Monthly Archives: July 2012

Noted: Jonah Lehrer’s downfall

Yesterday I got around to reading the New York Times Book Review’s full-page massacre of Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, and wished I’d been even more grudging in my own piece touching on the bestseller. Then later in the day the news broke that Lehrer had invented quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan, and I wished I’d mentioned my own reservations about the Dylan material, which appears early in the book.

They were these:

• Dylan’s use seemed gratuitous in that it was poorly integrated and not very illustrative. Dylan is shorthand for creativity writ large, granted. But a better example might have been Bruce Springsteen, with his creative process recently explored in a documentary about the making of his great album Darkness on the Edge of Town. (Springsteen is the subject of an exhaustive profile by David Remnick in the current New Yorker.)

• I disagreed with Lehrer’s interpretation of Dylan’s historic “gone electric” British tour. (Of course it occurred to me, with mingled pride and mortification, that I’ve been thinking about Dylan longer than Lehrer, thirty one, has been alive.)

• The quotes were not attributed, first seeming to imply Lehrer had gotten an interview—highly unlikely—and when it was clear he hadn’t I wondered about his source. Why not give credit, if only for historical reasons, as he would have had to do for The New Yorker where he was a staff writer? A big trade-press gloss on clunky journalistic technique, I supposed.

I couldn’t check my second bullet point, by using Amazon’s “look inside feature,” to recall what Lehrer said about Dylan’s tour or the songs he performed because like any manufacturer with a defective product, Houghton Mifflin has recalled it. (I’d gotten it from the library.) The other consequence of his “piping the quotes,” as old newspapermen used to say, is that Lehrer has had to resign as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Googling Lehrer now turns up all kinds of stuff, like the post by Josh Levin on June 19 in Slate revealing that Lehrer has been “self plagiarizing”—recycling material in his New Yorker blog that he’d written for other publications. This passage by Levin was prescient:

For a writer as prolific as Lehrer, reusing a phrase every so often may be unavoidable. But why would a writer as accomplished as Lehrer become this much of a copy/paste addict? Because he has ceased to be a writer. With the success of his recent books How We Decide and Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer has moved into the idea business. This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.

Contrast Lehrer’s busyness with elderly New Yorker staffer John McPhee, a far more conservative writer who has been faithful to the written word in two mediums, the magazine and some twenty-nine books—no blogger, he—and who has forged a style that makes a virtue of clunky transparency and self deprecation. In his current chatty piece in The New Yorker about editors he has known, McPhee works his persona: On my best day I wasn’t as smart or as colorful as these guys, my legendary editors. Kind of like Dylan’s claim that he’s just a tin pan alley song and dance man, but whatever.

Not just Lehrer but his editors seem to have been juggling too much. For a lapsed neuroscientist and Rhodes scholar, Lehrer was really dumb to pipe quotes about Dylan: there are too many Dylan fanatics to let that stand. Among a few others, John D’Agata recently has been defiant about his license to make up stuff in nonfiction. But once again, we see that readers and the publishing marketplace ultimately demand that writers try to be honest. Which resides partly in transparency—generally credit sources even if that’s clunky—and resides partly in the mythic, historic, and poetic vision of the writer as someone after truth.

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Filed under honesty, journalism, NOTED, teaching, education

On hating a memoirist

Bill Roorbach readin’ and lovin’ Wild up in Maine. Despite its bestsellerdom, or because of it, some hate the book and its author.

Another nonfiction issue: judging a book by its author?

 I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.—William Gass

As my previous three posts indicate, I admire Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I devoured it as a reader and also loved how I could raid her techniques for my own memoir. So I was surprised to read some reactions to Bill Roorbach’s laudatory review of Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Margaret Benbow, a poet, wrote:

. . . Why do I feel that I understand her, and what she’s about, better than you? Because I’m a woman. I intensely enjoy her writing. No question that she has the chops. The problem comes with your faith in her “honesty”. I see most of her unbuttoned, hairy, sweaty sexual recollections as calculating. They get the reader’s attention, right? She glories in her own screw-ups, rubs her (and our) face in them time and again. She SETS UP screw-ups on the trail. Who in her right mind would prepare so inadequately for such a demanding physical crucible as the Pacific Trail? Why has she chosen brand new unbroken-in too-small boots? She endlessly whines about the poor rags of her feet–whose tattered condition was absolutely inevitable, given her contempt for the most basic preparation. She has mailed packages to herself with food and money at halting-places on the trial. They are often missed, inadequate.

Strayed has a kink in herself which demands constant life crises…and for readers to see them, deplore them, be excited by them, root for her to overcome them. She’s extremely good at being an exhibitionistic screw-up performance artist. In general, I like and admire her book. But I don’t like that calculating glimmer in the back of her eye.

Hmmm. Well. I found surprising and interesting this peevish reaction and Bill’s irritated reply and her rejoinder and another reader’s also weighing in coolly toward Strayed. Personally I had no problems with Strayed’s sensuous but rather mild depiction of a sexual incident on the trail. And I felt her preparation, a mix of intense focus and amateurish oversight, totally believable (and she only screwed up once mailing stuff to herself).

Something deeper was at work in my acceptance. I admired her courage for taking a 1,100 mile hike alone—and for her entire under-employed young artist journey. When I was young I always wanted to do something like her backpacking adventure, which she undertook, I think, in her role as a young writer as much as she did for its healing properties. Instead, I worked. My equivalent post-college adventure was traveling to New York for the first time and taking classes at a famous method-acting school; I’d never been outside the south or in a big city, and New York scared me—it scared a lot of people in the late 1970s, so much crime and hostility on the street. I remember reading The World According to Garp on July 4, 1978, sprawled beneath an air conditioner—it was 104 degrees outside—in my sublet at 113th Street and Broadway.

Cheryl Strayed: don’t worry, be happy?

At the age Strayed lit out for the trail, twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, I’d worked for several newspapers and had just accepted a Kiplinger fellowship to Ohio State, where I spent a year reading history, philosophy, religion, and literature. Then I went back to newspapers, married, settled down, had kids. I also wrote short stories, but about the time I wrote one that had promise, I got busy (or something) and quit, not returning to creative or deeply personal writing for several years. So I was awed by Strayed’s belief in herself or in her writing dream, which she had very little to show for coming off the trail as thirty loomed ahead.

But I did have to overcome my own doubts about Strayed, I realized. For me, it was her blaming her self-destructive meltdown—her affairs and drug use and divorce that led her to the trail—on the depth of her derangement after her mother’s death. Gradually I accepted her explanation of being derailed by grief, not because I’ve ever shared it to that extent but because of other life experiences I brought to Wild.

Strayed, the middle of three children, was six when her mother divorced her abusive father; she carries scarring memories of seeing her mother hurt, punched or dragged down a sidewalk by her hair, and of being threatened herself with her daddy’s knuckle sandwiches. Strayed and her sister grew up as not very close siblings, and her sister puzzles Strayed by staying away when their mother lies dying. Maybe she just couldn’t take the pain of it. But this woman, a couple years older than Strayed, by definition took the first blow, so to speak, from their father and his dysfunctional household—the first born takes the first blow and gets the first benefit from parents—and she surely suffered more than Strayed. Maybe she had more bitterness toward their submissive mother or just more distance. Maybe she was angry at Strayed, so tough and questing, for displacing her in the sibling hierarchy. Perhaps for all of that.

In any case Strayed ascended over her more damaged sister (in my reckoning) as leader of the sibling pack and glommed onto their mother so fiercely as a child and young adult—which she depicts—that I don’t see how her older sister could have had anything but a secondary relationship,  in comparison, with the woman. That wouldn’t have affected their brother, baby to all in the family dynamic. But it would have, as we said in the South, cheesed her big sister’s grits.

Am I what Bill Roorbach accuses Margaret Benbow above of being, an armchair psychologist?

Absolutely.

But aren’t we all?

I hope I don’t explain everything in life, as a middle child myself, in terms of birth order. But my own experience of its significance is why I despised Vladimir Nabokov’s self-portrait in Speak, Memory, reviewed here. And my reaction was in part a perverse rebellion against the literary establishment and canon—more middle child stuff?—for endlessly praising his memoir. Briefly, Nabokov admits to cruelly dominating his younger brother as they grew up and then judges him a hapless fool for sticking around Germany too long and getting killed by the Nazis. Guess which one of the brothers I identified with?

Regardless of the validity of my or Margaret Benbow’s visceral reactions to authors, isn’t this yet another nonfiction issue? Judging a book by its author? I’m always ashamed when I do, feeling it’s an invalid way to assess a work of literature, and at the same time secretly convinced of the truth of my perception. To me Nabokov was a cold fish and a cruel human being, whose art—or at least whose nonfiction—should be suspect. (Some milder critics merely find Speak, Memory boring since, following his aesthetic star, Nabokov wrote about his toy soldiers and butterfly collection rather than his assassinated father and his aristocratic family’s traumatic exile from Russia.)

And yet I give Nabokov a pass in his fictional worlds and works. We all do, pretty much. Relatively few blame him for Humbert Humbert in Lolita. No, quite the contrary. We praise an author of fiction for using bits of himself—his socially unacceptable feelings, his misdeeds, his psychic warps—to animate various characters. There seems to be two reasons why some fiction writers cannot countenance memoir: such a waste of good material; and using oneself overtly, in such an unguarded way, only invites others’ disdain.

An acquaintance, a scholar and editor, who read a chapter of my memoir praised my courage. I’m not sure what he meant, unless it’s the exposure of my family’s particular trauma and that general risk of backlash that memoir writers face. My twentysomething son said the problem with my memoir is that it doesn’t show how strange I am. On the one hand, such a classic kid’s response to his parent. On the other, he had a point. Am I protecting myself too much, fearing rejection? I upped the strangeness quotient. But one should construct a persona that serves the particular book, no? Reveal one’s weirdness artfully, not all at once?

But regardless of what you do, brace yourself, Effie. Because some people are going to think—and say—terrible things about you and your modest attempt to offer to the world a gift.

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Filed under audience, honesty, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, reading, REVIEW

Cheryl Strayed’s back pages

How Cheryl Strayed feathers her compelling backstory into Wild.

. . . I spun the backstory. I dole it out. The trail is a chronological report of my hike; what came before the trail is not chronological. I give you a scene from when I was seven and then another the year before [the hike]. I worked that pretty hard.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview

I have each of my memoir’s chapters broken into beats in my working table of contents. Different narrative threads are color coded, red for my father.

 The second time through Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I dog-eared the page each time Strayed launched a major flashback depicting an aspect of her life before the trail. There are scattered memory outcrops throughout, of course, but I was interested in how many significant backstory passages there are and how they’re introduced and where they occur.

I marked twelve, of various lengths, counting perhaps debatably a short passage from the scenic Prologue and yet not counting the book’s long expository opening that discusses Strayed’s pre-trail life. So this tally is subjective—yours would be different—but the point is that I was surprised there were not more digressions, because her backstory is such a compelling and memorable aspect of the book. Ten or twelve background passages aren’t so many, not stretched across five acts and 315 pages, though some of them are quite long.

Strayed transitions into them organically; that is, instead of backstory bits used as stand-alone passages that start a chapter (other than the first) or that begin as freestanding passages after a line break, they arise from what happens to her on the trail. Typical is how she gets into six-pages in the middle of the book on her mother’s death and the death of her mother’s beloved horse:

I made my way along the trail for twenty minutes until I came to a place where the trees opened up. I took off my pack and got down on my hands and knees with my headlamp to explore a spot that seemed like a reasonable place to sleep. I set up my tent, crawled inside, and zipped myself into my sleeping bag, though now I wasn’t even remotely tired, energized by the eviction [from a proprietary campground] and the late-night hike.

I opened up The Novel, but my headlamp was flickering and dying, so I turned it off and lay in the dark. I smoothed my hands over my arms, hugging myself. I could feel my tattoo beneath my right fingers; could still trace the horse’s outline. The woman who’d inked it had told me that it would stand up on my flesh for a few weeks, but it had remained that way even after a few months, as if the horse were embossed rather than inked into my skin. It wasn’t just a horse, that tattoo. It was Lady—the horse my mother had asked the doctor at the Mayo Clinic if she could ride when he’d told her she was going to die. . . .

This digression is interesting (we’ve not heard about that tattoo before) and compelling because we do know about her mother’s love of horses and her sudden illness. We remember an early scene of her mother asking the doctor if she could ride (he said that after her radiation treatments her spine would collapse like a cracker). So this passage rewards us for what we already know and it deepens the story. Strayed has withheld the tattoo until she needed it narratively.

Though Strayed’s backstory sections are presented as naturally arising occurrences, as memories provoked by current action, they appear rhythmically throughout Wild at fairly even intervals. How much artifice an author uses in mixing in such material—did she really remember that there and then?—doesn’t matter to me, if I trust her and it makes sense. Humans are so riddled with memories that coexist with or dominate our “actual” living moments that what’s truly not believable, a real violation of verisimilitude, are chapter-long chunks of freestanding backstory. (I previously noted Strayed’s sensible view of honesty in memoir.)

I’m trying to be less self-conscious in my memoir about how I transition into memories of my father. At the least I look for places where his experiences are relevant to what’s going on with me in the foreground. For instance, after a summer of almost biblical disasters on my farm—including heat, drought, storm, flood, and locusts (well, seventeen-year cicadas that everyone calls locusts)—I recall how Dad’s perseverance in the face of one of his own farming setbacks inspired me to go on. Which it did, always, and I think at that very time; in any case, my hard season epitomized how I always drew strength from his lesson. So the story of how he overcame his nursery’s salty well—its irrigation water was killing his plants—is true to my memory and to the connection with him that I need to convey there amidst my own disasters.

We are after Truth, the Big Picture, the granular bits in your interior landscape. There’s seldom a transcript to help you convey what it was like to be you—and I’m beginning to think that the more “facts” we have the harder it can be to bring the past to life. One would like some photos, some dates, sure. But I’m careful now about thinking that my experience as a journalist can help me find what’s vital in external records; I’ve had to cut so much of that, while so much of what I have discovered that’s useful has been in the process of writing.

I feel silly for seeing so many of the ordinary-but-important craft lessons within Wild so late, for being such a slow learner. But writing isn’t a hike up one mountain, it’s a journey through a series of ranges. There’s always more undiscovered country to see ahead of you as you stand there, atop one peak on the never-ending trail, looking out and catching your breath.

This and the previous two posts have run in abbreviated form as a single post on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Next: The backlash against Cheryl Strayed and Wild.

 The interview quotes from Strayed in this and the previous post were taken from the excellent short video below, a discussion with Bill Kenower of Author magazine.

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Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, memoir, MY LIFE, narrative, NOTED, REVIEW, revision, working method

Studying ‘Wild’ for its structure

Reading my memoir printed out like this, two pages on a sheet, helps me see it in a new way.

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is narrative-driven but reflective.

 Every book has its inherent impossibility. For Wild it was about me walking alone through the wilderness for 94 days; it could have been really boring. The challenge there was to convey what was happening inside of me. The trail was always there, that was the great constant, but I was always different on the trail.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview

I threw out the first act of my memoir in June—it was too slow to start—which helped me cut forty pages, and I broke up two chapters on my father and threaded him throughout. That project took the entire month. I felt I was seeing my material with a colder eye, and placing it or cutting it for effect, not using it because I loved it or because I hoped it was working.

At the start of July I printed out hard copy of my manuscript and also began rereading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. My practice was first to read some of Wild, my morning book, and then to read and edit my memoir printout. Over the years I’ve picked up the notion of reading and rereading three, and only three, books as models while writing. But I don’t strictly follow that regimen, in part because I’ve worked on my memoir for so long that I’d go insane with just three books; however, I do try to operate in that spirit, one of concentrated devotion to a few books that I aspire to emulate. As a memoir, Wild truly cooks, that much was clear from my first reading, and in the way I needed my book to cook.

Along with reading aloud, reading hard copy—sometimes with the type enlarged to at least fourteen points—is useful for me. But this time I printed out my book with two manuscript pages side-by-side on one sheet of printer paper; this makes the type fairly small, but the copy looks and feels totally different. Not so much like me. And more like a real, bound book. Stuff jumps out.

As I write this, I’m halfway through the memoir again. But the day I read Chapter Five looms in my mind like a bad day on the Pacific Crest Trail. Like a landslide. I felt doom creep upon me as I read the chapter so recently reworked on my computer . . . a leaden despair and a roaring in my ears. Chapter Five was a mess. The through story had collapsed, and the chapter’s various sections seemed like just a bunch of this ‘n that—useless rubble, even though as individual pieces they read fine. I might have felt the earth fall away on my own, but the contrast between my effort and Wild’s narrative probably was what gobsmacked me.

And yet, despite the fact that seeing such a problem was a gift, I melted down for a day or two. Fear and confusion riddled me. Could I dig out of this one? How? I whined to Bill Roorbach about how lucky Strayed was to have the PCT to hang stuff on. Bill, who had recently reviewed Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, shot back:

 The thing about WILD as an example is that we have to build our own Pacific Coast Trail through our books, and be clear when we’re on or off the trail so the reader can be clear: Ah, we’re back on the trail!  Also, as she did, we can skip large chunks of the trail if the snow’s too deep, just so long as we explain what’s going on with the weather.

Yep. Right. True.

And so, as I suffered in my failure, I pondered. And finally my subconscious barfed up one of those gifts of insight you earn by work or by suffering, usually by both in my case. In Wild, everything happens on the trail, one damn thing after another, and that indeed could get tedious. Except, as Bill says, she doesn’t tell everything she goes through but compresses and leaps ahead. More to the point for my chapter: the through-story itself is suffused with Stayed’s commentary and reflection on the experience she’s having. She’s not just plodding along and telling us about it, but rather she’s conveying her inner landscape as much as the outer.

In fact, I felt rereading it, that Wild, this narrative-driven book, is just this side of chatty.

I saw why my chapter felt slack, certainly in comparison with Wild but even in regard to my own chapters that preceded it. It featured a sluggish foreground story and a fuzzy expression of the inner story. Each section and its actions and musings seemed isolated, each one a dead-end. I needed more snap to the action, so the narrative didn’t feel like merely “this happened and then this,” just time passing, and I needed more cohesion in the commentary. Most of the content was okay, but the whole pace of the material and its relevance were off.

So I junked my chapter’s opening section, which I loved but which was static. I restored a passage I’d cut that had a lot of action and reflection. Into that passage I integrated several of the previously freestanding sections—Wild has relatively few line breaks but I use them a lot, and to a fault in Chapter Five, I saw—so that the reader sees what to focus on as the story of my farming adventure moves through time. Integrating necessary but less major sections into the opening caused an instant ordering of priorities: the action-packed, reflective opening became the dominant story, the integrated bits obviously secondary, sharpening the chapter’s focus.

I love line breaks (aka space breaks or narrative breaks, white space) but had too many in Chapter Five only because each section was too much an island, cut off by white space. Strayed doesn’t use them much but she uses them well; I was excited by how she used a break within one of her backstory flashback passages. It underscored how line breaks emphasize but also can help meld a narrative, letting it breathe but holding it together and integrating it as a dramatic unit; its use recognized that her readers were into that passage, not as mere filler background but as drama in its own right. That line break showed how cohesive her entire chapter is.

When I began to fold some of my formerly freestanding passages into my new opening section, I added a line break or two within the section; the breaks no longer signaled New Topic Transition but Dramatic Emphasis within an ongoing story.

Next: Wild’s structural deployment of backstory.

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Filed under memoir, REVIEW, revision, structure, working method

My wild summer reading & revising

I took this photo in June in the ruins of Muckross Abbey, Killarney, Ireland. The tree, planted by Franciscan monks almost 600 years ago, is a common yew—used for shrubbery in the U.S.

Writing lessons from Cheryl Strayed’s great memoir, Wild

Find the work that moves you the most deeply and read it over and over again. I’ve had many great teachers, but the most valuable lessons I learned were from writers on the page.—Cheryl Strayed’s third writing precept, from her website

This summer’s blockbuster memoir

I’m sure it’s no accident that right after reading Wild I got the insight to feather memories of my father throughout my memoir in progress. In previous drafts I’d used a couple of chapters to depict him. Dumb. Especially since, years ago, before I even started writing my book, a wise old editor I told about my farming adventure and how it came in the wake of my father’s serial farming adventures said, “Don’t write a whole chapter on him. Have him appear now and then. Like you’re walking across your pasture and you think of him.”

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, currently number one on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, is long and meaty, a traditional yarn; it feels both nakedly sincere and confident in its unguarded honesty, a book with a lot of heart. Just what I’m aiming for myself. But I couldn’t see how Strayed pulled everything off when I first read it in May, though I did see that she wove in her backstory instead of stopping the narrative with chunks and slabs of Vital Background.

Wild depicts a grueling 1,100-mile solo hike Strayed took, in 1995, from southern California to Oregon, dodging bears and rattlesnakes and reading great literature in her tent at night, burning the pages in the morning in her campfire. She’d grown up outdoors but had never backpacked, not once, until she loaded her pack and tried to lift it just before setting out. She couldn’t pick it up, couldn’t budge it from the floor, having stuffed the large pack with so much that it probably weighed north of seventy pounds. She had to squirm into it on the floor and lift with her legs. And her boots were too small. That’s the strong foreground story, a young woman bent with a physical weight and carrying intolerable emotional baggage.

Her backstory about that baggage includes memories of her abusive father, whom her mother divorced when Strayed was six; of being raised by her hippy-ish back-to-the-land horse-loving mother and a crunchy carpenter stepfather in Minnesota; of suffering through her mother’s illness and unexpectedly quick death from lung cancer at age forty-five, when Strayed was a senior in college; of being devastated by grief and by her subsequent affairs, heroin abuse, and divorce; of her picking that new last name, Strayed; of her impulse when at rock bottom to buy a book on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which she’d never heard of and which was thousands of miles to the west of her home in Minneapolis.

Other than noticing that Strayed’s riveting life story was woven into the hike, what struck me the first time I read Wild was how Strayed depicted her affairs in comparison with a gritty essay about them she published in The Sun. At first I thought she wasn’t as graphic because she needed to be more likable for a 315-page book—her couplings went beyond rampant promiscuity into self destruction, considering the damaged and predatory men she picked to pummel her in the depth of her toxic sorrow. But now I’m sure, after reading Wild a second time, that her more elliptical treatment of her affairs was about a choice she made not to bog down the narrative. In the book, she only depicts one, with the man who started her using heroin and who was her and her long-suffering husband’s final straw. After that, Strayed, adulterer and neophyte heroin user, made an extreme and impulsive but life-affirming decision to take a hike to clean herself up.

As a writer she really knows what to delve into and what not. Here’s her entire summation of what happened after she discovered she’d gotten pregnant by the junkie boy—during post breakup sex, alas:

I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink.

That’s it on the abortion, no depiction—because it wasn’t needed (and knowing that as a writer can be so hard; it can take hundreds of pages to see what should have been one line)—though Strayed does recall the abortion on the trail when she realizes one day that it would have been her mother’s fiftieth birthday and that she’d have had her baby about then. She knew she had to become a different woman first, she reflects, and not one trapped by children like her mother was. Strayed then spends much of the day painfully raging at her mother for dying. As a writer she’s unafraid to show herself in a bad light, and we get on her side, root for the straying orphan.

Her plucky persona, that good-girl-gone-bad-trying-to-be good, really worked for me. I marveled at how fast I was devouring Wild—I’ve since heard others say they read it compulsively—even though the thought of donning a backpack made my spinus erectus muscles threaten to spasm, as if trying to protect my farming-ruined and thoroughly age-desiccated vertebrae. I might have been able to carry a pack when I was Strayed’s age when she did it, twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, but I doubt I would have endured the body chafing and pulped feet and six lost toenails that went with it.

She was one tough chick.

Next: Rereading Wild to unlock its intricate construction.

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Filed under honesty, memoir, metaphor, REVIEW, revision, working method

Feeding the hungry writer

Guest Post by Janice Gary

Mavis Gallant, now 90, in her youth

While reading the latest issue of The New Yorker, I came across “The Hunger Diaries,” excerpted entries (March-June, 1952) from the journal of novelist and short story writer Mavis Gallant. From the very first sentence, the writing captivated me, plunging me into a world both exotic and maddeningly boring, a life narrated in cinematic detail by an unforgettable voice.

An armed guard in gray, a church, a wild rocky coast which rushes a steel sea… At Portbou, (I) leave the train…my luggage is inspected by insolent guards…I am caught between a quarreling French couple. Evidently, bringing the baby was her idea – he knew better from the start.

The entries in The New Yorker come from a period when Ms. Gallant was living “hand to mouth” in Spain, having left her husband, her journalism job, and her country to make a life as a writer in Europe. Her training as a reporter is evident in the way she records the sights, sounds and events taking place around her. But the hand of an emerging artist is also evident, both in the beauty of the prose and in the compelling material. This is more than a journal; it is a powerful piece of autobiographical writing.

You can almost hear the rumbling of Gallant’s stomach as she continues to stay the course, typing manuscripts, teaching English and selling her clothes for money. She perseveres, hungering not only for food but for the creative spark to sustain a new novel.

This novel, this bird in my mind, I have carried since Austria, suddenly alighted in Madrid. Sitting in the Café Telefonica, eating a dry bun, I saw one of those girls with the long jaw… and of course, that was the girl in the book.

The rollercoaster quality of the prose takes my breath away. Lyrical in one moment, down to the earth the next, Gallant constantly grounds her writing in the stunning power of the ordinary. The dry bun. The insolent guard. The quarreling couple.

The last few months have been a time of ups and downs in my own writing. The intoxication of being contracted for my first book followed by a disorienting lack of direction. There are long days when I do not write at all, which for a writer is a kind of starvation.

That’s why “The Hunger Diaries” speaks so strongly to me. This is a writer who, although famished most of the time, continues to feed herself with observations and insights. It makes me realize how anorexic I have been these last few months, stubbornly refusing to do what I can, write what I can, about whatever I can.

After reading the essay, I pull out my journal. I write about the unrelenting sun, the sharp cries of osprey circling the sky, the emptiness I feel when I’m not writing. Then I return to Mavis Gallant and devour her writing, awed by the strange and wonderful way we writers feed ourselves – and each other – with words.

Editor’s Note: There’s an interesting 1999 Paris Review interview with Mavis Gallant available online.

Janice Gary

Janice Gary lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is due out from Michigan State University Press in 2013.

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Filed under fiction, journalism, NOTED, working method

Anthony Lane on the latest Spider-film

This is the first paragraph of Anthony Lane’s review in this week’s New Yorker:

When someone reboots a film franchise, as the makers of “The Amazing Spider-Man” have done, what are we meant to think of the original boot? The first “Spider-Man” came out in 2002, followed by its obligatory sequels in 2004 and 2007. If you are a twenty-year-old male of unvarnished social aptitude, those movies will seem like much-loved classics that have eaten up half your lifetime. They beg to be interpreted anew, just as Shakespeare’s history plays should be freshly staged by every generation. For those of us who are lavishly cobwebbed with time, however, the notion of yet another Spider-Man saga, this soon, does seem hasty, and I wish that the good people—or, at any rate, the patent lawyers—at Marvel Comics could at least have taken the opportunity to elide the intensely annoying hyphen in the title. Or does merely suggesting such a change make me a total ass-hole?

One of the worst things about my kids being grown is that I don’t have to see this movie, and so of course won’t, but I remember fondly my son’s obsession with Spidey, and how with him I enjoyed Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the “original” ten years ago.

Even though I’m more a Batman guy, myself.

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Filed under film/photography, humor, Lane—Prince Anthony, punctuation

The creator’s dilemma

For the businessperson you love . . .

I used to consider the use of test audiences as Exhibit A that movies are an inferior art form—talk about lowest common denominator! plus there’s no such thing as art by committee!—then it occurred to me that I and most writers do the equivalent. All our friends’ reactions, our workshopping at conferences, our submissions to editors and agents, and our use of prose doctors of various kinds amounts to exactly the same thing, a big fat test audience.

The movie folks’ practice is so much more efficient and focused. After all, each reader offers a writer advice that falls neatly into three categories: brilliant, maybe, and crazy. Getting all one’s test readers together at once would allow you to parse the categories faster and see what’s what. Okay, I admit it, the flashback in Chapter Two doesn’t work. Of course, what writers do is more like if the movie people had only other moviemakers in the audience, not a carefully chosen demographic of actual civilian watchers. Does writing, as a superior art form, need to be vetted by a guild before it’s offered to civilians? Probably. I think every art is first vetted by practitioners.

A collaborative art like film is vetted intensely during the making itself. Plus the script, the invisible heart of the visual spectacle, was surely doctored by a guild of writers, directors, and producers. I tend to envy the more collaborative art forms, especially drama and film, because they look like such fun compared to sitting alone in a room typing. Then this week I happened to read the recent story in The New York Times Magazine by Joel Lovell about writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me). Lonergan’s purported new masterpiece, the film Margaret, has been hung up and was almost destroyed by interference in the editing room by one of its impatient financiers. Love the devil you know . . .

But regarding fruitful collaboration, one of the interesting stories in Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, concerns an academic study of great musicals. It turns out that the smash hits during some golden period being studied were made by regular collaborators—creative teams, in effect, but which included a few outsiders with fresh approaches. The latter was key: unchanging teams couldn’t produce a Broadway hit any more than rookie teams could.

Related to this, Lehrer makes an obvious but true and always interesting point about writing, specifically revision: 

Although we live in a world that worships insiders, it turns out that gathering such expertise takes a toll on creativity. To struggle at anything is to become too familiar with it, memorizing details and internalizing flaws. It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing a city park or a shoot-‘em-up video game, whether you’re choreographing a ballet or a business conference: you must constantly try to forget what you already know.

This is one of the central challenges of writing. A writer has to read his sentences again and again. (Such are the inefficiencies of editing.) The problem with this process is that he very quickly loses the ability to see his prose as a reader and not as the writer. He knows exactly what he is trying to say, but that’s because he’s the one saying it. In order to construct a clear sentence or a coherent narrative, he needs to edit as if he knows nothing, as if he’s never seen these words before.

This is an outsider problem—the writer must become an outsider to his own work. When he escapes from the privileged position of author, he can suddenly see all those imprecise clauses and unnecessary flourishes; he can feel the weak parts of the story and the slow spots in the prose. That’s why the novelist Zadie Smith, in an essay on the craft of writing, stresses the importance of putting aside one’s prose and allowing the passage of time to work its amnesiac magic.

The weakness of Imagine, by the way, is the flip side of its strength, that it’s a collection of brilliant New Yorker magazine articles smooshed together into a book. Each story has its characters, its scenes, and its focus on the same topic, creativity, but there’s no overall cohesion, no narrative building across the book. I can see why such books are bestsellers—inherently interesting, short, digestible, surprising bits, with a self-improvement vibe—paint your room blue to be more creative!—and I enjoyed parts of it but found it very forgettable.

And yet, to be honest, I was trying to raid Imagine personally, and there’s a lot in it that I imagine businesspeople might make good use of. Such as the importance of water cooler talk, and therefore of office design; of bringing in outsiders with left-field ideas; of forgetting brainstorming meetings in favor of those in which new ideas are entertained, yes, but critically. The last like a short version of the long, slow bruising writers endure as they share their drafts.

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Filed under editing, film/photography, journalism, narrative, NOTED, REVIEW, revision, working method

A deeply processed tribute to Nora Ephron. I admire it.

Superhero Underpants

I will miss you.

In today’s New York Times obit, Meryl Streep is quoted as calling you “stalwart.” Stalwart is something I’ve never been.

You weren’t a whiner.

I am.

I don’t like that about myself, but obviously not enough to make great inroads into changing. Husbot bears the brunt of it. But this is not a whiny post. This is about how you affected–and still affect–my life.

I remember when Mbot was six months old and I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, that I came upon a profile of you in The New Yorker. For a couple of months after reading the profile, I sucked it up. I kept my mouth shut when I wanted to whine. I looked on the bright side. I had more confidence in myself. I didn’t mind making enemies for the sake of saying something I believed. Yet at the same time…

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Filed under blogging, humor, NOTED, Uncategorized