Monthly Archives: July 2010

Review: ‘The Art of Time in Memoir’

Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts. Graywolf. 194 pages

What’s the difference between a novel and a memoir? The question isn’t as dumb as it may appear. A novel can be autobiographical, drawn completely from life remembered; a memoir is of course made of memory shaped and dramatized. Both forms are completely subjective, that’s their point, and draw upon memory, which is by nature imaginative.

The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts posits that memoir is defined and distinguished by its dual perspective: the writer now looking back, trying to understand a past version of herself or himself. The glory of the genre, Birkerts says, is in the writer’s search for patterns and connections; in using the “vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.”

This manipulation of the double vantage point is the memoirist’s single most powerful and adaptable technique, allowing for a complex temporal access. The writer deploys the time frame as needed—sparingly, as we will see in certain works—in order to achieve greater immersion in a particular period (generally the more distant past); or else, in some cases, with more regular alternation. The purpose decides the process. To stay in one vantage point is to foreground the fictional illusionism; to play the hindsight perspective against it is to undercut the illusionism by emphasizing the revision of perspectives and the incorporation of relativism. The later counteracts the coma-inducing logic of, “If I just tell what happened . . .” and promotes the dramatizing of the process of realization, which is the real point.

So Birkerts focuses on reflection, on how different writers successfully assemble “the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.” Mostly he picks work in which this is very subtle; in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Annie John—which he chooses to read as a memoir—there’s no overt musing but he argues that the book is crafted so that emblematic situations “carry reflective weight.”

The Art of Time in Memoir addresses types of memoirs, including: lyrical (evocations of a paradise lost, usually in childhood); coming-of-age sagas; tales of fathers and sons (invariably by sons coping with distant, damaged, or absent fathers); books by daughters about mothers (usually overly dominating ones); and accounts of trauma. He discusses two or three books in depth in each category.

I put down The Art of Time in Memoir twice to read acclaimed memoirs it discusses. Richard Hoffman’s 1995 Half the House is about the death of his two brothers from muscular dystrophy, his molestation by a coach, and his father’s complicit silence. Hoffman, a poet, tells a distressing story that achieves an equally compelling second act when he confronts, as a suffering adult, his father, who is by then ailing and widowed. Maureen Howard’s 1978 Facts of Life, which won a National Book Critics Circle award, is about her Irish Catholic parents and milieu. I found Howard’s view of her parents horribly depressing—they are just so sad, in her skillful rendering—but her nontraditional approach was interesting, and I’m now reading with enjoyment her portrait of Audubon’s lonely wife in her novel Big as Life.

I also enjoyed Birkerts’s discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past.” Ever since I read that long, unfinished essay I’ve been thinking about it—how she lost her mother so young, how she was molested and dominated by her stepbrothers, how her account still feels modern. At the start, Birkerts notes, Woolf asserts memoir’s dual imperative with her famous statement that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”

He admires how Woolf deploys her earliest memory, of her mother’s dress, and how she stages it, acknowledging that the event probably occurred in London but admitting her desire to have it happen at the beach house she would immortalize in To the Lighthouse. (I think she’s also acknowledging the way memory conflates and at the same time winning the reader’s trust: how easy it would have been to fictionalize there, but she chooses to engage the reader in a more complex and collaborative way.) Birkerts:

We note, too, Woolf’s archly reflective aside—“it is more convenient artistically to suppose that we were going to St. Ives, for that will lead to my other memory”—which reminds us, lest we ever forget, that a memoir is, whatever its pretenses to the contrary, a narrative conceit; it creates a structure that is the life shaped and disciplined to serve the pattern, the hindsight recognition that is deemed to be the larger, more important truth. Woolf is, in those phrases, asserting her artistic license, even as she is en route to netting all of those early perceptions in their concrete . .  . particularity.

The Art of Time in Memoir is a sophisticated explication of a genre that is itself an art form. Birkerts shows that good memoirs, far from being defined by the easy charges of navel gazing or score settling, are serious devotions to understanding and to finding meaning. Through memoir’s “careful manipulation of vantage point,” Birkerts writes, “it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life.”

(For fiction writers there’s a companion book in the Graywolf Press “Art of” series, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes, by Joan Silber.)


Filed under memoir, REVIEW

The semicolon: love it; or hate it

Learn to use the semicolon. Master it. And then never use it again.—Verlyn Klinkenborg, in a lecture to MFA students at Goucher College

Kurt Vonnegut also hated the semicolon. Virginia Woolf was at the other end of the scale, of course, but when reading her I really want to replace some semicolons with colons or even dashes. (The Great Gatsby uses both semicolons and dashes beautifully; I’m not sure if it employs a colon.)

Years ago, after leaving newspapers, where semicolons are semiprecious, I went ape with their use, I suppose because semicolons seem fully literary. But I had one problem: I hated how the semicolon looked: to me, it was ugly as sin. I’ve mostly outgrown that aesthetic qualm, but I often go back and edit semicolons out of work where I threw them in in the heat of battle. I can see my logic—that this went with that—but in the end, overall flow and appearance might prevail.

I have one strong reservation remaining: the use of semicolons in quotes—especially in talk by tough guys. I first saw this in a story in The Washington Post, by a Pulitzer winner no less. I was sure how he felt: using it meant a lot to him, and he watched that semicolon like a hawk as it moved through the fumble-fingered copy desk.

But it made me ill. Tough guys don’t eat quiche and they don’t use semicolons!

Now here’s another, which appeared last week in my hometown paper, The Columbus Dispatch, in a story about a man gunned down during an argument outside a biker bar. The reporter went to interview some guys hanging out who saw the shooting:

“They need to bring Old Thunderbolt back,” an older man said, referring to the electric chair. “These people think they’re gangsters. Ain’t no gangsters; they’re all in the cemetery, rearing up daisies.”

To me, the semicolon ruins his punchy speech and violates his rights as a red-blooded American biker. But maybe that’s just me.


Filed under dialogue, punctuation, syntax

Happy birthday, blog

One of our ewes in our flock on our farm, Mossy Dell, in Appalachian Ohio.

A friend from the sheep world was in town last weekend and we visited a farm north of here. The grassy hills were lovely, the shepherds hospitable, and they showed me one of my ewes I’d sold them three years ago. She still wore a blue ear-tag with my handwriting on it. But I had only a vague memory of her—she was young when we dispersed the flock and had lambed only once. But I couldn’t even place her mother by the tag number listed in the shepherds’ records.

As the ewe I’d bred and raised came up and stood beside me, as if she remembered me—or was I just convenient shade?—other numbers and names and images struggled to consciousness. The experience felt jarring. I’d once been immersed in my flock but hadn’t thought about it in three years, not in that way. And during the last two years before selling out, I’d been surprised to see my project shift from the farm itself to writing about it. Granted, I had the place on auto-pilot by then. But it was strange that a book about the farm displaced the farm itself in my attentions.

I started this blog two years ago, as of tomorrow, because I wanted to write about my life now instead of then. But my wife said I should write on writing. I’d made my living with words for thirty years and suddenly was learning so much by writing my first book. And I was inflicting that enthusiasm on my students. Maybe Kathy thought the blog would bleed off some of that energy and spare them. (I remember her making me tone down a lecture that, as I recall, involved a little bubble labeled Self atop a huge globe labeled Being, or maybe it was Collective Unconscious—or perhaps God—with arrows pointing to a square labeled Craft. “You’re going to scare them, Richard,” she said.)

The blog’s name was going to be Theme, but I ran it by a writer I respect and he said he hates the word. I like the term myself—it’s fragrant with history and meaning, and it’s useful—but it’s freighted with a load of bad karmic connotations for others, not all of them high school students.

Little did I know that my next choice, Narrative, would become almost as awkward a choice. I hadn’t been aware how passé and humdrum the word is to literary postmodernists. But I’ve grown impressed with that crowd’s erudition and artistry and couldn’t foresee that I, too, would fall under the spell of distressed, if not completely ripped, narrative structure. All the same, I like narrative, and notice that the most allegedly non-narrative works usually do contain the shards of an unfolding story that keeps us interested and reading. Even if we have to assemble it ourselves.

The aforementioned lecture ended up as an early blog post, “Between Self and Story.” I didn’t want to forget what I’d discovered, and wanted to be able to return and fondle such pearls. I treasured the notion that this blog had a documentary function for me: What did I learn? Blogs are supposed to be short, I know. But I still try to get in all the juicy stuff so that when I return—which I haven’t done!—everything will be there, preserved, the way summer is summoned by homemade strawberry jam. And writing stuff down helps drive it into the writer’s brain.

So ask not for whom I blog: I blog for me. But not long ago I passed through a crisis in which I supposed that blogging was bad for my writing, that is for the memoir I’m writing. My memoir wasn’t scenic enough, too much summary and exposition, and suddenly my blog, which is pretty much that, seemed an enemy, or maybe it’s a frenemy, of my Serious Writing. Plus it seemed that Narrative reinforced my didactic tendencies, which a friendly memoir-draft reader had slammed me for. My internal debate raged: Is blogging harmful to writing, or does it count as writing? On the positive side, blogging is another reason to make sentences. After two years of writing my memoir in every available hour, I noticed that my sentences seemed better, more fluent and varied. Between my memoir and the blog and whatnot, I write a lot more than I ever have.

Then I started actually reading blogs. I discovered I enjoy one person making sense of her life or events or literature. My reading about current events took a hit. Then I began leaving comments on blogs and noticed I’d feel hurt when an admired blogger didn’t reciprocate on Narrative. (This blog-world reciprocity is a form of friendship that I haven’t seen written about.) Of course I muff overtures of friendship myself, and not just in cyberspace. If I liked a silent someone’s blog I usually kept reading it, but it was easier to drift away.

Anyway, I’ve seen that the friendly interaction in this medium is a big part of its point. But I read great blogs, like Southern Bookman, by poet and retired Atlanta Constitution copy editor Louis Mayeux, that hardly ever receive comments. (Other than mine, sometimes. But there’s another topic: the knack to commenting on blogs.) Yet some blogs are so busy with buddies responding that you feel there’s not much point elbowing your way in.

Then I realized from reading blogs that blogging is a genre. The ones I liked had a voice, which tended to be conversational and humorous. Not that all bloggers write the same, but there’s an art to hitting the right tone. Blogs look easy, but bloggers are finding their voices and their way as in any genre. And in my first blogging year, I think I pictured myself writing for students. The ones Kathy wouldn’t let me harangue in class, I suppose. My first months were also really hard because I was trying to make every post great. You know, Great. But active blogs are more like what a newspaper columnist does than what a philosopher or novelist or narrative essayist does. They are great for their medium.

This raised an issue: How often to post? Somehow I came up with every five days. That wasn’t too often to be annoying and content-challenged, I hoped, but often enough for the blog to be alive. I know some great writers who post only once in a blue moon, but that seems against the blogging spirit.

Which is what? I can only answer for me: sharing passion. I have no idea how long I’ll keep Narrative going, or if it will evolve more, but it’s been fun. I’ll probably be blogging a year from now, but whether this particular blog will achieve the ripe age of four, or the senescence that is five, is unclear. I’ll surely be a different person and different writer even a year from now. And we’re all subject to life’s interventions as well as to our changing choices.

Some people, I’ve noticed, can juggle a lot more than I can. But we do become what we do. I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, in my core self, but in the ten years I operated a sheep farm I became a farmer. He sometimes wrote. Now I’m a writer—oh, and I grow tomatoes against the garage.


Filed under MY LIFE

A little more Dillard

Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too—the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed.

That’s from Annie Dillard’s 1989 New York Times essay “Write Till You Drop,” quarried from her book The Writing Life.

Yet she promises:

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.

On her website, Dillard dismisses The Writing Life, published in 1988 and reviewed here, calling it “an embarrassing nonfiction narrative fixed somewhat and republished” in 1998. On her “Uncollected Essays” webpage she takes cracks at two of her other pieces on writing. Of the sublime “To Fashion a Text,” published in William Zinssers’ Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, she says: “This is emphatically not interesting; I renounce it.” Of her “Advice for Young Writers,” which appeared in Image, she says: “Do not read this crap.”

I guess Annie feels that giving writing advice makes her look smug or preachy. It doesn’t. But her comments crack me up. Yet this begs the question: Why would Dillard disdain work that most other writers would be proud of? First, it’s published; second, it’s smart; third, it’s helpful, inspiring.

Recently I stumbled across an analysis of her in Sven Birkerts’ superb The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again that applies. Discussing her memoir An American Childhood, Birkerts calls her fundamentally a “philosopher of being” who is “grounded in a metaphysical astonishment at the fact of existence.”

I agree. So if that’s her orientation, and with existence her primary subject—thus illuminating why some love her and others are left cold by her astringent or gnomic passages—then her writing about writing that makes her comfortable is in Living by Fiction, not in The Writing Life, which contains seemingly personal advice that makes her queasy. Her real interest is in the fact and nature of writing. In writing as a tool of exploration, as a phenomenon, as an artifact of consciousness.

But a simulacrum of advice clings to her insights about what she’s noticed in writing books. How could it not? So she got stuck with what appears to be a self-help book to others and what looks like a smarmy mess to her. Read her quote at the top of this post. Yep. Right again, Annie.


Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, NOTED, working method

Review: Dillard’s ‘Living By Fiction’

Living By Fiction by Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial. 192 pages.

The cultural assumption is that the novel is the proper home of significance and that nonfiction is mere journalism. This is interesting because it means that in two centuries our assumptions have been reversed. Formerly the novel was junk entertainment; if you wanted to write significant literature—if you wanted to do art or make an object from ideas—you wrote nonfiction. We now think of nonfiction as sincere and artless.

Perhaps this has changed, in part due to her own work, since Annie Dillard first published Living By Fiction in 1982. She might have called it Living by Literature because although it’s about her love affair with reading fiction in particular, she says more about nonfiction in a few asides and by implication than some books entirely on the topic.

Her categories of “traditional” and “contemporary modernist” approaches, of “fine” prose and “plain” prose styles, cross genres as well. In fact, Living by Fiction enabled me better to appreciate and to understand David Shields’s less coherent and useful Reality Hunger for what it is: a modernist’s aesthetic.

Dillard prefers “contemporary modernist” work herself (in her lexicon, that’s postmodernism), but she’s knowing in her explanation of the forces—human, societal, economic—that drive writers into the middle ground. She observes that most writers are working there, including excellent ones, somewhere on the bell curve between traditional and modernist approaches, between fine prose and plain. Most people “write largely traditional fiction.” But she wonders, all the same:

After you have performed or read a detailed analysis of Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and Stevens’s “Comedian as the Letter C,” why would you care to write fiction like Jack London or Theodore Drieser’s? Contemporary fiction writers may be more influenced by Pound’s criticism than by Joyce’s novels, more by Stevens’s poems than Kafka’s stories. In style their work more closely resembles “The Waste Land” than Herzog; in structure it more closely resembles “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” than The Naked and the Dead. This strand of contemporary fiction has purified itself through the agent of criticism; it has adopted the brilliant virtues of Modernist poetry, whose bones are its beauty.

Of course, she allows, modernist poetry has, like such art, pretty much evaporated its audience as well. In any case she takes pains for readers to understand her categories by grounding them in literary and artistic history. With modernism, representative storytelling in prose and paint became secondary: “each was considered for centuries the irreducible nub of its art, and is no longer.” What is modernism? It’s not a mirror or a window on the world, Dillard says, but is characterized by the shattering of the narrative line, by collage. The juxtapositions and work’s surface are the point.

The reason? “Time no longer courses in a great and widening stream, a stream upon which the narrative consciousness floats, passing fixed landmarks in an orderly progression, and growing in wisdom. Instead, time is a flattened landscape, a land of unlinked lakes seen from the air. . . . The use of narrative collage, then, enables a writer to recreate, if he wishes, a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange.”

She distinguishes between good modernist collage and bad in a discussion on structural unity and integrity that draws on painter Rene Magritte’s birdcage example: the playful modernist’s birdcage might enclose fish or a shoe—but those are arbitrary and ad hoc, whereas an egg has something final and right about it. “Must arbitrariness always be damning?” she asks. “Must it forever be out of bounds not as a subject but as a technique. I think so. . . . Art is the creation of coherent contexts.”

Among her own works, certainly For the Time Being (reviewed previously) is modernist narrative collage. In it, she writes about birth defects, sand’s formation and ubiquity, China’s buried civilizations, clouds, numbers, Israel, random encounters, thinkers, and torture, and she makes the subjects cohere: her own obsessions with mortality and evil unify the work. Her latest book, and avowed last, the novel The Maytrees, is a shimmering work of art whose love story is told as if by a coolly distant modernist God. And each sentence of it is distilled into poetry.

Which brings me to her categories of fine and plain prose styles. Think of William Faulkner as the apotheosis of the former and Ernest Hemingway as the exemplar of the latter. Fine prose is showy and rhetorical, while plain is snappy and visual.

The great prose writers of the recent past, until Flaubert, were fine writers to a man. A surprising number of these—those I think of first, in fact—wrote nonfiction: Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Macaulay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin, William James, Sir James Frazer. . . . I think fine writing in fictional prose comes into its own only with the Modernists: first with James, and with Proust, Faulkner, Becket, Woolf, Kafka, and the lavish Joyce of the novels.

Fine writing is energetic, though not precise, dazzling, complex and grand, an edifice that celebrates the beauty of language; it strews metaphors and adjectives about, even adverbs, and “traffics in parallel structures and repetitions.” All modernist fine writing begins in Joyce’s collages, Dillard says. “Fine writing does indeed draw attention to a work’s surface, and in that it furthers modernist aims. But at the same time it is pleasing, emotional, engaging . . . It is literary. It is always vulnerable to the charge of sacrificing accuracy, or even integrity, to the more dubious value, beauty. For these reasons it may be, in the name of purity, jettisoned.”

(Others in Dillard’s modernist fine-writer pantheon: Nabokov and Marquez. Among traditional fine writers she mentions Updike, Gass, Styron.)

Plain writing, like Hemingway’s and Chekhov’s, is a prose “purified by its submission to the world” and represents literature’s “new morality,” says Dillard. This “courteous,” “mature” style emerged with Flaubert, who eschewed verbal dazzle. Clean, sparing in its use of adjectives and adverbs, avoiding relative clauses, fancy punctuation, and metaphor, plain prose can be as taut as lyric poetry. In an extreme form of plain writing (as in Dillard’s own The Maytrees), the simple sentences themselves “become objects which invite inspection and which flaunt their simplicity.” It risks the fatuous: “Hemingway once wrote, and discarded, the sentence ‘Paris is a nice town,’ ” Dillard observes. But plainness helps the writer to honor and to under-write real drama, respecting readers’ intelligence and permitting “scenes to be effective on their narrative virtues, not on the overwrought insistence of their author’s prose.”

Writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, Turgenev, Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Powell, and Wright Morris use this prose for many purposes: not only to control emotion, but also to build an imaginative world whose parts seem solidly actual and lighted, and to name the multiple aspects of experience one by one, with distance, and also with tenderness and respect. In two sentences I heard read aloud many years ago in a large auditorium, Wright Morris introduced me to the virtues of an unadorned prose. The two sentences were these: “The father talks to his son. The son listens and watches his father eat soup.”

(Other modernist plain writers, per Dillard: Borges, Paul Horgan, Henry Green.)

If you’re having trouble placing your favorite author on Dillard’s traditionalist-modernist or plain-fine continuums, remember Dillard’s dictum: most writers work in the middle.

There’s much more in Living By Fiction, especially regarding criticism, which Dillard views as the modern “focusing of the religious impulse.” The making and interpreting of art, she implies, may be our last clear purpose left here on Earth. At least she expresses the view that, of human intellectual activities, art still produces and retains holistic meaning, and she holds faith that we may discern it.

Fiercely intellectual without being pedantic, Dillard also goofs around in her sidelong way and has her quirky fun that’s fun to see. Hers and others’ theories aside, she believes, “Always, if the work is good enough, the writer can get away with anything.”


Filed under aesthetics, Dillard—Saint Annie, experimental, fiction, journalism, modernism/postmodernism, narrative, REVIEW, structure, style

John Updike’s impressive sentences

We are all so assimilated. Last Saturday, Hope was watching the evening news and the newscaster instead of Tom Brokaw was a perfectly stunning young woman, light topaz eyes as far apart as a kitten’s, sharp-cornered wide mouth pronouncing everything with a perfect rapid inflection, more American than American, crisper, a touch of that rapid barking voice of the     thirties gangster films and romantic comedies, and when she signed off her name wasn’t even Greek, it was more like Turkish, a quick twist of syllables like an English word spelled backward. The old American stock is being overgrown. High time, of course: no reason to grieve.—John Updike, Seek My Face

Recently, after reading John Updike, I was driving on an interstate and, because of him, wondering how I’d describe the bruised horizon ahead and the mountainous white cloud rising from it—and I realized, from miles away, that I was driving into rain. It turned out to be a storm, a whopper. I could barely see in the downpour but felt I’d been more awake because of Updike’s prose.

I just read Seek My Face, his 2002 novel, which must be required for anyone deeply interested in American art and especially the postmodernists. Updike tells the story from the point of view of an elderly woman painter (not in first-person but in very close third-person omniscient), and he sets the novel during a day-long interview between the woman and a young art journalist from New York. Both these feats—the opposite-sex point of view and the restricted, present-tense time frame—are impressive in themselves. The art theme allowed Updike to deploy his considerable knowledge and passion for art—he began as a visual artist—and although that subject sometimes caused the novel to drag for me, I was enthralled with his spooky ability to portray interpersonal dynamics. The way Updike captures his characters’ shifting feelings toward themselves and others is remarkable, delicious.

Throughout the day in Seek My Face, Hope is irritated by brusque Kathryn “with that easy New York knowingness that withers all it touches,” but sometimes curious and sympathetic toward her. Hope’s inner life is hidden to Kathryn but revealed to us:

The visitor’s voice, insistent with a certain anger yet femalely flexible, insinuating itself into her prey’s ears, asserts, “You were raised as a Quaker.” . . . Hope imagines Kathryn’s naked body—the swing of hip into thigh, the rose-madder-tipped breasts floating on the rib cage, the pubic triangle pure ivory-black and oily as in a Corot—all in a flash, then renounces the image: of the creature. Her susceptibility to beauty, Hope has always known, is what has kept her minor as an artist. The great ones go beyond beauty, they spurn it as desert saints spurned visions of concupiscence and ease: the Devil’s offer of world as reward.

I really read him for his beautiful, complex sentences and for his inspiring eye. He’s been called a lyric writer for the way he could paint life’s look and its feel. His sentences are unabashedly lush compared with today’s more pervasive plain style, a refreshing break from it and an inspiration to enhance my own considerably plainer style. He also makes me want to see better, to look at the world and capture it.

She rarely sits in this room; the kitchen, her bedroom above it, and the studio beyond it contain her usual orbit. Each evening, having added the supper plate and glass to those already in the dishwasher for it to be full enough to run, she thinks of coming in here and drawing the curtains behind the plaid chair against a draft and reading her book of the week, or even looking into one of the art books growing dusty, but she rarely does, drifting upstairs to the warmth of her bedroom instead. Climbing the stairs—“climbing the wooden hill,” her grandfather called it—hurts her knees and left hip but helps keep her mobile, she believes, helps keep her for another year out of one of those assisted-living facilities with rubber floors and off-limits stairwells where her two sons would like to see her settled for the ease of their own consciences, it would make them look bad if she were to die alone and broken on the stairs a la Edna St. Vincent Millay. She so rarely sits in the front parlor that the space from her standing, momentarily light-headed perspective appears startled, its corners jarred into flight, elastic and awry like the corners in rooms by Van Gogh or Lucien Freud. There is something lavender, a psychedelic tinge, in the papered walls, in the thin warped windowpanes, that at moments enters Hope’s eyes from the side, as if the room’s inhabitants in the century now gone had breathed a hint of their lives onto these surfaces.

When I was young Updike put me off—I said he was “cold toward his characters”—and I’m not sure what I meant, maybe that he intimidated me. Now I just take off my hat to him. He was some kind of genius (i.e. brilliant plus seemingly always inspired) and he inspires me. He could tell a story too. You might not like it, or his characters, or his preoccupations, but very early in life he learned what he was doing. You sense his confidence, the sureness of purpose of someone who’s mastered his medium.

And if a novel or memoir or collection of poems, stories, or essays fell short, if critics hated it, no matter: he’d hand-write another and then type up two drafts (with a typewriter for years, on a computer late in life), and only one year later there it would be, a new book. Because of his productivity, I think he was taken somewhat for granted.

Last month The New York Times published “John Updike’s Archive: A Great Writer at Work” that shows how he revised one of his manuscripts.


Filed under NOTED, style, syntax, working method

Pulitzer winner on scene & structure

Today’s Mother Jones online features a fascinating interview with Gene Weingarten, now a semi-retired

Gene Weingarten holding a walrus’s penis bone

humor columnist for The Washington Post, who won two Pulitzer prizes for feature writing, most recently for his story about parents who forgetfully leave their children locked inside hot cars. He’s the author of The Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of his stories that originally appeared in the Post and its Sunday magazine. Interviewer Michael Mechanic writes that “very few living nonfiction writers could ever hope to match Weingarten’s mastery of pace, place, and character.”

Weingarten’s drug-addled early life and his thoughts on the craft of narrative journalism are worth pondering, especially this insight dealing with scene and structure:

Basically, I think the art or craft of long-form narrative mostly boils down to figuring out internal kickers—how each section will end. Then you need to build the section to justify the kicker, to make it fair, and clear, and earned. I never start a section of the story without knowing how it will end. I also consciously try to shape the story as though it were a movie. I really try to think cinematically, because that’s how people read. They create a theater in their minds.

The complete interview is here.

Summer nonfiction reading list

Mother Jones also features an interesting story from the May-June issue on the favorite nonfiction books of twelve literary stars, including Michael Pollan, Michael Chabon, and Susan Orlean. And Nick Hornby, who loves one of my favorites, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.


Filed under essay-narrative, journalism, scene, structure