Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category
In his instructive book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate, essayist and Nonfiction Director at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, explores the form through a series of essays. In his introduction, Lopate poses a number of questions: where is the line between fiction and nonfiction? What are the ethics of writing about others? What are the techniques in essay writing? And, as the title alludes to, when, if ever, is it okay to tell?
Throughout the book, Lopate emphasizes the need for essayists to “think critically—to think against themselves,” to contradict themselves if need be. This is the message at the core of To Show and To Tell—that an essay is an attempt to come to an answer, not an opportunity to prove a rigidly held belief. By “thinking against oneself,” by being contrary, the essayist creates tension and suspense.
“All good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation,” Lopate writes. “In the best nonfiction, it seems to me, you’re always made aware that you are engaged with a supple mind at work.”
In addition to exploring philosophical questions about the craft, To Show and To Tell offers practical advice, such as how to turn oneself into a character (“you cannot amuse the reader unless you are already self-amused”), why one should research (“Research inspires curiosity, helps you break out of claustrophobic self-absorption”), and what’s gained by keeping a journal (“No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly”).
Lopate gives permission to do away with convention. For those who have trouble with endings, Lopate writes:
A common mistake students make is to assume they need to tie up with a big bow the preceding matter via a grand statement of what it all means, or what the life lesson to be drawn from it is … Readers should be left with some things to work out on their own.
The final section is a study of key essayists; Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and James Baldwin are just a few writers Lopate highlights. Lamb “had the quintessential personal essayist’s ability to see his own personality as problematic, and to dramatize the resulting tensions.” According to Lopate, he saw people as actors and the streets of London as a stage. Hazlitt showed that essays can change direction and Baldwin’s “Notes on a Native Son” is “A twenty-page miracle, a masterpiece of compression.”
To Show and To Tell is an inspiring book on the art of the essay. The reader will come away with a richer understanding of the form and motivated to put theory into practice.
Buy To Show and To Tell from your local bookstore
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Harper’s Magazine
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate on Beyond the Margins
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Poets & Writers
Listen to an interview with Phillip Lopate on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show
On his way to his niece’s wedding in Arizona, Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, picked up a young female hitchhiker, took her as far as the California side of the border, and continued on his way. The next day she’s found dead in a canal near his family’s home in Phoenix. She’d had an illegal abortion, which was botched, but the cause of death was a blow to the head.
Not until a few dozen pages into the story do we learn that Densmore is black. The girl, being white, and it being that time and place, he becomes the prime suspect. At first he tries to prove his innocence on his own but, after getting nowhere, a friend convinces him to accept the help of Skye Houston, one of the country’s top lawyers—and a white man.
Published in 1963, The Expendable Man, a crime novel written from the point of view of the accused, echos the race relations of its day.
Any rational reader will get chills not from the description of the murder, or the menacing, suspense-filled cloud that hangs over Densmore’s head, but from the state of the justice system in which this case operates. Christine Smallwood, writing in The New Yorker, says of the book’s author, Dorothy B. Hughes, “It is not whodunit, but who-ness itself, that she’s after.”
To Hughes it’s not the criminal procedure that’s interesting, it’s the relationships that guide the procedure. The Expendable Man is not so much hardboiled fiction as it is an exploration of social issues.
He had wound through the small canyon outside of town, and was moving on to the long desert plain, when he noted ahead an extra shadow in the tree shadow marking a culvert. It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.
It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. But he reduced speed when he approached the shadow, the automatic anxiety reaction that a person might step in front of the oncoming car. He passed the hitchhiker before he was actually aware of the shape and form; only after he had passed did he realize that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.
“Loneliness is solitude with a problem”—Maggie Nelson
Although written in numbered propositions, seemingly disconnected, Bluets is not the type of book you can open to any page and begin reading. I know this because it’s what I’d done a number of times in a number of bookstores only to leave empty handed despite trusted friends insisting on its brilliance.
Finally, I sat down to read Maggie Nelson’s book properly and discovered its flow, its rhythm, and was caught up in the attempt to understand the placement of these ruminations on—as one might infer from the title—the color blue.
“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke,” she begins. “And so, I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.”
Intense focus, or perhaps obsession, is what drives Bluets. At one point Nelson considers traveling the world in search of blue objects: “ancient indigo and woad production sites, the Chartres Cathedral, the Isle of Skye, the lapis mines of Afghanistan, the Scrovegni Chapel, Morocco, Crete.”
But Nelson does not need to travel to faraway places; she sees blue wherever she goes, and notices its absence when she doesn’t. Interspersed in Bluets are delightful facts about color: the presence of blue in nature (male satin bowerbirds build adorn their bowers with blue objects to lure females); religion (blue became a “holy” color after it was mistaken that ultramarine contained gold and was therefore valuable; and world cultures (the Tuareg, a “tribe of blue people” in the deserts of North Africa who take on the color of their deeply saturated dyed robes).
An ex-lover is remembered by the blue button-down shirt he wore on their final day together; the feet of a friend, now paraplegic, are mentioned because they’ve become “the blue of skim milk” from disuse. Quotes from Mallarmé, Goethe, and da Vinci woven into the fabric of Nelson’s thoughts fill the pages with a weight not conveyed by the book’s slim appearance.
Bluets will deceive aspiring writers. They will see short paragraphs made up of spare sentences and believe they can do it too. But the careful reader will feel the deliberation, they will know the state of the author’s cutting room floor.
In Bluets, Nelson has taken an exercise in single-minded attention and created a meditative masterpiece.
What does it mean not to finish a book? To lose interest, steam, momentum? When distraction leads to forgotten plots, characters, and themes who suffers, the reader or the book left unread?
My apartment is teeming with unfinished books. They cover my desk, coffee table, and nightstand. They sit two rows deep on my bookshelves. There they remain, neglected, misunderstood, unappreciated, still with the last read page firmly marked with a piece of paper, a subscription card, or a proper bookmark: a reminder of my stagnation, my failure to engage.
With some I’d read only a few pages, others a few chapters, while others I’d nearly finished but inexplicably abandoned at the last moment. Not all books I set aside are bad; life gets in the way, my mind shifts, I am no longer the same person I was on the first page.
What if I had begun a few days earlier, a few days later? Would we have ridden it out until the bitter end?
is often much hand-wringing over the question of when to put a book down, of when to give up and walk away. For some people this is an agonizing decision. For me, I’ve never given it much thought. In my younger years I’ve either slogged through a story, not knowing I had an option, or, as in the case with assigned reading for school, never cared enough to feel obligated. Now that I’m older and at any given moment surrounded by more books than I’ll ever have time to read in a lifetime (or two or three), there’s no room for second-guessing or regrets.
My first impulse when I began this post was to anthropomorphize, to wonder what happened to the characters when tossed aside. Do they remain suspended—in a kitchen, at a wedding, in the throes of heartbreak—or do they continue on alone to an autonomous finish? That might be a silly thing to think about, like a 10-year-old with a developing consciousness or one who’s seen too many Disney films. But it puts things in perspective.
Books do not need you. They repeat their stories every night.
Here are a few books that have carried on without me, none of which were bad at all.
Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas
Dublinesque is something of a tragicomedy. At the age of 60, Samuel Riba is forced into retirement after his literary publishing house fails. He’d like to blame the reading public but, really, it was his poor financial management skills that brought about his demise.
Now he spends his time on Google, searching for his name and publishing house, looking to see who still mentions him and reviews his list; the answer to both is not many.
After a dream, Riba plans a trip to Dublin and brings with him three authors he’s published. They are to stage a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age” in the same cemetery that appears in Joyce’s Ulysses.
The publisher, New Directions, calls Dublinesque “A fictional journey through the modern history of literary publishing,” an apt description if any. If you’re really into books and the publishing industry, this book is an entertaining read.
Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino
What a strange book Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things turned out to be. When I first saw it in the Dalkey Archive Press email newsletter I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wouldn’t have guessed this.
Originally published in 1971, Imaginative Qualities is a satirical look at the New York art and literary scene of the 1950s and ‘60s. Told through an omniscient narrator (although he’ll tell you his characters are doing things when he’s not looking), the interweaving cast of failed artists and poets lead adulterous, destructive lives. The women are bored, the men are hopeless, and the narrator, who is actually the book’s author, openly refuses to implement certain literary devices.
The outcome is a story with an intentionally unruly feel, which, if truth be told, is part of its charm. At one point, as if the narrator is guarding against such an accusation, he interjects, “You’ll notice how carefully the threads are pulled together in this book. I don’t want to hear one more word about formlessness.”
Other amusing asides includes talk of killing off characters.
I’ve got a few more comments to make about Lou, a few more things to say about him before I get rid of him. Prose is endless. It strikes me that I could go on and on, into a thousand pages, about this poor man. (How poor, compared to the rest of us?) For a moment, I thought of having him step off the curb in front of a truck, or drown in the bathtub, something simple and accidental. Just write him off so that the long future of academe would not be his and Sheila would be free to be unhappy with somebody else. End him with a brief paragraph E.M. Forster-style. Would that be too literary? No such thing. People who make such remarks admire the prose of Jimmy Breslin.
The beauty of this multi-layered novel is that the meaning is left to interpretation. The reader takes away from it what they wish, which, in this case, suits the essence of the story nicely.
A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector
For a while I joked that Clarice Lispector’s novels were the new “Go Ask Alice” for my age group. When New Directions first reissued four of her books it seemed like every 30-something I knew was reading one and recommending it to anyone within a 10-foot radius. There was an aura of mysticism around the whole thing. It was the way people spoke about her and her writing, as if one glimpse of her writing would change your life.
Clarice Lispector, in her posthumous work, A Breath of Life, asks readers to examine both sides of the author-character relationship. The male writer explains that his creation, Angela, is “not a ‘character.’ She’s the evolution of a feeling. She’s an idea incarnated in the being.” Shortly after he enters a conversation with her where, at one point, she asks, “Am I pure?” The author answers, vaguely, philosophically, “Purity would be as violent as the color white. Angela is the color of hazelnut.”
Throughout the book there are scores of aphorism that make you pause: “Writing is difficult because it touches the boundaries of the impossible,” “[I’m] an open parenthesis. Please close me,” “Solitude is a luxury,” and “When I write, I mix one color with another, and a new color is born.”
What’s striking about A Breath of Life is that it leaves you wondering if you’re in the presence of brilliance or insanity—although one could argue the fine line between the two. As with much of Lispector’s writing, I imagine, A Breath of Life cannot be understood in one reading. Her books strike me as those that are meant to be read, wrestled with, digested, and then read again in order to find hidden layers and new meaning.
The Wizard of Oz is a classic. Full stop. Whether it’s known through L. Frank Baum’s original book for children or through the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, it lingers in the minds of many. Until recently, I had only been familiar with the film—and, to be honest, the first and last time I watched it was to see what may or may not have been a Munchkin hanging himself from a tree as the gang of four skipped down the Yellow Brick Road*.
Now, The Wizard of Oz has found its way back into the cultural conversation with a newly released prequel starring James Franco. Although the film isn’t getting the best reviews, there’s been an outpouring of interest in the book again and a number of thoughtful pieces have surfaced on the Internet.
At Litreactor, Kimberly Turner delves into the history of the Oz series. Included are a number of details about L. Frank Baum’s life, the book’s sales history, and the differences between the popular film adaptation and the original text:
As is typical with movie adaptations, the 1939 film differs from its source material in more ways than I can list here—at least without losing your attention. A few of the notable differences, besides the ruby slippers: In the book, Oz is a real place, not a dream world; thus the existence of forty-one sequels. The Wicked Witch Of The West is a blip on the radar rather than the primary obstacle. Dorothy is a stronger, more feminist protagonist and considerably less weepy. There are quite a few more subplots, including a visit to a city made of China and an encounter with an odd race of armless guards called Hammerhead, and much, much more beheading.
At The New Yorker, Erin Overbey, Deputy head of the magazine’s archive, dug through past issues and found a negative review of the film. Their critic at the time, Russell Maloney, said it had “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Meanwhile an essay written by Salman Rushdie in 1992 links the story to a “longing for liberation from mundane routine.” In a Critic at Large piece by John Updike where he critiques The Annotated Wizard of Oz we learn some interesting background on Baum: he wrote The Wizard of Oz at age forty-four in 1900 and was married to a politically progressive woman, a suffragette who co-authored a book with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Dorothy’s strength, as noted above in the Litreactor piece, may have been her doing as she had a great influence on her husband. He’d even written a few subsequent books under female pseudonyms.
As part of my experiment in reading children’s books as an adult, many of which I missed in my younger years, I’d decided to read The Wizard of Oz late last year. It was an iconic book that I had a cursory knowledge of and felt I was missing out on a piece of American cultural history.
In his introduction to The Wizard of Oz, Baum said he’d written the book “solely to please the children of today.” He hoped to do away with the “heartaches and nightmares” of previous fairy tales and legends. “Modern education includes morality … the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents,” he said. This last part leaves one to wonder how he explained the Winged Monkeys but point taken.
With Baum’s intention in mind I embarked on my reading. Instead of looking for social and political undertones, which many have read into the silver shoes and Yellow Brick Road, I enjoyed it as a simple story about a girl suddenly finding herself in a strange land and longing to return home. Mostly, I was surprised by and taken with the vivid descriptions undoubtedly lost in summary.
By now everyone knows that Dorothy lived on a farm in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. One day a cyclone hits, the house is lifted into the air, and she is flown to a faraway land. What those who haven’t read the book don’t know is the sad state her relatives were in prior to the storm. The opening scene is nearly comic in its darkness:
Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.
When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. …
Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.
Much is made of the use of technicolor of the 1939 film and after reading Baum’s book one has to wonder if it could have been made otherwise. After Dorothy wakes to find herself “in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty,” color is prevalent in his descriptions
Shortly after being set down, Dorothy meets a lion who has no courage, a tin woodman who has no heart, and a scarecrow who has no brains. Together, the four of them set off—often through hostile territory—in search of what they each desire.
They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.
There’s lots of “brilliance” and “dazzle” in this book and after they’re instructed to visit the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz they encounter both again at the gates of his Emerald City.
The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, they started on their way, and soon saw a beautiful green glow in the sky just before them. … As they walked on, the green glow became brighter, and it seemed that at last they were nearing the end of their travels. … In front of them, and at the end of the road of yellow brick, was a big gate, all studded with emeralds that glittered so in the sun that even the painted eyes of the Scarecrow were dazzled by their brilliancy.
Although Baum said he wasn’t in the business of dispensing morals, there are plenty to be found in this story. When asked by the Scarecrow for brains, Oz replies, “You don’t need them. You learn something new every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”
When the Lion asks for courage Oz says, “You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger.” The Tin Woodman, when he asks for a heart, is told he is wrong to want a heart, that hearts “make most people unhappy.”
In the end The Wizard of Oz does offer lessons; it wouldn’t have lasted this long in our collective psyche otherwise.
*While writing this piece I did some research (a.k.a a quick Google search) and learned that the Munchkin thing is a myth and that it was really a bird. Here’s a list of 7 others from BuzzFeed.
Derek Raymond’s Factory Series is a special blend of noir. As James Sallis in his introduction to the first book, He Died with His Eyes Open, says, the five novels are “In between books—not quite what you’d call literary perhaps, but then, not quite crime novels either.” Or, as author A.L. Kennedy puts in a recent review for NPR, “Raymond’s narratives press against somewhere unusual in your brain; they penetrate and interfere, putting you in touch with levels of intensity and disintegration that seem to combine literary achievement with medical intervention.”
He Died with His Eyes Open is noir for today’s reader: void of over-the-top female sensuality and duplicity and the brassy language that begs mockery. Instead, Raymond’s prose is dark, elegant, and suited to the sensibilities of the times in which he wrote, the 1980s. If he had followed his predecessors and adopted the 1950s model it would have felt like a caricature of a genre already prone to exaggeration. Instead, Raymond creates something subtle, unique—something that still feels fresh in 2013.
He Died with His Eyes Open begins—as do most noir novels—with a gruesome murder. A man is found dead in a shrub outside of the Word of God House. When it becomes clear that the victim is just one of the many dregs of society currently polluting the city, the detective from the Serious Crime Unit is quick to call it an open-and-shut case. Who cares about the downtrodden, especially in Thatcherite England? However, our protagonist, Detective Sergeant from the Department of Unexplained Deaths, “by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service,” is not as quick to dismiss the crime.
This is what makes the unnamed detective of Raymond’s books different from other noir detectives. While a familiar characteristic of his sleuthing counterparts is cool detachment, this detective cares about those whom others would throw into a 6-foot hole without a second thought. He’s a champion of the poor, of Democracy, of a better society. He takes on “obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did” and comes out more sympathetic for it.
To find out who might have murdered the man, Charles Staniland, a fifty-one year-old alcoholic, the detective spends hours listening to tapes the victim left behind and investigates the grimiest of dive bars 80s London has to offer—always a cut above the patrons but never out of place. It’s not long before he learns of an ex-wife, a junkie son, and a tough girlfriend named Babsie—all whom need to be handled with care. Soon one starts to wonder if the detective has gotten too close to the case; lines and judgment blur—but what noir novel would be complete without moral ambiguity?
To get to the end of this review without mentioning the brilliant designs for all five of Derek Raymond’s novels would be a gross oversight. The bright orange covers with a single image—an everyday object made suggestively gruesome—make the US editions from Melville House dare you to ignore them. Even if the novels weren’t so damn good, you’d want them around as art pieces. Luckily, they’re quality from cover to cover. If you’ve never read a crime novel in your life, The Factory Series is the place to start.
He was found in the shrubbery in front of of the Word of God House in Albatross Road, West Five. It was the thirtieth of March, during the evening rush-hour. It was bloody cold; and an office worker had tripped over the body when he was caught short going home. I don’t know if you know Albatross Road where it runs into Hanger Lane, but if you do you’ll appreciate what a ghastly lonely area it is, with the surface-level tube-station on one side of the street, and dank, blind buildings, weeping with damp, on the other. That evening there was yet another go-slow on, and when I arrived at seven there were people still massing to get down the tube stairs to the trains, which were running very rare.
It was pelting with rain on an east wind when I got there. I found Bowman from Serious Crimes standing over the corpse with a torch, talking to the two coppers off the beat who had been called by the man who had stumbled on him. Water ran off the brim of Bowman’s trilby and dribbled down the helmets of the wooden-tops to end up in their collars.
Bowman handed me the torch without a word and I bent over the dead man. His eyes were open—one only just—the surfaces peppered with the grit that an east wind hurls at you off London streets. He was wearing a cheap grey suit with cigarette burns down the front and a tatty raincoat. He was medium height, with thin hair turning grey and a boozer’s nose, aged between fifty and sixty. Both his arms were broken, and one leg; the bone poked out blue through the trouser cloth. His head had been battered in below the hairline and brains had slopped down his left cheek into the mud. I got the impression, though, despite his injuries he hadn’t died at once. In the dull eyes there was still a flicker of some memory that he meant to take with him wherever he was going.
The other day I sat in a room full of colleagues and said something along the lines of “I don’t read self-help books.” Note, I did not say this disparagingly; it was simply just a matter of fact, or so I thought. No more than an hour or two later I realized I was wrong. Leaving aside that one summer between my junior and senior year of college when a bad breakup brought me to If the Buddha Dated, I found I could come up with a number of recent examples: Dale Carnegie, John C. Maxwell, and David Allen, to name a few authors. The thing was, I hadn’t associated them with the self-help genre.
While Carnegie is shelved in self-help, often taking up full rows, I was surprised that he had not been placed in business instead. As with Maxwell and Allen’s wildly popular books, I saw Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, as a treatise on work relationships rather than something for one’s personal life—although it helps with that as well. I had thought of all three, along with Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki, as part of the life hack family.
Life hack is a relatively new phenomenon—at least in name. According to Wikipedia, “life hack refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency … [it’s] anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way.” The origin of the term is credited to computer programmers in the 1980s who devised “tricks to cut through information overload and organize their data.” Today, it’s associated with almost anything that increases personal productivity and helps navigate workplace situations, as illustrated by the popular website Lifehacker where you can learn about the best apps to help you through your workday as well as interpersonal skills that will help advance your career—even in the trickiest of situations.
So, as it turns out, I do read self-help, sometimes voraciously.
Recently, I learned of the book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well after coming across an excerpt of Mark Frauenfelder’s tips for creating a successful blog. As the founder and coeditor of Boing Boing, a popular website for techy-types and genre fans, Frauenfelder exudes authority on the subject; it would be wise to listen to what he has to say.
What might come as a surprise to some, given the computer-geek culture associated with the site, Frauenfelder’s last piece of advice is to “keep it real,” that “the best material for the blog is usually found in the real world from real-life experiences.”
The Art of Doing is full of these surprising anecdotes and aphorisms, often from unlikely sources. How the editors came to collect them is seemingly simple, they asked “successful people how they do what they do.” They asked for “work habits, turning points, experiences, insights and goals” and wound up with a handy reference book that can be opened to any page and read in any order to obtain words of wisdom—and inspiration—for life in all its many forms.
While gathering stories and expert practices from contributors, the editors, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, “began to see patterns” and noticed that “people shared core principles and practices.” Among them were dedication, intelligent persistence, community building, listening, testing, managing emotions, evolving, and cultivating patience and happiness.
For 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock, “It’s important to create the environment where everyone wants to contribute so that moment of inspiration can happen, because sometimes, you’re just one step away.” The band OK Go urges readers to ignore the false line between promotion and art, believing that the elevation of “one type of creativity over another is crazy,” saying that “You can call making videos, posters and other visuals crass commercial promotion, but all of our creative ideas are connected and promote each other.” They “see no line between the music and the work that supports it.”
The advice is as varied as the participants: from neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak on optimizing your brain; to Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large for Barneys New York, on being “the most fabulous you;” to Philippe Petit, high-wire artist, on letting life be your teacher.
Whether you call it life hacking or plain old self-help, the goal is the same: to become the best at what you do. In this day and age—as we move further away from the Industrial Revolution and deeper into the Digital and Social Age—that often means becoming the most creative, innovative person you can be, to think far outside the box and to help those around you do the same. The Art of Doing is an excellent look inside the minds and practices of people who have strived and succeeded, and who continue, every day, to be better. Pick it up, read it, hack life.
Buy The Art of Doing at your local bookstore
Read Mark Frauenfelder’s excerpt at Fast Company
Find useful articles at 99u
Listen to Seth Godin’s interview with Krista Tippett
One of my favorite genres is the comic book memoir—or graphic memoir as they are often called; Alison Bechdel’s work, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, being the most recognizable of the group. As goes with my text-based memoir preference, the edgier the better. I want personal struggle, rock bottoms, and, although not always necessary, redemption.
A few months ago one book kept jumping out at me. Whenever I’d walk into a store I’d see its bright, sky blue cover: a woman’s face from the eyes up peaking out from the bottom edge; overhead there was a design scheme of color and grayscale-ringed circles cropped by the margins. Its odd shape—a little bit taller and a little bit wider than the average book—called for my hands every time. I’d flip through and wonder what kind of story this quirky book held.
As I turned the pages, I noticed the art varied from simple charactertures—thick outlines without much detail—to more sophisticated sketches, notably a series of self-portraits. Some pages featured imitations of notebook scraps while others were intricate diagrams, like the nine panels of prescription drugs: Klonopin, Lithium, Celexa, and so on. Each pill was recorded, along with the many side effects they had on this particular artist. That’s because Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, & Me is cartoonist Ellen Forney’s story of being bipolar: learning of it, learning about it, and learning how to live with it.
The book starts off with Ellen on a high. We see her in manic mode as she walks home in the snow having just gotten a full back tattoo; euphoria coursing through her veins: “My back felt warm, like I had a mild sunburn, and the warmth created a yin yang balance in the air. It was perfect. Exponentially perfect. Everything was magical and intense, and bursting with universal truth.”
Just a few pages later, a social worker Ellen has been seeing grows concerned about the sudden spike in cheer and refers her to a psychiatrist. Almost 30-years-old, Ellen receives the diagnosis: Bipolar I Disorder, her own “brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
What follows is Ellen’s adventure into a world of prescription pills and psychiatric help, the doses and frequencies of each fluctuating over the years. While attempting to move forward, Ellen looks to the past with new insight and examines the present for clues to her progress.
One of the first thoughts that pops into Ellen’s mind as she sits in the doctor’s office is that she is “officially a crazy artist” and therefore outfitted with some credibility. She researches historical figures who suffered from the same affliction. First we meet some of the more obvious cases: Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, but then we learn of Edvard Munch and Mark Rothko.
Shortly after, another thought follows: “Along with my romantic preconceptions about what being a crazy artist meant, were my terrified preconceptions about what being a medicated artist meant.” In the accompanying panel, the “crazy artist” is represented by a balloon, full of air, exploding out of a cloud-like mass, while the “medicated artist” is shown as a deflated balloon, seemingly a few days old and barely afloat.
Of Van Gogh Forney asks, “What would his art have been like if he hadn’t been ‘cracked’? Was it his demons that gave his art life? Or did he work in spite of them? What if he’d been stabilized on meds? Who knows?” Where inspiration and talent come from is of perennial interest to—as well as a great source of anxiety for—creative types. Both wonder and fear permeate the pages as Ellen explores these questions.
Before reading Marbles, I had viewed bipolar with skepticism. Sure, I believed it existed but I thought it was overdiagnosed and often overblown. For those outside of the disorder, for those whom it is an abstraction, the importance—and power—of Marbles lies in Ellen’s ability to make bipolar real, to strip away the doubt of even the hardest naysayer.
“Bipolar Disorder is difficult to treat. Finding the right medications can take a long time, so bipolars may list our med histories proudly, like merit badges,” she says. The lifelong commitment to mental health and its maintenance—ongoing therapy, expensive drugs, lifestyle change—eloquently documented in Ellen’s book shows that the process is not something someone would go through if they didn’t have to.
Meanwhile, for those in the thick of bipolar, themselves having been diagnosed, Marbles offers valuable lessons: How much should one tell their therapist? What are some useful exercises for self-exploration? How does one chart progress and setbacks?
This advice is so subtle, so woven into the story, that I often wondered if it was intentional or simply a byproduct of Ellen’s focused approach.
There are many questions packed into Marbles: What is bipolar? Where is the intersection between mental illness and creativity? Does managing the former lead to a loss of the latter? Taking Forney’s book as evidence, one can answer that last question with a resounding “no.” Marbles is an important book, easily digestible, highly entertaining, and instinctively informative.
Over the past few years there’s been growing interest in apocalyptic scenarios and the arts have thrived because of it–film, television, books. But back in 2000, when fascination with civilization’s demise was still very much of the underground, there was Deadenders, a 16-issue comic collaboration between writer Ed Brubaker and artist Warren Pleece.
Although Deadenders is set in post-disaster New Bedlam, USA, 20 years after “the cataclysm,” it has a distinctly British vibe: Vespas, mod haircuts, the occasional Royal Air Force logo patched onto a leather jacket. The story opens with a monologue and we learn of the “visions” the narrator’s had since the age of ten and that his cousin recently died on Christmas Eve of a drug-related incident involving the narrator’s stash. His life, like all that surrounds him, is a mess.
The world of Deadenders is one of destruction. The panels are dark and grimey as if dusted with soot and resignation. The narrator, a teenage boy named “Beezer,” and his friends live in Sector 5, the hardest hit region; the sun, a distant memory. While Beezer and his dejected friends do the normal things teenagers do–roam the streets on their scooters, hang out at the local diner, fall in love with each other–they also mourn together the death of their friends and save each other from dysfunctional households.
Teen drama can be entertaining in its own right, however, the question still remains: what are these visions and why does Beezer keep having them? This quest for truth makes up the bulk of Deadenders. It’s a somber tale with drugs, secrets, and strong bonds between friends. In other words, a classic.
Deadenders at Vertigo
Ed Brubaker on The Nerdist Writer’s Panel
Interview with Ed Brubaker at Comic Book Resources
Warren Pleece’s website
Interview with Warren Pleece at Comic Book Resources
As a New Yorker, every day I pass homeless people on the street, sometimes a group of them before I leave my neighborhood. One man sits on the corner store steps, babbling to himself, wasting away, dirty, feral; another, a young man, a little too friendly for comfort, asks what time it is and how I’m doing. A lifetime of training keeps me from making eye contact. Then there’s a woman who travels with these men, mumbling as she picks through garbage, wearing a thick wool hat, even in summer. Many times I’ve seen her with bruises on her face–from beatings, from a hard life, who knows. In the East Village, crust punks line the brick wall outside of McDonald’s–alternating between nodding off and begging for change. On the west side of town, a homeless poet hawks his work, boasting having once been published in The New York Times.
I’ve never pay them much mind, other than when they’ve gone too long without a bath, their meds, or a stretch of sobriety. With the poet on the street, I’ve walked by him so many times I can repeat his pitch, but never once have I considered that his writing might actually be good. Luckily, there are people like George Bernard Shaw in the world and every so often the talents of these unlikely characters are discovered.
In 1905, Shaw received an unsolicited manuscript delivered from a place called The Farm House, located in London. It was not unusual for him to receive aspiring writers’ work and, although undoubtedly busy with his own writing, “knowing how much these little books mean to their authors,” he felt bad if any of them went unread. This is how W.H. Davies, a poet and a tramp, was given a chance.
Based on the letters that often came with the manuscripts, Shaw would assess the nature of the sending author or publisher. However, when he held Davies’ book, he “could not place him. There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments … The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed him a manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots.” Furthermore, in his letter, Davies asked for the price of half a crown or the return of the book.
After discerning that the author was “a real poet,” finding his work free from “literary vulgarity,” and considering it “like a draught of clear water in a desert,” Shaw sent money, along with professional advice–that one cannot make a living on poetry alone. But he didn’t stop there, he sent additional money along with a list of critics with instructions for Davies to send his collection to them as well. Shaw wondered if they would “recognize a poet when they met one.”
The Farm House was one of many public houses where Davies stayed during his time traveling up and down the East Coast of America, visiting the South and Midwest, and occasionally returning to England. These years, 1893 to 1899, are recorded in his memoir, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, first published in 1908 and reissued by Melville House in their Neversink Library series.
Although born and raised in Wales, it was The United States that Davies set his sights on and, despite receiving a weekly sum from his grandmother’s inheritance, he chose to travel as a hobo: hopping trains, sleeping in the elements, begging for food, and cohorting with unstable characters.
The book starts with a brief survey of Davies’ childhood. His father died when he was young, his mother remarried, and his brother was, as Davies called him in those pre-PC days, an “imbecile.” Davies’ family had a “great interest in pugilism” and encouraged his fighting. However, possibly altering the course of his life, his friend Dave introduced him to the joys of reading.
Through him I became a reader, in the first place with an idea of emulating his cleverness, which led to a love of literature for its own self. Of course I began with the common penny novel of the worst type, but acquired a taste for better work in a shorter time than boys usually do.
It’s this familiarity with physical abuse mixed with a sharp mind that helps Davies’ navigate the inhumane conditions and life-threatening situations he encounters.
Throughout The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, Davies writes his fellow travelers–and experiences–so large, the book often reads like a novel. The first person we meet is Brum, a quirky tramp with a keen business sense, a “notorious beggar.” Together, he and Davies “beat” from New York City to Chicago, the former playing the tutor to the latter as they look for suitable winter lodging and migrant work.
Through these companions, Davies learns to manipulate the Midwestern prison system for a warm place to stay; he witnesses firsthand the dangers of picking fruit in fields shared with snakes; and what comes to those who keep their money visible. His travels through the South bring him face to face with lynchings; meanwhile in Canada he finds “a kind-hearted race of people.”
Davies’ keen observations make The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp a work of cultural commentary, capturing a moment in history as seen from the ground. It’s How the Other Half Lives meets On the Road, one of those books that opens your eyes, changes your perspective, and makes you reconsider the world as you know it.
If you grew up in the punk scene in the 90s, chances are you didn’t get very far before you found an issue of Cometbus in your hands. The novella-sized, memoiristic zine, started in 1981 in Berkeley, California, handwritten and Xeroxed by Aaron “Cometbus,” was instrumental in turning me, and a lot of other kids, onto writing and publishing.
Long before the near-universal belief in the Internet’s democratizing effects took hold, long before self-publishing was hotly debated on literary blogs and industry websites, Aaron was showing kids everywhere that they could create their own media. At a time before digital distribution was the norm, before digital publishing was available in every teen’s bedroom, Cometbus showed us that as long as we had a pen, paper, and access to a copier, we could produce our own publication.
Most Cometbus issues are Aaron’s accounts of life on the road with punk bands, living in vans and sleeping on fans’ couches. For those times when he wasn’t on the road, his unconventional home life became the subject of his stories. Over the years the locations varied but the day-to-day remained the same, communal living, social dysfunction, and dumpster diving.
At any given time, in any given city, Aaron had at least one friend suffering from heartbreak, one in a destructive relationship, and another in the throes of a chemical imbalance. His friends reminded me of mine; it was a familiar scene, if only more adventurous. Aaron was an angsty teen’s hero. He was my subculture’s Jack Kerouac.
Aaron’s 2006 novella, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is written in the telltale Cometbus voice: the introspective storyteller electively living a hard life, equal parts amused by and concerned about his friends.
The narrator, a character named Aaron, recently heartbroken, lives in a van parked in his friend’s yard. Laura, the friend, is also recently heartbroken.
By night, the van was an icy tomb. By early afternoon it had turned into a toaster oven … It reminded me of being on tour, with everyone piled on top of each other sleeping and the van broken down on the side of the road, smoking. Those were always my favorite times, traveling. My fondest memories. Now it was like that every day. …
Yes, a broken-down van was the perfect place for a person like me. All the appearance of movement and direction without the threat of actual change.
A certain type of fiction is often accused of being autobiography in disguise and it’s hard not to think of I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit as another installment of Cometbus. Fictional Aaron’s world feels a lot like his well-documented real one, right down to his friends.
When the story opens, the first person we meet is Laura. She’s hurling bricks at a passing armament train, presumably in some anarchist-inspired protest against war. However, it becomes clear that it’s anger and frustration driving her, not some belief in a cause. Reckless melodrama dressed in political theory.
Another character, Jemuel, plays the ambivalent friend, destined to remain exactly where he is.
Part janitor, part manager, that was Jemuel’s job. Come in when everyone else was gone and clean up the store, restock the shelves, pay the bills, and do a little bit of the books. Ideal, really. … Except for one thing: he hated music. Or, rather, he resented it. Was it music itself, or the whole business it had become? Jemuel thought about it for a minute. Both. Then he put on a record.
While reading I couldn’t help but think about my early 20s; just out of college, back living in my hometown, working at a local bookstore, hanging out with friends from high school, doing the same old thing we’d always done, not sure what the next phase of my life would look like, only knowing I didn’t want to dress up and work some temp job. Life was uncertain and what happened next was entirely up to me.
This is precisely where Aaron sits: the crossroads. As with Vanessa Veselka’s 2011 indie sensation Zazen, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit captures a moment in time capable of evoking a visceral reaction.
While one of the dangers of reflecting on an age gone by is devolution into sentimentality, Aaron’s ability to balance the romantic notion of suffering with a pragmatic view of the future helps him sidesteps the nostalgia trap. I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is an honest look at what happens when adulthood creeps in.
Noir, also known as hardboiled, is the gritty, world-weary subcategory of crime fiction, recognizable by its unsentimental protagonist, the rogue private detective; an early and gruesome murder; and a pretty girl who is most likely not telling the truth. The dialogue is often hyperbolic and the characters cartoonish, but that’s what makes the genre so good–and why so many of its forebears are still celebrated and imitated today.
Dashiell Hammett is one such writer. Even those who don’t read detective fiction know his name and still more know of his influential work, The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon, to summarize, is the multi-layered detective story that begins with a woman, Miss Wonderly from New York, visiting Private Detective Samuel Spade’s office in San Francisco. She’s come to find her sister who has allegedly run away with a man she assumes to be dangerous and hires Spade to find him.
Spade assigns the case to his naive partner, Miles Archer, only to receive a phone call about his murder a few hours later: “Hello. … Yes, speaking. … Dead? … Yes … Fifteen minutes. Thanks” is all we hear.
Although set in California readers see very little sun. The mood is dark, gloomy, almost claustrophobic.
Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America–face down on the table–held its hands at five minutes past two.
It’s this vivid imagery that stands out while reading Hammett. In fact, the more I read noir, the more I realize there is a manner in which people and events are described that is unique to the genre.
Hammett’s Sam Spade is an archetype, the ideal noir detective: he’s not swayed by emotion or a woman’s looks; he operates outside of the law, but only to bring about truth and justice; and most important, possibly the crux of his appeal, is that if he’s not already one step ahead of his enemies, he eventually gets there.
Hammett opens with this image of Spade:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
Another core character, as alluded to above, is the femme fatale, French for “deadly woman.” In contemporary noir, I’ve found the descriptions of these women tailored to fit today’s more enlightened view of the sexes but in Hammett’s time there were no such conventions. Here is the description of Miss Wonderly, the first glimpse of what she looks like:
She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.
It’s not just the lengthy paragraphs of description that grab you, there are many one-liners as well: “Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn” and “His eyes burned yellowly” for example. Then there are the snappy retorts begging to be committed to memory: “I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.” Or, the less useful but equally compelling, “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”
Hammett wrote detective fiction with an advantage. He had real life experience. Before picking up the pen he’d spent years as a detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private organization that also employed security guards and military contractors. Hammett knew how investigations worked, what stakeouts were like, and how the different players might react. This realism adds to the story’s brutishness.
Fellow classic noir author Raymond Chandler once credited Hammett with making “the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.” The same can be said for the reading experience he inspires. However, The Maltese Falcon is more than a fast-paced, gritty crime novel, it’s also a lesson in seeing.
Buy The Maltese Falcon at your local bookstore
The first issue of Frequencies, a new biannual journal of essays published by indie press Two Dollar Radio, is, in its physical form, the melding of professional digital publishing and the DIY aesthetic of the 90s.
The cover image is an illustration of a man: scowling, working-class, probably in his 40s, eyes squinting, 5 o’clock shadow, pursed lips, and a hat that says “Fix It!” with a picture of a wrench on it. At first, he’s easily mistakable for a (so-called) hipster, one that resides in Brooklyn and works at a local bike shop or cafe. On closer examination, however, the wall of television sets behind him creates air of authenticity–a menacing one at that.
For the interior, artist in-residence, John Gagliano, uses a handwritten font for the essays’ title pages but traditional type for the essays themselves. There are old-timey advertisements for a fictional store throughout and full page illustrations to go with each story.
The debut issue includes familiar names: writer and critic Joshua Cohen looks at the etymology of “Open Sesame;” bookseller and Two Dollar Radio editor Emily Pullen interviews poet Anne Carson; and author Scott McClanahan writes about his large, and slightly off-kilter, family from West Virginia.
“Seven Interruptions of the Image” begins with seven photographs: Wild Ruins; Wardrobe; Untitled Photo; My Parent’s [sic] House; Yellow Dress; All My Bags Are Packed; and Blossoms. They are beautiful, haunting images, some unrecognizable, others just odd—all invitingly sad. Their aged quality—smoky pastels, prevalence of shadows, and dubious chemical burns—makes them look as if they were taken by a practiced photographer or someone with an iPhone.
Following the photos, coinciding with their titles, are seven short essays written by Blake Butler. Within the first two lines of “Wild Ruins” it becomes clear this is a collaboration:
My sister emails me the link to the website with the catalog of photographs she has taken in her recent days of life. As I open the webpage a siren outside the house that we grew up in moves into ear range where I sit at this machine.
Those familiar with Blake’s writing will know of his father’s dementia. “Seven Interruptions” is an exploration of their relationship and a record of the degeneration. In the first essay we learn that his father is in a nearby hospital. “Within one mile of this house,” Blake writes, “my father is in a building full of people he does not know. This is where he sleeps now.” The photo “Wardrobe” reminds him why.
Blake’s writing, as always, is hypnotic; his thoughts, heartfelt yet analytic. The linguistic twists and turns, the spiraling phrases: at first not making sense but then, eventually, unfolding upon examination.
“I don’t try to wonder if my father’s memory condition is something that will come for me in the same way. It will or it won’t,” Blake says in the fifth essay. And finally, you feel the weight. Blake holds you there a bit longer with “All My Bags Are Packed,” a photo of a suitcase, barely visible in the shadows and a sheer curtain distorting its position.
I can’t think of what I would fill a suitcase with if I knew I was going to leave this house for the last time. Maybe just as much of the air as I could get to fit into it, something later to have to breathe.
The final essay in Frequencies, “The Magic Merge,” is Tracy Rose Keaton’s personal account of growing up the daughter of a demi-celebrity father. Having been exposed to his rock-and-roll lifestyle, and the women who come with it, Keaton was familiar early on with the groupie: the “American invention,” the “quintessence of feeling like nothing.”
The groupie is definitely a consumer who ends up getting eaten in the end. Not fabulous enough to be a concubine, or glamorously sinister enough to be a succubus…
It was her father’s girlfriend, a super-groupie—“Tall and slender, with long raven hair, her ass was on the cover of a 1972 ‘gentlemen’s’ mag, perched on a bicycle seat”—that made Keaton realize she could never compete as one of these women. So, instead, she opted for her own “odd mixture of scowling misanthrope and cultural anthropologist in big black shoes.”
She found salvation in a Pretenders album:
One day my dad brought home the first Pretenders album and threw it on the brown velvet couch. He might as well have thrown a grenade. …
A pivotal moment in Keaton’s life:
When I was growing up, girls simply did not play guitars. … I had never heard a lady sound so strong and threatening and calm. … Some of the oldies-but-goodies have Betty Friedan. I’ve got Chrissie Hynde.
“The Magic Merge,” a nod to the perzine, is a natural close to a new journal that values experimentation and old school style.
Retail: many of us have been there, most of us survived, only few unscathed. Not My Bag is comic book artist Sina Grace’s autobiographical tale of clothing store misadventure, his brief stint in selling women’s apparel.
Grace begins his comic by asking, “What are we afraid of?” A cartoon image of him stands against a black background. He’s small, unsure. In the next panel there are two. The second Sina is wearing a suit and a smirk. In the following panel he admits, “I’m afraid of myself.” We soon learn the source of his anxiety, “What if being an artist isn’t in the cards for me?” This is a story of identity and what happens when our expectations don’t match our reality.
After a minor car accident that did more damage to his hybrid than anything else, Sina finds himself in debt to the insurance company. Shortly after he applies for a job at the local mall department store and is hired as a sales associate selling women’s clothes.
From the start we see that Sina is an overachiever; in the training session he offers the history of the company and within weeks spends hours studying the clothing line. Before too long he’s able to distinguish the different styles of stretch pants by sight alone. But, as with all ambitious types, this is not enough. He hopes to gain enough experience to “move over to a boutique, where [he] believed in the designer, where [he] saw the clothes as art pieces.”
Although it’s obvious that Sina likes clothes—he spends $800 on an Alexander McQueen wool fringe coat and takes pride in the accessories used to jazz up his work attire—retail is not where he’s supposed to be. It’s his art that is his true passion and both his boyfriend, only known to us as “The Lawyer,” and his friend, a fellow comic book artist, ask if he would rather not focus on his comics. The stress from juggling these two lives comes to a head when Comic-Con and a meeting with corporate headquarters collide.
Sina’s psychological decline becomes visible. In one scene we see him curled up on his boyfriend’s lap, lacking the energy to stay awake during a television show. Their “date nights” have gone from dinner and a movie to re-runs on the couch.
All the melodrama of working in retail is on display in Not My Bag, from an evil boss whose nature is depicted through grotesque facial renderings to the silent competition of fellow coworkers. More importantly, however, Not My Bag is a warning, it shows what happens when one forgoes their passion and, at best, chases after someone else’s dream.
Every year Tin House, a literary journal and independent publishing house, coordinates a Summer Writer’s Workshop, a “weeklong intensive of workshops, seminars, panels, and readings.” Together with today’s most respected American authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Tin House editors teach a small group the ins and outs of writing and publishing.
This year’s instructors include Steve Almond, Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, Dana Spiotta, Jess Walter, Cheryl Strayed and D.A. Powell–a dream lineup if you love independent presses and literary imprints.
The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House is a collection that stems from these yearly meetings; essays on character development, pace, editing, and other elements of storytelling offer those who can’t attend a glimpse inside the classroom walls.
Steve Almond explains good and bad sex writing; Kate Bernheimer discusses the four elements of fairy tales and “the reductive spectrum of mainstream and avant-garde writing;” Dorothy Allison describes “place” as it relates to “All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see;” and Chris Offutt talks about revising, a skill that “requires a cruel and ruthless objectivity” and, to him, is akin to performing “surgery on yourself without anesthesia.”
Instead of a “how-to” guide, The Writer’s Notebook is as Lee Montgomery, Associate Publisher and Editorial Director of Tin House Books and Executive Editor of the magazine, describes it in her introduction: “like intimate conversations, like a notebook.” She further explains:
I suppose there are those who find prescriptive advice about writing helpful, writers who can look at a project, identify a structure, use an outline, and get to writing One, two, three … poof! But I cannot imagine a world where this is true, a world where one creates great characters in five steps, a world in which one pops books out like laying eggs. In my world, writing is difficult and short cuts are few. The only real way to learn how to do it is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write–a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful–and interesting–to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers.
In his essay, “The Telling that Shows,” Peter Rock says:
I very rarely understand talking about writing or writing about writing as discourses that intersect with writing itself. I don’t believe that wisdom can be dispensed to writers in this way. How lovely if it were so, and how boring. Instead, I’m always hoping to provoke, to let writers weigh my assertions or learn from my mistakes.
It’s this philosophy–or honesty–that sets The Writer’s Notebook apart from all others on the writing reference shelf. Here are a few excerpts that resonated with me.
Rick Bass, “When to Keep it Simple”
In “When to Keep it Simple,” Rick Bass explains what to do “when you get too wrapped up in a lofty thought and you can’t quite make the ends of a sentence or paragraph hook back up”.
Try cleaning up the words and diction first … and if that doesn’t work, then begin breaking apart the truths, or purported truths, which are probably shrouded in windiness … Say it straight … as if in conversation … Lay that much-simpler and less-ambitious sentence down like a tiny placeholder.
Susan Bell, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby”
Susan Bell’s essay, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby,” looks at the relationship between author and editor. While writing “The Artful Edit,” Bell read the biography of legendary editor Max Perkins, the man who worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe. She also reread The Great Gatsby, this time as a “tour de force of revision.”
She starts off, “Gatsby is what Michael Ondaatje called ‘that seemingly uncrossable gulf between an early draft of a book … and a finished product’–in other words, editing.”
The writer had gone far enough on his own with Gatsby and was ready for the latest editorial push–one he freely admitted he was incapable of envisioning alone … It helped to have an editor as astute and courtly as Perkins and who knew how to balance general commentary with specific suggestions. …
Many consider editing as either the correction of punctuation (copyediting) or the overhaul of a book such as Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The editing of The Great Gatsby sits between these extremes–a testimony to a writer’s discipline to edit himself and his wisdom to let himself be edited by someone worthy: that is how he crossed the gulf.
Generally, we are taught to value content over form, to have something to say and then “find a form for it” as if one part of what we produce is our stuff and the other is a suitcase we bought to put the stuff in. You find the form to “suit” your content, your material. This is not an unhelpful way to think about things, but it is not the only way.
Jim Krusoe, “Le Mot Incorrect”
According to Wikipedia, Gustave Flaubert “believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding ‘le mot juste’ (‘the right word’), which he considered the key [to achieving] quality in literary art.”
While Krusoe “understand[s] the great magnetism of ‘le mot juste,’” he says that there are advantages to using the wrong word:
Wrong words help us stray off the path, not by producing a new path, but by throwing us into the thicket … in writing, correctness not only stops the conversation between the writer and the reader, it also stops it between the writer and her or himself. To have no questions is to cease to explore. A poor piece with all the right words has nowhere to turn. Wrong words, however, put us into a different relationship with our sentences and our work.
Margot Livesey, “Shakespeare for Writers”
A more straightforward lesson to be learned from Shakespeare’s plots is the virtue of having subplots … a successful subplot is one that is interesting and compelling in its own right, resonates with the main plot appropriately, and intersects with it at the perfect moment.
I fear I can no longer avoid the most obvious and the most impossible lesson we can learn from Shakespeare: namely, what can be accomplished by the magnificent, melodious, rigorous, energetic, boisterous, vivid, inventive use of language.
The notion of a painter who isn’t interested in paint is baffling, but many writers (I exclude poets) don’t actually seem that interested in language. They are convinced that the interest of their work lies in characterization, plot, and theme. But the plays I’m discussing have survived, in large measure, due to the language Shakespeare invented and put in the mouths of his characters.
The Writer’s Notebook II is out this month and Tin House will be accepting applications for their 2013 workshop starting January 1st.
Buy The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
Buy The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House
Apply for the 2013 Workshop (applications accepted starting January 1, 2013)
Tin House Podcast: Listen to authors discuss writing
Tin House website