Monthly Archives: June 2010

Real art for our virtual times

David Shields’s audacious Reality Hunger has provoked much discussion and many mixed notices. Thomas Larson, journalist, essayist, and critic, has just weighed in in Agni Online, wittily calling the book “an improvised explosive device applied to the sacred cow of narrative,” his essay as much about today’s cultural sea change as it is an appreciative review.

Larson is author of The Memoir and the Memoirist, reviewed on this blog, and of the forthcoming book The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Larson has said the latter book was inspired by the same forces Shields explores and calls ita hybrid narrative that cuts back and forth between several different writing styles.”

A few highlights of his Agni Online essay:

The old world of print and genre separation is transmogrifying before our eyes, and Shields wants to awaken us to this radical change. An anarchic technology, whose “reality” is sampled and fragmented and mashed-up all at once, is calling the shots, not the artist.  . . . All we media dependents know for sure is that we are too-often engaged with the representational “reality” of TV, film, YouTube, and the Internet. The fact that we increasingly live with what’s on a screen confuses our senses of the real and the artificial. Things get extra messy when walking in a virtual forest and walking in an actual one are equal options. In a society where “real-life” and “reality TV” collide, authorial certainty and narrative suasion are gone. . . .

Writing’s quickening in our culture now feels high-strung, in part because we authors are unsure what the “reality” we live in and should be covering is. How can we, when we skirmish at the borders between fiction and nonfiction, which grow blurrier every day? How can we, when the actual, the mediated, the fantastic, and the false—think media coverage of the Iraq War, before and after the fighting—seem interchangeable? How do we respond to this inalterable rewiring of our culture? As writers, we morally oppose the artificial and yet take advantage of that artificiality. We live in the dizzying live-dormant app-grid, seduced by video, tweet, social media, and phone. It’s all some kind of real.

As for the novel, king of literature for 200 years—before that, poetry and the epic—Larson is sympathetic to Shields’s view that the genre has forever slipped from preeminence:

Such fables may have once provided moral instruction in pre-electric, uni-dimensional cultures. Appositively, Shields seems to argue, the novel is as outmoded as religion. The novel’s classic elements are authorial omniscience, dignified style, and resolute endings; in religion, the tradition is echoed by church doctrine, cathedral splendor, and an absolving heaven.

What’s more, novels carry a “pretense of actuality,” which, Shields says, no longer serves us: with fiction, with “Celebrity Rehab,” with the eco-friendly cartoon simulation of Avatar, we are being fattened, even addled, on artificiality. In an “unbearably artificial world,” Shields believes the novel brings no critical voice to our era the way memoir, essay, documentary film, and hybrid art forms do. The novel is no longer oppositional, no longer dialogical (in the Bakhtinian sense), no longer effective.

My favorite paragraph in his stimulating essay is Larson’s riff on Todd Haynes’s surreal biopic about Bob Dylan. Larson points toward what sort of imaginative nonfiction successors to the novel might appear or are emerging:

In Todd Haynes’s 2007 I’m Not There, we have the cross-border, gender-bending play of Cate Blanchett (a woman) playing Jude Quinn (a man) in a shot-by-shot improvised replication of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, a 1965 cinema verite about a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota (Robert Zimmerman) playing/being the world’s greatest self-invented folksinger (Bob Dylan). Jude Quinn is one of six different Dylans depicted by six different actors in the film. With Quinn, Haynes also limns Dylan’s self-destructive tour of England, before which he had abandoned his acoustic and political self for an electric and existentialist one. No novel could ape the self-myths Bob Dylan created and discarded and that Haynes’s film re-fashions, nor could it include actors whom we recognize from roles on screen and in life playing various incarnations of “Napoleon in rags.” Haynes’s homage to Dylan’s self-creation is neither novelistic nor literary, despite the singer’s purloined name. It is the province of live and recorded music, film, and cultural history.

Tom Larson’s complete Agni Online review of Reality Hunger is here.

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Filed under aesthetics, creative nonfiction, experimental, fiction, narrative

Writing by the ‘dangerous method’

A train station near Ravenna, Italy, May 2010

Frankly, I thought I knew how to write, but it turned out I didn’t, and I don’t. I don’t. I get to learn it over and over and over. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be hard and the process of making art and the product is worth all the energy that you put into it. It is what matters. It is a noble goal. Even if you never attain it, which is true for most of us, it’s life-enhancing to try.“—Jo Ann Beard, in an interview with Michael Gardner in Mary

On my recent European trip I dipped again into Writing with Power, finding it dense but savoring Peter Elbow’s hard-earned insights. He’d been such a poor writer that he had to drop out of graduate school, only returning years later. If he’d been a natural, he probably would not have noticed how he actually wrote successfully, when he did. Pre-outlining didn’t work for him, either.

Elbow advocates timed free-writing—ten-minute nonstop bursts to empty our heads of junk, to find nuggets, to warm up, to tap creativity, or to explore topics we’re writing about, like Aunt Mary’s screened porch in summer. He comes closer than anyone does to convincing me to freewrite. For instance, I’m a sucker when he gets all mystical and credits freewriting both with reducing writers’ legendary resistance to writing and also with preventing them from conquering their resistance. Here’s a sample of his thinking on this from Chapter Two of Writing with Power:

To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.

This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.

You’ve got to love a guy who comes up with stuff like that. In one of his chapters on the pros and cons of various writing processes, I discovered that I use the “dangerous method,” which means trying to make perfect words, sentences, and scenes as you go. The problem with this, he says, is that writing’s two major components, the creative and the critical, are at odds. They are too different. He thinks the editing mind being employed too early blocks writers or turns their prose wooden.

It would be hard to change my ways, however, and for now at least I’m not even going to try. For one thing the dangerous method is kind of working. Granted, I’ve ended up cutting hundreds of pages from my memoir that I’d been polishing for years. But lots of famous writers seem to use the dangerous method, or some variation. Recently I read that someone, Joan Didion I think, used to retype the entire essay she was working on every day. And based on Scribbly Jane’s recent post on John McPhee’s interview with Paris Review, it appears he stews and procrastinates all day, then sits down at the eleventh hour and taps out one perfect page. John McPhee! In its obituary for William Styron, The New York Times reported on his method:

[I]t was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.

My personal excuse for trying to make everything right as I go is that that’s how I achieve Elbow’s holy grails of discovery and of experiencing what I am writing about. He’d probably say I’m just polishing and could spend that time creating, and he’d probably be right.

Elblow’s discussion of such intangibles reveals that his concern isn’t with nuts-and-bolts craft but with process—and, really, ultimately, with the writer’s psyche. Writing does seem to me to be a profound struggle with the self—or at least it is for me. Facing the blank page with the Self and all that. Who am I? Who was I? Why did I do that, say that, fail to do that?

This returns me to the quote at the start of my last post; but if writing is not, at base, a set of skills, what is it? Some time ago, when I knew more about writing, I tried to answer this in my post “Between self and story.” This time, I’ll return to Clear and Simple as the Truth, whose authors, Francis- Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, say that writers’ “verbal artifacts” mask something deeper, more fundamental and conceptual going on than the mere arrangement of words. They say:

Great painters are often less skillful than mediocre painters; it is their concept of painting, not their skills, that defines their activity. Similarly a foreigner may be less skillful than a native speaker at manipulating tenses or using subjunctives, but nonetheless be an incomparably better writer. Intellectual activities generate skills, but skills do not generate intellectual activities.

Words on the page come from the self, and, for most writers, getting them there regularly seems to require a struggle with the self, of overcoming resistances arising from fear and confusion. I think a writer has got to like making sentences. This work is about seeing what comes out of you and, at the sentence level, trying to make it sturdy and sometimes beautiful.

Then revising, forever. And dealing with resistance and the exciting-depressing realization that any new project worth doing is going to make its own unique and otherwise perplexing demands. But I believe, and fervently hope, that writing, like other complex activities, rewires our brains. I think we do get better with practice, even if writing doesn’t seem to get much easier.

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Craft, self & rolling resistance

I spied this incredibly silver BMW in the Frankfurt, Germany, airport, itself a futuristic spectacle

“Writing is not a bundle of skills. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and skills inevitably mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them.”—Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose

For such an intense period in the past four years of crafting a memoir have I written, rewritten, pondered, read books, cut, restructured, taken classes, and reread my work that there are periods, like right now, when I don’t know a thing about writing. I don’t know what I know—or what I ever thought I knew. Perhaps this comes from trying to understand writing in terms of craft—and while craft is vital to art, it’s secondary, a conduit. Which begs the craft question that forever devils me: What works and how does one do it?

Adrift, I seize on theorists who make sense and read the writers on my blogroll with amazed delight—so funny, so deft—wishing I could at least blog as seemingly effortlessly, as gracefully.

Recently I felt the struggle, inspiringly if not directly helpfully, in a physical sense: away from this intense keyboard work for two weeks, traveling in May with my son through Germany, Austria, Italy, and Denmark, I felt like a potter missing his sticky ball of clay. I yearned to thrust my hands into the book as if it were physical. And I had that mental image of the nature of this work so powerfully that I almost threw my tensed hands into the air and grappled with my invisible but palpable opponent.

Maybe I did. I felt as if I were in withdrawal from slamming around something material but unformed, instead of from manipulating immaterial symbols. My son says I spoke strangely at times, issuing gnomic bulletins apropos of nothing, though our memories of specific incidents are at variance, and I recall my statements as responses to his own. He’s also a writer, at work on a novel.

Just before leaving on my trip I’d realized that my recent Chapter One rewrite must be recast yet again. I’d taken a mighty swing and missed, again. Another rewrite will affect the first four to six chapters. I’m on Chapter Five, and will keep going and refuse to loop back just yet. A writer who helped me see the issue with Chapter One urged me to outline all my chapters, from memory, during my trek.  I told her I couldn’t do it, which surprised her. Which depressed me. But I still resisted the very idea of trying.

I’m want to take my inability as a difference between writers, not as evidence of my worthlessness. I admire her ability to outline her chapters freehand, but though I have outlined my book’s timeline and its turning points, my most helpful outlining always seems to come after I’ve written. And the way I am already proceeding seems to be working, mostly. One of these days perhaps I will break down my game, start over from scratch, the way Tiger Woods supposedly rebuilt his golf game after he already was great. But I doubt it. I don’t have this game down, and it appears I never will.

Trans-Atlantic flights and airline snafus and recuperation time in our walkup pensione in Florence did allow much time for reading on this journey. At the start, United Airlines couldn’t send me to my trans-Atlantic departure point of Dulles because of a mechanical problem, so United put me on an Air Canada flight to Toronto. From there, Luftansa would take me to Copenhagen. But in Toronto, scowling Luftansa functionaries at the gate, to which I’d raced like a crazed donkey, told me United hadn’t “protected” my seat. They bumped me and told me to talk to United, which denied culpability. Anyway, the plane was gone and now I was in Air Canada’s hands. I was forced to spend the night. None of the three airlines involved in buying and selling me among themselves could tell me where my luggage was. I’d fallen between the system’s huge cracks, and it became apparent that airline employees understand only their tiny piece—if that—of their business. The eventual consensus among Air Canada’s clerks, the most helpful and kindest of the lot, was that my bag had gone on to Copenhagen with Luftansa. (In the fullness of time, that proved to be the case.)

Meanwhile I had my carry-on, so was able the next day, sitting for twelve hours in the lobby of a Marriott attached to the terminal, to finish the novel Shiloh by Shelby Foote and then to read it again; it is cleanly written, well-told from different characters’ points of view, and conveys viscerally the Civil War’s mud, boredom, and terrifying combat. In Italy, I reread two favorite memoirs, RFD by Charles Allen Smart and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. I was more critical of the former, a monologue with brilliant flashes, but This Boy’s Life remained spare and perfect, and impressive for Wolff’s honest portrayal of his flawed adolescent self. I was more accepting of his two major flashforwards, the second of which, in wrapping up the book by telling what happens to the kid, I had felt on my first reading was an artless move he never would have made in his artistic fiction.

In Copenhagen and returning, I read A Farewell to Arms, which I’d bought for my son in the futuristic Frankfurt airport; I’d first read it when I was his age, though over the years I’ve dipped into its perfect first chapter, two pages of incantatory and heartbreakingly beautiful landscape-and-setting prose. But Ernest Hemingway’s cloying male-female dialogue distressed me—it’s possible to get that his characters are shattered by a malevolent world and still want to strangle them for their brittle, willfully unreflective stiff-upper-lipped-ness—they seemed, this time, nauseatingly sentimental creations—not to mention their annoying adverb-heavy speech. As a tonic, I googled, downloaded, and reread “In Another Country,” Hemingway’s perfect short story that’s also set in Italy during the war, perhaps an outtake from the novel.

Next to writing itself, reading during a writing project is the most helpful activity for writers because they notice things they otherwise wouldn’t—there, there’s something I know about writing after all. I saw more in the books I read because I’d been working hard, making sentences and scenes. Not always big things, mind you. But even how someone would or wouldn’t use a comma would stop me.


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Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, reading, working method

‘Reality Hunger’ redux

Wall Street Journal photo

Lincoln Michael at The Rumpus has written one of the most interesting and compelling responses to Reality Hunger, by David Shields, that I’ve come across. And that includes my three blog posts stimulated by the “manifesto.”

Michael writes:

[W]hile Shields praises the same qualities I look for in my art, the book is framed by a somewhat incoherent thesis that fiction is dead, narrative is pointless and the premier literary form of the now is the lyric essay (with memoir, it would seem, being a close second). I cannot be the only one to read a supposedly radical manifesto—the book jacket labels detractors as mere defenders of “the status quo”—and be a little disappointed to learn that the novel is dead (again?) and the literature of our bright, hectic future is the lyric essay and memoir. Even the terms “lyric essay” and “memoir” feel dusty sandwiched between discussions of hip-hop and cell phone stories.

I think he’s right that, essentially, Reality Hunger elevates personal taste to a movement. Something is going on, with communication and culture and all, but something is always going on. Fiction has just as much or more claim on this new reality, it seems to me, as does nonfiction, though creative nonfiction sales and buzz now dominate publishing.

Michael’s complete review is here. Another very interesting essay on Reality Hunger, “Plotting a Revolution: The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps,” by Sam Sacks, appears here on the Wall Street Journal‘s website.

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Filed under essay-lyric, memoir, narrative, NOTED

Playwright David Hare on reality art

David Hare, known as a “verbatim playwright” for his plays taken from news events, gave a lecture on the relationship between nonfiction and art to the Royal Society of Literature in which he drew the distinction between what he does and ordinary daily journalism. In a nutshell, “without metaphor we have no art,” he said. The Guardian printed an edited version, under the headline “David Hare: mere fact, mere fiction.”

In turn, I excerpt it here:

Journalism is reductive. This is not always the fault of journalists. It is in the nature of the job. At its best and worst, journalism aims to distil. It aims to master, even to subjugate, a particular topic. In this ambition, the journalist will always run the risk of tipping over into contempt. As soon as something can be summarised it can also be dispatched. Anyone who has ever attended morning conference at a national newspaper will know the form: everyone taking part in the human comedy is a fool. What was once the humorous stance of Private Eye has become the humourless stance of the entire press. The gap between what people are and what they are treated as in journalism has never been wider. Only the very best journalists know how to suggest that a person, theory or event is not just what the journalist believes it to be. It is also itself. Holding that balance between your account and a proper respect for the truth of what something or somebody is outside your account involves a level of self-awareness hard to achieve in 600 words.

In the west a journalistic culture which takes in both the internet and television has now become both tiring and ubiquitous. It has also led to a curious deformation in society. As citizens, we consider our family, our friends and, most of all, our children as likeable and virtuous. But we are encouraged to consider everyone we don’t know—and most especially those we know only through newspapers – as ridiculous or vicious. To this tendency, this desire to bundle people and thereby to dismiss them, art and death are the most powerful antidotes. Art frequently reminds us that things are never quite as simple as they seem. Nor are people. Journalism is life with the mystery taken out. Art is life with the mystery restored. Put people on the stage, in all their humanity, propel them into a course of events, and in even the most savage satire or preposterous farce, characters may acquire a sympathy, a scale, a helplessness, all of which draw forth feelings eerily reminiscent of those elicited by people you actually know.

Meanwhile, to the objection that plays and novels about contemporary events are too hastily conceived to be profound is added the confident counter-objection that such works are unlikely to endure. Shakespeare’s plays may be crammed with incomprehensible Elizabethan references and jokes which amuse nobody, and these have hardly damaged his continuing popularity. But the example of literature’s highest achiever does little to blunt the popularity of this line of attack. How on earth, it is asked, can either foreign cultures or generations unborn ever be interested in such local doings? On this question, I can only say I am willing to take my chances. Like most writers, I have at best a sceptical attitude to posterity. But wherever playwrights gather, you will find them telling stories of plays, performed in far-off places and years after their premieres, which have somehow acquired what seems like an accidental shimmer.

Of a recent revival of Stuff Happens in Canada—six years after the National Theatre first conceived a then-topical account of the lead-up to the Iraq war—the director wrote me a letter: “I find the play infinitely sadder than a few years ago . . . I think there is something potent about these people now officially out of office and firmly set in their historical place. At the same time, the references to both Afghanistan and Iraq are eliciting vocal responses from the audiences that I don’t recall having happened in my previous production.” In response to such a letter, any playwright will argue two things. First, no proper play is ever just “about” the events it describes. The whole intention of a play in describing one thing is to evoke another. Bush and Blair, after all, are not the only warmongers in history. But, secondly, in celebrating this play’s bewildering success in Toronto six years on, the director was, in fact, celebrating the special nature of theatre itself. In Stalinist Russia the most powerful protest you could make was to stage Hamlet.

The Power of Yes dealt with issues that might well have been batted back and forth on a lively edition of Newsnight. Because the play portrayed real people, the dish arrived hotly spiced for journalistic carving. But then, interestingly, a second wave of reaction followed which addressed not so much the play’s ideas as its techniques. Many things were expected of a play about high finance, but it was not foreseen that it should resemble Michael Bennett’s production of A Chorus Line. Friends reported that they found the sight of 20 suited bankers lining up beneath the proscenium arch curiously moving. From then on, nothing was as they’d anticipated, least of all their own responses.

Plenty of people get their poetry from science, from the physical universe, from the contemplation of mathematics, or of animals, or of solitude or of the stars. An audience arrives fearing the theatre will be one more medium like any other. If the subject of the play comes from political life, then they anticipate a form of animated journalism, journalism on legs, the usual mud-soup of opinion and sociology. But the performing arts can deliver high-flying bankers who are at once contemptible and deeply sympathetic. If we accept the simple distinction that factual work asks questions for us, whereas fictional work is more likely to ask questions of us, then why can some work not do both?

We are living through curious times and they demand curious art—in both senses of the word. “Aren’t you telling us what we already know?” is the last question, always aimed between my eyes, potentially lethal in the questioner’s view, but not even causing a skin-wound when fired. “No, I am not. You may think you know about something. But it’s one thing to know, and another to experience.” The paradox of great factual work is that it restores wonder. Thinly imagined work takes it away. “I never knew that, I never realised that, I never felt that” is what you hear from the departing audience when their evening has been well spent. Because we think we know, but we don’t.

Hare’s complete essay in The Guardian is here.

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Filed under aesthetics, audience, journalism, metaphor