches.”
Chee shares some of the key points he learned from Dillard:
- Put all your deaths, accidents and diseases up front, at the beginning.
- Don’t ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible.
- Never quote dialogue you can summarize.
- Avoid describing crowd scenes but especially party scenes.
- You want vivid writing, and vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices mean adverbs.
- All of the action on the page happens in the verbs. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
- Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.
- Avoid emotional language.
- The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
- Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
- Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
- Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there.
My favorite line in the essay is in Chee’s voice and about voice:
“You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you’d be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.”
Read the words from the guy who was there: “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.” And let me know what you think.
This essay will appear in the anthology, Mentors, Muses, & Monsters, forthcoming October 27 from Free Press.
On Humor: This book is often laugh-out-loud funny.
Hal: “I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.'” (12)
Hal: “I’m an O.E.D. man, Doctor.” (29)
The Narrator on Hal: “His way of answering the phone sounded like ‘Mmmyellow.'” (32)
Hal: “We’re all on each other’s food chain. All of us. It’s an individual sport. Welcome to the meaning of individual.” (112)
Hal: “This induced a spell of involuted marijuana-type thinking that led quickly, again, to Hal’s questioning whether or not he was really all that intelligent.” (136)
Hal: “I’m trying to cut down on patronizing places with ”N’ in their name.” (908)
On Humor and Sadness: In the sense of co-existing in a moment, of humor being an attempt to deal with sadness, a layer over the sadness, and finally melting into sadness.
Hal: “…I have administrative bones to pick with God, Boo. I’ll say God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I’m not crazy about. I’m pretty much anti-death. God looks by all accounts to be pro-death. I’m not seeing how we can get together on this issue, he and I, Boo.” (40)
Still writing beautiful sentences: Again, this is what kept my eyes on the page–page after page after page.
Narrator: “the cold-penny tang of the autumn air” (539)
Narrator: “The sun has the attenuated autumn quality of seeming to be behind several panes of glass.” (623)
On Eschaton (the game): Or on reading IJ.
“Its elegant complexity, combined with a dismissive-reenactment frisson and a complete disassociation from the realities of the present, composes most of its puerile appeal. Plus it’s almost addictively compelling…” (322)
On suicide: Yes, it’s all over the place–the fact of it, the attempt to understand it, and the understanding of it.
Geoffrey Day: “As the two vibrations [exhaust fan and violin] combined, it was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner in my mind. I can be no more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing, what came flapping out of some backwater of my psyche I had not had the slightest inkling was there.” (649) and “From that day, whether I could articulate it satisfactorily or not…I understood on an intuitive level why people killed themselves.” (651)
Kate Gompert: “Time in the shadow of the wing of the thing too big to see, rising.” (651)
Describing: I am astonished, over and over again, at DFW’s ability to nail a description.
Marathe: “Also the living room evening resembled an anthill which had been stirred with a stick; it was too full of persons, all of the restless and loud.” (730)
Marathe about someone else: “…she laughed in the manner of an automatic weapon.” (748)
Mario about his mother’s desk: “…what looks like a skyline of file folders and books…” (760)
Hal about Keith Freer: “He was still wearing the weird unitard he slept in, which made him look like someone who tore phone books in half at a sideshow.” (908)
On story-telling: Remember the “use less words” from the previous post? Add these:
Marathe: “‘Because it is necessary that I leave soon, a central point must be soon emerging,’ Marathe worked in as gracefully as possible.”
Kate to Marathe: “Is the madly-in-love part coming up?” (779)
I’m realizing as of the end of the 700’s that more and more lines I would like to include might be spoilers so I have left them out.
On living in the moment: A recurrent theme.
Gately: “An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat…Living in the Present between pulses…living completely In The Moment.” (860)
On addiction: Everywhere to every possible thing, and I include “to this book.”
Gately: “Feeling the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time. Drawing the time in around him real tight.” (859)
Gately: “…everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you somehow believed.” (861)
Gately: “the psychic emergency-brake was off…” (906)
Gately: “…he found himself starting to cry like a babe. It came out of emotional nowheres…” (916)
OMG, I’m at the end again…
[4th in a series of 5 posts on finishing IJ]
Following from yesterday’s Shakespeare quote, it’s interesting to note that the first two words of Hamlet are “Who’s there?” and the first two words of Infinite Jest are “I am”. I didn’t catch this. I read it on the Infinite Summer website. If you’re planning an Infinite Autumn, or Winter for that matter, here’s the link to the schedule, where you would just need to change the dates. It translates to 11 pages a day for a season (92 days). Doable. And some non-spoiler reasons to do it:
David Foster Wallace‘s ability to describe:
“Troeltsch comes over and sits down and saws at the back of his neck with the towel…”(199)
“…this isn’t like a normal adult place where everybody coolly pretends a fart didn’t happen; here everybody had to make their little comment.” (279)
“…the no-sound of falling snow.” (342)
“post-storm sad” (389)
“My mother made a mustache of her finger to hold back a sneeze.” (499)
His use of metaphor:
“Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.” (291)
How he can extend a moment:
At the top of p. 335: “…Hal’s leaned way over to spit but has gotten lost in a paralytic thought-helix and hasn’t yet spit, even though he’s right in bombing-position over the NASA glass.” Then two pages later, “Hal finally spits.”
Random great lines:
Hal: “It’s funny what you don’t recall.” (10)
Marathe: “Choose your attachments carefully.” (107)
Hal: “Nothing brings you together like a common enemy.” (113)
Hal: “It’ll help your attitude to look for evidence of design.” (113)
Ortho Stice: “…it’s about how to reach down into parts of yourself you didn’t know were there and get down in there and live inside these parts.” (119)
Hal: “I want to be like that [Lyle]. Able to just sit all quiet and pull life toward me, one forehead at a time.” (128)
Himself: “…that books aren’t just dropped with a crash like bottles in the trashcan they’re placed, guided, with senses on Full, feeling the edges…” (161)
Hal: “…the Game is about managed fear.” (176)
Patricia Montesian: “But then so how come I can’t stop, if I want to stop, is the thing.”
Narrator (?): “That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.” (204)
Narrator (?): “That other people can often see things about you that you yourself cannot see, even if those people are stupid.” (204)
Did anyone else like at any time while you were reading want to tear the book apart and put it in the right order just to read it through once that way, just to get it straight, so then you could go back and just enjoy the beauty coming from the juxtaposition of the moments?
Lyle: “Do not underestimate objects!” (394)
Steeply: “The kid has to learn by his own experience how to learn to balance the short- and long-term pursuit of what he wants.” (429)
Gately: “Gately can’t even start to guess what it would be like to be a sober and drug-free biker. It’s like what would be the point.” (444)
I’m beginning to think that the germ of everything that can be written can be found in Infinite Jest.
Gately: “Use less words.” (535)
From page 535, until tomorrow…
[3rd in a series of 5 posts on finishing IJ]
Hey, do you remember in elementary school when there would be paper drives? You’d go around to your neighbors’ houses, maybe with your little brother’s red wagon, to collect all the newspapers they had.
Well, I was thinking we’d have a comment drive. To collect all the comments that must be floating around out there, piling up in the rooms of your mind, in the basements and closets. Let’s clear them out and get a conversation going… about all the books we’re reading and lives we’re living and the writing we want to do and the way we have to light a candle before we can get any real work done…
–I didn’t like that book.
–Wonder if I can find a red wagon.
–Anybody out there agree with me that she’s wrong about that?
–Just taking a look.
You can use only your first name. You can make up a name. You can use all your names, like me. You can think of it as a place to practice your tweets!
I also remember that the class that had the most papers won a prize. Was it an ice cream party? Maybe we should have a prize. Or more than one prize. Or a prize on the first of each month.
For the most comments for the month. And commenting on older posts will count too. Cool.
And the prize…. How about a subscription to my favorite literary journal—One Story. We’ll be supporting literary journals. Win, win, win.
So thanks for stopping in and let’s start clearing out our brains and collecting those comments.
“I wonder what it would be like,” she said to me on one of those days that make you feel that you have chosen the right profession, “if I could once and for all get my mother out of my head.”
“Picture it,” I told her. “Tell me what it looks like.”
“It’s a big white room. Massive. Sunny,” she said.
“Anything in the room?” I asked.
“Just me,” she said, “and about a hundred thousand crayons.”
“I’d be someone different.”
What is ironic about this bit of dialogue is that in the specific situation of the book, being someone different would be a good thing. On New Year’s Eve, four people meet on the roof of Toppers’ House, a famous London suicide spot.
How to be Good, published in 2001, was the first book of his I read. A friend loaned it to me, but as soon as it came out in paperback, I bought my own copy.
The first sentence: “I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore.”
Then, “David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of …slips out.”
What Nick Hornby does so well. The truth made more accessible by humor. Humor made more poignant by the truth.
“Nothing quite so grand as that,” I tell him, though it’s true I’ve written far more than I expected to, having underestimated the tug of the past, the intoxication of memory, the attraction of explaining myself to, well, myself.”
It’s simple. It pulls you right in. And the little exposition there at the end has such a beautiful rhythm that I just want to read it out loud over and over again.
Last January, Richard Russo was in Columbus to encourage support for the Columbus Public Library. On Sunday, the 27th, I was the lucky one who got to drive him back to the Atlanta airport. It’s true. Richard Russo was trapped in my car for an hour and a half. He could not have been more gracious and pleasant. He signed my books. He encouraged my writing. He talked about his friendship with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. If I remember correctly, that friendship started when Paul Newman starred in Nobody’s Fool, another Richard Russo novel that was made into a movie in 1994. Paul would call Rick to ask about specifics. How exactly would Sully stand? Where would his hands be?
I’m looking forward to reading Straight Man. It’s waiting in my tower of books.
“You know,” she said, “I’m not going to be one of those girls who plays hard to get, because first, I’m too old for it, and second, I am hard to get, if simply by virtue of my schedule. I don’t have time for the peek-a-boo part of a relationship, and if you could see how empty my expectation bucket is at present you would be truly amazed.”
She is also the master of the real. This paragraph is from her story, “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had,” one of The Best American Short Stories of the Century.
“Leo grew up like I did on the East Coast, eating Birds Eye frozen vegetables and Swanson’s deep-dish meat pies on TV trays next to our parents and their third martinis, watching What’s My Line and To Tell the Truth on television and talking about anything on earth except what was wrong.”
She is the also the master of the metaphor. This paragraph, from the same story.
“There was a man there named Josh who didn’t want nearly enough from me, and a woman called Thea who wanted way too much, and I was sandwiched between them, one of those weaker rock layers like limestone that disappears under pressure or turns into something shapeles like oil.”
Running through these excerpts and all her writing is the truth.
“He said, ‘It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even from this distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I’m standing here thinking it’s an accident.’
‘Because it has to be.’
‘It has to be,’ he said.
‘The way the camera sort of shows surprise.’
‘But only the first one.’
‘Only the first,’ she said.
‘The second plane, by the time the second plane appears,’ he said, ‘we’re all a little older and wiser.'”
The Falling Man, Don DeLillo
Today will be a day when the skin of most Americans prickles in memory, starting a chain reaction through our bodies to our hearts. Seven years later, writers are beginning to delve into just what that moment was for us and how it radiates out into the rest of our lives. Two novels I read this year do just that. Falling Man by Don DeLillo and A Dangerous Age by Ellen Gilchrist.