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
So Thursday morning was luxuriously wide open and the plan was to write a blog post and read about 50 pages of the novel I’m working on. I read the first paragraph of the novel about ten times and then put the papers down. Okay, blog post. Nothing. I answered a few emails and then found myself staring at some website–not reading or thinking or even looking out the window. Just zonked.
On Tuesday and Wednesday I’d been working on my essay for this next packet–on narrative distance in beginnings–how to choose whether to begin with “It was a dark and stormy night” or “a woman”or “Ms. Last” or “Angelina Last” or “Angelina” or “she.” Now I had time to work on other things, but it seemed as if there was nothing left up there to work with.
So on Thursday morning when, out of the blue, a friend called to see if I wanted to go to a movie at 1:30, I knew that was exactly what I needed–to get out of this room and away from this screen. To get lost in another world. I couldn’t even remember the last movie I’d seen. The rest of the afternoon, I listened to music and read. It was as if I could see the needle moving past 1/4, past 1/2, and on its way to full.
So the logical, orderly side of me is distressed that I haven’t better organized this trilogy of posts–my writing room, the writer’s desk, and today, a room with a view. Instead it’s the writer’s side of me that has let one thing lead to another and then overlap and circle around. My first choice would be to delete all three posts, reorganize, and re-post, but I’m trying to go with it.
In the last two posts, I’ve felt the absence of two things. The first is a more specific reference to Virginia Woolf’s words read to the Arts Society in October 1928 and collected in the book, A Room of One’s Own. She writes:
Saving the subject of money for another day, what she was saying is that a woman needs freedom in order to write.
In these essays, Woolf also describes the relationship of fiction to life:
“…fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”
The second thing I’ve felt the absence of in these posts is the subject of what’s in front of us as we write. Some people don’t want any view, but last summer when I was staying in a hotel in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, and all I had to look at was a wall, I felt claustrophobic. I shoved my computer in my purse and headed for a view. If I could pick any, it would be the ocean. It doesn’t really make any sense.
If I’m writing, I’m looking at my screen. I can’t explain it other than to say, if I have a choice in the matter, I prefer the feeling of limitless possibility and of things opening up in front of me.
When you’re writing, does it matter if you have a view?
It’s a blustery day in Seaside, Florida, a town many of you may know from the movie The Truman Show. I was taking a quick break from Tender is the Night for a fun beach read, The Sunday Wife by Cassandra King, which takes place in Seaside and the surrounding area. I love that–reading a novel that takes place where I’m physically located. I was actually on the deck at Bud & Alley’s when I read “we went for an early supper on the outdoor deck of Bud & Alley’s.”
I went in Sundog Books, the wonderful independent bookstore located in Seaside. Picked up book after book. Then my eyes fell on a copy of Tender is the Night. I’ve been reading the book on my new Kindle. And not liking it very much. Not picking it up very often. Normally I take my book up to bed with me, but there’s something not-very-cozy about heading to bed with my Kindle.
Anyway, I suspected that it was not the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald that were the problem, but the very cool electronic gadget that I was reading them on. Standing in Sundog Books, I opened the copy of Tender is the Night and began reading. I was mesmerized. And disappointed. How could it make that much difference? And I love gadgets. And the Kindle is so cool. You can download a book in a few seconds. You can search through the pages of the book. You can take an entire library with you when you travel. But it’s not the same, I’m so sad to have to admit.
So I bought that copy and went across the street for a great lunch–a lobster roll and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Before and After by Rosellen Brown was published in 1992. I read it in August of 2006 and gave it to everyone I knew for Christmas. It’s about a marriage and a family. It’s narrated in alternating chapters primarily by the husband and wife, Ben and Carolyn, and also by one of the children, Judith.
You won’t be able to put it down. And be sure to notice how the narrative is strung along this thing that happens, but the story–what it’s about–is the relationship between the members of the family, in particular the husband and the wife.
At the beginning of the novel, the wife’s voice, although in the past tense, is more immediate to the action. She’s at work and then washing her hands at the sink. We live through the events with her. The husband’s voice, on the other hand, is distant to what happened, more reflective, beginning in the present tense, speaking to us from some future time: “I’m going to talk about that day…I’m coming toward it slowly. I can’t rush up on the seam between before and after. (Not seam, no way. Excuse me. Chasm.)”
Just discovered it was made into a film in 1996, starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson.
As I was reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, I felt as if I were looking through a peep-hole into another couple’s marriage. An amazing feat since it’s written in the third person. Listen to the inside of Frank’s head:
“Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.”
The novel is divided into three parts. Part One begins with the stage group the Laurel Players, one of whom we find out quickly is April Wheeler, Frank’s wife. Part Two begins with Frank trying to pin down a certain joyous time period, how long it was “before his life began to come back into focus, with its customary concern for the passage of time and its anxious need to measure and apportion it…”
Part Three begins with an aphorism, at a far distance from Frank and April Wheeler. “Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.” Note the repetition. It then moves from the infantry captain’s “oh six hundred” to the executive’s “day-sized pages” “booked solid” to the ancient man who, from the sun is able to bring “order out of chaos” and finally, with a space break, to April and Frank looking at A.J. Stolper and Sons’ Hardware and Home Furnishings’ wall calendar.
Two pages which make me think of Annie Dillard’s “A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”
For an interesting interview of Richard Yates by Geoffrey Clark and DeWitt Henry (the Founding Editor of Ploughshares, author of Safe Suicide, and a good friend of Yates), click here. Revolutionary Road was published in 1961. I read it for the first time in 1999, ten years ago. The movie came out in 2008, forty-seven years after the novel.
It doesn’t bother me not to finish a book. I have so many I want to read, not to mention reread. And if I don’t like a book, I want it out of the house. The faster, the better. Toss–feed the buzzards.
One exception: If it is a universally accepted great book, sometimes I’ll put it away for a while, to try again later. And sometimes, especially if someone whose choice in books I usually like has recommended the book, I’ll skim, thinking maybe something will catch my eye.
I don’t personally have a set number of pages I must read before I can feed the buzzards. But in case you’re looking for a rule, there’s librarian Nancy Pearl’s famous Rule of 50 : “If you still don’t like a book after slogging through the first 50 pages, set it aside. If you’re more than 50 years old, subtract your age from 100 and only grant it that many pages.” (actually found this in Wikipedia!)
I think sometimes it’s a question of mood. If I’m overwhelmed by life, I often don’t have the patience for a slow book. Out the window.
Sometimes it’s a question of writing. I remember going to see Message in a Bottle years ago and loving the movie. I went straight from the theater to the book store on the theory that the book would be even better than the movie. Standing in line to pay for the book, I began to read. Thank goodness for the line. Before I got to the register, I had ducked out to return the book to the shelf.
By the way, I do try to make a note that I didn’t like a particular book, so I won’t accidentally buy it again.
Approaching this subject from the other side, we had a reader comment two weeks ago that she fed the buzzards 50 pages from the end of a book!
3 pages, 20, 50–do you have a rule?
Dirt Music by Tim Winton is a character-rich, character-driven novel, with lots of plot and an equally strong sense of place. What a read! It’s written in short little unmarked sections–little moments that patch together the characters of Georgie Jutland and Lu Fox.
The first sentence of the novel, about Georgie: “One night in November, another that had somehow become morning while she sat there, Georgie Jutland looked up to see her pale and furious face reflected in the window.”
Here’s the first one about Lu: “Out in the shed with the dog at his shins he leaves the boat smelling of bleach.”
Dirt music: “Anything you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity.” But of course it’s more than that. Tim Winton is an Australian writer, and that’s where this novel takes place. There’s dirt and weather everywhere. Rosy dirt, silt, and dust. Opposing weather systems and typhoons and cyclones. Killer heat and ocean and survival.
One of my favorite passages:
“She only knew that love was impossible. It arrived and moved on like the weather and it defied pursuit. Not just romance–any kind of love. The emotion itself was promiscuous and not to be trusted. She’d thought all this before and failed to learn from it. The story of her life.”
Read it before the movie comes out in September (Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell).
“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.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines collaboration as
“working jointly, especially in a literary or artistic production.”
It defines commitment as
“the process or an instance of committing oneself.”
And committing as
“pledging or binding oneself to a certain course”
Something different for today–a movie.
This summer one of my sons, Bobby Martin, was in Paris taking a film class. I had the opportunity to collaborate with him on a short film. I had the easy part–throwing out ideas. He had the hard part–doing all the work. He selected the music and mapped the scenes. He did the filming and the editing. Nevertheless, he graciously added my name to the credits. The film is two minutes and forty seconds. Turn up the volume and enjoy.
“A story,” Graham Greene wrote, “has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” The End of the Affair. The first sentence. Of course, then there was the movie, Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore. I’m watching it again now. I left it, a moment ago, to stand on a stool, then lunge to stand on a shelf, to reach the book on the very top shelf. From the last page, I saw I had read it in August of 2001. Unfortunately, my paperback references the movie on the cover. It must have been the only copy I could get my hands on at the time. I can’t remember the words. I want to read it again.