2010: I turn 53

2010: The new year begins in the deep snow of Vermont. I stay in the dorm, wear my first pair of snow boots, and vow not to waste any more years writing novels that don’t sell. I will go shorter. And I … Continue reading



“October” by Annie Dillard

In The Maytrees, Annie Dillard wrote,

She herself hoped to paint, soberly, when she got old.

In 2009, a week before I headed to Provincetown, I read in The Provincetown Banner that, at the age of 64, Annie Dillard was doing just that. Although she usually painted between books, now she was giving up writing for painting. After arriving in P-town, I visited the gallery where her work was being shown and brought home this small painting. It hangs in my study. With a slight turn of my head to the left, I can see it. Called “October,” it’s the view from Pleasant Point Town Landing.

There’s a line that connects writers and painters. In August I wrote about writer James Baldwin crediting painter Beauford Delaney with teaching him how to see and how to trust what he saw. Henri Matisse wrote often about painting. (Matisse on Art by Jack Flam). With “The Dance” at The Barnes Foundation, Matisse gave the viewer only part of the picture to free him to imagine so much more. As writers, we want to give the reader this same freedom. We want to suggest what lies beyond the page. Robert Boswell writes brilliantly about this half-known world we’re trying to create.

Maureen Doallas also wrote about Annie Dillard’s move to painting at her blog Writing Without Words. On Annie Dillard’s website, you can see more of her work, and you can also purchase limited edition prints with the proceeds going to Partners in Health.

structure echoes content

Fisherman’s Wharf in Provincetown Harbor

Annie Dillard’s novel The Maytrees [spoiler alert], begins with a short prologue from a storyteller narrator who is hereafter rarely noticed. Its first sentence interestingly begins with the couple not the individuals: “The Maytrees were young long ago.” Although it’s difficult to grasp on the first read, these four and a half pages tell, in a fairytale way, the story of the novel.

After the prologue is a preface, written in the point of view of Toby Maytree, that begins with this sentence that divides the Maytrees into two individuals: “It began when Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree first met.” This sentence in this point of view foreshadows the later division of the Maytrees by Toby.

notice board by Angel Foods

After the preface, there’s a page break and the apparent first sentence of the novel, in which the narrative distance has shrunk yet again:

“Of course she glared at Maytree that fall when he came by barefoot at daybreak and asked if she would like to see his dune shack.”

Or is it the first sentence? What follows those words are what appear to be eight unmarked, short chapters—some told by Lou, some by Maytree, and some by the narrator—in which Maytree courts Lou, they marry, and have a child. Then, the reader turns the page to find on page 61 the heading, “Part One.” This innovative structure is a way of saying you thought that was the story but now we’re getting to the real story. Apparently the preface consisted of nine unmarked, short chapters.

a P-town taxi

Here’s the first sentence of Part One: “That winter the crowd on the frozen corner parted for Lou, saying, He’s okay, it’s all right.” Later that day in real time (five pages later) the reader learns Maytree is leaving Lou to go to Maine with their friend Deary. Part One consists of six unmarked chapters and covers the time period it take Lou to become “happier and wiser,” to discover “that steady ground”—six months: from “that winter” to “one cold June morning.”

The novel continues with an Interlude of eight short unmarked chapters, the first of which is narrated by the Maytrees’ son Pete, that covers the twenty years—the interlude—Lou and Maytree spend apart.


Part Two is divided into five unmarked sections. In the first one, again narrated by Pete, Pete reconciles with his father. Then Deary becomes bedridden and Maytree slips on ice, becoming incapable of caring for them. He travels from Maine back to Provincetown to ask for Lou’s help.

Part Three begins with Pete carrying Deary into his mother’s house. It’s four short, unmarked sections that cover six months and Deary’s death.

The Maytrees concludes with an Epilogue in two short sections. In the first one, Lou and Maytree live together “many new years.” The second one begins “Tomorrow is another day only up to a point. One summer five years later Maytree began to die all over the place.”

P-town lobster traps

Dillard uses structure to clue the reader as to the real story, which in this case is not the courtship or the marriage of the Maytrees, but the much more interesting story of what happens after that: their breakup, how Lou got over Maytree…

She was ready to want to stop this. Thereby she admitted—barely—that she could choose to stop…She could climb the monument every day and work on herself as a task…Their years together were good. He was already gone. All she had to do for peace was let him go.

…and discovered her own life, as well as the story of two individuals who were, through whatever happened, the Maytrees…

Now in compassion they bore, between them, their solitudes each the size of the raveled globe.

on Rt 6 coming into P-town

Finally, if you’re not convinced, take a look at these words from page 22 about Maytree’s third book:

(After the book appeared, a poem in three parts, no one noticed its crucial—to him—structure. At thirty he feared being obvious….

Some of this post–what I understood about the structure from my 1st read–also appeared in my 1st post on The Maytrees.

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6 things I learned from annie dillard

On my second read of The Maytrees in four weeks, I’m slowly ingesting the writing. Here are six things I learned, or was reminded of, by reading Annie Dillard [spoiler alert]:

1) To add telling to showing with an unexpected sentence:

“Their intimacy’s height so far was drinking from the same canteen.”

2) To use images:

“Affixed to Deary was six-year-old Marie Koday, fist like a clothespin on Deary’s skirts.”

“In her company he wrapped himself in misery like a robe.”

“She found herself holding one end of a love.”

3) To choose actions that add tension and say more than words:

“Brandy he drinks? The tenth-anniversary-present brandy from four years ago we’ve sipped on Christmas mornings only?”

4) To use humor to deflect melodrama:

“Never her Maytree, who loved her, as he just unsaid.”

“If this was not shaping up to be Maytree’s finest hour, it might as well be hers.”

5) To think associatively and let what the character sees reflect her state of mind:

“Do not drive in breakdown lane, said the Route six signs. Do not break down in driving lane. The sea poured over the stone lip at Gibraltar and emptied.”

6) To use echos:

Petie: “Did his brain contain a pack of selves like Musketeers, each smaller and farther back and waving a sword?”

Lou (11 pages later): “How she wished she could see all those displaced Petes and Peties once more!

Final post on The Maytrees (for the foreseeable future anyway) coming up: the relationship of structure to content

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so this morning

So this morning, at the suggestion of a reader, I took myself outside before I did anything else. Up and out my driveway for a walk–to wake the mind and the body at the same time.

Seventy-four degrees in Columbus, Georgia, with a light breeze. Wonderful in the shade.

And on my walk it came to me that I hadn’t taken an essay I wrote for my last packet of the semester (dropped in the FedEx box last night around six) far enough. This is the kind of thought that’s most likely to occur when my mind is free to roam. Which underscores the importance to writing of time away from desk or computer.

From The Maytrees:

Every book he read was a turn he took…He started new notebooks without having made the least sense of any old notebook.

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the person underneath

Well I’m going to momentarily halt my attempt to reduce the number of books in my to-be-read piles and reread The Maytrees.

Because I want to, she sings from the rooftops.

In the comments to my first post on the novel, I admitted that when I began reading it, I wasn’t sure I liked it, that the tone seemed brusque and clipped, almost as if the book were a person who wanted to keep to herself.

The more I read, though, the more the tone seemed to soften, and I discovered I liked the person underneath.

Often when I suspect I don’t like a book, I read quickly–to get it over with. Now I’m going to reread The Maytrees so I can enjoy each word.

At the very end of my edition of Annie Dillard’s The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a nonfiction narrative published in 1974, she writes an Afterward, written in 1999, and then a More Years Afterward, written in 2007. In the latter, she describes the style of The Maytrees as one of spareness–“short sentences, few modifiers.” She also writes:

“The Maytrees are a woman and a man both simplified and enlarged…The Maytrees’ human tale needs only the telling. Writers’ styles often end pruned down. (I knew this happened; I did not know I was already that old.)”

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the maytrees

Annie Dillard published her most recent book, The Maytrees, a novel, in 2007. The cover of the paperback has recessed letters that I can feel with my eyes closed and uneven pages that make me think the book was created by a real person. It’s interesting, I think, coming from me that the unevenness makes me think of a real person.

On the inside are characters I can see with my eyes closed and imperfect lives that echo our own. The Maytrees is the story of two individuals who came together once upon a time in a place I love–Provincetown.

The following sentence from a storyteller narrator who is hereafter rarely seen begins the four-and-a-half-page prologue:

“The Maytrees were young long ago.”

There’s also a preface, which starts out with this sentence that divides the Maytrees into two individuals:

“It began when Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree first met.”

After the preface, there’s a page break and the apparent first sentence of the novel in which the narrative distance has shrunk yet again:

“Of course she glared at Maytree that fall when he came by barefoot at daybreak and asked if she would like to see his dune shack.”

Or is it the first sentence? What follows those words are what appear to be eight unmarked, short chapters. Then, you turn the page to find on page 61 the heading, “Part One,” and this first sentence:

“That winter the crowd on the frozen corner parted for Lou, saying, He’s okay, it’s all right.”

I wonder if this is a way of saying you needed to know all that came before but now we’re getting to the real story. The novel continues with an Interlude, Part Two, Part Three, and finally an Epilogue, which includes a space break and another short section.

My favorite passage comes right before Part Two and shows Lou discovering who she is:

“The one-room ever-sparer dune shack was her chief dwelling…Lou had long since cut out fashion and all radio but the Red Sox. In the past few years she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care. She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened her days like a pinata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.

And then toward the end of the book, after a certain event, she discovers something else about herself:

“She bade her solitude good-bye. Good-bye no schedule but whim; good-bye her life among no things but her own and each always in place; good-bye no real meals, good-bye free thought. The whole flat flock of them flapped away. But what was solitude for if not to foster decency?

So much to say about this one, but for now I’ll leave you here.

the days cottages

In 2006, I went to Provincetown for the first time to take a workshop with Pam Houston at the Fine Arts Work Center. Each morning a twenty-minute walk to class took me parallel with the ocean on a cobblestone sidewalk, past art gallery after art gallery and shop owners sweeping away the night’s debris. I inhaled the sea air, the coffee brewing. The world was waking up, and I was out in it.

A painting/photograph kept catching my eye. One afternoon I went in to Angela Russo Photography to see it up close. It turns out it was a photograph printed on canvas, and it’s now hanging in front of me. The photograph is also the header on my website. I told Angela how I loved these houses, and she said they were just down the road, that I could see them for myself.

The next afternoon I rented a bike and pedaled the three miles to Truro and there they were.

Two years later, in September of 2008, after thinking about starting a blog for a while but thinking I should wait until my novel was published to start one, I was having lunch when a friend mentioned I should check out her writer friend’s blog. Did she have a book?
No, she didn’t. And that was the last drop, the one that filled the glass, and spilled over into my blog. I made a couple of calls, finally made my way from wordpress.org to wordpress.com, and by the next afternoon, my blog was online.

Usually it takes me forever to make a decision. Not this time.

I looked around my desk and saw the Annie Dillard quote taped to my printer, read it, and named the blog. I needed a photo for the header and immediately thought of the houses. I found one of the photos I’d taken in 2006 and clicked on it, having long forgotten, if I ever knew, the name of the cottages.

Last summer I went back to P-town and again rented a bike. Imagine my surprise as I came pedaling up to the cottages–the Days’ Cottages.

This only happens in writing, I thought, when your subconscious leads you to coincidences and metaphors you only realize later.

In 1931 Joseph A. Days built 9 cottages. Today there are 23–all exactly alike. It was Joe’s wife, Amelia, who thought to name each of the cottages for a flower. You can find them outside of Provincetown, as you approach Truro on 6A. One of these days, I’m going to stay in one.

12 keys to stronger writing from Annie Dillard via Alexander Chee

DSC00099On 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:

  1. Put all your deaths, accidents and diseases up front, at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible.
  3. Never quote dialogue you can summarize.
  4. Avoid describing crowd scenes but especially party scenes.
  5. You want vivid writing, and vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices mean adverbs.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.DSC00096
  8. Avoid emotional language.
  9. 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.
  10. Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
  11. 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?
  12. 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.

summer reading II: story collections

IMG_0951With the intention of reading a story a night, a reader asked yesterday about story collections. I love that idea. No brand new collections to suggest, I’m afraid, but here are three great oldies:

Women & Fiction, edited by Susan Cahill, published in 1975. “Short stories by and about women.” Doris Lessing’s “To Room 19,” Jean Stubbs’ “Cousin Lewis,” Virginia Woolf’s “The New Dress,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” Carson McCuller’s “Wunderkind”….Try to avoid the very pink 2002 Signet Classic edition.

You’ve Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, published in 1994. “Contemporary American writers introduce stories that held them in awe.” There’s a great story in here by Paul Bowles, “A Distant Episode,” chosen by John L’Heureux. Also, Annie Dillard chooses a James Agee story. Bobbie Ann Mason chooses a Tim O’Brien story. Lorrie Moore chooses a John Updike story….This is a good, solid book.

The Story Behind the Story, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett, published in 2004. “26 stories by contemporary writers and how they work.” I was fascinated by Stephen Dobyns’ explanation of how he wrote his story, “Part of the Story.” He was inspired by Raymond Carver’s method. “…the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Also, stories by Margot Livesey, Charles Baxter, Andrea Barrett, Robert Boswell….

Others worth mentioning:

  1. Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike
  2. Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie

Then there’s The New Yorker and One Story.

As far as the initial question, I assumed anthologies, but here are two new single author collections:IMG_0978

  1. My Father’s Tears by John Updike, out today and reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.
  2. Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson, out June 9th. Loved her collection, Who Do You Love. Also reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.

Of the single author collections I’ve read in the last couple of years, I would recommend:

  1. Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill
  2. Last Night by James Salter
  3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  4. Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti

So many good stories, apparently I could go on and on…

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about a marriage

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:img_1518

“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 hereRevolutionary 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.

a bent cover

img_1408Don’t you hate when this happens to one of your books?

I ordered May Sarton‘s Plant Dreaming Deep online.  I was excited as I was pulling the book out of the padded envelope…only to find it had made its entire journey with the bottom right corner folded back.  Aaaagh!  I immediately pressed it back into place.  Weighted it down with other books.  A day later, no improvement.  I admit I had thoughts of giving this book away and ordering another copy.  But I got hold of myself–another lesson that nothing is ever perfect–then took hold of that bent cover, opened the book, and began to read.

Another confession:  In the past, whenever I heard the title of the book, I thought of a plant that was dreaming.  Never once did I consider that the reader was being encouraged to plant dreaming deep.  But before I even arrived at the first page of the book, I came upon the epigraph, four lines of one of Sarton’s poems where a man who has been out roaming comes home “Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.”

May Sarton

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

Plant Dreaming Deep is May Sarton’s memoir about settling down in a house in the village of Nelson, about two hours from Boston, for the stated purpose of rescuing her parents’ Belgian furniture from the cellar in which it was being stored.  She was in her early 50’s.

After a load of firewood is dumped in her yard, she and a visiting friend set about making order out of disorder.  Afterwards she writes, “There is something very satisfying about a well-stacked cord of wood on a back porch.”

She writes about how supportive a routine is, that “the spirit moves around freely in it.”  Just as Annie Dillard writes about a schedule  as “a net for catching days.”

Plant Dreaming Deep is the story of May Sarton’s house, her garden, and her village, what she calls “a tangible reality outside myself, against which I could prove almost everything I had come to believe.”  It was published in 1968.

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a gathering place

On NPR, on September 20th, I heard David Sedaris say that he was no different than anyone else except that he kept a notebook in his pocket.  He noticed and he recorded.  In the May 8, 2006 issue of the New Yorker, he wrote:  “For the past ten years or so, I’ve made it a habit to carry a small notebook in my front pocket. The model I favor is called the Europa, and I pull it out an average of ten times a day, jotting down grocery lists, observations, and little thoughts on how to make money, or torment people.”

In Writing Toward Home, Georgia Heard writes, “A notebook is a gathering place, a portfolio of thoughts and fragments…What moves me to write one thing and not another is the point…My notebook is a constant weight in my already-too-heavy black bag…Its presence always reminds me I’m a writer, and it helps me live a considered life that doesn’t spin by focused only on groceries, dinner, and car repairs.”

This is a gathering place.  Where reading and writing and life come together.  Words from the notebook I keep in my purse linked to a favorite passage or book…Looking up from a passage and attaching it to a moment… Writing here makes me more aware of all three.  Why is it we write one thing and not another?

Is a day full of breakfasts and pants left on the floor and haircuts so thin that it slips through the net, impossible to catch?  One way to find meaning is to notice.  Another to record.  I should let the groceries and the haircuts fall through but take the time to fatten up at least one moment so that it has enough meaning to catch.  I can swell an hour with the thoughts of someone who lived a lifetime ago.  Take a minute to see the red leaf that wasn’t there yesterday.  Pause a second with the white tail of a deer as he jumps the hedge.

Dillard writes that we should “labor with both hands at sections of time.”  Some days it takes both hands.

the day itself

On Monday, February 26, 1951, John Steinbeck wrote,

“I don’t understand why some days are wide open and others are closed off, some days smile and others have thin slitted eyes and others still are days which worry.  And it does not seem to be me but the day itself.” 

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

Is this wishful thinking by John Steinbeck?  For surely, it is me.  And not the day itself.  Usually, I have plans for my days–scaffolding, Annie Dillard would say.  Certain things I always do on Monday–exercise.  A particular thing I want to do this Monday–work on my new novel.  And then there’s the email, the phone call, the car that won’t start, the brain that won’t work.  What if the scaffolding comes tumbling down on top of me?  Well, then I can use tape or glue to force it back up or I can pause for a minute to see if a new shape might be emerging from the pieces.

Every day that John Steinbeck worked on the first draft of East of Eden, from January 29 to November 1, 1951, he began the day by writing a letter to his editor, who was also his friend.  For anyone beginning or in the middle of a novel or any other long project, this book is proof that day by day, it can be done.

catching days

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes of schedules as nets for “catching days.”  She says, “I have been looking into schedules.”  Then she describes the schedule of a Danish aristocrat living a hundred years ago, who started his day by getting out of bed at four to hunt grouse, woodcock and snipe.   Wallace Stevens in his forties woke at six to read for two hours.  I long to be an early riser.  Yet, on most days, it takes an alarm to pull me out of bed at seven.

Annie Dillard also writes, “There is no shortage of good days.  It is good lives that are hard to come by…a life spent reading–that is a good life.”  Today I’m reading Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk.  It was the 1993 Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award.  Unfortunately the Whitbread Awards have gone the way of stadiums and are now referred to as the Costa Book Awards, as in the coffee.

That is something I’m aspiring to, by the way.  A first novel.  More specifically, a published first novel.

But back to Saving Agnes, so far my favorite moment is when Agnes is talking to her friend Greta about a weird man, which sends Agnes into her head–one of my favorite places for a character to be.  Agnes thinks, “There was another world beneath the surface of the one she chose each day, a dark labyrinth of untrodden paths.  Its proximity frightened her.  She wondered if she would ever lose her way and wander into it.”

I spend so much time in my head.  The trick, it seems, is how to push what’s in there to the surface.