Monthly Archives: April 2012

Review/Q&A: Alethea Black on ‘Lovely,’ faith & fiction, essays & cutting to bone

Clouds over Melbourne Beach, Florida

I can only speak for myself, but there’s something about writing at night that feels . . . sneaky. There’s an outlaw quality to it, combined, oddly enough, with a sense of being safe. It has an anaerobic, subterranean feel; it’s as if I’m working beneath the soil, toiling in secret, trying to cultivate something hidden and occult.—Alethea Black, “Essay to be Read at 3 a.m

 I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Broadway Books, 238 pp.

I read Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely last January, at my sister’s beach condo in Florida, and again recently here in Ohio, parceling out a story a day to savor. These are funny, sexy, wise stories; some are sad, yet somehow they’re always hopeful.

Maybe my favorite story, perhaps partly because I read it first, on line at Narrative magazine, and imprinted on its tough beauty, is “The Only Way Out is Through.”  The story is about a man trying to help his angry, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip. The boy is suicidal, too, it turns out, and their trip is one long crisis. The narrative features an unusual flash-forward, deftly handled, that’s as thrilling as it is surprising.

The story’s title comes from a poem by Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants,” in North of Boston. The poem is narrated by a weary, depressed rural wife—terrified by the specter of madness in her family—who’s tending to upscale vacationers, lodged in cabins her husband built, and also feeding and cleaning after his coarse four-man road crew who board in their house.

Here’s the passage from Frost’s poem:

By good rights I ought not to have so much

Put on me, but there seems no other way.

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through—

Leastways for me and then they’ll be convinced.

A neat feature of I Knew You’d Be Lovely is that Black included Author’s Notes in the back on twelve of the thirteen stories, and says about “The Only Way Out is Through” that she had to put her head down and cry a couple times while writing it.

The story not so illuminated by commentary is “Someday is Today,” and it’s explained by the collection’s dedication, in memory of Black’s brother in law and to her widowed sister and their four daughters. Black might have written the story as an essay (see her essay about being a night-owl on the Narrative site), but her bent seems to turn to fiction, and this lyrical story, unbound by strict allegiance to whatever the literal facts, sustains a remarkable depth of feeling.

In “Someday is Today” an unnamed woman arrives to help in the wake of the death of her unnamed sister’s husband, and she struggles to comfort her sister and to care for the couple’s three young girls. Sorrow, the visiting woman-narrator says, has made the widow “a little girl again,” the girl she knew when they were growing up. But there’s new tension between them, partly because the single woman doesn’t know how to care for children and partly because she can’t share the depth of her sister’s grief. And also because she’s religious and her sister isn’t.

The sister’s overwhelming loss, her husband killed suddenly in his prime by a staph infection, comes during the couple’s massive house deconstruction:

     My sister has found some comfort in the widow boards on the Internet. One of them has a list of Ten Helpful Hints for Getting Through This Most Difficult Time in Your Life. Hint Number 7: Learn to Expect the Unexpected. “Expect to cry at odd times: At the sight of a couple holding hands, at the sound of the doorbell ringing.” The bit about the doorbell got to me. As if, somewhere in your psyche, some part of you thinks he’s come home—and then remembers. My sister doesn’t wait for the doorbell. After the girls are asleep, she walks the stone path to the empty house, lies down on the floor of what used to be her master bedroom, and wails. I hear her. I don’t join her; I don’t know how to join her. When the doctor delivered the final news, I put my hand against her back. “Don’t touch me,” she said quietly.

As the children’s mother keens, their wacky aunt teaches them words far beyond their abilities—orientation and omniscient; she buys them whatever they want at House of Pancakes, bounces with them on a trampoline, and endlessly re-watches with them The Sound of Music. Auntie tells them an age-inappropriate but very funny joke.

Despite her rapport and love for the girls, this sensitive woman balks when asked to agree to take them if her sister dies young like her husband. And though she’s allowed to talk to the children about God, when she reveals that she anointed her dying brother in law with blessed oil and said to him words by Annie Dillard (from Holy the Firm)—“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us . . . There never has been”—her sister is furious.

I realize I’ve picked the collection’s two heaviest stories to highlight. But the scenes here between the well-meaning aunt and her young nieces are tender and funny (which only makes the situation more heartbreaking), and the story is so perfect and suffused with such profound emotion that it is life-affirming and inspiring.

Alethea Black

Alethea Black, hard at work—maybe not: the sun is shining.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely, only nine months old, is already in its fourth edition. Black worked on the collection for many years, having committed only after college to writing, and the stories reflect this time investment in evidence of what Dillard once called the “richness of the years.” Yet they don’t feel overworked—quite the opposite. There are moments and snatches of conversation that are so real and apt that you just know Black pounced on them in real time.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t deeply imagined. Even when the outcome of a story is improbable, as when a beautiful young doctor leaves a party with a man she’s just met, possibly bound for bed, it is believable in part because you want to believe. Another of those stories is “Good in a Crisis,” about a young high school English teacher, who, questioning her calling, tracks down the cool high school teacher she’d had a crush on. “He sometimes had a little BO, she remembered, which Ginny’s adolescent self had found oddly sexy. Mainly, though, he had the peculiar beauty of a person in love with what he does.”

I say improbable, but it’s not that—unlikely?—no, not that either: some events are just unusual, while falling within the range of human possibility. As in the collection’s title story, in which a lovely woman wangles a ménage a trois for her boyfriend, as his birthday present, with herself and the lovely woman he may already be having an emotional affair with.

These stories are all really about love, I guess, and anyone who has been there knows that love is transcendent: earthbound rules don’t fully apply. Many of Black’s characters are young, college-age to about ten years out, and they’re lucky people, the type who were enrolled in gifted and talented classes in grade school, who were slotted into AP classes in high school, and then shuttled off to the Ivy League. Take the top three percent of that group, for wit and overall brilliance, and you have the general demographic.

I don’t mean this as a criticism—quite the opposite. There are so many tales of mere sorrow, ordinary angst, and the seedy underbelly.  I Knew You’d Be Lovely offers wit, humor, and artistry that cast a hopeful morning light on life’s turning points and its tragedies.

Alethea Black answered some questions for Narrative:

I’ve read that you decided you wanted to be a writer two years after you graduated from Harvard College. What was your major? Do you wish you’d majored in something different now that you are a writer?

I was a literature major, but I opted out of writing a thesis in the end, and received my degree in General Studies. I was not at all on my game in college, and spent a lot of time sleeping. I thought the desire to write was completely dormant in those days, but one of my suitemates recently said that I told her I wanted to be a writer, so I guess it was there even then. I don’t wish I’d chosen a different major; I don’t think I could be anything other than a writer.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely took you a decade and a half from start to publication. What was the most important thing you learned about writing during that time?

It’s true, this book was a 15-year pregnancy. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of economy—never say with twenty words what you can say with two. When I look at early drafts of my work, the thing I notice most is how unnecessary some sentences are.

To ask a dumb question: why does writing a book commonly take so long? Or, more precisely, why do some of your stories take so long—what happens in that time, those years, that makes them at last complete?

No such thing as a dumb question! I think writing often takes a long time because you’re learning how to do it as you go. (And of course you’re living your life and working your day job as you go, too.) As to how you know when a story is complete, that’s one of the great unanswerables. When I give readings from LOVELY, I still find words to cut. But I do think it’s fully itself. When the sculptor Alexander Calder was asked, “When do you know a sculpture of yours is finished?” he said, “When it’s time for dinner.”

You’ve published poetry and essays but fiction has been your focus. Do you think the habits of art that fiction cultivates are different than for nonfiction? For instance, your story “Someday is Today,” based on your brother in law’s death, could have been a lovely, resonant essay instead of a lovely, resonant story.

I’ve come to think that fiction and nonfiction are more alike than I ever used to realize. When I wrote “Essay to be read at 3 a.m.” for Narrative magazine, I kept being surprised by how much fun it was. I had no idea that nonfiction could be every bit as inventive and lyrical and mysterious as fiction. You’re bound by facts, but you’re still free; in fact sometimes it’s the limitations that liberate you.

What are you reading these days and how does your reading affect your writing?

I’m a very slow reader and I’m always reading about ten different things at once. I love the New Yorker cartoon where the man is pointing at his bookshelves and saying: “On the left are the ones I haven’t finished, and on the right are the ones I haven’t started.” On my nightstand right now are A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The Human Line by Ellen Bass; Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston; The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum; Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and a guidebook called Just Enough Italian. I sometimes give myself a moratorium on buying any new books until I finish the ones I own, but I never stick to it.

You mention your religious faith on your website. Do people react differently to you or to your stories if they know you are religious? Faith in any kind of God isn’t very popular these days.

Faith isn’t fashionable, no. But what a small thing life would be if my goal were to fit in. I don’t know if my religious beliefs (I’m a progressive Catholic) influence the way people respond to my stories, but they do seem interested in that side of things when I give readings. I’m always happy to answer their questions because it’s as strange to me as it is to anyone; if you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d now be someone who talks openly about Jesus, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. Before my book came out, a friend advised me to take the “God” tab off my website because it would hurt my career. But I have to say, whenever I’m on an airplane in turbulence and I feel like the end is near, I’m always glad I spoke openly about what I believe. Faith has brought me so much joy; it would feel selfish to keep quiet about it.

You’ve said you put your “own MFA” equivalent program together. Could you elaborate on what you did and what you learned?

My home-school MFA? I read a lot of books about writing, such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write; Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I learned so much from Natalie Goldberg that I thank her in my Acknowledgments.

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

If you have doubts about something, more often than not it should go. If it was really meant to be there, it will suggest itself anew when you look at your story with fresh eyes, perhaps after you’ve let it rest for a month. I always assume that my reader is smarter, wittier, and a better dresser than I am, and I don’t want to bore him. My cardinal rule is to keep things interesting or call it a day.


Filed under Author Interview, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, MFA, poetry, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, revision, teaching, education

Review: P.F. Kluge’s ‘Master Blaster’

Guest Review By Lanie Tankard

The Master Blaster by P.F. Kluge. Overlook Press/Peter Mayer, 304 pp.

When fiction and nonfiction meet up, consideration of the resulting technique can be enlightening for anyone working in words. Journalist P.F. Kluge, writer in residence at Kenyon College, has combined in an intriguing way these two seemingly polar opposites in his new novel about an island.

Island. That word usually conjures up the image of a palm-fronded speck surrounded by water—tranquil and carefree. In The Master Blaster, however, Kluge paints a different portrait of one island: Saipan, capital of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Combining personal experience with superb writing, he constructs a shrewd plot set on an often-overlooked but increasingly significant location.

Many of Kluge’s previous ten books were set on Pacific islands. In his eleventh work, Kluge crafts a tale of three US visitors who arrive on the same plane—a professor, a travel writer, and an entrepreneur—plus a laborer from Bangladesh. (The travel writer, George Griffin, had roles in two of Kluge’s earlier novels and bears a strong resemblance to the author, perhaps existing as a verbal avatar.)  Each character embodies an outside force affecting Saipan: education, tourism, economic development, and cheap labor/immigration. To this cast, Kluge adds the Master Blaster, a secret town crier using the Internet to publicize wrongdoings on the island.

Reminiscent of the noir genre, the novel in its cynicism suggests danger around the next corner. And violence is definitely there, despite the beauty that’s a backdrop for the bleakness. Yet the entire tale is rendered with vitality and ingenious humor.

Chapters alternate voices, with preceding events outlined from a new angle by the next character. This technique moves the storyline along in an appealing way. Kluge weaves in history, geography, botany, anthropology, and biology as stories within a story.

A former Peace Corps volunteer on Saipan, he was part of a 1960s “mass media program” in what was then the United Nations Trust Territory of Micronesia, administered by the United States after World War II. Saipan was first colonized by Spain, which sold the island to Germany, which lost it to Japan in World War I.

The UN trusteeship of the “sea of small islands” dissolved in varying degrees among the six Micronesian districts about forty years after it began. CNMI elected its first delegate to the US House of Representatives in 2008, who was reelected in 2010. Delegates do not vote in the full House, but can vote in committees.

US presidential candidates now pick up convention delegates from CNMI. Familiar names like Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay both made headlines concerning Saipan. CNMI’s immigration policy came under scrutiny, but has undergone transformation. Many closets around the world, however, likely still hold garments made in former sweatshops there. (Check your labels.) Kluge weaves all these issues and more into The Master Blaster, a book closer to true life than one could ever imagine.

Many readers might have difficulty locating the novel’s setting on a globe—even his publisher, as the dust jacket places the story in “the wide expanse of the South Pacific.”  Saipan couldn’t be more NXNW. The far-flung nature of these North Pacific islands has always been a difficulty for Micronesia. If you mashed all 2,000+ of them together like Play-Doh, you’d end up with a landmass smaller than the smallest US state of Rhode Island, yet they’re strewn like marbles across a vast ocean area larger than the continental United States.

Novelist, journalist, Kenyon prof

Kluge arrived in Micronesia shortly after the US Department of the Interior and the military opened the shutters. For twenty-five years after WW II, the atolls and lagoons sat untouched, the detritus of war rusting in the backyards of people who had long called the islands “home.” Anyone who was there in those early years left profoundly affected for life by the experience.

The title of the novel seems to pay homage to Stevie Wonder’s plea for peace in his song “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” from Hotter Than July: “They want us to join their fighting, But our answer today, Is to let all our worries, Like the breeze through our fingers slip away. . . . We’re in the middle of the makin’s of the master blaster jammin’.” Two of the biggest blasters ever, Fat Man and Little Boy, flew to Japan from Tinian, Saipan’s neighbor. Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, was the site of atomic weapons tests.

The Master Blaster of Kluge’s novel is modeled after an actual blogger. Giving the website would be taking away part of the fun of traveling deeper and deeper into the Google labyrinth after reading the book to figure out just what’s going on. The Blaster is a social conscience.

Yet Kluge spares neither side in this morality play. His intelligent fusion of narrators from past literature about islands and colonies is splendid. Using a disembodied voice speaking offstage via the Internet, Kluge’s Master Blaster resembles the Remittance Man from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, as well as the anonymous narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and both the Master and the narrator in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae.

The title plays on film as well. In the third Mad Max movie, Beyond Thunderdrome, Master Blaster is two people: tiny Master carried by his large bodyguard, Blaster. The name draws symbolism even from sports. “Master Blaster” is the nickname of Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, batsman superhero. Such references are relevant to Kluge’s thesis.

Saipan is part of America, yet the distance from Saipan to Shanghai is one-third the distance from Saipan to Seattle. Kluge’s characters portray the location confusion, offering astute commentary through dialogue. One asks, “’It is America? This place?’” Another observes Saipan is “not real America,” while someone else says, “It’s a small place. It’s far away. Nobody cares.”

Readers sense themes: “A place belongs to people who love it….Could they go back to what they were?…Our history belongs to outsiders….The whole world comes here and we go nowhere….But there was no stopping America.”

Kluge returns to a powerful and poetic precept he published as editor of the Micronesian Reporter way back in 1969: “…it occurred to me that America’s opportunity to do right in the Trust Territory is immense, but if it should be impossible to do right there exists another possibility almost as great: not to do wrong.” He has held fast to this tenet over the years in various works, expressing perhaps its most clever articulation here. Even poor editing and proofreading couldn’t mar The Master Blaster. It’s an ingenious novel with global lessons.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, may have said it best in his poem Don Juan:

‘Tis strange,—but true; for truth is always strange;

Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,

How much would novels gain by the exchange!

How differently the world would men behold!

How oft would vice and virtue places change!

The new world would be nothing to the old,

If some Columbus of the moral seas

Would show mankind their souls’ antipodes.

 Plus, reading The Master Blaster is simply lots of fun. Figuring out how Kluge injected journalistic literature with humor to create biting editorial commentary just might make you approach your keyboard with a whole new frame of mind.

Kudos to Kluge!

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Tankard has taught English in Micronesia.




Filed under fiction, journalism, REVIEW

Noted: John Gardner’s great sentence

I was reading the late novelist’s short story “Redemption,” based on the accidental death of his younger brother in a horrifying farming accident, and found its sentences beautifully crafted. John Gardner, at eleven, was driving a tractor when his brother fell under its towed cultipacker, a pair of giant rolling pins for mashing the clods in harrowed soil that weighed two tons. In the story, grief almost destroys the father, like Gardner’s father a dairyman, orator, and lay preacher; the surviving brother is tortured almost to madness by guilt.

This sentence is about the wife and mother—Gardner’s was an English teacher:

Because she had, at thirty-four, considerable strength of character—except that, these days, she was always eating—and because, also, she was a woman of strong religious faith, a woman who, in her years of church work and teaching at the high school, had made scores of close, for the most part equally religious, friends, with whom she regularly corresponded, her letters, then theirs, half filling the mailbox at the foot of the hill and cluttering every table, desk, and niche in the large old house—friends who now frequently visited or phoned—she was able to move step by step past disaster and in the end keep her family from wreck.

That’s 112 words. Virginia Woolf wrote longer ones, 140 words and more, but what Gardener kept aloft—the construction of his sentence and its clarity and beauty—and those double parenthetical dashes—amaze me. ‘‘Redemption” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1977, and Gardner later included it in his collection The Art of Living in 1981; the complete story is available on line.

There’s a famous quote by Gardner that seems to apply to this story:

By the time you’ve run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked out every tic of terror, it’s lost its power over you . . . [Soon it’s] a story on a page or, more precisely, everybody’s story on a page.

In the 1970s his novel The Sunlight Dialogues was everywhere I looked, but I didn’t read it, nor have I read what’s considered his masterpiece, the novel Grendel. I did enjoy as they appeared his books on writing—On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction—and later read two novels I much admired, October Light and Mickelsson’s Ghosts.


Filed under fiction, style, syntax

Reading ‘Gatsby’ as memoir

The power of the reflective narrator in novels & memoirs

The iconic first cover

The Great Gatsby is a touchstone book for me, as it is for many writers, so as I tried to rework my memoir’s prologue recently it was my instinct to reread the novel. I saw why—Gatsby is set up as a memoir, with narrator Nick Carraway’s musings in the first two pages functioning as a prologue. Fitzgerald’s famous opening lines set the novel’s elegiac tone in Nick’s voice:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

The advice is to withhold criticism, of course, which Nick says he does—thus explaining how he got the story he’s telling—and then he blithely proceeds to judge everyone throughout the novel. But this clubby voice admits its own snobbery, and draws us in. Moreover, we soon learn that Nick is removed in time and space from the events he’s going to relate. He’s somewhere to the west of the East where the action took place, and he’s speaking as much as a year later. Thus he’s not exactly the character Nick of the story who’s in the midst of the drama and doesn’t yet understand it.

Here is the older, wiser Nick of the novel’s fourth paragraph, the narrator who frames the action:

When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.

On the third page we’re informed exactly where Nick is—back in his own “Middle Western city,” and thus in that that safe and distanced place said to be desirable if not necessary for memoir. Obviously it can figure in novels as well (see the opening of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for another great example). The point here is that the writer possesses no mere story, unfolding with plot’s primitive “and then,” but instead offers a tale from someone who has meaning if not wisdom to impart along with exciting events. This is why “persona” is a more precise and useful term than “voice,” I think; the point is whose voice we hear, not what kind might be ginned up.

Perspective is Nick’s promise in Gatsby’s first pages. And we know that the man who tells us that he withholds judgments isn’t in fact the same man in the action who levies judgments. That is, the narrator knows something now that he didn’t then. He knows how Jay Gatsby’s misplaced love ruined him, and knows which supporting players properly to condemn.

Unlike civilians who are just living their lives, narrators have stories to tell—and they have the distance to weigh significance. It is strange how this literary technique of the reflective or distanced narrator does not kill unfolding plots but adds a layer of narrative depth that readers enjoy. I wonder if, like stories themselves, this facet of narrative is in our DNA? Around campfires and hearth fires, the survivor of the hunt or the battle told the tale. So we trust and we crave the authentic witness.

Nick addresses us directly throughout Gatsby, and hammers closed the novel with its famous last page and a half, in which, his trunk packed and his car sold to the grocer, he muses on Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house” and the evil East itself, which has milked dry Long Island’s promise, flattened that “fresh, green breast of the new world.”

Googling “Gatsby as memoir” turned up this SparkNotes analysis:

If Gatsby represents one part of Fitzgerald’s personality, the flashy celebrity who pursued and glorified wealth in order to impress the woman he loved, then Nick represents another part: the quiet, reflective Midwesterner adrift in the lurid East. . . . Nick is also Daisy’s cousin, which enables him to observe and assist the resurgent love affair between Daisy and Gatsby. As a result of his relationship to these two characters, Nick is the perfect choice to narrate the novel, which functions as a personal memoir of his experiences with Gatsby in the summer of 1922.

Alas, like this post or any exposition about Gatsby, SparkNotes’ summaries, chapter by chapter, are dead beside this slender, lambent novel. And Gatsby is still great qua story, intricately crafted and with powerful sustained scenes, its prose piercingly lovely. Fitzgerald knew how to deploy an adjective, and no one places a semicolon—or a dash—better than he. Gatsby’s very paragraphing feels perfect.

There’s yet another movie of Gatsby in the works, with Toby McGuire as Nick; the gifted Leonardo DiCaprio will attempt a believable Gatsby. The problem with the book as a movie seems to reside in Gatsby’s “old sport” line, his awkward attempt to fit into the upper class: it feels too unreal, all the same, even in the novel. That phrase, which epitomizes Gatsby’s pose and his opaqueness as a character, in both the novel’s world and in my reading experience, is the proximate reason movie adaptations have been turkeys.

Fitzgerald died at only forty-four, in Hollywood. He was working on a new novel but considered himself washed up. When he’d published The Great Gatsby, in 1925, he was about the age of Nick Carraway, twenty-nine turning thirty. Sometime afterward he lost his way, and his middle-aged three-part essay “The Crack-Up,” which Esquire used to reprint periodically and still offers on line, is breathtaking in its despair and its sustained cynical rage.

But Gatsby survived Fitzgerald and will again survive Hollywood. It’s a book about the death of youth, but it’s such a young book, surging with feelings. Its sadder-but-wiser narrator, who’s still only thirty, is just mature enough to be a credible commentator on youth’s follies. Fitzgerald was inspired with Gatsby, was in full command of narrative craft, and slaved over its revision.

In this fable from a man ruefully musing upon his last wild summer, somehow Fitzgerald caught forever the firefly glimmer of youth’s optimism and yearnings.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, film/photography, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV

Noted: ‘Steal Like an Artist’

Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.—Steal Like an Artist

Austin Kleon is a writer and visual artist—collage and sketches and mashups—whose magical new little book is a smash hit, a New York Times bestseller. I’m eager to read it. Plus he’s from here in Ohio and attended an institution right down the road, Miami University of Ohio. His website and related pages, including blog, are worth your time.

Here are the principles enumerated in Steal Like an Artist:

1. Steal like an artist.

2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.

3. Write the book you want to read.

4. Use your hands.

5. Side projects and hobbies are important.

6. The secret: do good work and share it with people.

7. Geography is no longer our master.

8. Be nice. (The world is a small town.)

9. Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)

10. Creativity is subtraction.

Per the first point: Kleon says good theft honors, results from study, is diverse, credits, transforms, and remixes (versus degrades, skims, steals from one person, plagiarizes, imitates, and rips off).

My friend Paulette Bates Alden, a great freelance writing teacher and editor, happened to just tell me number three (regarding my memoir, which is kind of two books; pick the one you want to read, she said). As Kleon says, what humans know must be stated over and over again because no one was listening the first time.

And the last point about creativity being subtraction I should tattoo on my forehead. Everything becomes Moby-Dick with me! First I build a whole whale, then I pare it into the goldfish it always should have been. I end up covered with blood and guts—and, of course, I’m blubbering.


Filed under aesthetics, discovery, experimental, flow, modernism/postmodernism, NOTED

Luis Urrea’s ‘The Devil’s Highway’

A horrendous story told with bitter skill, highlighting the whole sordid, greedy mess that attends illegal broader crossings.—Kirkus Reviews

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown, 256 pp.

Poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, journalist—Luis Alberto Urrea is the best writer I’d never heard of until I read The Devil’s Highway. Urrea, creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has published thirteen books. A 2005 Pulitzer finalist, The Devil’s Highway is about the suffering and deaths in a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. This tragic incident is deeply and palpably researched and fully imagined.

The book begins with the Border Patrol’s discovery of the dying refugees. At least fourteen of the Mexicans, most of them from Veracruz, a leafy tropical place, died in the desert, sunbaked—as maladapted as gringos to heat over 100 degrees, no shade, their scant water scalding and then gone. This part is written from the point of view of the Border Patrol, the writer having spent much time with its agents and environs. He also met with smugglers and illegals.

One of the book’s impressive feats is that readers experience how each group thinks, jokes, sees the world—and, surprisingly for Border Patrol’s image, we see their compassion for Mexicans who risk their lives for the most modest dreams; in their rough way the agents aren’t above playing jokes on them, and call them “tonks,” for the sound a cop’s flashlight makes hitting their heads, but the macho border guards labor daily to save them, too. Rushing to help this group, Urrea reports, they sustain twenty-six flat tires, and some drive on rims.

The cops and the illegals alone know the stakes:

 Death by sunlight, hyper-thermia, was the main culprit. But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattlesnakes, had heart attacks. . . . The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes.

The book’s midsection recreates the fatal trip from beginning to end. As the illegal crossing falls apart in the trackless Sonora, Urrea artfully cites official reports and interviews. He’d already earned my trust, and my pleasure here extended to his imagination. He recreates the wanderings of the delirious, splintered group, and riffs on what it feels like to be at the mercy of careless, incompetent smugglers and to die horribly of thirst and heatstroke. Forget sunburn and cracked lips: the skin blackens, the kidneys stop, organs break down internally.

In places, the prose becomes surreal and hallucinogenic:

The day tormented them. Thirst. Pain. Men crawled under creosotes, under the scant shade of scraggly mesquites. It was a dull repetition of the entire walk. As rote as factory work. Their hours clanged by like machines. They were in the dirt like animals.

Six o’clock in the morning took ten hours to become seven o’clock.

A week later, it was eight o’clock.

The temperature screamed into the nineties before nine o’clock.

They waited. They couldn’t even talk. They panted like dogs, groaned. Men put their hands to their chests, almost delicately, as if checking their own pulses. But they were barely awake. They were half in dreams and half in the day, and the day itself was a bad dream. Dry wings swished in the air around them. Voices, coughing. Far above, the icy silver chips of airplanes cut the blue. Out of reach.

Named a best book of the year by many publications and optioned by Mexican director Luis Mandoki for a film to star Antonio Banderas, The Devil’s Highway reflects Urrea’s long interest, heritage, and expertise. As a young writer for The San Diego Reader, he published pieces adapted from and shaped into his first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. In a video interview on his web site, Urrea says of the brutal city desk editors of his newspaper days: “I had not been handled indelicately like that. I’d been rejected but not insulted. But they really fixed that book for me.”

I read The Devil’s Highway against the backdrop of rage about fabrications in various nonfiction books, and Urrea’s exhaustive but imaginative work makes shortcuts or fabrications seem lazy or puerile. Urrea is not nearly as button-downed as Tracy Kidder or John McPhee—at points he clearly imagines—but even without his long note explaining to readers his multiple approaches, The Devil’s Highway teaches itself and justifies itself in every line to anyone who reads it.


Filed under film/photography, honesty, immersion, journalism, REVIEW

Noted: Why It’s OK to Be Naïve

Why It’s OK to Be Naïve.

I found this guest post at Jane Friedman’s site very inspiring—and true—about writing or about following and developing any passion.


Filed under NOTED, working method

Cheryl Strayed on honesty in memoir

I was an avid journaler all through my twenties and I wrote in my journal every day of my hike, sometimes twice a day. That journal was incredibly helpful to me as I wrote “Wild.” I recorded many details and snippets of dialogue that would otherwise have been lost. Having that document allowed me to correct, corroborate, or expand things I remembered. In some cases, I tracked down people I met on the trail and asked them to share their memories of the time we spent together, but most of all I relied on my memory of what happened and how it felt. Memoir is the art of subjective truth, and while I feel a strong obligation to the truth piece of that, I also firmly plant that truth within the context of my own subjectivity. I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently. Of course there are a million instances that I brought to life by using the skills of a storyteller, as memoirists do — did the wind really blow that man’s hair across his face the moment he asked me that question? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s how I pictured it in my mind and so I reproduced it for you on the page.

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, made her comments in an interview with John Williams for The New York Times. Miwa Messer also has an interesting interview for Barnes and Noble with the author of this very hot memoir.

Asked by Messer why it took her so long to write Wild, Strayed, a novelist and short story writer whose excellent essay “The Love of My Life” on her self-destructive sexuality and heroin addiction is available on line at The Sun, alluded to the memoirist’s necessity to not merely relate experience but to understand it:

I teach memoir on occasion and the question I’m always pushing my students to answer in their work is not what happened, but what it means. I think that’s why it took me more than a decade to begin writing about my hike. I had to figure out what it meant. I couldn’t do that until I’d lived a while beyond it; until I’d moved solidly out of the era of my life that I write about in Wild. At its core Wild is a story about a woman figuring out how she’s going to live in the world given the facts of her life — some which are painful. I couldn’t tell the story about how that woman figured it out until she really had.


Filed under Author Interview, honesty, immersion, memoir

Aaron Gilbreath’s post explicates the practice of a legendary New Yorker journalist whose exhaustive immersions allowed him to write with great freedom in reconstructing his subjects’ realities. My own views of Mitchell’s practice were influenced, like Aaron’s, by William Zinsser’s endorsement in On Writing Well, considered the gold standard for mainstream magazine journalism.

Aarongilbreath's Blog

As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages…

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Filed under blogging, honesty, immersion, journalism