Monthly Archives: March 2010

Review: ‘Name All the Animals’

Name All the Animals: A Memoir by Alison Smith. Scribner. 319 pages.

In 1984, a small, happy family lives in Rochester, New York: a resolute, devout mother; a dreamy, spiritual father; a quiet, competent boy; a watchful, bookish girl.

But they’re on the brink of disaster, and, almost immediately, it happens: one day in late July the boy, eighteen, dies in a fiery automobile crash. Nothing will ever be the same. They become secretive, walled off their separate grieving, as the accident’s aftershocks go on and on. Alison Smith, who was fifteen when her brother Roy died, writes hushed, gorgeous prose (few  contractions lend solemnity), and shows the survivors staggering forward under heartbreaking loss.

“We had lost the thread of our own story,” she writes.

Alison can only rejoice in the “Before People,” her term for anyone who doesn’t yet know of Roy’s death: inside their heads, he’s still alive. Her relentlessly positive-thinking mother, having insisted a month after Roy’s death on making the family’s annual trek to Cape Cod, throws herself into the ocean just like she and her son used to. She orders onion rings, his favorite beach snack, and eats them grimly. Her stunned father plods like a zombie into the surf, still wearing his slacks and socks.

Smith says neither side of her family “was good at much,” these people who held modest jobs, went bankrupt, or died early, but faith had been their talent:

My brother and I grew up in the shadow of this faith, in the great floodplain of belief. Christ was more real to me than the children I met at school. As I was walking to the school bus or down the path through the gully at the end of our street, Christ would appear to me, his long robes flowing, his white and bruised hands held out. He was my comforter, my most intimate friend. I knew only Catholics in those early days. And our only differences were Catholic differences: the Sisters of Saint Joseph as opposed to the Sisters of Mercy. Pope John Paul the First or Pope John Paul the Second. In these surroundings you’d be hard-pressed not to believe in the existence of God. It would be like saying you did not believe in oatmeal, or motorcars, or the laws of gravity. . . .

Hell was a real place for us, as real as the next neighborhood. In our insular Catholic world, hell practically had its own zip code. Every year in school we had to write an essay about what hell was like, how it looked, the people who ended up there, what it would be like to spend eternity in that fiery pit.

For Alison, Jesus vanished the day her brother died; a period began that, if not hell, resembled limbo. Name All the Animals shows the dazed girl drift from age fifteen to eighteen as she struggles with overwhelming loss, isolated from her burdened, distracted parents—they are at once overprotective and oblivious toward her. There isn’t much authorial distance: narrated by a bereft girl, with scant mature perspective, the story has a poignant immediacy. Smith’s fifty-five short to middling-length chapters move the book like a freight train, largely because each ends with a hook. Scenes cross from one chapter into another, or a chapter opens by musing upon a character we’ve just seen in action before entering another compelling scene. Smith makes this seamless narrative look easy, and always keeps the timeline clear, but she has said that writing the book took her six years.

Gradually Name All the Animals (the title is a biblical allusion) brings into painful focus how Alison’s loss has colonized her life. It is also a portrait of her parents; her Catholic girls’ school; her quirky classmate friends; various nuns and lay teachers, mostly sympathetic figures who in many cases provide comic relief. We’re privy to her growing rebellion and to her disordered emotions. Alison’s quiet but deepening self-destructiveness and her forbidden sexuality (which leaps from sweet attraction to passion to scandal and turmoil) within a chaste, deeply conservative culture provoke linked crises that make this book impossible to put down.

Name All the Animals is a book to savor, for although it’s driven by a strong unfolding narrative, Smith pauses within it. She lingers on a facial expression, the weather, the feel of an ordinary school day, her neighborhood at night. And so the book breathes, deeply felt, and achieves a rare resonance.


Filed under memoir, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir

Frank Conroy (1936 – 2005), author of the classic memoir Stop-Time (which has the strangeness of true art about it), as well as novels and essays, was director of the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He sat down for an interview with Lacy Crawford of Narrative magazine before his death. Some excerpts:

“The power and almost obscene wealth of parts of America resemble nothing so much as the Roman Empire. I don’t understand why people aren’t completely scandalized by the degrading of humanity through films and television over the last twenty years, a degradation of the soul. I’m not religious, but I insist on being able to use some of the concepts generally scorned in a secular society. The soul and spirituality are important parts of life. A lot of artists are trying to reclaim some of the language and territory so scorned. Life is a mystery, but you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream of America, everybody watching a rerun on TV. The country is in danger, but I don’t think that serious literature is in danger. Not yet. The spiritual emptiness of society is very deep and unsettling, so people are looking for something better.”

“I don’t believe in the natural writer. I believe in the natural reader who gradually begins to write. You can’t write independent of literature, so you read, you read, you read, you read, you read, and then you begin to write. A lot of it is mysterious. I see writing from many super-bright people, IQs of 165, and I have to say, smarts doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere with writing. High intellect may affect what you write about, but finally what makes writing stand out is not about intellect. I’ve known three people whom I would call astrally intelligent—and all three of them tried to write, and they couldn’t.

“Good narrative puts the reader and writer in a position of equality. The text forms a bridge between two imaginations. A challenging narrative must nonetheless be welcoming to the reader. A good narrative has drive. But I don’t care for theory, and we don’t spend any time here on theory. Talking about writing is one thing, and writing is another. On the page you have to teach the reader how to read you. I once had a student who couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag. And then she wrote an amazing story, and The Atlantic published it, and I said, What happened? And she said, Back then, it was all in my head. I knew instantly what she meant, because it’s not supposed to be in your head; it’s supposed to open between you and the reader.”

“[Self pity in a memoir] puts the reader in a position of being asked to sympathize with the ill fortune of another person, to be the witness rather than the co-creator, which is what I want out of the reader, someone whose energy is pouring in. I’ll tell you what I think motivated the writing [of Stop-Time]. Rather than, Oh, what a tough time I’ve had, one of the engines that drove the book—beside the fact that I wanted to be a writer—was anger. I wrote the book to try to get even, in a way, to extricate myself, Hey, fuck you guys! I wasn’t aware of it then, but in retrospect I see it was definitely there.”

“To write Stop-Time, I had to go well past any imaginative boundaries I’d set for myself. And there was the feeling that every writer has described: you don’t feel like you’re doing it—it’s passing through you in some way. Also, I was able to write the book because I’d read so much. Before I got to college, I read everything. I read the Russians, the Brits, the French, the Americans. I was years into college before I was assigned a book I hadn’t already read. In the beginning I read in order to escape my circumstances. I absorbed so many of the conventions and the rules and the rhythms of good prose. When I read [George] Orwell, I couldn’t believe it, it was so beautiful.”

“I didn’t remember everything about the past when I started the book, and I had a lot of chronology mixed up, and a lot of stuff was just repressed. The act of concentrating on the writing and trying to write perfect sentences opens closed doors.”

“In the culture at the time, everything was drugs, and beatniks, the whole beginning of the revolution. And there I was with a sort of semiclassical book, and they didn’t know whether it was fiction or nonfiction. Just before the book was published, the editor called me up and said, Should we call this fiction or nonfiction? And off the top of my head, I said, Everything in the book actually happened, so I’d call it nonfiction. Which they did. It was nominated for the National Book Award under the Belles Lettres category, and it didn’t win. About five years later, I spoke to one of the judges, who told me that the fiction prize winner that year, Thornton Wilder, was the compromise candidate because the judges couldn’t agree on the other books. Then, this judge told me, Do you realize that if your book had been listed as fiction, you would have won? I think what caused a certain amount of confusion both at the retail level in the bookstores and among the critics was that, when the first chapters were published in The New Yorker in 1965, it was almost unheard of to use fictional techniques to write about real situations. My name stayed the same, but I changed every other name.”

“I still write in longhand. I couldn’t compose on the typewriter, so I would write in longhand, and then, as I typed it up, that was a draft, and then there would be another draft and another draft … I think I typed the book by hand at least seven times. And each time, I was editing, and correcting, and changing little stuff. But again, I just had faith in it. Nobody can hold a whole book in his head. It’s impossible. You can’t do it. So you—Marilynne [Robinson] and I talk about this a lot—you jump in the pool, and then you learn how to swim. You don’t really know a lot about what’s going to happen. You just can’t! If you do, then you’re a hack.”

“Writing is a funny business. At its higher levels, there’s so much involved that we don’t understand, and can’t explain. One reason so many writers are anxious, drink so much, and fuck up their lives is that they hate not being able to control the writing completely. They’ve always got a big bet on the table, and the roulette wheel is spinning and spinning, and they can’t control it, and they’re afraid. You realize how miraculous and mysterious the act of writing is. You’ve been reading and listening to the voices of many hundreds of writers, and they succeeded, so perhaps you can. But you have fears, everybody has fears. Look at Joyce at the end, on his deathbed, saying, Doesn’t anybody understand?”


Filed under audience, creative nonfiction, discovery, memoir, narrative, NOTED, reading, religion & spirituality, teaching, education, working method

John McPhee’s plans & his surprises

The February 8 issue of The New Yorker featured an essay by John McPhee called “The Patch.” It’s about one of McPhee’s passions, fishing for chain pickerel, but it takes an unusual turn for McPhee when it also portrays the dying in 1984 of his physician father, who taught McPhee to fish. The elder McPhee, felled by a stroke at eighty-nine, was unresponsive until his son told him about a pickerel he’d just landed with his father’s ancient bamboo rod. Dr. McPhee, though still silent—insensate, according to his doctor—wept. His son also depicts the callous young doctor and his own inner rage at the man.

McPhee, now seventy-nine, a staff writer since 1965 for The New Yorker, is the author of thirty-two books, including his new Silk Parachute and the Pulitzer-winning Annals of the Former World, a melding of his four books about North America’s geologic history. “The Patch” is a bookend for McPhee’s concise essay “Silk Parachute,” about his mother, which appeared a decade ago; both pieces are collected in the latest book by this master of literary journalism. The buzz around Silk Parachute has focused on its personal subject matter. McPhee has always been present in his work, but his use of self has been understated—no holding forth, using his personal history, or revealing his own emotional state—and he’s famous for meticulously planning his books and journalistic essays.

This quarter my class on the relationship of humans and nature read McPhee’s 1980 book Encounters with the Archdruid, in which McPhee takes wilderness trips with conservationist icon David Brower and with three of Brower’s foes—a geologist who wants a copper mine in the pristine Glacier Peak Wilderness, a developer who wants to build an upscale community on a wild Georgia island, and the head of the Bureau of Reclamation who wants to dam another western river. It was McPhee’s idea to throw these men together on trails and rafts and to record the sparks that flew. He appears to regard all parties in the adventure with similar admiration and wry affection. He’s present as a minor character, albeit the narrator and the writer who created the situations and the story.

Without striking a falsely “objective” reportorial pose, McPhee refuses to reveal his viewpoint in Encounters with the Archdruid on the big issue of who’s right, Brower the tree-hugger or the men who put humans first. McPhee shows that Brower’s establishment enemies are furious because Brower doesn’t fight fair: he will lie or misrepresent issues to gain public favor. His means may be dirty but, in debates on the trips, Brower’s stance seems reasonable: so much of America has been tamed or trampled, let’s preserve a few wild places. The developers have their own arguments stemming from human needs and desires. McPhee’s aim in the book seems to be to so clarify this issue that he puts the existential burden of taking one side or the other squarely on the shoulders of the reader.

McPhee has combined reporting with personal nonfiction to striking effect in other pieces that are based on a great idea. I think his “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” published in The New Yorker in 1972 and widely anthologized, is one of the best and most creative American essays. It’s about McPhee’s game of Monopoly with another champion player (at their level, games last a max of about seventeen minutes; McPhee doesn’t go into how he got so good) and alternates between the board and his visits to Atlantic City in search of the actual places (he goes to jail several times in both venues).  McPhee weaves in the history of the resort and the game, and he contrasts the game’s slick environs with the tawdry actuality of the actual place. The location of Marvin Gardens is a mystery he must solve, because it isn’t contiguous with the boardwalk area. The essay is segmented, so it’s structurally innovative as well as topically innovative.

In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times, McPhee attributed his comparatively personal turn in Silk Parachute to having lots of down time while he recuperated from surgeries. “I just started writing,” he said. “I guess I’m not used to all that spare time. I usually know where I’m going with a story. A novelist can feel her way with a story, but that’s not the case in nonfiction. It’s a central theme of the course I teach: Know where you’re going.”

James L. Howarth, in the introduction to The John McPhee Reader, which in 1982 excerpted McPhee’s first dozen books, described McPhee’s working method for literary journalism that allowed him to break a major piece into parts, to think in smaller components, and to develop a structure:

• He types up his field notes, sometimes adding new details or thoughts; his typescript, clasped in a three-ring binder, may run to 100 pages.

• He makes a photocopy of the typescript, shelves it for later use, and jots notes in the margins of his working copy about areas that need further research.

• He reads the binder and thinks about possible structures; he might foresee the ending, and at this point he sometimes writes the essay’s opening, as much as 2,000 words.

• He codes the binder with structural categories, usually cryptic words or acronyms; he then writes these topics on index cards, which he shuffles into various orders. He then tacks the cards to a huge bulletin board in his chosen order.

• He codes his duplicate set of notes and cuts them apart with scissors, sorting the thousands of scraps into file folders, one for each topical index card on his board. He puts the folders in a filing cabinet and, with a steel dart stuck beneath his first card on the board, begins to write. As the dart moves to a new card, he opens a new folder, sorting its contents until that segment within the structure also has a workable structure.

“Outlined in this fashion,” Howarth writes, “McPhee’s writing methods may seem excessively mechanical, almost programmatic in his sorting and retrieval of data bits. But the main purpose of this routine is at once practical and aesthetic: it runs a line of order through the chaos of his notes and files, leaving him free to write on a given parcel of work at a given time. The other sections cannot come crowding in to clutter his desk and mind; he is spared that confusion by the structure of his work, by an ordained plan that cannot come tumbling down.”

In writing his personal essays, McPhee may have abandoned his meticulous planning, but his steady labor at his craft apparently remained. In her Los Angeles Times profile of McPhee (here), Susan Salter Reynolds reports, “McPhee writes three or four drafts of each piece, spending about two years on the first draft, four months on the second, one month on the third and one week on the fourth.”

I celebrated McPhee’s rare interview because he helps clarify a difference in approach between writing based on memory—fiction, memoir, personal essays—and writing that reproduces intentionally reported experience or which builds a case. Everyone’s method will differ slightly, and most are surely combinations. Fiction and life-story writers tend to emphasize discovery; they may have a strong visual image or memory they explore to find out what else they remember, think, and feel. But a writer trying to render an event or to pursue a thesis for a magazine or book may well benefit from trying McPhee’s tested organizational method. How neat that he speaks for both planning and discovery, once again weakening the notion that nonfiction can be treated as a monolith instead of as a continuum that ranges from literature, in the form of the most novelistic memoir, to a basic news report about a city council meeting.


Filed under craft, technique, discovery, emotion, essay-narrative, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, structure, subjectivity, working method

Review: ‘Lit’ by Mary Karr

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr. Harper Collins. 386 pages

Her family drank. As a girl she sat with her father in bars and sipped from his beer cans. On her first trip home as a college freshman, at Christmas, her father picked her up at the bus station and offered her a swig of the whiskey he’d hidden under his truck’s seat. “The bottle gleamed in the air between us,” Mary Karr writes in her latest memoir, Lit. “I took the whiskey, planning a courtesy sip. But the aroma stopped me just as my tongue touched the glass mouth. The warm silk flowered in my mouth and down my gullet, after which a little blue flame of pleasure roared back up my spine. A poof of sequins went sparkling through my middle.”

Until then, in high school and college, drugs had been her preferred escape. But that day in the truck, her birthright of drink claimed her. She dropped out of Macalester College—which had admitted the poor girl from a redneck Texas town in the first place, she says, out of pity and oversight—at the end of her sophomore year. Why? She didn’t know, at the time. But it’s hard to keep on track when you feel empty and lost.

Karr’s family was epically dysfunctional. Her mother was often drunk and was disordered in some major narcissistic way that could flare into psychosis. What parental love Karr felt seemed to come from her father, who as a dedicated alcoholic wasn’t reliable and who likewise neglected her. In this atmosphere, in which she never got “that sense of acceptance and security” kids need, she and her older sister had to raise themselves as best they could.

In Lit Karr looks back at herself from the vantage point of twenty years of sobriety; we know she’s in a safe place and so can enjoy her harrowing pilgrimage. I don’t envy Karr her material, however plucky her voice and chipper her attitude as she stares into the abyss—but my gosh what a delicious book this is.

She’s a master at making scenes (chapters typically begin with some authorial musing and summary, with visual snippets, before fading into a major scene that renders experience and that propels the narrative). And her mordant humor (a gift from her colorful mother, as were her literary ambitions) underscores the larger awareness that seems always to have been there. Poets write well, of course, and Karr has some interesting moves. Like sometimes starting sentences with a verb: “Fitful, this rest is.” “Worried, I must have been, about . . .”; or the noun: “The child-abuse tour, she jokes it is, for my agenda is to double-check my words against . . .”

Early in the story, Karr the college dropout is tending bar and trying to get her poems published. A side gig teaching retarded women at a group home finally seals her resolve to become a poet. A snippet shows her prose’s smooth clarity and its colloquial kick:

As staff people herded them in I felt my armpits grow damp. The faster ladies spilled into the room around me like kids lining up for a pony ride. A flat-faced woman with the severe and snaggled underbite of a bulldog stood introducing herself with a handshake before she sat. I’m Marion Pinski, she said. P like Polack Pinski. She wore a brown beret flat atop her head like nothing so much as a cow pie.

Alongside her squeezed other women, whose heads seemed as small as dolls’. Under narrow shoulders, their bodies went mountainously soft. And they were mushroom pale, as if they’d been grown underground. It’s a shocking thing to face all at once so many kecked-up, genetically disadvantaged humans. In a country that values power and ease and symmetry, velocity and cunning, kinks in their genetic code had robbed them of currency.

A romance with Mr. Right seemed part of a steady, if labored, upward arc. So her mismatched marriage is poignant: Karr calls her patrician husband, also a poet, “Warren Whitbread”—as in complex white bread—and it’s hard to say whether, at base, they didn’t love one another or whether they each were just too damaged. He was from a wealthy WASP family and hers was poor blue-collar. His withdrawal from Karr, her chaotic family and her emotional plight, feels about as bad as her self-destructiveness. But Warren also grew up feeling unloved, and Karr paints his chilly parents’ sins as more inexcusable than those of her own because, in her house, cruelty wasn’t deliberate but “the haphazard side effect of being shitfaced.”

And yet, she says, “Poetry will deliver him from his stultifying fate as it will me from my turbulent one.” Literature delivered them separately, however. (In her subsequent affair with David Foster Wallace, whom she got to know in AA, we see another brilliant intellectual brought low enough by addiction to learn coping skills from bikers and hookers.)

In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” Karr said Lit took seven years to write largely because she kept trying to get her marriage and divorce right. She threw away 500 pages in August 2008 in which her ex was an angel and as many in January 2009 in which she was the wretch. “It was so horrible,” she said of the process. The third version felt to her finally balanced.

In her 1995 bestseller The Liar’s Club, Karr wrote about her chaotic early life. Cherry, in 2000, dealt with her adolescence and high school years. Lit reprises the highlights of the earlier books and covers Karr’s early adulthood, marriage, motherhood, and early middle age, with her growing alcoholism and her slow, erratic and precarious recovery the through line.

Karr reluctantly turns to Alcoholics Anonymous and prayer as she tries to get sober. Almost immediately, good things begin to happen, including an unasked-for $35,000 writing grant; at that time, she’d written one ignored book of poetry. With this windfall, her angry rejection of faith weakens a notch. Her ragtag AA fellows, whom she had largely scorned as losers, begin to coalesce for her into a safety net, their community based on “radical equality.” Their small kindnesses humble her. Slowly she begins to widen her concern from herself to them and their struggles.

And here Lit begins to achieve its greatness, as Karr documents how, kicking and cursing, the canny, heartbroken little atheist gradually became the humbled soul who got religion. For a writer of her gifts to document such a thing is valuable. And I wish she’d said even more—more about God, revealing her conception of her deity, if she has one (one female AA buddy told her she prays to the sane part of herself—the kingdom of heaven indeed within). But describing the God you do or don’t believe in is more taboo than anything. In understandable deference to her large audience, assumed to be unbelievers, Karr holds back. She and her publisher may be too concerned for their tender feelings, but her trying to explain faith to the secular world without seeming idiotic or preachy gives Lit a nice tension.

Prayer, if not God, helped her kick booze. And yet, when Karr got sober she got suicidal. Pitched by depression off the folding steel chairs at her AA meetings, she landed in a locked mental ward. She had drunk to ease the pain that years of therapy hadn’t touched. She’d drunk out of an abiding sadness. Make no mistake: this is a sad story, the sequel to a “tortured and lonely” childhood, made tolerable by humor and a happy outcome.

In the loony bin, abandoned by her colleagues and writer friends (yet not forgotten by her posse of recovering drunks), Karr at last truly surrendered to prayer and humbly asked God’s help. She’d feared that such capitulation would erase her individuality, but found it delivered her unto herself. And still she quibbled about the meaning of words like will and care—so much so that her support group votes “that I’ve surrendered already and am just being a bitch about it.” To their will she yields, another softening of her egoistic armor. Her buddies have her write a list of what she feels angry, hurt, or self-reproachful about—from being raped as a child to her minor unfaithfulness to a boyfriend in college—and the litany runs to almost eighty pages. A marathon session with an ancient priest, whose own pre-ecclesiastical life was far from holy, helps ease her shame.

Even today, one senses, her path wasn’t forever smoothed. Her equanimity takes a daily spiritual discipline. In a powerful summation regarding an unhappy childhood’s legacy, Karr indicates she remains vulnerable to a species of fragility and suffering:

When you’ve been hurt enough as a kid (maybe at any age), it’s like you have a trick knee. Most of your life, you can function as an adult, but add in the right proportions of sleeplessness and stress and grief, and the hurt, defeated self can bloom into place.

Aside from Karr’s considerable gifts as a writer, we keep reading because she’s the story’s hero—we root for her, her own worst enemy—and she rises. Karr learns to live with herself by managing herself. Which means coming to terms with her brokenness and her understandable anger and her mother, whom she loved and hated, almost became, and was able to forgive. Prayer, this ancient answer, did it, along with community and service to others.

Karr documents a transformation that enabled her to own her own faults and misdeeds—her own badness and sin, in her words—instead of blaming all her dysfunction on her abundantly dysfunctional parents. I found this a moving testament to the healing power of a spiritual discipline. In our time, this is underestimated, in comparison with psychotherapy, certainly. The sources of Karr’s misery—let it be said—were in no way connected to religious “guilt” (quite the opposite); instead, traditional devotion, admittedly preceded by twenty years of therapy, shattered her prison of pain and anger.

I’m amazed by Karr’s accomplishment as a writer in this inspiring memoir and moved by her journey as a human. Lit is a generous, yeasty book that elevates Karr’s “journey into awe”  into literature.


Filed under humor, memoir, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene, style

Don’t outline, he said

No writing advisors are more contradictory than those who say you must plan and outline vs. those who say you must plunge in and discover. Which works? Who the hell knows? What works is what works for you. I suspect that, like most things, the sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle. I understand those who decry the wasted effort of seat-of-the-pants scribblers. But I also believe in discovery, which can’t be planned (though outliners say discovery emerges best when the writer has an orderly plan that frees the mind to create). I do know that outlining after writing is valuable to see patterns, connections, redundancies.

In a helpful blog I follow, Pen on Fire, a podcast series of interviews with writers, novelist Andre Dubus III weighs in with the anti-outline faction. “Even a rainy Tuesday afternoon when you are worried about bills is a better day because you wrote,” he told interviewer Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, summarizing his philosophy and adding, “Don’t outline it. Go one true sentence to the next and see where it goes.”

In the interview, Dubus is frank and passionate—a regular carpenter- and teacher-guy as well as a literary artist who takes three or four years to finish a book. I’d enjoyed the movie made from Dubus’s House of Sand and Fog and read his The Garden of Last Days, the novelist’s meditation upon the final days of the 9/11 hijackers, who hit strip bars in Florida before their suicide mission. In addition to his no-outlines edict, he made an interesting distinction between fiction that is “made up”—planned and plotted—and that which is true because it is “imagined.”

Some excerpts:

“There’s an essay I’d recommend by Tim O’Brien called ‘The Magic Show’ [collected in Writers on Writing]. He makes a really brilliant point about characterization: Characters are flat when the writer has already figured out what he or she is trying to say . . .  We do a disservice to our own imaginations and the figures that reside there. I tell my writing students, ‘Don’t outline your stories.’ There are some wonderful writers who do but there are many more who don’t. I find it much more helpful not to. One of the things you do when you outline is send a message to your imagination that you don’t trust it and you give it this safety net that I submit it does not need. And then when your characters show up in this thing you’ve contrived, they are going to have a job to do, things you need them to say and not say. Then characters become puppets and you become the puppeteer, and I think the reader always sees that. What O’Brien says is successful characterization is not a nailing down, which TV does all the time . . . clichés that do a disservice to how wildly mysterious and symphonic and miraculous we are inside and how, frankly, we can never know another. If you go into writing with an open heart, you are going to find things you didn’t know were there.”

“I don’t think writers have to worry about plot nearly as much as they think they do. So much of this is an act of faith, this daily surrendering to this weird thing we do. But the horse knows the way. If the heart of character-driven fiction is character, then setting and place are the lungs. And without that the character can’t breath. If you have a real character in a real place, then things are going to start happening. And you can deal with plot later.”

“I am on this book tour and I have a notebook with me, not because I am disciplined but because if I go without writing I feel far away from me. I tell young writers that if they can go three months without writing they probably aren’t a writer. If they feel strange after three days they probably are writers.”

“I do a lot of research on jobs. I went down to Florida and went in the strip clubs these men went to. For instance, I did not know that the strippers aren’t paid by the house they work for—they have to pay the house. I read thirty books on Islam and read the Koran over and over. Until I felt like I had enough knowledge. I would ask a prostitute where she had sex, but I would never ask how she felt. Because that’s the joy of writing. You research the what’s but not the whys. You get the whys through the writing.”

“I get stuck all the time. I think we get stuck when we write a lie and won’t admit it to ourselves. We know we’ve got to do some major revision and we don’t have enough courage to do it. The other thing is we’ve just stopped asking enough questions. Sometimes that sticking point is weeks or months.”

The Pen on Fire blog is here, and the interview with Dubus is here.

In April 2009 Dubus told Newsweek his most essential books:

1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. “By the final page, I was trembling.”

2. Selected Stories by Andre Dubus. “When I read these gems, my late father is back on earth.”

3. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake. “A dark and poetic collection.”

4. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. “This work of history reads like a Russian novel and allows its subjects not to be generals and presidents but real men and women.”

5. Selected Stories by Alice Munro. “Her characters are more alive than some living human beings!”

A book he frequently returns to: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “Honest, wounded, naked, yet ironic.”


Filed under discovery, fiction, memoir, NOTED, structure, working method