the next writer in the series: december 1, 2017

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 spend our lives. What we do with … Continue reading

the next writer in the series: november 1, 2015

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 spend our lives. What we do with … Continue reading

the next writer in the series: november 1, 2013

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

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.

if I loved you

When I heard that Robin Black was going to be the Sirenland Fellow for 2009 and that she had published a story in One Story, I moved quickly to my back issues and began to thumb through. I only save the stories I love and pass the others forward. Of course I’d saved her story. She writes the kind of stories I love.

Ten stories, including “Harriett Elliot,” first published in One Story, make up this collection. [no spoilers here] These stories catch the ordinary moments in life–a new girl at school, a neighbor building a fence, a father taking a daughter to meet her first seeing-eye dog:

“As Jack scans the road for signs, Lila is proclaiming to him in those certain tones of hers that if it weren’t for being quite so blind and having to have one, she’d definitely never get a dog. Never. Never ever.”

Notice the way we hear Lila’s voice without the first person, without her point of view, and without a direct quote.

Although I don’t have a favorite story, I do have a favorite first sentence. It comes in “A Country Where You Once Lived.”

“It isn’t even a two-hour train ride out from London to the village where Jeremy’s daughter and her husband–a man Jeremy has never met–have lived for the past three years, but it’s one of those trips that seem to carry you much farther than the time might imply.”

Trees, like guides, have two sides to them. In “Tableau Vivant,” Jean walks her daughter Brooke to her car.

“The roof, sunroof, hood were all splattered with bird droppings. ‘Stupid,’ Brooke said. ‘Acres of open field, and I park under a tree. I was thinking shade, when I should have been thinking bird.'”

The stories in this collection slow the ordinary moments down so that you feel their underside; there’s a pause, and then they expand with wonder. From the third story in the collection, “Immortalizing John Parker:”

“A streetlight comes on. Clara waits to see how long it will take another to join it. A minute passes, two minutes. Nothing. They must have different levels of sensitivity, she thinks. They must believe different things about what darkness is.”

In “The History of the World,” the last and longest story and the only story with more than one point-of-view character, this is from Kate:

“She has been many women, she understands, has slipped surefooted through the years from one identity to the next. Daughter, sister, wife, mother. And now to be this–to be a woman without even the illusion of knowing herself. The sensation is like flight.”

These are the stories of our lives. They are the kind of stories that will crack your heart open. They will remind you, you have a heart, in case you’ve forgotten.

“The idea that as loved as we may be, we may also be forgotten. If only for a day here and there.”

In each of these stories, worlds seem as if they’re about to collide, but instead, they hover–one world on top of another for just a moment so that the light all around changes. Like in an eclipse. And it’s that moment that causes these stories to expand before your eyes.

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Let me in

“Naked Chinese People” is the first story in the collection California Transit by Diane Lefer, my adviser this semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I thought if I was going to be working with her, I should read some of her writing. California Transit won the 2005 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Its eight stories tell of displaced characters, of characters on journeys, of individuals who are part of families who are part of something larger. These are stories that matter.

The first sentence of “Naked Chinese People” is “We were always finding naked Chinese people in the shower.” A few paragraphs later in this first of thirty-one unmarked sections:

“It’s in and around our weekend cabin in the desert, now equipped with a lock, that the events I’m about to narrate took place. The lock on the door is irrelevant, as are the naked Chinese.”

The Narrator is going to tell us a story, but there’s another story here too, buried under the Narrator’s words and in the seemingly random sections interspersed throughout these 14 pages. “Let me in,” one of the characters says throughout the story. At least nine threads are mixed and mingled to create this wonderfully layered story.

“At the Site Where Vision is Most Perfect” uses a distant omniscient narrator to tell the story of three individuals who make up a family. The camera/narrator follows each of these individuals but the really cool thing is that the sections are unified not by individual or place but by time.

In the opening section, Matt and Courtney are working on a float. Paragraph. “At this moment, his mother is being handcuffed. Two paragraphs. “Matt’s father is walking across campus…”

This powerful story is a perfect example of the way a story teaches you how to read it.

The ending of the last story of the collection, “The Prosperity of Cities and Desert Places,” will take your breath away:

I am walking to Los Angeles. I am speaking only for myself.
I am singing:
These hands are your hands,
These hands are my hands…
I sing and there is no one here to stop me.

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DSC00047In Wildlives, Quebecois author Monique Proulx creates a magical world out of the stuff of our world. Memory, silence, flowers, summertime, the lake–everything is alive.

“The lake rose and fell and murmured beneath his paddle like a primitive animal mass, then fell silently back into its mineral existence.”

What is happening in the novel is so magical and alive and so delicately parallels the story the character Claire is writing that the reader is unsure whether Claire is writing about what is happening around her or whether Claire’s writing is causing what is happening around her to happen.

“Who knew if diving into the void [writing] shattered the already porous walls between what appears to exist and what does not yet exist?”

Proulx wields repetition like a wand—within sentences, within paragraphs, within the content and the structure of the novel. Take a look at the opening sentences:

“Lila Szach liked uphill paths. In life so many things—and life itself, in fact—go only downhill.”

Wildlives is so beautifully structured that it gave me goose bumps. It begins with a section entitled “Lila,” in which the young Lila is able to imagine herself an old woman. The last section is entitled “Jeremie,” and in it the old Jeremie thinks he sees the figure of a child. In each of these sections, the sun surprises the character so that the world appears to be on fire.

DSC00003In between these sections, the story takes place: Lila is 76 and Jeremie is a boy. Age and youth, the past and the future. And who’s to say it doesn’t all come together at a certain moment in time.

Wildlives was originally written in French and is beautifully translated by David Homel and Fred A. Reed:

“You think you’ll grow old gracefully, so slowly that you’ll hardly notice it; instead, it leaps on you and reduces you to rubble.”

“…but she could not move, weighed down with nostalgia, suddenly stabbed by the brevity of the whole adventure. How cruel it is; we barely have time to master three steps of the immense cosmic choreography before we’re yanked from the ballet.”

“Night had officially ended, but it still hung in the trees.”

Wildlives was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

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sixty potential first sentences

IMG_2148Yesterday a flash fiction story of mine, Watching, was published in an online magazine called Six Sentences. Trying to tell a story in six sentences is enlightening because the writing process is compressed, making it easy to see what you’re doing and why.

My 6-sentence story began its life two years ago.

In The Story Behind the Story, Stephen Dobyns writes that he asked Raymond Carver how he wrote a particular story. “He [Carver] said the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Dobyns explains that he usually outlines his novels and knows generally what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. So Dobyns was intrigued by Carver’s method of letting the writing itself be “a process of discovery.”

Shortly thereafter, Dobyns, in one sitting, wrote “sixty potential first sentences.”

“[I] went through them again, forcing each into a paragraph. Some went nowhere. Still, after two more hours I had forty paragraphs.”

He extended each paragraph to one page, ending up with about 35 one-page beginnings.

“After about a month, I had twenty stories….I worked on the stories for six or seven years…and ended with fifteen, which appeared in my book Eating Naked.”

IMG_2168Two years ago, a friend and I decided to write a story a week for ten weeks, acknowledging that we would only be producing rough drafts. Life intervened for her, but I completed the exercise, which I began by trying to generate as many first sentences as I could, a la Dobyns. One of those attempts, which turned itself into 3 sentences, but did not make it any further, was the beginning of “Watching.”

My little six-sentence story took 16 drafts. By the 2nd draft, most of the details and all but one of the characters were present. In the 8th draft, I discovered what the story was about and then moved the sentence about the mother from the middle of the story to the end. In the 11th draft, the title appeared, giving a nod to the narrator as well as to what the characters were either doing or avoiding. The rest of the drafts involved figuring out the mother’s story, deleting unnecessary details and words, and changing repetitive words.In the 15th draft, I added the phrase, “hung her head ” to theIMG_2169 mother to link the way she felt to the way her son felt.

Still, when I saw it in print yesterday, I wanted to revise again. I wasn’t happy with the word actually. And we’re talking six sentences!

By the way, of those ten stories, three I haven’t done anything with yet, three I’m actively working on, and four are finished. Of those four, one became the marry tales posted on this blog, the doors between and the kitten; one I’m currently sending out, one will be published in the fall, and one is already published, “Frosting.”

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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in a lyrical way

img_190375 years ago this month, Tender is the Night was published.  In a friend’s copy of the book, Fitzgerald inscribed the following:

“If you liked The Great Gatsby, for God’s sake read this. Gatsby was a tour de force but this is a confession of faith.”

Apparently Fitzgerald was practical as well.  In a letter to Max Perkins, he wrote, “Don’t forget my suggestion that the jacket flap should carry an implication that though the book starts in a lyrical way, heavy drama will presently develop.”

And it’s true, the book does start in a lyrical way.  The first sentence:

“On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel.”

Although it’s true that heavy drama–or at least drama–does follow, the novel is lyrical throughout.

“The water reached up for her, pulled her down tenderly out of the heat, seeped in her hair and ran into the corners of her body. She turned round and round in it, embracing it, wallowing in it.”

“…he kissed her and was chilled by the innocence of her kiss, by the glance that at the moment of contact looked beyond him out into the darkness of the night, the darkness of the world. She did not know yet that splendor is something in the heart; at the moment when she realized that and melted into the passion of the universe he could take her without question or regret.”

Here’s a great example of how to stay in the body of a character (after Dick learns of the death of his father): “He felt a sharp wince at the shock, a gathering of the forces of resistance; then it rolled up through his loins and stomach and throat.”

Finally, the best definition of love I have ever come across:  “a wild submergence of soul, a dipping of all colors into an obscuring dye.”

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald died at 44 of a heart attack.

first the facts

Here is the first sentence from Richard Russo‘s novel, Empire Falls, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002:

“The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.”

Which is why he is often praised for his sense of place.  But in a July 2, 2004 article in the New York Times, he talked about this.  “I’ve never written nearly as much about place as people seem to think I do.  I just write about class.”

In The Bridge of Sighs, published in 2007, he begins in a completely different manner.  Its first sentence is,

“First, the facts.”

Although I enjoyed both books, I like The Bridge of Sighs even better than Empire Falls.