My novel is about a marriage. Eleven scenes tell the couple’s origin story–meeting, falling in love, deciding to get married… Approximately forty pages worth. It’s some of my best writing and it should be. I’ve worked on these pages for years. But from … Continue reading
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 work of the writer is often to open to that intensity, that burn and chaos of feeling; to allow yourself to be driven by possibilities you have not yet uncovered, a revelation you do not yet know, or to … Continue reading
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
Christine Schutt Florida debut novel Harcourt/A Harvest Book paperback 2004 On structure echoing content: Nothing then, nothing held its shape but blew away. (52) Dear Alice, you don’t have to tell the whole story. (79) On the structure: 4 parts with … Continue reading
I’ve been sitting too much–novel, lecture, mfa, Contrary, Hunger Mountain, facebook, email, bills, purchases, photos… I noticed that my running injury from last December got worse, not when I ran but, when I sat for 10 hours.
I’d been looking online (sitting) for one of those mobile computer stands that doctors use but wasn’t persuaded that was exactly right. Then about a month ago Robin Oliveira posted a photo on FB of her new TreadDesk. And I knew immediately that was the solution. I called, and Jerry helped me choose the right desk.
I am, at this very moment, walking on a treadmill as I type.
But I can walk and type and I love it.
In order to move the desk into my study, I had to slide baby towers of books spawned from my bookshelf tower and haul a bunch of other stuff–including my old desk–out of my study. I took advantage of the opportunity to clean shelves and windowsills, to blow away dust from journals and books, to go through stacks, and weed. I was a little surprised to see what was still on some of my shelves.
This desk is bigger than my old desk and without drawers so I’m having to do some rearranging. All around me chaos reigns. Photos of the desk coming as soon as everything finds a place.
From the first page of Dan Chaon‘s novel:
On the seat beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight-quart Styrofoam cooler.
Dan Chaon’s second novel and fourth book, Await Your Reply, which was published in 2009, intertwines 3 seemingly unrelated narrative threads that exude echoes of each other, assuring the reader that they will eventually come together. And they do. But no spoilers here.
3 threads. 324 pages. 3 parts–each one divided into numbered chapters.
Chaon gets each of the threads off the ground in a hurry: the 1st chapter is 2 pages; the 2nd is 5 pages; the 3rd is 3 pages. Bam. In 10 pages, the reader is aware of all 3 plot lines.
The “severed hand” scene comes first and takes place at night in a car. Chapter 2 begins with Lucy and George leaving town in the middle of the night. “Not fugitives–not exactly.” AND “They would make a clean break. A new life.” (Chaon has a sense of humor.) In Chapter 3 again a character is driving a car. And I wish I had time to count how many times the word hand or hands is used in each of the threads.
As I said, because of the repetition of images and details and echoes of themes, the reader knows that these threads are related. So the reader’s mind is fully engaged as she is reading, trying to answer the question of how. It’s like a treasure hunt. We’re looking for clues, reading carefully because we don’t want to miss anything. All of this creates energy and narrative drive.
In July in Vermont, Dan said that with Await Your Reply, he began with 3 images and a story, but that he had no idea how they were connected until the end of the first draft. He said that the second draft is always “super important” to him because he’s looking for iconography, like tarot cards, to signal where the power is–where an image and/or a moment is important.
Each image distinct and capsulized, like tarot cards laid down one by one. (147)
Read it, if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.
~1st in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog
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.
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…
How about the rest of you–how are your summers going?
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.
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?”
*cross-posted at The Contrary Blog
In the past week, several different readers have commented that either they didn’t know there was a list of all the writers in the How We Spend Our Days series or that they didn’t know what I was talking about when I said an article was mentioned on the Updates page. So put your feet up and enjoy the Delta Rhythm Boys as you read about the 4 blog bones: the header with tabs is connected to the blog feed is connected to the right sidebar is connected to the footer….Did you know there are…
9 tabs currently on the header: home, about me, about blog, how we spend our days, my writing, reading list, literary journals, update, and click here. Sometimes you might notice a new tab that corresponds to a new interest or current obsession. If you hold your cursor over a tab on the header–for example, on tab #4 How We Spend Our Days, you’ll see that you have options to click on 1) how we spend our days, 2) past writers in the series, or 3) next writer in the series. Each one of these is a separate page.
Home is the feed of posts with the most current one at the top. About me and about blog –obvious : )
How We Spend Our Days is the feed of all the posts in this series that posts on the first of the month. On the past writers page, there’s a complete list in chronological order of all the writers in this series. On the 8th of each month, I announce the next writer in the series on that page.
My writing is updated as something new is published. You can either see all categories at one go on the first page or go straight to the essays page, for example.
The reading list tab shows the on-going list of the books I’ve read, starting back in January of 2008, with links to a post if I’ve written one about the book. There’s also a page that shows the book I’m currently reading.
There are four pages for literary journals: general, current, some cool covers, and the One Story thank you to my commenters page. I update these pages when I have a free minute.
On the Update page, I list interesting articles about writing or the writers who’ve appeared on the blog, or new writers I’m interested in. I often list awards. This is an informational page, and you can tell just from the tab the last time I’ve updated it.
Finally, the click here page, which is the list of blogs I like to read. I’m also trying something new at the moment, which is to feature one of my favorite blogs for a month, hoping that you have time to visit that site.
On the footer, which is at the bottom of the blog feed, I have a few little odds and ends, such as a link to Facebook.
On the right sidebar, there’s the calendar that highlights the days I’ve posted. You can also hit the arrows and go to past months. Then a brief description of the blog, lists of my most recent writing on the web, a list of some of my and your favorite posts, another place to see what book I’m currently reading, blog stats, my most recent tweets (and how to find me on twitter), the very important SEARCH BOX in case you want to find out if I’ve ever posted on a book you’re thinking about reading or a writer you’d like to know more about. Then the list of categories, which is TOO LONG. I know. My next project. But even though I’ve only written two posts on William Faulkner, how can I not have his name there??? And finally, yes finally, the archives, where you can click on a month to see the posts from way back then.
So there you go. Have fun and thanks for reading!
The Wake of Forgiveness, the debut novel by Bruce Machart–officially out as of yesterday from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–has a big storyteller narrator who knows how to describe sweeping panoramas and then move seamlessly in for a close-up. We follow an owl for three paragraphs, then zoom down to a man trying to extricate himself from a fence. On the next page, a rider on horseback notices the man by the fence.
The Wake of Forgiveness has a beautiful, symmetrical structure:
- A Winter Harvest: February 1895 (Karel being born)
- Turning the Earth: March 1910 (horse race)
- A Breeding of Nettles; December 1924 (Karel and Sophie and the baby)
- A Sacrament of Animals: March 1910 (Karel and Graciela)
- Meander Scars: May 1898 (the photo of their mother lost)
- The Blind Janus: December 1924 (the baby and the 2 brothers the conflict escalates and the fire)
- Testaments to Seed: March 1910 (Karel and Graciela)
- A Reaping of Smoke and Water: December 1924 (it all comes together)
- A New, Warm Offering: February 1895 (the wet nurse arriving)
But what was most amazing were the sentences–both long:
Alive in Karel’s mind is only a whisper of suspicion, one muted by the astonishing beauty of what he’s seen, and he smiles at the fortune of having borne witness to something so graceful and yet so capable and strong, to a girl turned woman before his eyes, to that woman flashing her white teeth at him, smiling because, for her, as for Karel, there is nothing quite so thrilling as a race run on horseback, nothing filled more with wonder, nothing so able to convince you that you are flesh and blood and alive in the world that offers so few joys other than this running.
The rain needles his good eye, and the sky is dark enough to suggest that the moon has orphaned the heavens.
I heard Bruce read from The Wake of Forgiveness last March in Italy (he was the Sirenland Fellow). On Saturday, he’ll be reading at Cornerstone Books in Salem, MA. The rest of his author tour is online. If you’re in the area, go out and make Bruce welcome. I highly recommend this first novel.
See also this Sunday’s review in the L.A. Times.
Vacation to Life. Suitcase to drawers. Behind to behind-er.
Last week in Colorado, I received stacks of marked-up manuscripts from my writing group. Plus my adviser returned my packet with wonderful annotations on two stories. Where to begin?
I need new running shoes, an idea for supper, birthday gifts, to turn in a housing form. I wrote a friend yesterday that I seemed to be proceeding helter-skelter, with no plan in sight, that I needed a priority list–number one: pay tuition so son can return to college.
One thing from each: Read for thirty minutes. Write for thirty minutes. Creep along Moses, Moses… Read one blog post. Review one stack of notes. Answer one email. Make one phone call. Write one letter. Review the notes on one manuscript. Place one clean shirt into a drawer. Trying to cross the Red Sea…
Black Maps, a collection of stories by David Jauss, won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction in 1995 (Lorrie Moore/judge). These nine stories–with only one in present tense and the rest in past, and four in third person and five in first–all deal with the crossing of borders. In addition to each story, the book as a whole has a story to tell.
As Robert Frost said, “If you have a book of twenty-four poems, the book itself should be the twenty-fifth poem.”
David Jauss writes of his collection, “The book, then, moves thematically from negation to affirmation, from the blackest of maps to one that shows the possibility of light.” After understanding this, it was no surprise that I preferred the stories toward the end of the book.
Each story is extremely well written. The first story, “Torque,” takes a limo and turns it into an intrinsic symbol, one that acquires its meaning from the story.
If he had a limo, everyone would see that he wasn’t who they’d always thought he was…
And then later in the story,
He wanted to prove to her that he was the kind of man who made his dreams come true, the kind of man who deserved a limo.
The fifth story,“Firelight,” starts with a moment and then takes us back in time and leads us up to it. In the story are 3 repetitions of the word “firelight,” and then the words “fire” and “light” separate in the last paragraph.
“Brutality” includes this metaphor: “thinking thoughts she didn’t dare let bleed into words.” It deals with the idea of a continuous life:
And who you were is a part of who you are, isn’t it?
In “The Late Man,” allowing the character to imagine what he could have done adds depth to the story.
“Glossolalia,” the last story in the collection, was chosen by Alice Adams for the Best American Short Stories in 1991. It also won a Pushcart Prize. In it, a son tells the story of his father’s breakdown. The first words of the story “That winter” prepare the reader for the very effective jump in distance later in the story in a paragraph that includes the phrase “…our life together after that winter…” Then there’s another jump in perspective and distance on the last page: “Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about….” Then what did happen in such a beautiful sentence using an echo:
But I didn’t say yes, and in the seven years that remained of his life, we never came as close to ending the winter that was always, for us, an unspoken but living part of our present.
Then a return to a specific moment as well as a narrowing of time from a season to a night, from that winter to that night, echoing the opening. And a last paragraph again with repetition of that night. Wow.
When I last left you, I was on the floor with all my Ellen Gilchrist books surrounding me. I put the last one back on the shelf this morning. Well, that’s not exactly true. I kept two by my computer so I could write this post. I kind of knew what I wanted to write. So I started typing. But then I wanted to give you an excerpt so you could hear her voice.
I have a million paragraphs I could use, but I have one in my head that I read over the weekend and I want to find it. I’ve looked all the places I thought it would be. I’ve marked four other passages, but I want to find that one. So I’m pulling all the books off the shelf again. Back in a minute, I hope.
I give up. [there went a fox] But here’s one I also love. It’s the opening paragraph of the last story in the collection Drunk With Love. The story is called “Anna, Part I.”
“It was a cold day in the Carolinas, drizzling rain that seemed to hang in the sky, that barely seemed to fall. The trees were bare, the mountains hazy in the blue distance, the landscape opened up all the way to Virginia. It was a big day for Anna Hand. It was the day she decided to give up being a fool and go back to being a writer. She called her editor.”
What I learned about structure from looking through all these books and others, which is what started all this, is that you can pretty much do anything you want as long as it opens the book to the reader, including titling the last story in a collection “Anna, Part I.” So I’m going to let go of the question of structure for a while and go back to writing.
By the way, don’t you just love her titles?
With the other things I’ve written, I’ve seen the structure from the very beginning. As I type these words, I realize: I’ve also seen the story from the beginning too. So, hmmm…
Anyway, I’ve just read a few pages in Mark Rose’s Shakespearean Design. I spent ten minutes taking apart Pam Houston’s Sight Hound–8 chapters within which 12 different narrators have sections, some speaking only once.
Now I’m on the floor, playing with books. I’ve taken all of Ellen Gilchrist‘s books off my shelf–all 22 of them. I quickly return to the shelf her 1987 and her 2000 versions of Falling Through Space (her journal), as well as her book on The Writing Life, Anabasis (her novel that takes place in ancient times), her Collected Stories, and my hardback copy of The Anna Papers.
After a second’s glance, I also return to the shelf her two lives-in-stories: Nora Jane and Rhoda. I love these two books in which all the stories she wrote over twenty years about Rhoda are collected in one volume and those about Nora Jane, in another volume.
I start with the novels. The first one I pick up is The Anna Papers–possibly my favorite. There’s a Contents page: a Prelude, and then five named parts. I skip the prelude, read the first paragraph of Chapter 1, skip to the second to last page of the first part and read. I turn the page to Part II, then another page to read the beginning of Chapter 15 (so the chapter numbers continue through the parts). I want to catch the reason for the separate parts. I read two and a half pages and am swept away.
That’s when I hopped up to write this post. The Anna Papers is one of the reasons I wanted to learn how to write. To do this. What she did.
Names and dates in uneven scrawl. White paint against dark wood. The shed is Chalet A–the insides hollowed out to make room for rakes and saws, park signs and four wheelers.
Kim was here. Becky Howe was here. I remember her. Connie Bryan in 1965. If you want to find out about the summer of ’66, write to Mary Torras, Valley Road, New Canaan, CT. Leslie 1970. Nicole Browning I remember from 1970. Rose was here in 1971. Sandy in 1962. Sally Smith in 1966. Ceci Blewer in ’68. Vee Vee was here. Heather in 1973.
This discovery fills a part of the empty box I brought along today, letting me know that part of the reason I return is to find proof that I was in fact here, that what I remember is not just in my head, not just a dream I had, but something I can touch. And here it’s made of paint and wood—words that persist.
I am part of this place. This place is part of who I am.
I’m beginning to see a pattern. Another place that holds part of me is what used to be my grandparent’s house in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve returned there once as an adult and written this story about it.
I will write more on Saturday…3rd post in 4-part series on Ecole Champlain: Part 1: places that call us back Part 2: hoping to discover Part 3: proof Part 4: writing my way there
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
Edinburgh, the first novel by Alexander Chee, is the best book I’ve read so far this year. The subject matter is difficult, but the writing–with its repetitions, its wondrous quality, its innocence–lures the reader forward.
“Blue. Blue because it’s the color people turn in the dark. Because it’s the color of the sky, of the center of the flame, of a diamond hit by an X ray. Blue is the knife edge of lightning. Blue is the color, a rose grower tells you, that a rose never quite reaches.”
The book is structured in four sections. The story is Fee’s, but his story goes deeper and wider with Chee’s decision to cede the narration to Warden in one of the sections:
- I: Songs of the Fireflies (Fee)
- II: January’s Cathedral (Fee)
- III: And Night’s Black Sheep Upon the Eyes (Warden)
- IV: Blue (Fee)
In its 3-page Prologue, Chee writes so simply:
“This is a fox story. Of how a fox can be a boy. And so it is also the story of a fire.”
Throughout the novel, these images recur : voice, death, monsters, pictures, foxes, fire, blue, storytelling, singing, and water.
“On the pages in front of me, the words dissolve a bit, the letters thinning until I can see, on the other side of them, like spying through a wire fence, the pictures of Peter I have collected inside of me…”
Edinburgh was published in 2001.