the next writer in the series: february 1, 2014

A Design So Vast

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

I give, from 10-29-09

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I wanted to do a post today. Usually I post much earlier. This is my fourth try.

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Each time--writing about a book, about my writing process (ok, obsessed), and even about a single picture I had taken on Tuesday--I was not happy with what I was doing.

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I kept wanting to include not one but three pictures. Just a minute ago, I interrupted my last attempt to post so I could accompany my 16-year-old to the door. He was leaving for a late basketball practice.

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As I shut the door, I saw the last light of day caught in this dogwood tree. And I thought, I give, as I went in search of my camera.

await your reply 5: parceling out your life

And you wipe the snow out of your hair and get back into your car and drive off toward an accumulation of the usual daily stuff–there is dinner to be made and laundry to be done and helping the kids with their homework and watching television on the couch with the dog resting her muzzle in your lap and a phone call you owe to your sister in Wisconsin and getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing and a few different pills that help to regulate your blood pressure and thyroid and a facial scrub that you apply and all the rituals that are–you are increasingly aware–units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life. (92)

This passage from Dan Chaon’s 2009 novel, Await Your Reply, reminds me of so many things:

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  

  Mark Strand’s “The Continuous Life”: Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,/That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;”

the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours: “Laura reads the moment as it passes.  Here it is, she thinks; there it goes.  The page is about to turn.”

that surely there is more than this

and just as surely, no there’s not.

What are the units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life?

await your reply

~last in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

scheduling time

I adore this portrait of May Sarton. I used it in a blog post on August 8, 2009. I also used some of the same quotes, but I had a very different reaction to them two years ago. 

Polly Thayer's portrait of May Sarton owned by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University

There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour–put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I cannot achieve it inside me.

As the last days of summer float by, I feel like I’m swimming upstream against them, periodically climbing onto the river bank to put out the next fire. I don’t really think that’s what May Sarton meant by going “ahead with life moment by moment.” And, unfortunately, I’m not even in the same universe with putting out birdseed and tidying rooms. How can I have so much to do?

I’ve been printing blank weekly calendars from the internet and making lists, thinking about the best way to shape the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. On one of my lists from yesterday was “schedule time for reading.” You’ve got to be kidding, I say to my list. It’s come to this?

“That was what I was after–a daily rhythm, a kind of fugue of poetry, gardening, sleeping and waking in the house.”

I like fugue for its sense of interweaving of parts, for its writerly rhythm.

But at the moment I’m not sure fugue is going to get it done. In fact, what I need is a general to command the troops, to whip all these to-dos into shape. And less sleep. Maybe if I get up an hour earlier…

Just so you know, Eleanor Marie Sarton was born in Belgium in 1912. All of her quotes in this post can be found in  Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973.

How about the rest of you–how are your summers going?

on my way

I am at this minute high in the sky on my way to Vermont for my fourth residency, about to begin my last semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. How fast the time has gone.

And I have loved every second of it–the residencies, the packets, the advisers, the community of writers.

In the spring of 2009 I decided to pursue my MFA in Writing because I seemed so close to something but not quite reaching it. I thought an MFA program might provide the missing ingredient.

Some people need the requirements of deadlines to sit down at their desks. Not me. I adore sitting at my desk to write. Others are looking for a community of writers. I was already in a writing group. Some people want feedback, but my writing group exchanges manuscripts four times a year. Some people just want to make writing a priority. It already was for me.

Still, I have received something that has made pursuing my MFA in Writing invaluable.

Immersion is the only way I know to describe it. An absolute dunking in all things writing all the time. Not just feedback four times a year but feedback every four weeks. Not just writing but writing about writing. And not just that but having a packet due so that even when life was full of other things and even when I was writing, I couldn’t just write–I had to produce thirty pages in three days because the other days of the month had been full of other things, which meant staying down under longer than ever before.

Last semester I wrote the best pages I’ve ever written. And I knew it.

Did I mention confidence? Pursuing my MFA in Writing at VCFA has given me confidence.

I’ll return to campus one more time in December to give a forty-five minute lecture, a reading, and to graduate.

the writing life

For the last couple of months at Hunger Mountain, Claire Guyton, former Art +Life editor, and I have been working together to expand that section of the journal into The Writing Life.

Here’s what’s up and coming at

THE WRITING LIFE:

1) ANOTHER LOOSE SALLY - Hunger Mountain’s blog about writers and writing anchored by Claire Guyton (check in every Thursday!)

~june 16: The Catch / june 9: Shape is the Thing / june 3: Envisioning Concrete Pianos /may 26: New Writing Rule

2) AUTHOR VISITS  - interviews with the Hunger Mountain contributors

3) CRAFT SHORTS & ESSAYS - large and small doses of craft (online submissions for both forms now open)

~first short: On Endings: 11 Strategies by David Jauss

~May essay: Conjuring the Magic of Story by Stephanie Friedman

4) LISTS: LITERARY & LAUNDRY - coming soonpostcards from the organizational side of the writing brain

5) WRITER, INC., debuting in September, memos from the business of the writer’s life 

6) REVIEWS GONE SIDEWAYS - coming soon – anything but your mother’s reviews.

Check us out here

and

stay tuned!

it pulls me and grounds me

After seeing my photos of the ocean, a friend wrote that she could tell the ocean pulls me and grounds me at the same time. What an amazing thing to know from a photo.

Seven days the first week of April–spring break–in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, in a house right on the beach–days I can’t seem to stop thinking or writing about.

Seeing, hearing, smelling, living the ocean–I just felt great. Each moment was wider than normal. Each day had a rhythm and an arc.

I’ve never been one to appreciate or mark the beginning of the day. I’m not much in the morning. But at the end of each one of these,
 I paused to watch the sun disappear into the o c e a n.

oh the ocean

It’s so quiet now, without the waves pounding in the background. The first week in April we had our own wonderful steps to the beach. I went to the grocery before I left, and after I arrived on Friday, the first, I did not set foot in a car until we pulled out of the driveway Friday, the eighth, to come home. I wish I could say I woke with the sun, but I slept late, I walked, I read, read, read… All activities interrupted by a few steps to the ship-size deck for hefty doses of sea air. I wrote, wrote, wrote…with the door open and the sound and view of the ocean. And after it was dark, just for fun, I downloaded the series Damages and watched in solo-size on my iPhone. I ate more pizza than I would have thought possible because it was the only place that delivered. Even pizza for breakfast one day. When I write, the hours turn to minutes and before I know it, the day is done. But one day, Sunday I think, I just read all day–different books. With a midday walk down the beach. And the day felt l u x u r i o u s l y long.

the squad: goon 3

Each chapter of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad can stand alone as a story, but united, these chapters took my breath away. I got chills as I discovered yet another connection between them: Characters who age and reappear. Younger selves revealed. Shadows filled in. Events alluded to that come to pass. The language itself (Chapter 13 is called “Pure Language.)

The subject of time and what it does to us is threaded throughout Goon Squad. From Chapter 3: “Ask Me If I Care:”

Lou looks so happy, surrounded by his kids like any normal dad, that I can’t believe this Lou with us is the very same Lou.

From Chapter 5: “You (Plural):”

My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”

From Chapter 11: “Goodbye, My Love:”

“Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” Ted knew exactly why she’d said it…because she’d felt the passage of time.

From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

What he needed was to find fifty more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realizing it.

And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there—his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.

And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

In addition to time, A Visit From the Goon Squad is also about music. The book is divided into Side A and Side B, recalling 33s and 45s. The main character, Bennie Salazar, founded the Sow’s Ear record label. In my previous post, I quoted an excerpt that mentions, in the same paragraph, Bennie and a Jets game–a subtle reference to Elton John’s song.

Chapter 12 is Alison’s (the daughter of Sasha who worked for Bennie) power point presentation on “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” This 75-page slide show is stunning in its juxtaposition of word restraint and emotional impact.

In addition to the surface, there’s below the surface, before the surface, after… From Chapter 6: “X’s and O’s:”

I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once and asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.

E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “Music … does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way … and when we have finished does not every item…lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?”

Final post in a series of three on Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad: first post and second post.

*cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

you gonna let that goon push you around?

As some of you may know from my recent post, last week, Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This morning it was also long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is brilliant. It’s not a novel in the traditional sense. The chapters can be read and appreciated as stand-alone pieces. In fact, four have been published that way: “Selling the General” in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit published in 2006; and three in The New Yorker: “Found Objects” (Chapter 1) in the December 10, 2007 issue, “Safari” (Chapter 4) in the January 11, 2010 issue, and “Ask Me If I Care” (Chapter 3) in the March 8, 2010 issue.

In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin is unsure whether the book is “a novel, a collection of carefully arranged interlocking stories or simply a display of Ms. Egan’s extreme virtuosity.” In an interview on Selected Shorts, Jennifer Egan referred to sections of her book as stories and also as chapters of a longer book.

Regardless of their severability, when read as pieces of a longer work, they shine–oh, they shine. Like separate parts of the universe talking to each other.

The chapters move backward and forward, and part of the pleasure of reading each one is to figure out where we are in time. From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?

And there are sufficient clues—dates, ages, references to events we’ve read about in other chapters—that the reader enjoys the challenge and never feels frustrated. And after all we should struggle with time, for that is the subject of the book. Time. Who we were then, who we are now, and how we got from there to here—from side A to side B.

From Chapter 7: “A to B:”

The album’s called A to B, right? Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.

In the same Selected Shorts interview, Egan said, “And one of the principles of the longer book is that each chapter had to be written in a very different way technically from all the others.”

Because each of the chapters has its own separate sound, when they all play together, the result is the answer to E. M. Forster’s question in Aspects of the Novel:

Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of the Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played?

Brilliant.

The first in a series of posts on A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the second post, click Pure Egan.

cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

help wanted

As a perfect follow-up to the photos I posted on Sunday, a friend gave me an early holiday gift today that now hangs on the door to my study:

At this time of year, when the demands/desires of the holiday season are heaped on top of our already overflowing lives, all of us could use a personal assistant.

And now I’m going to be my own PA and stop the forward progress in order to reap the benefits of feeling more comfortable in the moment. I’m going to return books to the shelves, file, discard, consolidate. Then I’m going to sit back with a glass of wine and read one of those books you can see on the other side of the door.