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Tag: the millions

On process

“I have no process; if I did have a process, I would have no confidence in the process. I didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do when writing. I didn’t a have an office or separate room in which to write. I didn’t have a desk. I sat on the floor, or on a zafu on its side, or on the porch, or out back, or at the coffee shop, or at the wine bar. I didn’t write every day and certainly not at the same time every day. I was working full time and sometimes more than full time at a job unrelated to art or teaching or writing. I didn’t go to any retreats or residencies or conferences. I checked my email in mid-sentence. Frequently. I didn’t write straight from my gut, so-to-speak—I thought as deeply as I could about the book on every level—sentence, theme, character, overall structure, and still, I might add, ended up surprised by the results and making discoveries I cannot explain and that I’m relying on readers to tell me about. I reread and studied carefully my favorite novels. I listened to a couple of them on audio, when I needed my hands free to do things like laundry or painting. I read a few dozen other novels, too. I simultaneously worked on another book (Love in the Anthropocene, cowritten with Dale Jamieson). I interrupted myself continually to garden, make elaborate dinners, renovate the house, go running, and tend my own dying father. I got pregnant. I slept on my side for eighteen hours a day during the last three months of the pregnancy and didn’t write or read a thing, I mostly just drooled. Then I had twins. I moved twice, once selling and once buying a house. I had way too many people looking at early drafts. I just kept swimming in the mess until it all felt more or less right. And then it was time for it to go into production and I had to stop.  It’s all a mystery and a mess and that’s why I do it. This is both the source of and the salve for all the anxiety involved. It’s awful and wonderful. It’s like when you’re crying so hard you start laughing. There should be more words like bittersweet.”

—Bonnie Nadzam (x)

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On great books and rape culture

“And I realize that what I’m describing here isn’t a list of books I’d like to see banned from the classroom; in fact, it is a list of my favorite books. It also a solid bit of evidence that Western culture is rape culture. Or, to put it another way: rape culture is just culture-culture. If only there were a trigger warning big enough for that.”

—Amy Gentry in Electric Literature, found via The Millions

Short story: “The Girls”

“The Girls,” by Joy Williams

Appeared in the Idaho Review in 2004 (online here); anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2005 (PDF here); collected in The Visiting Privilege

4112 words

I read this story years ago in BASS and when I saw it linked from The Millions, I instantly remembered it. I remember thinking of course we have to find out how old the girls are in the first paragraph, lest we mistake them for teenagers or at least twentysomethings.

I find “The Girls” both dreamlike and extremely undreamlike. I’m not totally sure what decade we’re in, or even what country. I fail to recognize any of the girls’ family’s cultural signifiers beyond that they’re rich. But all the details are presented with such assurance and daylight clarity that like a dreamer, I feel compelled to go along with them. This is the sort of family in which the remains of a cat named Georgia O’Keeffe are preserved in an urn that has little mice for feet. What sort of family is that? I don’t know. But I feel as though I know.

On askewness (and rationalization)

“I’m drawn to art in which things are a little askew. Straight realism isn’t very interesting to me; I like to see the interference of consciousness, the way perception is muddied by a unique interpreting mind. El Greco’s paintings are eccentric, strange, willful; I loved them. Standing in front of his Portrait of Fray Hortensio, I couldn’t help wondering what an editor would make of it: the obviously strange angle of the back of the chair, for instance, or the weird positioning of the hands. Wouldn’t an editor want to make those less strange, to straighten those things out? And yet wasn’t their strangeness the key to the greatness of the painting?

“A favorite teacher of mine in music school, a composer, used to talk about the importance of the right wrong note, the eccentricity that both surprises and feels immediately inevitable. I’m suspicious of the arguments we make to justify our opinions about art, especially art we’ve made. I’m not particularly given to confidence in my judgment; I can justify anything, I sometimes think. Working on revisions to my novel, I found that I couldn’t judge the validity of my editor’s criticisms until I had worked through a new version of a passage. Only then, when I had done the work—I always resist work, I’m the laziest person I know—could I see the virtues and flaws of what I had made.”

—Garth Greenwell (here, found via The Millions)

On not writing

“I imagine it would be wiser professionally not to mention those years I spent not writing, years I spent doubting myself so fully that it was torture to pound out a page. But who else is going to tell that story? Many of the successful published writers I hear talk on panels at conferences make it sound as if they are writing machines, as if they haven’t taken a day off from writing in years. Part of my success as a writer was not writing. If I hadn’t spent all those years teaching and reading and editing the work of other writers, I am certain I wouldn’t be the writer, and person, I am today.”

—Julia Fierro (x), found via The Millions

On keeping oneself on edge

“A writing routine that causes some form of discomfort isn’t so much a reminder of this omnipresent discord; given so many writers’ propensity for neuroses and anxiety, I doubt many of us need a reminder of how much conflict exists in the world. Instead, it is a distillation of that broad imbalance into a discrete unit, a microcosm of discomfort. If existential discomfort serves as the impetus to create in the first place, then perhaps a more localized, physical discomfort can cause a smaller version of the same reaction and help you actually come up with some words that could lead to a draft. Keeping yourself on edge—especially by, say, using an ugly font that you know will get replaced later—puts that potential for change in sharp relief.”

—Connor Ferguson (x)

 

On satisfying the reader’s heart

“By the time I was accepted at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the furthest I’d ventured into American literature was the modernism of Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. For the first time, I read short fiction writers known for their ‘spare’ prose style, like Raymond Carver, whose work my classmates praised as ‘quiet’ and ‘restrained.’ Now, emotion (and the rare sex scene) was conveyed delicately through mood and atmosphere. I felt a kind of reader’s depression. Where was the meaning? How far did I have to dig under the surface of the prose? It felt as if there was a hole in my reader’s heart. Not that I would have ever mentioned the ‘heart’ in workshop, the most sentimental of symbols.

“After a semester of workshops where we praised writers who wrote in ‘trim’ prose, I was converted to [a] more refined literary camp, where subtlety trumped all, even emotion. The more subdued my own writing style became the more my classmates appreciated it in workshop. This was especially true of the male writers, who began to imply, through playful teasing, that I wrote ‘stories about women for women,’ and that I was lucky, because, ‘maybe someday Oprah will pick you for her book club.’ […]

“With a misdirected motivation that thrives with youth, fueled by my fear of rejection, I committed myself to toning down the emotion in my writing. […] I wrote a few sex scenes—spare in style and violent in content—and the ‘risks’ I took in writing about sex were applauded in class.

“Looking back now, re-reading those scenes, I see they are just shadows of real characters feeling vague emotion. Instead a gulf separates the reader from the character’s experience. I confess that I felt very little when I wrote those scenes; I was merely copying the writers I thought I was supposed to admire. I was removed from the characters even when writing semi-autobiographically.”

—Julia Fierro in an essay

I feel the need to quote so much of this piece because it so exactly conveys my feeling about “spare, polished” literary fiction—“a kind of reader’s depression.” I think a lot of writers choose that style not only because it’s conventional, but also as a way of cushioning their egos. If you don’t love your work, it can’t hurt you, but the reader isn’t going to love it or be hurt by it either.

Maybe it would be more effective for teachers to insist on strong emotion, even melodrama and sentimentality, at least early in the writing process. Cram all your feelings into your first draft! Tears, thrills, fury, excessive exclamation points! Then gradually tone it down. Listen for false notes and eliminate them. Build a foundation beneath your castle in the air. I don’t know.

Edited to add: Don’t music teachers tell beginning students to play loud? The theory is that you know how to play loud, you’ll have no trouble playing soft. That’s the approach I’m talking about here.

On injured characters and hearts

An essay in The Millions persuaded me to read Domestic Manners of the Americans (on Gutenberg.org), an 1832 travel memoir by an Englishwoman, mainly for this riveting passage:

“In all ranks, […] it appeared to me that the greatest and best feelings of the human heart were paralyzed by the relative positions of slave and owner. The characters, the hearts of children, are irretrievably injured by it. In Virginia we boarded for some time in a family consisting of a widow and her four daughters, and I there witnessed a scene strongly indicative of the effect I have mentioned. A young female slave, about eight years of age, had found on the shelf of a cupboard a biscuit, temptingly buttered, of which she had eaten a considerable portion before she was observed. The butter had been copiously sprinkled with arsenic for the destruction of rats, and had been thus most incautiously placed by one of the young ladies of the family. […]

“The little slave was laid on a bed, and I returned to my own apartments; some time afterwards I sent to enquire for her, and learnt that she was in great pain. I immediately went myself to enquire farther, when another young lady of the family, the one by whose imprudence the accident had occurred, met my anxious enquiries with ill-suppressed mirth—told me they had sent for the doctor—and then burst into uncontrollable laughter. The idea of really sympathising in the sufferings of a slave appeared to them as absurd as weeping over a calf that had been slaughtered by the butcher.”

I find this fascinating and strangely hopeful. To a great extent, compassion is a product of environment. If a slave-owning society can destroy one person’s compassion for another so easily and so completely, imagine what a better society could do.

Short story: “The Laughing Man”

“The Laughing Man,” by J. D. Salinger

From the March 19, 1949 New Yorker (here); collected in Nine Stories; also here and here

5,575 words

Like Frank O’Connor’s childhood stories, “The Laughing Man” is narrated by an adult mostly through his childhood self’s point of view. One thing I liked a lot in “The Man of the World” was how the narrator mentioned that his adult handwriting still showed the influence of his childhood idol. It was a way of saying implicitly, I am still that person—or maybe This still matters to me. The narrator of this story does the same thing, although (being a Salinger character) he takes it to a tongue-in-cheek* extreme, saying, “I happen to regard the Laughing Man as some kind of super-distinguished ancestor of mine.” He goes on:

And this illusion is only a moderate one compared to the one I had in 1928, when I regarded myself not only as the Laughing Man’s direct descendant but as his only legitimate living one. I was not even my parents’ son in 1928 but a devilishly smooth impostor, awaiting their slightest blunder as an excuse to move in—preferably without violence, but not necessarily—to assert my true identity.

I like this. It says everything that needs to be said about the seriousness of childhood fantasies, and of storytelling in general.

I made a chart of this story. Notice that the only “live” installment of the Chief’s tale occurs just before he apparently gets stood up. That penultimate installment is valuable because it gets the reader more accustomed to the sort of pulpy melodrama that fuels the tale; without it, we might find the final one too silly to be tragic.

Section Word count
Backstory, containing the Laughing Man’s origin story but not a single actual scene 1,866 ~
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Initial problem (Mary Hudson) and resolution 1,403 ~
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Lead-up to crisis (including an installment of “The Laughing Man”) and crisis (break-up) 1,708 ~
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Final installment of “The Laughing Man” (which takes “no longer than five minutes”) 487 ~
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Close 111 ~

In a short story of this kind, so much is set up in advance that the ending can be as small as a tipped domino.

In general I think beautifully written sentences are overrated, but this one amazes me and I can almost type it out from memory:

It was the kind of whole certainty, however independent of the sum of its facts, that can make walking backwards more than normally hazardous, and I bumped smack into a baby carriage.

The shift from the abstract to the concrete occurs so subtly in the third quarter that when we get to the fourth, we realize we could have seen it if only we’d looked where we were going. Some have speculated that the baby carriage is a symbolic nod at what the couple is fighting over, though the narrator says he still has no idea “in any but a fairly low, intuitive sense.” I would rather see it as a symbol of what they’re going to miss, now that they no longer have a future together.

Another line I like: “I remember wishing the Chief had gloves.” The character isn’t a remarkably sensitive or nurturing sort of boy, as far as I can tell; this protective impulse is new to him.

*It’s always hard to say how tongue-in-cheek Salinger is actually being when he says things like this. He has a tone of earnest irony, of playing make-believe but playing for keeps.** Which has a very twenty-first-century ring, to my ear. I suppose Salinger was a big influence on Wes Anderson and McSweeney’s and other tone-setters. I always assumed the current earnestly ironic tone was a reaction to the problem David Foster Wallace articulated in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (PDF here): when ironic detachment becomes practically mandatory, how is communication possible? But Salinger wasn’t struggling against the prevailing literary culture; he was struggling, I think, with his own glibness and cynicism. And he succeeded, at least some of the time. Certainly in this story.

**Edited to add: Garth Risk Hallberg at The Millions put it well. “With each book, [J. D. Salinger] drew closer to the vanishing point where candor and artifice, earnestness and irony, ‘literally’ and literally, become indistinguishable from each other.” Hallberg is referring to the way Salinger sort of went over the edge towards the end.