shakespeare days

The New York Times September 15, 2013

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

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

odd disjointed pieces at strange times of the day

signed in 2000 at Oxford Square Books in Oxford, MS

“There was one last book to write and the summer to be lived through. She worked on the book in a desultory manner, writing odd disjointed pieces at strange times of the day, dating them like journal entries, although they had nothing to do with the days on which they were written. They were pieces of the past, a history of obsessions…”

from The Anna Papers

As I was flipping through the book this morning–reading words here and there–this passage stopped me. This is exactly the way I’ve been writing fiction lately–“odd disjointed pieces at strange times of the day” and dating them because I’m not yet sure how they fit together.

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a life in stories

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. Of course 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.]

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i cannot get you close enough

When I last left you, I was on the floor with all my Ellen Gilchrist books surrounding me. I put the last one back on the shelf this morning. Well, that’s not exactly true. I kept two by my computer so I could write this post. I kind of knew what I wanted to write. So I started typing. But then I wanted to give you an excerpt so you could hear her voice.

I have a million paragraphs I could use, but I have one in my head that I read over the weekend and I want to find it. I’ve looked all the places I thought it would be. I’ve marked four other passages, but I want to find that one. So I’m pulling all the books off the shelf again. Back in a minute, I hope.

I give up. [there went a fox] But here’s one I also love. It’s the opening paragraph of the last story in the collection Drunk With Love. The story is called “Anna, Part I.”

“It was a cold day in the Carolinas, drizzling rain that seemed to hang in the sky, that barely seemed to fall. The trees were bare, the mountains hazy in the blue distance, the landscape opened up all the way to Virginia. It was a big day for Anna Hand. It was the day she decided to give up being a fool and go back to being a writer. She called her editor.”

What I learned about structure from looking through all these books and others, which is what started all this, is that you can pretty much do anything you want as long as it opens the book to the reader, including titling the last story in a collection “Anna, Part I.” So I’m going to let go of the question of structure for a while and go back to writing.

By the way, don’t you just love her titles?

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not searching for structure

I’m trying not to search for structure. I’m trying just to write. I wrote a few pages this morning.

With the other things I’ve written, I’ve seen the structure from the very beginning. As I type these words, I realize: I’ve also seen the story from the beginning too. So, hmmm…

Anyway, I’ve just read a few pages in Mark Rose’s Shakespearean Design. I spent ten minutes taking apart Pam Houston’s Sight Hound–8 chapters within which 12 different narrators have sections, some speaking only once.

Now I’m on the floor, playing with books. I’ve taken all of Ellen Gilchrist‘s books off my shelf–all 22 of them. I quickly return to the shelf her 1987 and her 2000 versions of Falling Through Space (her journal), as well as her book on The Writing LifeAnabasis (her novel that takes place in ancient times), her Collected Stories, and my hardback copy of The Anna Papers.

After a second’s glance, I also return to the shelf her two lives-in-stories: Nora Jane and Rhoda. I love these two books in which all the stories she wrote over twenty years about Rhoda are collected in one volume and those about Nora Jane, in another volume.

That leaves me with three stacks: her six other novels, her nine other collections of stories, and her one collection of novellas.

I start with the novels. The first one I pick up is The Anna Papers–possibly my favorite. There’s a Contents page:  a Prelude, and then five named parts. I skip the prelude, read the first paragraph of Chapter 1, skip to the second to last page of the first part and read. I turn the page to Part II, then another page to read the beginning of Chapter 15 (so the chapter numbers continue through the parts). I want to catch the reason for the separate parts. I read two and a half pages and am swept away.

That’s when I hopped up to write this post. The Anna Papers is one of the reasons I wanted to learn how to write. To do this. What she did.

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playing with books again

Last Sunday I was looking through Ellen GIlchrist’s Falling Through Space trying to find the passage where she writes about getting down on the floor to play with her books.  Well, I couldn’t find it, but in the process, I discovered that Falling Through Space had been republished in 2000 with the addition of fifteen new esssays.  I ordered a new copy.  It came yesterday, and I read the whole book again.  I couldn’t stop.  I love the way she writes, her honesty, her outlook on life.  I may read it again today.

I found the passage, by the way.  Apparently she had said on a radio program that “we should all learn from two-year-olds and go to work by different routes and take all our books off the shelves and throw them on the floor and play with them.”  She writes, “I can talk a good game but where is the action.”  Then, “…I walked on home and went into my house and started pullng all the books off my bookshelves and piling them up on the living-room floor.  Pretty soon I had a carpet of books.”  She describes it as “one of the best weekends I’ve ever had.”  This process of “being into everything” is so important to her that she mentions playing with books again later in the book.

 

That’s what writing here has been like for me:  playing with books.  It’s as if the books are jumping off the shelves.  Write about me, each one is saying as it takes a leap into the air.

September 11th

“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.

September 30, 2008 Columbus, Georgia

 

playing with books

This morning I remember Ellen Gilchrist writing about getting down on the floor to play with her books.  I want to find that passage.  With my coffee in one hand, I begin to pull her books off the shelf.  I think it’s in Falling Though Space, her journal, but I can’t find it.  Next I thumb through The Anna Papers.  It’s driving me crazy.  I’m not saying it’s not in either of these books, but I can’t find it.  Now I’m down on the floor, surrounded by every book Ellen Gilchrist has ever written. 

I had things I wanted to do today–like write.  Instead, I’m pouring another cup of coffee, with my finger holding the place in Falling Through Space, where Ellen Gilchrist writes, “The hardest thing to get hold of in the world is the truth; the easiest to keep once you capture it, once you know it plain.  So I believe, but then I can’t stand secrets.  I want all the cards on the table.  I want to know what’s going on.” 

When I find the passage that started this lovely side journey, I will let you know.