Tag Archives: writing

The meaning of everything

I have just finished The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. It’s a contrived book, surely, but it does manage to get across the intended meditation: aging and memory and epistemology and the many flaws of the human brain. I feel that I am at an age that lies roughly halfway between young and old, and on some days I feel able to strongly anticipate some of what being old must feel like; whereas, interestingly, I find it harder to get back into a five year old’s shoes, even though I was once five years old. Ambition—youth’s temptress—is leaving me, but what goes in its place? We here in the West are still not really ready for this question, so millions of us at any given moment suffer in the void.

I read an extensive article the other day about Thoreau. I did not know (or, more likely, forgot) that he was such a puritan—and successful in literature mainly because of Emerson. Maybe the writer of the article overstates the case, but these stories of now-famous people who are read (or viewed, or whatever) extensively by our unpromising youth irritate me. I’ve changed since my university years and even since my thirties in this regard: I no longer revere the canon. Not only that, I see how dangerous the canon is. Certainly there are Great Works of Literature that are truly great and should be read. However, when you get past your thirties, you see that writing and stories you once found mesmerizing now seem trite and banal. This might be because of the Information Age. Or because of what must be the Age of Advertising. Or just because of age. (The other evening I could not manage to watch one more thing on a screen or on a page. The tank was full. Everything sounded exactly like everything else, and this goes for music, too, but in that case at least you don’t have to use your eyes and do the work of comprehending language.)

It is validating and fascinating to delve into the lives of other people by reading journals or novels; it is a powerful thing to do this and come away with the strong feeling that nothing of significance ever changes. The problems of Sylvia Plath are the problems of many people and many writers. There is a wonderful line somewhere in the Barnes book about how the trick of life is its continual success in making you believe that it means something.

 

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An editor’s life in queries

QUERY 1 GYM INSTRUCTOR: In gym class, we girls had to take a test where we would grab a mounted bar with both hands and hold ourselves with our chins over the bar. I had the longest hold time, but the tall girl with the second-longest time got mad and demanded a re-test, and I beat her again. Later, she asked yet again for a re-test and beat my time. Then, at lunch, she took my comb and threw it in one of the bathroom toilets. This seems unfair and points to the inherent cruelty of children. Please confirm.

QUERY 2 CAFETERIA MONITOR: In the lunch line, the cute boy who was really good in math punched me in the stomach. I tried not to cry but you said that he did it because he liked me. Please provide further support for this argument.

QUERY 3 VACANT MOTHER: Notwithstanding your extensive body enhancements and MILF-like status among the boys in my high school, you’re my mother and I am forced to tolerate you at the least. Consider developing your character to include qualities like warmth, generosity, and intellectual stamina.

QUERY 4 JAMES HARSTAD: Your seduction of me was obviously convincing given my relocation from Boise to Botswana, but it turns out that you’re nothing but an alcoholic with a personality disorder. This episode has made me confused about boundaries and unable to trust. Remove event from narrative?

QUERY 5 ACQUISITIONS DEPARTMENT: I embraced the incestuous nature of this industry as a form of job security. But since when does “promote from within” mean “leave to languish in the admin position from hell”? Please resolve inconsistency.

QUERY 6 WAYWARD BROTHER: After I posted bail and gave you a ride to the pile of detritus you call a home, you snidely indicated that I had always been the successful one. This despite your having been the coolest kid in school from the fifth grade through senior year. You were the genius but here I am explaining what “paying rent” means. Please provide further details regarding this contradiction.

QUERY 7 THE FATES: Grocery shopping regularly at four stores, the runaround at Best Buy, the carpenter bee damage to the eaves, the infinite sicknesses of children, the never-ending birthday party events, decisions about organic skin creams and bridesmaid dresses, boring friends, trips to the cabin in Maine, the recurrent retching of cats, the hemming and hawing about asking for a raise, Weight Watchers point-gathering minutia . . . these observations of and reactions to the quotidian are generally insightful, but there are so many that the narrative gets bogged down in unnecessary detail. Simplify or consider including several sex scenes.

QUERY 8 DR. WILLIAM DYER: Your references to impressive-sounding psychiatric terms rely on a perennial misunderstanding of “negativity” and “introvert” in vernacular use. Let’s discuss offline.

QUERY 9 THE FATES: I left Boise again, this time to live with my Spanish lover in Barcelona, since he was unwilling to relocate. In Barcelona, I was neglected and spiraled into a depression due to loneliness. I moved back home, only to find out a year later that he fell in love with a Greek woman and moved to Athens. The irony doesn’t escape me, and irony can be an effective literary device, but in this context, the event stretches credulity and makes the protagonist seem like a dunderhead. I suggest reworking this entire section.

QUERY 10 FRIENDS: It’s not the Facebook likes or Tweets or shared videos per se, which could be viewed as a form of interaction; it’s that sending and getting so many of them, paradoxically, gestures toward the actual level of your platonic commitment. We might need further reflection on the meaning of “friends” to justify inclusion.

QUERY 11 DR. SANDRA COLLINS: A sinus infection would not seem to present too many challenges to the medical community, but after three prescriptions, seven allergic reactions, five new symptoms, two new drugs, four specialists, and at least one misdiagnosis, we are left to wonder about the merits of this passage. Could we develop further the implied connection between doctors and wellness?

QUERY 12 DARKENED MIND: I accept you, I really do, but we all need a break sometimes. I find your constant rehashing of the past to be not only annoying but also indicative of an unstable mentality. And all this blaming keeps the storyline heavy and saturated. Then there’s all the measuring up you feel compelled to engage in. I would lighten these reader-unfriendly passages with a few harmless how-women-are-different-from-men anecdotes and/or cute pet stories.

QUERY 13 ASSHOLE STRANGER: All this about Alzheimer’s and belligerence does not ring true to me. Maybe you’re belligerent! Who are you, anyway? Get out of my room.

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Short story collections: frequently asked questions

Q: What is a short story?

A: A short story.

 

Q: What is a short story writer?

A: A writer with a career death wish.

 

Q: What is a short story collection?

A: A collection of discrete short stories.

 

 Q: What is a linked short story collection?

A: A collection of stories that are discrete but also connected somehow.

 

Q: Why not just write a novel?

A: Why not just read cereal-box advertisements?

 

Q: Why not just stop writing fiction and get a real job? Anyway, I digress. What is a novel in stories?

A: A linked short story collection.

 

Q: Sounds pretentious.

A: The terms are meant to distinguish a collection of discrete stories from a collection whose stories are connected. A better term all around would be one that doesn’t include “short” or “story” or “short story,” since these words make people run away.

 

Q: Right? What’s with short stories? They just get started and then all of a sudden, they’re done. You can’t really sink your teeth into them. Why would anyone write them?

A: Because the form is rather tricky and rewarding and has a long and interesting history.

 

Q: Ha ha ha ha ha. Oh, you’re serious.

A: Yes! Alice Munro just won the 2013 Nobel Prize for a collection of stories.

 

Q: Alice who? Ha ha ha ha ha. Just kidding. What is a short story cycle?

A: A collection of stories where the stories are discrete but connected and also either build on each other or express conceptual tension.

 

Q: Huh?

A: Yeah, hairs are being split, but some people like that sort of thing.

 

Q: Should I now leave you to compose sort-of-okay literature in compressed and discrete form?

A: Yes, please.

 

 

 

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Two (totally true!) anecdotes

1) A few weeks ago, a male acquaintance of mine introduced me to an acquaintance of his. My acquaintance introduced me as a fiction writer. The new guy said, “No, thanks, I prefer reality.”

2) Today, a co-worker noticed the novel sitting on my desk. She said that 99% of her reading is nonfiction and that she prefers true stories. I said that all fiction is true. “No, it isn’t!” she said. “I prefer factual things.”

We know virtually nothing about the universe. We know very little about our brains. We know a few things with some certainty (this is called history). We highly suspect that there are some universal, moral truths.

Everything else is conjecture. You are safe reading fiction.

 

 

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Macro-level yarn-spinning

Sometimes, depending on what I’m writing, I search out a website or two that lists major events for whatever year or years I need. I read over all the events and try to just let them sink in. This helps me feel more a part of whatever character or scene I’m writing. Every time I do this, though, other sensations arise—sensations connected to concepts like timelessness, angst, awe, and The Great Human Narrative. I read along for 2008: “On April 14, the Human Genome Project is completed with 99% of the human genome sequenced to an accuracy of 99.99%. . . . On May 10, the May 10 tornado outbreak sequence takes place. . . . On May 26, only three days after a previous record, Sherpa Lakpa Gelu climbs Mount Everest in 10 hours, 56 minutes. . . . And on June 1, The People’s Republic of China begins filling the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam.”

And, if all that isn’t enough, on June 27, “The United States National Do Not Call Registry, formed to combat unwanted telemarketing calls and administered by the Federal Trade Commission, enrolls almost three-quarters of a million phone numbers on its first day.”

Then I start mentally putting in exclamation points after all the entries:

“July 2: Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy, insults German MP Martin Schulz by calling him a “kapo” during a session of the European Parliament!”

“July 22: Members of the 101st Airborne of the United States, aided by Special Forces, attack a compound in Iraq, killing Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay, along with Mustapha Hussein, Qusay’s 14-year-old son, and a bodyguard!”

“July 30: In Mexico, the last “old style” Volkswagen Beetle rolls off the assembly line!”

“August 10: Yuri Ivanovich Malenchenko becomes the first person to marry in space!”

“August 27: Mars makes its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years, passing 34,646,418 miles (55,758,005 kilometers) distant!”

I mean, all of this is so incredible(!) And after reading pages and pages of entries, I see how even recent events seem historical, even ancient, as if a story is being told to me about some other civilization, not ours.

Which brings us to the aliens. Clearly, we are their experiment(!)

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Ma vie in sentences

 

Celebrating my new digital subscription to the New York Times and happily zooming around the site, I came upon a recent blog piece by Jhumpa Lahiri titled “My Life’s Sentences,” which is her distillation of her craft at the sentence level and a deconstruction of her process. Typically I don’t care to read about deconstruction of process—and maybe that’s strange, since I’m a writer and process is what produces not just prose but a prose of one’s own—but I liked her post, and maybe this was because of her focus on sentences.

We writers get to the final product however we get there—we can listen to how other writers get there, and maybe that knowledge will help us, but mainly, as with other types of artists, we have to find our own way. Possibly that personal, unique way (process) informs the result (product + voice) completely causally. If the former is altered, will the latter necessarily be?

I don’t know. I know that what works for me works, and what doesn’t, doesn’t, and the product is the product, and eventually it has to stop evolving and become the something that you ultimately walk away from.

But what of a discussion about sentences? These are to writers what notes are to musicians, what paint is to painters, what body parts are to dancers, and what a room’s objects are to interior designers. Taking the latter as an example: when we walk into a room that makes us feel, say, alive and stimulated, we can point to the way object, space, color, and pattern (among other things) are carefully arranged (which is to say either harmonic or purposefully discordant) to produce “sense,” to evoke the magical synchronicity of place. My experimental-composer brother once told me that, growing up, he realized that music—but more specifically, sound—“did something to [his] body.” This profound, perhaps mystical, experience of sound made him the composer he is.

Similarly, the effect that sentences (and, by extension, phrases and words) “have on my body” is responsible for my becoming the writer I am.

I did not begin with story. That is to say, although I liked stories as a child and even wrote a few (with illustrations) in grade school, my mature encounters with words, phrases, and sentences came in the form of writing poems. This was in middle school and high school, and, looking back, these early experiences formed my whole relationship with language. It was such meditative joy to lie in a quiet room and give symphonic, linguistic life to emotional impulses. Even the struggle (the search for the right word, the effect of white space or a dash, the struggle to get the “word music” exactly right) was joyous.

It was then that I, like Lahiri, could be caught anywhere with some compilation of words forming in my head, and onto that scrap of paper they went. Sometimes this random (divine?) intervention becomes the jumping-off point (or literal first line) of a work I haven’t even conceived of yet. (Is it worth pointing out that the point of biological conception happens before the mind-body is aware of it?) Sometimes the scraps of paper get scrapped. Most writers would probably agree with me when I say that the ratio of used-to-scrapped is not that important: what’s key is that the words flow, and keep flowing, because if they don’t, the body isn’t registering anything and you lose a part of yourself.

Lose how? We hear psychologists talk a lot about interpersonal dynamics. Sometimes certain personalities are continually drawn to the same kind of other personalities, and usually the context of these discussions is that the unthinking “drawing in” is hurting both people by allowing them to constantly re-enact misfortune and trauma in a futile attempt to “solve” it. The parties keep subconsciously wrestling with themselves, unable to recognize the pattern.

Like all of us struggling with dynamics and patterns, I also struggle, as a writer, with a similar confrontation—but in relation to characters and even plot. I think of this struggle as “the great wrestle” I have with any given piece of work, lately mostly fiction. The great wrestle is the frictional, anxious process of making sentences work together to create character and story. Despite now being a more mature writer, I still wander through the chaos just as I did in middle school, gathering promising pieces of half-conceived puzzles and throwing them down somewhere, forming sense out of nonsense, and not really resting until they are together both coherently and distinctively.

But the great wrestle is not just winning the fight against chaos, because as you proceed, you learn about life. The great wrestle is about learning how to think about something or someone, or some human tendency or type; it is about formulating personal and ethical internal responses; it is a constant reminder that we are all different but also exactly and maddeningly the same.

The great wrestle helps writers understand the real world, which in turn informs their fictional ones—even their fantastical ones.

And we get there word by word, sentence by sentence. The wheels keep on spinning, interpretations get re-interpreted, thoughts get thought again and again, and together they are the story of humanity.

 

 

 

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You can’t make this shit up

At one point in the endless coverage of the manhunt for Marathon Bomber suspect #2, an officer noted that the car chase along Memorial Drive and into Watertown was “like something out of a movie.” Bullet slugs in the living rooms of Watertown residents? Blood on the side of an over-wintering boat in a quiet neighborhood? Grenades? Phones going dead? “Shelter in place”? Shootouts? Standoffs?

Years ago, I had a landlady who broke out in loud laughter when I said that I wrote fiction. She said that she read only nonfiction because fiction is “a bunch of nonsense.” One day, her partner told me a story of how she communes with bees.

A friend recently told me that she was chased out of the cemetery by a swarm of bees, which she thought was her dead father’s way of telling her to move beyond her grief.

In 2009, the bees vanished.

I believe all the bee stories. (I adore the second one so much that I put a version of it into a chapter of the novel I’m writing.) Actually, there isn’t a whole lot that I don’t believe.

Life imitates art imitating life imitating art. If you can think something up, then you know it has probably happened somewhere. If it has happened somewhere, it will find its way into fiction, and lots of these stories will be similar, even across cultures and ages. The collective unconscious is an astonishingly powerful thing.

Author Sheila Heti said in an interview that “increasingly, I’m less interested in writing about fictional people because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story.” A fake story?

If you try to directly import “reality” into your fiction, you will find that you have to fake-ify it. (Assuming that you are writing a story with some semblance of plot–Heti’s third book is formless and eclectic.) If you’re writing a fake story, then you can make the plot be what it needs to enhance and affect the non-fake people. Or whatever. Shape and mold, shape and mold–the thing becomes the thing and answers only to the thing that it is.

Well-meaning people often ask writers this question: How much of your book is true? I hope I never get asked that question.

The line separating truth from fiction was always blurry. Lately, the revelation of faked memoirs seems to have exposed this blurriness.

I’m going to go talk to some bees. They obviously know everything.

 

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