Monthly Archives: November 2009

How some find narrative

If I care to look, WordPress reveals the Google searches people use to find this blog. Their phrases can be surprising or funny. Like: “does an essay have to be nonfiction.” Well, yes—whomever you are. By definition, in fact.

Sometimes people’s searches suggest posts I wish I’d write—or accomplish myself in other writing: “taking creative nonfiction beyond the mundane.” I’ll drink to that. So would the editor who called a story of mine “plodding.” Ouch. (It’s easy to say no; it takes just one fan—or a somewhat desperate editor needing something to round out her list—for a yes.)

Some searches seem the result of graduate students slaving away: “structuralism + ‘d. h. lawrence’ + ‘odour of chrysanthemums’ ”; “symbolism subtext narrative.” Or undergraduates trying desperately to complete assignments: “why is concise in essay important”; and “a narrative essay describing your past that involved you and your close childhood friend.”

There may be writers searching for tips: “using power point to tell a story”—but what that poor soul got was my rant about how I hate PowerPoint for telling stories. In the Fairly Odd Category: “writing narrative hair raising stories”; and “the walk to work narrative.”

Whoa—the walk to work narrative! Therein may lie the contribution I’ll make to this rowdy field as I plod onward. I have no idea what the phrase means, but if you Google it, my blog comes up really high.


Filed under craft, technique, creative nonfiction, essay-narrative

“A Dry Year” nominated for Pushcart

I’m pleased to crow that my narrative essay “A Dry Year” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The essay appeared in 2009 in Chautauqua, an annual literary journal published by the Chautauqua Institution.

The essay is about rebuilding a pond during a summer of biblical plagues—drought, heat, locusts, a cataclysmic storm, a flood—with a legendary Appalachian excavator. The man, in his mid-seventies at the time, was rumored to have killed a young woman in a drunken-driving accident some fifty years before. A passage:

“William was about impossible to get, everyone said. And here I was a newcomer, a flatlander, who needed a dam reshaped and a gully below it filled. But I figured such a man, who moved earth to make crooked places straight and rough ways smooth, was worth pursuing. So I called William and he came. . . .

“He knew our land. As a boy, he’d dragged raccoon pelts in a burlap sack behind his pony all around our farm, leaving scent for hound trials. We walked through the pastures and our pants got soaked past our knees by dew—the grasses were that tall, despite the drought. When we came to a metal gate, overgrown and rusted shut, we paused—I thought. It was a natural break at the top of a rise, a place to catch our breath. William was beside me and I was looking dreamily across the farm when, from the corner of my eye, I saw him melt over the gate. His movement was quick but unhurried, fluid and silent. He’d shown me a rural skill I hadn’t even known existed. He must have defeated many such hurdles during his days and nights roving these hills. It was as if he’d entered another dimension before my eyes. I wanted to see it again. I knew how I climbed the farm’s arthritic gates: slowly, precariously, and with flailing, middle-aged effort.”

Pushcart winners appear in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, a series published every year since 1976, according to their web site, and “is the most honored literary project in America.”

Being nominated means that a journal’s editors, who want prizes as much as any writer, think an essay, story, or poem is good enough to gamble away part of their Pushcart-entry lineup on. I’m bragging because that’s what nominees do. Winning is an extreme long shot, but getting noticed is better than a cold bowl of chili.


Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-narrative, memoir

Virginia Woolf on journalism

“To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking task for men who know good writing from bad. They do it, but instinctively draw out of harm’s way anything precious that might be damaged by contact with the public, or anything sharp that might irritate its skin. And so, if one reads Mr. Lucas, Mr. Lynd, or Mr. Squire in the bulk, one feels that a common greyness silvers everything. They are as far removed from the extravagant beauty of Walter Pater as they are from the intemperate candour of Leslie Stephen. Beauty and courage are dangerous spirits to bottle in a column and a half; and thought, like a brown paper parcel in a waistcoat pocket, has a way of spoiling the symmetry of an article. It is a kind, tired, apathetic world for which they write, and the marvel is that they never cease to attempt, at least, to write well.”—Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay”


Filed under aesthetics, audience, essay-classical, journalism, NOTED

Prose: hot, fresh & handmade

The above is Gay Talese’s outline for his famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”—which Esquire named the best article it has ever published. I was struck by its childlike creativity when I saw it in the Summer 2009 issue of the Paris Review, and it and the journal’s interview with Talese are now on line. His working method is idiosyncratic: writing notes and detailed outlines on the thin cardboard that comes with new men’s shirts. He also supposedly peers at his typed pages, pinned to the wall, through binoculars.

I was reminded of Talese’s playful or at least colorful approach by a recent story in the Wall Street Journal about the composition process of prominent writers, mostly novelists. Of seventeen writers, eight compose initially by hand, and Margaret Atwood alternates between handwriting and typing. Five compose at the keyboard. One, Richard Powers, lounges in bed and speaks into a computer that recognizes his voice. For two writers, their method wasn’t made clear.

But add Talese and John Irving, mentioned in a recent post, and handwriting first drafts seems more common than one would suppose in this age of the computer. And brainstorming and planning seem heavily skewed toward the sketched, pasted, storyboarded, jotted and otherwise handmade. Such organizing efforts themselves result in works of art.

I wonder if this is changing, with so many kids growing up keyboarding. But there’s something about that tactile connection—words are evidence of a way of thinking and seeing and feeling—and computers are cold and mechanical. In adolescence, I got the idea that the real pros typed, especially after I went to work as a journalist for a dozen years. We pounded out stories! Art takes time, though, drawing on the brain’s shy intuitive and wary unconscious realms.

Obviously many fine writers do this work at the keyboard, but just as obviously, many don’t. Poking around the web on this writing-process question, I was surprised by the allegiance of some writers to typewriters for first drafts. It made me nostalgic—I wrote on manual typewriters at my first two newspapers. Although I embraced the ease of computers when they came, I miss the crisp keystroke of a good manual.

Harlan Ellison, prolific science fiction writer and typewriter holdout, spoke for other typewriter users, and perhaps for hand-writers, when he said on his web page, “Making it easier, I think, is invidious. It is a really BAD thing. Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It’s not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. They should be out selling public relations copy.”

Paul Auster is famous for relying on a typewriter. But in his interview with the Paris Review, he made clear his initial process is even more hands-on: “I’ve always written by hand. Mostly with a fountain pen, but sometimes with a pencil—especially for corrections. If I could write directly on a typewriter or a computer, I would do it. But keyboards have always intimidated me. I’ve never been able to think clearly with my fingers in that position. A pen is a much more primitive instrument. You feel that the words are coming out of your body, and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had a tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.”

Annie Dillard, in an interview with NPR, indicated that the decade-long composition of her novel The Maytrees was traumatic—near the end, she cut about 1,000 pages to arrive at a book of a little more than 200—and blamed the computer’s ease, in part: “A story should be simplified and enlarged. Instead the computer dilutes it, spreads it all over the place. It muffles any impact it might have had as the poor reader makes his way through billions of unnecessary paragraphs about billions of unnecessary things.”

Meanwhile a friend of mine, the author of several books, loves his computer—the one he uses for writing isn’t connected to the Internet, to keep him focused—because his process involves thinking, playing around, and exploring at the keyboard. Amidst one of my recent typewriter fantasies (my handwriting is ugly, so when I think of doing something more tactile it’s often a return to typing first drafts), I asked another writer if he missed typewriters. Heavens no, he said. “Computer writing is much more spontaneous and creative, for me anyway.”

Yet, a few years ago at a conference, I heard a panel of first-time novelists describe their method. A commonality seemed to be initial, partial composition by hand—and writing “islands,” the good stuff, ignoring narrative bridges. I got the sense that many moved to the keyboard after the book’s tone was set in fifty or 100 pages.

There’s no formula, but each writer’s task is to find what works in his case. Art is intensely personal. And so must the artist be.


Filed under craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, fiction, working method

When prose becomes political


In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.—George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

“Vote,” Kathy commanded as she left the house last week on election day.

I wasn’t inclined to. We’d moved here only six months ago.We’d sold my flock of sheep, tended for a decade, and our farm in Appalachian Ohio. Now we lived on the edge of a metropolis. We enjoyed walking to work and to yoga. But everything was still unsettled. New routines were surely forming, but they were hard to see. I hadn’t gotten my annual flu shot—didn’t know where to go—and we kept forgetting to buy food for our little terrier Jack, who eats practically nothing but whose purple sack of Iams Active Maturity was getting low.

In our bedroom I found a flier on the election from a new city friend who was campaigning against the creation of a state livestock-care board. Vote No, it said. The newspaper we’d just started getting in an effort to understand our new world editorialized that the board amounted to factory farmers supervising factory farmers.

Kathy called the house to check up on me: “Don’t forget to vote.”

“Okay. We’re for the school levy,” I said. “Remember to vote against the livestock board, Issue 2. I don’t know the details but Jean is against it.”

I Googled and too much came up to figure out so late in the game. Issue 2 was something that a few months ago I’d have been certain about.

I opened an email from the editor of my old sheep breed society’s magazine and attached to it was the edited version of an article he’d solicited from me because he was running short of copy. Adapted from my memoir, it was an account of Muslim students butchering lambs on our farm on the day that journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder by Muslim terrorists was revealed. The copy editor had condensed the essay, cutting the braid about Pearl and my fear on that day of being surrounded by young Muslim men wielding knives. But in editing it to fit, she’d preserved the point: I admired the students’ taking responsibility for their meat and for their prayers at the moment they cut my lambs’ throats. This stood in contrast to America’s assembly-line slaughter and to the public’s willful ignorance about the origins of its food.

I approved the edits and walked uptown to the poll. I left many categories blank because I didn’t know the candidates or the issues, then went to a reception where people were talking about the election.

“How did you vote on Issue 2?” I asked.

“I voted against it,” one said. “We buy our milk from Snowville Creamery, and the owner said it would be controlled by the Farm Bureau and they could put him out of business if they wanted, because he doesn’t do things their way.”

I knew the couple who supplied Snowville Creamery with its milk—they were big figures in the grazing community I’d belonged to in southern Ohio. They’d sold me our terrier for our daughter’s birthday twelve years ago. I understood the paranoia about Ohio Farm Bureau, which I’d also felt was inherently hostile to my low-tech pastoral approach.

But I recalled from the finer print on my friend’s flier that the coalition I’d joined against the board included the Humane Society of the United States. HSUS isn’t what everyone calls the “humane society” but a national animal activist group akin to PETA-lite. When I raised sheep I figured both groups were my sworn enemies.


Arriving home, I got a call from the editor of the sheep magazine saying he had to reject my story. “I ran it by [the head of the publications committee] and he said that at [the state university] they’re trained to use the word ‘harvest,’ never ‘kill’ or ‘slaughter’ or ‘butcher’ or ‘slaughterhouse,’ ” he said.

“That’s fine—you asked for it,” I said. “But this proves the need for the essay.”

What my piece clarified, the editor explained, is that they shouldn’t print personal essays but just reports. Of course politics roiled beneath every straightforward item; the sheep group was as riven with factions as a church, with the infighting just as nasty. But he noted the fear that my essay “could fall into the wrong hands”—activists—and be used against farmers.

For admitting that food animals are killed? For advocating that we should restore a spiritual dimension to taking life?

The agribusiness establishment, grown paranoid between extremists and an ignorant society, now employs verbiage as cleverly as its opponents. Well, it tries. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the “harvest” edict: a few years ago, the Farm Bureau, having fled from the beautiful concept agriculture for agribusiness, and stuck with its foes’ epithet “factory farms,” unveiled a new word for its sector to win hearts and minds: “agbioresource.” Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Politics is war, and truth is its first casualty. Another new friend had been disgusted when a hog farmer told Kiwanians here that without Issue 2 to protect farmers from extremists “we’ll all have to become vegans.” Meanwhile, she said, in its pre-election advertisements HSUS cleverly positioned the issue as one of “food safety,” preying on fears of e-coli and antibiotics, a screen for its animal rights agenda.

As euphemisms go, “harvest” isn’t very misleading—such a concentrated philosophical argument and so deeply and obviously political. But we do kill animals as well as harvest them. Our society can’t wash its hands of physical labor and blood and get off the hook for what results: industrial agribusiness. At least the Muslim students took direct responsibility. But Americans seemingly refuse to accept that we live by death. This leads to the sentimentality of the brute; to mistreatment of weaker people, not just animals.

An American counter-culture magazine actually printed my euphemism-free essay in all its bloody glory a few years ago: the Amish-run Farming: People, Land, Community. Their society is driven by communal values and by the desire to preserve community, rather than by the sanctity of any individual’s quest for profits. And its agrarian base has kept it in touch with basic realities. The editor didn’t think twice about printing it or the blunt quote from Ernest Hemingway atop it:

“All true stories end in death.”


I emailed a shepherd friend and asked what she thought of Issue 2, and she sent me this description of the watchdog board from a national shepherds’ association: “The 13-member board will include three family farmers, two veterinarians (one of whom is the state veterinarian), a food safety expert, a representative of a local humane society, two members from statewide farm organizations, the dean of an Ohio agriculture college and two members representing Ohio consumers.”

It sounded pretty good to me, moderate—surely for the status quo, yes, but maybe I’d choose that in defiance of clueless consumers and in preference to extremists. I was beginning to regret my vote against the board.

However, this upset my friend in the report: “Members of Ohio’s agriculture community worried if [disallowing extreme confinement operations] were enacted in the state, it would cause the cost of food to rise for consumers, increase costs for farmers and reduce the availability of locally raised products.”

“Give me a break,” she wrote about such clumsy fear tactics. “I’d be happy to see battery cages, gestation and veal crates abolished, but realize that HSUS wants more than that.”

The irony is that her sheep don’t qualify for activists’ Animal Welfare Certified label because they live too close to nature: they graze outside in solar-fueled sustainable pastures year-round without the required constantly available man-made shelter. Infrastructure is the emblem of industrial agriculture’s mania for control that has led to animal factories, antibiotics to fight barn-cough (pneumonia) and the feeding of petrochemical-produced grain to ruminants.

Yet we’ve removed so many people from the land—more Americans are now incarcerated than are growing our food—that perhaps pressuring and regulating farmers is what we must do. Despite my kneejerk bitterness at society, I know people can sense right from wrong. We regulate employers, why not farmers? It would be better if we outlawed caged layers. Maybe we’re in a slow process of bringing values to another area of commerce. That will run counter to America’s cheap food policy that is another underlying villain here. Maybe we will pay a few cents more for eggs, milk, and meat but we’ll know why.

For now, even the man who knew too much hadn’t known how to vote, so how did I expect other urbanites to figure this one out? I was feeling better about having voted against the board, though. I had bet on evolutionary change by siding with the do-gooders, while hoping the public would control them. Was that logical, political, or just perverse?

The public’s decision came in the morning: Issue 2 had passed. Ohio voters had modified the state’s constitution to install the mainstream livestock board. The only location with a majority vote against it was my old county in the hills of southern Ohio, full of paranoid—or were they wise?—alternative farmers.


Filed under audience, emotion, evolutionary psychology, honesty, MY LIFE, politics, religion & spirituality, sentimentality

John Irving on writing & America

Novelist John Irving holds forth on Big Think on an array of writing issues in short videos excerpted from a long interview. He discusses his working habits—eight to nine hours a day writing in longhand in lined notebooks, seven days a week—and the deep rifts in America that trouble him. He talks about using post-it notes, the long process of revision, achieving syntactical unity throughout a long work, and the glory of the long, lavishly detailed, plotted, visual nineteenth-century novels of Dickens, Hardy, Melville, and Hawthorne. The tidbits are worth a listen.


Filed under craft, technique, fiction, NOTED, revision, syntax, working method

Reading and re-reading pleasures

Ragtime: A Novel by E.L. Doctorow. Random House. 336 pages.

I read Ragtime more than thirty years ago when it first appeared, and was impressed Ragtimeby its prose—which seemed like nothing I’d ever read and which was rumored to be in ragtime rhythm—and was gripped by its story. What strikes me now, having just reread it, is the spare beauty of its language and its narrative audacity. So, much the same. The bestseller still delights and amazes me. I’m more conscious now of its technique and effects and yet almost as clueless about its means of achieving them. I’m in the midst of yet another rereading to examine solely the sources of the novel’s narrative drive.

One of the reasons for rereading is that we don’t step in the same river twice, at least not as the same person. We change and so does the book. Plus some books are time capsules: I cannot think of The World According to Garp without remembering reading it nonstop during a 105-degree Fourth of July weekend in New York City in 1978 (at some of his plot-driven passages I begged Pause. Linger. Let another sentence—or two—extend the moment!), lying under an air conditioner at 113th and Broadway. A more proximate reason for revisiting Ragtime is that I’m interested in historical novels and wanted to see how E.L. Doctorow constructed one of the most celebrated examples. And also there’s the hope in middle age of re-experiencing the joy I knew as a teenager of seeing a theme or motif or idea as it reappeared. I’d laugh or feel an almost physical delight.

At least I think that’s why I experienced mind orgasms. The heck of it is that we forget, not necessarily how we felt but what caused us to feel a certain way. I can remember feeling that specific pleasure—it was rare and thrilling—when I saw an author doing it, and I think that the thing being done was simply his rewarding me for knowledge he’d given me much earlier. But I’m not sure.

I can’t recall whether Ragtime had such a moment. But it had—and has—the strangeness of true art. I didn’t know what to think of it as a twenty year old except that it awed me. The sentences still strike me: their short declarative punch; the absence of the serial comma (and few commas altogether) and the omission of the “and” itself in the serial series; the few or no transitional bridges, either of words or of white space; the sparse adverbs; the rolling alliteration. The passage below illustrates many of these attributes:

“Chutes of cheerful morning sun leaned like buttresses from the high dirty windows of the ward. Clustered about the bed of the heroic sandhog was his family—a wife, an old mother in a babushka, two strapping sons. A doctor was in attendance. The man in the bed was swathed in bandages from his head to his feet. His arms, in casts, were supported in traction as was one encased leg. Every few moments there would issue from his head bandages a weak or perhaps only decorous groan.”

The plot concerns an upper-middle-class family whose lives intersect with those of a poor immigrant and his beautiful young daughter and of a sophisticated black musician and his childlike lover. As well, and most famously, Ragtime mixes with those characters real historical figures such as Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini, Stanford White, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, and Emma Goldman. It depicts an America just after the turn of the last century that was ruthless and racist and yet bursting with innovation and opportunity. One gets a powerful sense, because Doctorow shows it happening, of how the filthy beleaguered immigrant was likely to die from disease or violence but how he also might rise by talent and fluke; and in any case how his children would blend ultimately with those of the bourgeoise.

Unless they were black. And Ragtime explores not only America’s rapaciousness and violence and corn pone giants of commerce but also its great issue, race. A racial incident really gets the book going: the elegant musician is affronted by jealous white toughs who vandalize his automobile. The event exposes the establishment’s uneasy hypocrisy and leads to escalating violence. (Ragtime feels thoroughly original and imaginative, so it’s instructive that Doctorow adapted his book’s central contretemps from an obscure German novel in which a character seeks similar redress for a wrong.)

What propels the novel until the narrative is taken over by the incident—which occurs just over halfway through the book—is its delightful use of real figures like Freud, grouchy and appalled by America’s hurly burly, and the yearning, thin-skinned Houdini. And the book’s base appeal is our growing interest in the ordinary yet remarkable family around which these gaudy figures and the plot pivot. From the first lines of this delicious, brilliant novel we know interesting things are going to happen to these people:

“In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown single with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.”

In an interview with NPR, Doctorow once said, “To write anything any good you have to have the sense of transgression, of breaking some rule.” Now that’s a provocative statement. Yet Ragtime still seems to break rules or at least to shatter expectations concerning language, literary realism, and narrative voice (the nature and identity of the omniscient narrator is itself intriguing). Ragtime holds up thirty-four years after I first read it, and has entered the pantheon as one of my all-time favorite books.

Oh, and this time when I reached Ragtime‘s end, which I’d forgotten, I laughed. It was so surprising, clever and, in terms of what had come before, so utterly perfect.

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Filed under aesthetics, fiction, narrative, REVIEW