writing by writers

Some of my favorite writers will be teaching workshops this coming October at Tomales Bay–Pam Houston, Ron Carlson, Antonya Nelson, Cheryl Strayed, Fenton Johnson, and Carl Phillips. Writing By Writers is hosting six workshops October 16-20, 2013 at the Marconi … Continue reading

the chronology of water

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. Wow. Some book. One reviewer admits to considering throwing it across the room.

It’s a memoir, and the writing is uneven. But that fits the life it mirrors. Like the story out of which it grew, it’s

About fathers and swimming and fucking and dead babies and drowning. Written entirely in random fragments–how I understood my entire life. In the language–image and fragments and non-linear lyric passages–that seemed most precise.

A striking chapter tells the story of a hot pink Schwinn bike “with a banana seat and streamers coming out of the handlebars.” Her father brought it home to cheer her up after her sister left. She was ten and thought “it was perhaps the most beautiful thing I had ever seen…”

But she didn’t know how to ride a bike.

So when I came outside to touch the hot pink ride, beautiful as she was, all I felt was terror.

Besides being a hell of a story, this is a living, breathing object lesson. How a beautiful pink bike can also be an object of terror. How in a fictional world a bicycle could be beautiful to one character and terrifying to another.

She writes: “In water, like in books–you can leave your life.”

About the breakup of her second marriage:

I would have done anything for him. A love unto death. And…

Goddamn it.

I’m already lying. I’m making it all sound literary.

It was messier than that. A lot.

At the end of the book is an interview. Yuknavitch writes:

I do know that when I’m inside writing I don’t want to be anywhere else. It’s like being inside a song or a painting.

The Chronology of Water

Cross-posted at the Contrary Blog


Julian Barnes wrote Nothing To Be Frightened Of, a memoir about death, “in order to make the fear familiar.” I’m not sure he succeeds, but he does write with a compelling “matter-of-factness” about the subject:

I suspect that if I get any sort of decent dying time…

Because of the How We Spend Our Days series, I wanted to share this story that he recounts. A biographer friend of Barnes’ wanted to write about his life. The biographer’s husband joked that it would be a short book because all of JB’s days were the same:

Got up. Wrote book. Went out, bought bottle of wine. Came home, cooked dinner. Drank wine.

some saturday morning fun

A one-year subscription to Quick Fiction is $13.50.

with new pages!

#1: What’s in it for me?

#2: What’s happening?

#3: What’s in a cover?

A one-year subscription to Conjunctions is $18.00.

I’ve subscribed to One Story since 2004. Plus, I try to subscribe to 3-4 other literary journals. And I mix it up from year to year.

If we don’t subscribe to the journals where we want to see our writing, who will?

For lunch today or tomorrow, make a pb&j and spend your $ on a subscription to the journal of your choice.

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“Yogis use a beautiful Sanskrit word samskara, to describe the knots of energy that are locked in the hips, the heart, the jaw, the lungs. Each knot tells a story–a narrative rich with emotional detail. Release a samskara and you release the story. Release your stories, and suddenly there is more room to breathe, to feel, to experience the world.”

Devotion, Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, is a beautiful book both inside and out. Her son Jacob is “the beating heart” of this journey, yet there is something about this book that felt necessary to me, that I’m guessing will feel necessary to each of us.

“To pause. To be still–not leaning forward, not falling back. Steady in the present–not even waiting. Just being.”

And with the stillness, she writes, “I was starting to see what was there.

In the best book trailer I’ve seen, Dani talks about Devotion:

Dani has described the form of this book as “puzzle-like.” In Devotion, she quotes Virginia Woolf, “Arrange the pieces as they come,” a quote I also have on my desk. “Is there any other way to live than arranging the pieces as they come?” Dani writes. Some of those pieces: her search for meaning, her son’s illness, their post 9/11 move from New York City to Connecticut, her relationship with her mother and her ties to her father.

Yesterday I asked Dani why 102 pieces: “The book ended on 102 simply because that’s where the story ended–and I did like the number, and the roundness, the symmetry, the evenness of it–but really the arc of the story had come to an end.” The story of Devotion may be complete, but on her new website, Dani recently began a Devotion blog, where she continues beyond the book, a concrete manifestation that the journey is never over.

As I read Devotion, it was as Mary Oliver wrote in her poem, “I Want to Write Something So Simply“:

…by the end
you will think–
no, you will realize–
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart
had been saying.

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send in the elves

My desk this morning, instead of being covered with books and manuscript pages, is covered with Christmas lists. I want to write, but it’s hard to draw my mind away from the unanswered questions and undone errands on my list–with the clock ticking.

I wondered how other writers managed to focus at this time of the year. So I reached for May Sarton‘s Journal of a Solitude, written from September to September–1970 to 1971, I think. And guess what? As far as December, there’s an entry for the 2nd and then nothing until January.

It’s like falling into a black hole. In December, most of all, it’s a struggle to claw through the must-do’s, the should-do’s, and the do-nows to find something real. In December, it definitely takes both hands to catch a day. So I’m going to aim for a minute here and there. Maybe an hour. I’m not going to give in. I’m going to take a deep breath. Read a few words. Write a sentence.

In her January 2nd entry, May Sarton writes,

“Iimg_1190 can understand people simply fleeing the mountainous effort Christmas has become even for those, like me, without children. Everyone must feel revolt as I do about the middle of December when I am buried under the necessity of finding presents, the immense effort of wrapping and sending, and the never-ended guilt about unsent cards…”

In an attempt at a real thought for today, I leave you with this. In her last entry in the book, she suggests that writing is a “messenger of growth,” that from where we are, “we write toward what we will become…”

[Something about my desk this morning felt familiar, hence this re-post from December 19, 2008.]

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the ordinary day

My husband just forwarded me an email, sent to him by a law school and golfing buddy, with a YouTube video of Katrina Kenison, the long-time editor of the Best American Short Story series, reading a seven-minute excerpt from her new memoir.

As an antidote to these list-oriented days, I am passing on The Gift of an Ordinary Day:

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how we got here from there

IMG_2110I don’t write memoir. But I like the way Abigail Thomas writes, the way she tells the truth. “My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back. Most truths I have to learn over and over again.”

I got hooked on the truth in her fiction first, Getting Over Tom, An Actual Life, and Herb’s Pajamas–the last two are little hardback squares. I loved Safekeeping, her first memoir. Its short sections are a concrete example of her life zigzagging and doubling back, the many truths of herself.

Thinking About Memoir is another little book. A rectangle instead of a square. Thomas writes, IMG_2175“Memories survive on a wisp of a fragrance, or a particular shade of blue…” Then a phrase you’re probably sick of me using, but oh, then I really knew I was in: “This is… about letting one thing lead to another. Follow the details.” She concludes the two-page preface with this,”Memoir is the story of how we got here from there.”  And this story is fascinating whether you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or memoir.IMG_2172

She writes, “Be sure to include what you can’t make fit neatly into your idea of yourself, or whatever it is that ruffles the smooth surface of your life story.” This may be the most important thing I’m taking from this book at this moment. Nothing is supposed to be perfect. Let the messy real show through.

The only book of hers I have not read is Three Dog Life, a memoir of her husband’s brain injury. In an article published on June 20, 2009, Marion Winik recounts a moment in that book where  Thomas writes about being accused of “stealing a memory.” “Is memory property?” Abigail Thomas asks. “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong?”

IMG_2174And here in this book she adds, “Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by event, not faithful to it…” I can just imagine this little creature up in my brain somewhere, in a little cave with a kodak instamatic and a pen and a pencil, maybe some file cabinets, doing the best he can to keep track of everything, and interrupted yet again as I get a whiff of  something sweet. His long, floppy ears perk up, and off he goes, scurrying around, eventually delivering summer camp in Vermont, walking to the stables.

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IMG_2110Some of you may have noticed that on the Reading List page, I’ve been adding how I chose the book or books I’m currently reading. Well, the story of how I chose Abigail Thomas’ Thinking About Memoir seemed too long to add on that page.

Talk about one thing leading to another….

Because of listening to the CD that came with The Writer’s Notebook , I wanted to know if I was at Tin House when they recorded the panel. So I got out my notes. And yes, I have notes from that panel in 2005. I think it was during that panel that Abigail Thomas was sitting right behind me. But that would be too coincidental. Memory is so weird. Anyway, she was at Tin House either that year or the year before, or both.

When I was there in 2004, I was taking a workshop with Dorothy Allison. In class, Dorothy had us do one of Abigail Thomas’ writing exercises (which happens to be in this book). So rereading my notes, I had Abigail on the brain. I went to her website and saw that she had a new book out. I’ve read her three novels and one other memoir by her.

A few hours later, I was in Barnes & Noble buying summer reading for my 15-year-old (I wanted to). When I turned around, Abigail’s adorable little book was staring at me. I picked it up and it felt just right in my hands at 7 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches and a 1/2 inch thick.

This chain of events meant I was supposed to buy it, right?

Anyway, I’m on page 52, and it’s great. More of substance later.

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passion and patagonia

IMG_1718It’s often what grabs us when we are very little that becomes our passion. We can remember the moment.

For me, it was a morning in kindergarten. I must have been five. One of the kid’s mothers put on a puppet show–in French.  I was smitten. I traveled to France for the first time when I was ten. I went to a French camp in Vermont each summer for three years, beginning when I was 13. I studied in Quebec and lived in Paris. To this day, all things French sparkle for me. A year ago, I was sitting next to an 11-year-old Chinese boy, and I don’t know who was more excited as the plane flew by the Eiffel Tower.

When Bruce Chatwin was a little boy, his grandmother treasured a piece of brontosaurus. “This particular brontosaurus had lived in Patagonia…” And that was all it took for Bruce Chatwin.

In 1974, when he was 34, he set out for “the end of the world.” His book, In Patagonia, was published in 1977. It’s been called a travel book, travel writing, adventure writing, a travel journal, nonfiction. These days, it’s often referred to as memoir. The structure is 97 short sections. He appears to let himself be blown by the wind, and I often wondered why he was seeking out a certain place or person.  Then I got it–passion.

In section 14, he goes to visit “the poet.”

“The rain drummed on the tin roof. For the next two hours he was my Patagonia.”

Chatwin is a story-teller, and he gives us what we want–detailed-filled moments. The writing is strong, his sentences, in particular.

“The driver of a wool truck stopped and picked me up.  He wore a black shirt embroidered with pink roses and played Beethoven’s Fifth on his tape deck.”

“She picked her teeth with a thorn and laughed at the futility of existence.”

Patagonia is a geographic region–the tail of South America. It spreads over two countries–Chile and Argentina.  For more information on the book, check out The Quarterly Conversation‘s in-depth review of In Patagonia.

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stop time


Frank Conroy was the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop for 18 years. He was also a writer himself, the author of 5 books, including the “classic memoir” Stop-Time. He died of colon cancer in 2005 at the age of 69.

“My faith in the firmness of time slips away gradually. I begin to believe that chronological time is an illusion and that some other principle organizes existence.”

Conroy was interested in time and memory. The title of his book on Nantucket, a place both he and I love, is Time & Tide. img_19701He begins this book with a preface, which recounts his earliest memory.

Stop-Time begins at the opposite end of the spectrum, with a brilliant one-page prologue from the point of view of the older speed-crazed Conroy, who would do “anything at all to keep up the speed, to maintain the speed and streak through the dark world.” We don’t see this older narrator except for a couple of other times in the memoir. Yet we keep him in the back of our mind as we move through his memories of his childhood.

Conroy’s writing is exact. Note these three examples from the memoir:

“My mother would make a quick meal out of cans.”

“Half to himself, his voice fading as we went around opposite sides of the car, he said…”

“My mother laughed nervously, not because she thought it was funny, but because her relationship with Donald forced her to laugh.”

Jayne Anne Phillips said, “He believed that the work leads the writer, and not the other way around. He used to say that in his own writing he’d read and re-read what he’d written the day before until he knew what to do next.”

Frank Conroy could also write beautiful sentences:

“A bewildering array of emotions exploded simultaneously–confusion, embarrassment, a kind of childish love, apprehensiveness, but behind it all, as steady as the solid bar of sunlight across the polished table, triumph. The moment was at hand.”

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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send in the elves

img_1194My desk this morning, instead of being covered with books and manuscript pages, is covered with Christmas lists.  I wanted to make a post.  But it was hard to draw my mind away from the unanswered questions and undone errands on my list–with the clock ticking.  Six days, six days, six…

I wondered how other writers managed to focus at this time of the year.  So I reached for May Sarton‘s Journal of a Solitude, written from September to September, from 1970 to 1971, I think.  And guess what?  As far as December, there’s an entry for the 2nd and then nothing until January. 

It’s like falling into a black hole.  In December, most of all, it’s a struggle to claw through the must-do’s, the should-do’s, and the do-nows to find something real.  In December, it definitely takes both hands to catch a day.  So I’m going to aim for a minute here and there.  Maybe an hour.  I’m not going to give in.  I’m going to take a deep breath.  Read a few words.  Write a sentence. 

In her January 2nd entry, May Sarton writes, “I can understand people simply fleeing the mountainoimg_1190us effort Christmas has become even for those, like me, without children.  Everyone must feel revolt as I do about the middle of December when I am buried under the necessity of finding presents, the immense effort of wrapping and sending, and the never-ended guilt about unsent cards…”

In an attempt at a real thought for today, I leave you with this.  In her last entry in the book, she suggests that writing is a “messenger of growth,” that from where we are, “we  write toward what we will become…”

the yellow house

img_1062 Remembering the Bone House is one of my all-time favorite books.  Nancy Mairs wrote this memoir in 1989.  It was out of print for a while, but then Beacon Press did a new printing in 1995, for which the author wrote a  new preface.  In it, she called this memoir “the dearest of my books to me.”

Although here in this space I try to keep pushing forward with the new books I’m reading, sometimes I like to take a look way in the past at the books I deemed at the time I read them as “all-time favorites.”  I take them off the shelf, blow away the dust, and turn the pages now edged in a rusty color, wondering if they still are.  So far I have not been disappointed.

In Remembering the Bone House, Mairs writes about the different houses she has lived in, as well as about the house she lives in every day–her body, the bone house.  She subtitled the book, An Erotics of Place and Space.  She uses the word erotics in the largest possible sense:  anything to do with her body.  She was forty-five when she wrote the memoir and living with multiple sclerosis.

The last time I read Remembering the Bone House was August of 1996.  I am putting it in my reread pile, which is growing ever larger, and which may eventually match my tower of unread books.  Whenever I get to it, I will report back.

I leave you with her words:

“I will write about the yellow house.  You will read about your house.  If I do my job, the book I write vanishes before your eyes.  I invite you into the house of my past, and the threshold you cross leads you into your own.”

truth in versions


Playing with Fire was Dani Shapiro’s first novel.  It was published in 1989.  It begins, “There are many versions to this story…”  And indeed, nine years later, the author published another version–“the true story,” the cover of Slow Motion reads.

Close to the events–fiction.  With distance–a look at what really happened.  Younger, the story.  Older, the truth.

The time frames are slightly different.  The phone call that begins the memoir comes on page 262 of the novel (of 304 pages).  The real time of the memoir moves forward from that call, with the relationship with Lenny coming in as backstory. The development of the relationship with Ben (neither name the real name) creates the forward movement of the novel, along with the development of the relationship with Carolyn, the you to whom the novel is addressed.  And the memoir deposits us a little further down the line, as her first novel is sold to a major publisher and she is receiving her MFA.  In the last pages, she writes about writing the novel.

“I see that there might be some way I can take the raw material of my life and transfom it into somethig that transcends my own experience.  I can organize the noise in my head into something that has order and structure.  I can make sense of what, until now, has been senseless.”

Memoir and fiction.  Truth.



“Wordstruck is exactly what I was–

and still am: 

crazy about the sound of words,

the look of words,

the taste of words,

the feeling of words on the tongue and in the mind.” 

Robert MacNeil

 from his 1989 memoir,


Robert MacNeil’s love of words came from his father.

“He always wrote on the flyleaf of each new book the date and where he was, so I can follow him…He treated the bindings of his leatherbound books with oil to keep them supple.  He loved the feel of books, good paper, well-sewn bindings….He made them seem delicious, like something good enough to eat.”

In the back of all my books, I write my initials and the year and month.  Now I may add a few more words…


*a word not found in the dictionary 🙂

wordable awareness

In his memoir, Dog Years, the poet Mark Doty writes, “only part of our reality is representable in words.  I feel immersed in things I can’t name most of the time.”

Still, he is a poet and a writer.  He spends his life fighting against the unnameable.  Despite our efforts, he says “something is always escaping.”

We search for the right word.  We know it’s there.  We attribute its lack to ourselves, not to its inexistence.   Most of the time we are right.

“We suffer a loss,” he writes, “leaving the physical world for the world of words….”

Think of the sensation of a rough surface on the tip of a finger –the goal is to feel it again reading those words.  The words by their nature come second–a step removed.

Despite the loss, he says our attempt to exist in the world of words gives us “our personhood.”

Don DeLillo, in Falling Man writes, “She knew there was something she’d wanted to say all along and it finally seeped into wordable awareness.”


September 30, 2008 Columbus, Georgia

This is what we want–wordable awareness.

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