Category Archives: design

A novel on memory, story & alibi

A colleague here at Otterbein University, Noam Shpancer, a psychologist, has just hit the big time at age fifty-one with his first novel, The Good Psychologist. Early reviews are positive to raves: Kirkus gave it a starred notice, Alan Cheuse reviewed it on NPR, and the Boston Globe called it “extraordinary” and “a rare gift.” Bought by Henry Holt at an auction conducted by Noam’s agent, the story is about a therapist who’s treating a stripper with stage fright. And it’s about the psychologist’s own complicated love life. Another plot concerns the therapist’s night class at a college where he’s an adjunct instructor trying to change the way students think about thought, emotions, and memory.

The good psychologist deals with story and identity, he announces. And he who deals with story and identity deals with memory. All your events and experiences, all your insights and history, all that is bound and wrapped into your notion of I—it all depends on memory. That’s why it is important to know something about memory processes. Most people know nothing about memory, and if they have any idea, then it is usually wrong. Your own understanding of memory, we may therefore assume, is faulty, and our job is to correct it. He waves his chalk in front of them. . . .

You, the psychologist says, looking over the room, may believe that memory is but a video recording that is documenting the days of our lives as they happen and storing them in the brain’s archives. This is a common assumption and an intuitive metaphor, not lacking in elegance: the brain is a library in which the tales of our times are bound and housed; a beautiful metaphor, but, alas, erroneous and misleading. Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such it is made of storytelling materials: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness. He steps forward with practiced theatricality.

 

Israel edition

 

A stripper did show up years ago seeking Noam’s help for her sudden fear of exposure, he says, but she never returned. Her problem intrigued him. He began to imagine a psychologist with such a client, a psychologist with his own problems, and to think about the man’s quirky students and his pontificating before them. Noam says he wanted three narrative threads and piled up notes and ideas about each before beginning to write. He wrote 1,000 words a day and finished in five months. (Noam also blogs: His “Insight Therapy” is hosted by Psychology Today.)

He wrote the first draft in Hebrew, his native language—he grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and didn’t learn English until he was sixteen—and sold the novel first in Israel. His agent was having a drink with an American agent and mentioned this novel “that might do well in America.” One thing led to another. A play based on the book is being prepared in Israel, and there’s talk of a movie in America.

“It’s all serendipity,” Noam says. “I don’t think of myself as a Writer. My ego isn’t based on this. I have two more novels I want to write. I had a good life and was

 

2nd Israel edition

 

happy.” He adds, “I read mostly poetry, and I write some. I’m a visual person. Instead of reading a novel I’ll go to a museum or watch a movie. . . . This novel is an indie movie.”

He seems a natural writer. I devoured The Good Psychologist in three sittings, admiring its spare language and exposition—“I believe less is more,” Noam says—and was intrigued by the inner life of the psychologist and by the book’s interwoven structure. It’s a literary novel that moves almost as fast as a summer beach book, which is probably why it’s also been sold in Italy, Germany, and Great Britain. As a memoirist I twigged to the enigmatic psychologist’s thoughts on memory and inner narratives.

. . . [N]ow we choose to meet the client with humility and purpose, to try to understand her story. Alas, here we should be beware, because the client will always begin with her alibi, not her story, even though her very presence in your office is evidence that her alibi has been ineffective. We do what we know. And people know their alibi much better than their story; since one’s alibi has daily uses while one’s story—who wants it? Moreover the client’s story, because it is human, contains painful elements, territories of failure and disaster. Naturally she will seek to distance herself from those and keep away others as well, for self-protection, or out of compassion or good manners. And that’s the job of the alibi: to deny, to distract and conceal and in doing so make life more bearable for the client and those around her. So your eventual work in therapy will be to walk the client from alibi to story; from the headline to the event itself. But first, the client’s alibi also allows them to test you.

Test what? the pink-haired girl asks.

Two things: whether you’ll buy the alibi, in which case you’re useless, and whether, if you refuse to buy it, you’ll resent the client for offering it, in which case you’re dangerous.

You’re cynical, Jennifer says.

Not necessarily. Perhaps clear-eyed. The first thing your client says is always a lie in essence, always impure. And this is not to condemn the client. Distorting and hiding the truth are, after all, essential life skills. Thus digging for truth in the context of therapy does not involve rejecting the lie, tarnishing the lie, or getting rid of it, but rather a deeper acceptance and understanding that includes the lie. Therapy is not a journey from lie to truth, from darkness to light, but an attempt to find the right balance between them. That’s why it’s important to grasp the value of the lie and its uses. . . .

The lie, it turns out, is not a bug in our software but a feature of our hardware. And the good psychologist can get to know it, learn its ways.

Of course the Zen-like psychologist seems rather passive in his own life—can he use his knowledge to save the stripper and himself?

The editing process sparked differences between the Israeli and American editions. Noam was amused by his Israeli editor, who said readers would wonder

 

U.K. & Commonwealth edition

 

why the man wasn’t talking to his mother; the editor also found the students oddly passive, maybe stupid. “These are Midwestern students,” Noam laughs. But he made them more complex and contentious, and gave the psychologist a backstory—with parents, albeit dead. His New York editor made him condense the psychologist’s lectures that Noam knew Israeli audiences would savor. “But then she wanted me to change the ending,” Noam says. “She said Americans like resolution. I said, ‘I’ll do anything you want, but not that.’ The ending is the best I can do.”

I hope Hollywood makes a movie of The Good Psychologist—and wonder if I’ll recognize the story at all once the stars and their agents, the scriptwriters and the director, are through. But I suspect Noam, regardless, will just shrug and smile.

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Filed under audience, braids, threads, design, editing, fiction, memoir, NOTED, REVIEW, working method

Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty and faded; their heavy foliage sags, their branches storm-wracked. The other day, looking out my window at the parched lawn, I saw a spatter of yellow leaves twirling above the grass. It was elegiac. I know we’re supposed to love the back-to-school frenzy, but I don’t. And I’ve always hated the end of summer. I couldn’t help but reflect.

Years ago, an author of many books said to me during an interview, “It’s not that I’m talented or hard working, but I can sit there hour after hour. A lot of people can’t do it. They’re smart, talented but just can’t.” I learned to my relief that I could do that, sit there, usually five days a week though often six and sometimes seven. Longer breaks are dangerous: for each day away it takes a day to get back in—vacations can derail a book. My optimum keyboard stint seems to be three hours. If writing is going well, my brains are mush after three; if the writing is hard, I’ve suffered enough. I yearn to be a four-hour man, though. I treasure the memory of one inspired day when I put in eleven hours (I’ve since cut that chapter). I also discovered how much I enjoy solitude. And how, if I did have a whole day, I could pass it happily writing, reading, editing. Such productive bliss is addicting. The day passes in a blur. But, on a really hard day, three hours takes an eternity. Better to switch to editing.

Early on, about that first November, there came a day when I hit a problem I hadn’t faced and didn’t understand—now I see it was dramatizing a particular event, bringing it to life, when I had some memories but some gaps and too few images. I had a little meltdown. I thought I couldn’t write the book, and sent Kathy a despairing email, which she wisely ignored. Then, later in the winter, I ran to my desk each morning to write another chapter. So the average day during initial composition was pretty good. I learned that my page-production speed was about one sheet an hour. Three pages for three hours. Getting four pages a day was, and would be, heaven. But, as someone pointed out, if you faithfully write only a page a day, in a year you’ve piled up 365 pages—a book.

It took me a year and a half to finish, but my first manuscript draft was 500 pages. My goal had been 300; it took work to pare it down. Which reminds me of a rule of thumb I learned in book publishing for estimating the length of a book from its typed or printed-out manuscript pages: Take the number of printed pages and multiply them by .887. So 300 pages x .887 = a 263-page book, which is a nice, optimum-upper length for most publishers. This formula is based on a book with a 6 x 9 size and typical design format.

Five years. If I had a manuscript three and a half years ago, what gives? Well, I’ve rewritten, polished, and cut every sentence, paragraph, and passage many times. And now I’m on my fourth whole-book rewrite. Not to be defensive, but I like Annie Dillard’s rule of thumb: for someone not a genius, it takes two to ten years to write a publishable book. That’s an average of six years, which is what I’m on track for, with luck. I know people who have done it in much less, but if they write more than one book I suspect Dillard’s average will apply. A screenwriter I know said he was almost ruined for life by his first play, which poured out of him right after he got his MFA; it won an award and was produced in London; it’s never gone that way again. And a full-time writer of popular young adult novels told me that after she’d been writing for years a “gift” book just flowed out of her. She said it would have destroyed her if it had been her first book because the others aren’t ever that easy.

I could have shaved years off my process if I only knew then what I know now. I was fifty when I started, and although I’d been an “award-winning journalist,” as they say, and a magazine writer, gardening columnist, occasional essayist, book reviewer, and book publisher, I hadn’t written a book. It’s true that the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write one. Reading helps, but mostly the reading you do while you are writing. On the plus side, I had desire, a pretty good story, notes and ideas, and a strong voice. But I didn’t fully understand dramatic structures, especially classical three-act structure. Trying to figure out how to cut my monster by 200 pages, I read Philip Gerard’s useful Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, which indicates that after your second-act climax, a dramatic narrative should wrap up quickly because its audience is dying to find out what happens in the final act.

I happened to watch the 1953 western Shane that summer and saw it was a beautiful example of classical three-act structure. A mysterious stranger, Shane, played by Alan Ladd, gets hired by a sodbuster, and the bad guys, cattlemen, immediately show up to threaten them—first act climax. In the long second act, Shane befriends the sodbuster’s son and demonstrates his shooting prowess, and when the thugs kill a hapless farmer Shane pummels the sodbuster to prevent his trying to seek revenge, then heads off to fight them himself—boom, big second act climax. In the short third act, Shane rides into town for the showdown, kills the hired gunslinger, played with reptilian menance by Jack Palance, is wounded himself and fades into the hills, to die or to rise again. The climaxes flow from each other, and with a certain rhythm.

I saw that after my second act climax—I get badly injured on the farm—essentially I started the story over again and took my sweet time getting to that third act resolution. As if Shane, instead of going after the gunslinger who’d just murdered, had dawdled and diddled around on the farm, perfecting his plowing.

My next major lesson was realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and the power of dramatized presentation—scenes—to convey experience. Like many a rookie writer, I leaned too hard on summary—and, let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful, and much harder to write. Yep, show don’t tell. Also I wasn’t driving enough narrative threads through the entire book; I did that with the development of the protagonist, me, and with the book’s villain, but not with many other themes. I tended to write each chapter almost as a stand-alone essay. In Chapter Ten, say, I’d introduce a character and dispose of him in a big event, when the reader should have met him in Chapter Two. It’s amazing how readers love you for having them remember what you told them. They’ve seen a character in action, made their own judgment about him, and then, hey, here he is again! Like life. But now I sometimes feel I’m planting little timed-release land mines for readers, and that’s difficult when the first mentions feel thin, as if they’re just being done to set up a payoff. I sit and stare, trying to figure out what’s interesting in a first meeting or a minor event and where it might fit just so in the narrative chronology. Finally, if I can’t solve the puzzle, the subconscious will pitch in to help—after I’ve sufficiently suffered.

In addition to nailing down the balance between scene and summary, the memoirist must reflect. This has been another late and more subtle tweak, this differentiating between the writer now, at his desk, who’s telling the story and sometimes musing on it, versus the character in the story—the narrator’s earlier self—who doesn’t know what’s going to happen or even, sometimes, what is happening. Not wanting to kill narrative drama, I had too little reflection. Memoirs vary widely in their balance among scene, summary, and reflection, but especially in the amount and the nature of the writer’s reflecting upon meaning.

Five years. I tell myself that I must learn to love process because, like life, writing a book is process. I’d never have believed when I started that I could rework for four or five years what took me a year and a half to write. “That’s the fun part,” a writer said, implying ease. It’s true that the raw material is mostly now available, but I’ve found the last two rewrites hard work. Seemingly harder than initial creation—my ignorance was indeed bliss—but it’s getting difficult to remember. I’m more aware of narrative techniques, and more in command of them, but more challenged. Such strong, humble tools still twist in my clumsy hands. I now fully subscribe to the truism that writing is rewriting, though I think an experienced book writer could have done it in half the time or less, in three drafts.

But oh, my sentences! After two years they were better, more fluent and varied. Yet I’ve discovered that I desire them lyrical, every one poetic, and sustaining lyricism has been impossible for me in this long narrative. And to strain for it risks purple prose. So I feel at some level a plodding failure. Sometimes I go to an admired book just to see how plain most of the sentences are—not what I remembered at all—but then I notice their rhythm, their flow. Thankfully I’ve also learned how much I love making, and remaking, sentences. How much difference one or two sentences more, or less, can make in a paragraph. How you see that a passage wasn’t as clunky as you’d feared, but that another wasn’t as soaring. How in time you can hardly tell inspiration apart from perseverance.

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Filed under braids, threads, design, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, editing, film/photography, flow, memoir, MY LIFE, scene, structure, syntax, working method

Dinty’s Google Maps essay

Not especially funny or witty myself, perhaps that’s why I admire those who are: I must have opened my blog a half dozen times today to read the first sentence by Anthony Lane in the post below this. Then tonight I read it—again—to my wife and laughed, again. It’s one of the wittiest sentences I’ve ever read. Lane’s  follow-up quip is pure gravy.

“It got a rise out of Dinty, too,” I told Kathy. “He left a comment today on that post.”

“He did?”

“Yes—and, oh, did I show you his Google Maps essay about his bizarre encounters with George Plimpton? Dinty, when he was a drug-addled student, was sent to pick up Plimpton at the airport . . .”

So I showed her, and we cackled. Which made me realize I need to share with you Dinty W. Moore’s “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” the cleverest experimental essay I’ve ever read.

We await with bated breath his tale of breakfasting with Grace Kelly. Meantime, if you haven’t seen Rear Window lately, watch it for its beautiful structure—and for hers; plus she was adorable to a criminal degree, even when dealing with Jimmy Stewart’s character, who was pretty much a big jerk.

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Filed under design, essay-narrative, experimental, humor, Lane—Prince Anthony, memoir, NOTED

Finding a font for our words

The New Yorker online recently excerpted a passage from Jonathan Lethem’s new novel Chronic City concerning a man who believes his mind to be controlled by the magazine’s font. This mention allowed The New Yorker to reveal:

“Fiction editor Deborah Treisman expounded a bit on the font (it’s ACaslon Regular), and how it factors into the story selection process: Often when we’re reading stories, and thinking about them and editing them, we’ll say, ‘Let’s go ahead and put it in the font.’ It’s a sort of test marker. It makes things much more official. You get it in there and suddenly it looks much better, or sometimes it looks much worse.”

I had Big Caslon in my font menu but not Adobe’s ACaslon Regular, and I love the New Yorker’s elegant font so I bought it and downloaded it. I wrote this post in it, in hopes of increasing my eloquence. So far, I’ve wasted twenty-five bucks. It is a gorgeous font even on screen, though boldface is hardly distinguishable in it.

People are funny about fonts. An editor once changed my typeface from Times to Times New Roman and seemed fairly self-righteous about it, as if every professional knows the latter is the only acceptable font. He’s published a lot and for all I know he’s right, but somewhere along the line I got the idea that good old Times was that gold standard. The two fonts are very similar but Times New Roman is slightly larger. His font was his talisman, as if a publisher would snarl at work submitted in mere Times (and flee from something as crass as Helvetica). Publishers are going to pick their own fonts in the end.

I think the font we usually write in is the one that we get used to and that feels right to us. Or just long use itself makes it feel correct. Often I feel uncomfortable and vaguely disloyal with fonts other than the Times family. I like serifs, their elegance and ease on the eye, plus their widespread use in periodical and book publishing.  But I sometimes put an essay in a sans serif script to see it in a new way.

I usually draft blog posts in Gill Sans, a sans serif font that feels right for my changeup to the blog. Its lines are beautiful to me and its bold type is wonderfully thick and meaty. I’ve used it for a few essays since a friend sent me something she wrote in it. Of course when I paste Gill Sans copy into the blog’s setup it converts it to WordPress’s choice of font, which is a decent serif, Times-ish or in that family.

Anne Rice recently told The Wall Street Journal she writes in 14 point Courier, which is the font that approximates typewritten copy; it’s a large serif font, even in standard 12 point, because each letter gets the same spacing—an “i” allowed the space same as an “M,” as a typewriter would—and so it’s also airy. Her widescreen Apple monitor is just filled with her words.

I have enlarged my Times to 14 on occasion, and once to 16, for printing out; seeing the words so large helps pick out and cut the useless ones. But while composing usually I just use Word’s zoom function under View and enlarge the document to 175 percent—that’s what works on my new MacBook and at the distance I sit when I write.

Last week a freelancer friend sent me a draft of a magazine article of his to read; I was surprised when I opened it to see it was thirty pages long. Then I noticed the type seemed awfully large, and it had opened at only 100 percent. I checked the font and found that he’d used a sans serif called Lucinda Grande, which was enlarged to 18 point. I asked why he picked that font (“At random,” he replied) and size (“Because it’s easy to see”). “I still don’t know how to use Word,” he added, “and, in fact, write in Text/Edit so Bill Gates isn’t trying to outguess my spelling, grammar and formatting.”

Most of us are locked into Word for various reasons, though, so picking our font is our degree of freedom. As I’ve said, font choice seems very personal and most writers may have emotional connections to their chosen one, my friend apparently excepted (I’ll bet he would have rejected a font that didn’t feel right to him, though). Let’s face it: every writer wants to be a font, of words, of wisdom, of beauty, of pity.

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Filed under aesthetics, design, working method

Death to dingbats!

Reading an elegant memoir this week, I became annoyed with the dingbats the publisher inserted in the author’s line breaks, the white spaces he used as transitions between sections in chapters. A dingbat, in this case a set of three square blocks, is “an ornamental piece of type for borders, separators, decorations,” says Dictionary.com. That’s the third definition—the first is “an eccentric, silly, or empty-headed person” and the second is “dingus,” a “gadget, device, or object whose name is unknown or forgotten.”

Amen. The dumb things arose in the age of hot lead type, an era of imprecise technology and poor communication, to safeguard authors’ intentional white space from harried printers in the back shop. Now dingbats traduce this important authorial decision. Clearly they’ve outlived whatever usefulness they possessed, something evolution tried, like tailfins on Cadillacs, that was excessive, grew vestigial, and faded. Except of course in newspapers, where dingbats are used to insult normal readers by shouting that a mistake isn’t being made.

In short, dingbats are moronic. And yet some book publishers still reflexively put the damn things in whenever a writer hits an extra return and pauses for breath. Tradition is at work, but mindlessly, which is my real beef. Melville used only four line breaks, by my count, in all of Moby-Dick, and the novel’s printer used five bristling asterisks in each break.

With the poetic influence of lyric essays growing, even many traditional writers are using white space to set up a mere line or two—and dingbats bracketing such liminal space are grotesque. (Somehow poets survive without dingbats after every stanza.) Dingbats deface the text and the writer’s intent to use white space as a resonant pause full of meaning and implied narrative. The white space is counterpoint, the ball hanging in the clear air before the racket’s downward thwock.

I’m supportive of dingbats used to separate sections in block-style paragraph format where most white space is simply a paragraph indicator, as on this blog, and dingbats (or numerals) can telegraph a more significant transition. Like so:

*      *      *      *      *

There, my jihad against dingbats is launched. Admittedly a number of publishers already do without them. But I expect slow dingbat extirpation because design is a realm that authors are ignorant of, or which they cede, and publishers refrain from soliciting design preferences from writers.

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Filed under aesthetics, design, editing, essay-lyric, journalism, structure

That sweet white space

The line break, an extra return after a paragraph that adds white space to a text, has practical and dramatic uses I was slow to understand. I was proud of my verbal transitions, and physical ones seemed like cheating. It took me a while to transcend my guilt, undoubtedly forged in newspapers where column-inches are precious.

But verbal transitions can be lame—they are artificial devices themselves windowblogand often clunky—and line breaks do more than indicate a major shift of location or time: they underscore the material where the break ends. That white space is a dramatic transition and a resonant pause filled with meaning and its own kind of content, a space pregnant with time’s passage and unstated events.

In his essay “This is What the White Spaces Say,” the writer and nonfiction writing theorist Robert Root discusses today’s segmented essay in which the line break is a significant element in the composition. “Segmented essays . . . depend on space, usually expressed as numbers or rows of asterisks or squiggly lines or white breaks in text, as a fundamental element of design and expression,” he writes. “. . . Like musical compositions, nonfiction need not be one uninterrupted melody, one movement, but can also be the arrangement of distinct and discrete miniatures, changes of tempo, sonority, melody, separated by silences.”

My students love trying the technique and discussing their thinking about where and why they’ve used breaks. (One girl confessed they seem like cheating to her, so this Puritanism isn’t just mine.) Undergraduates may miss the rhythm involved, and some happily hit an extra return after every single paragraph in an otherwise linear traditional essay. Students also like to put a dingbat of some sort in the white space, which I dislike but rarely mention. With today’s nonfiction writers using more white space, the unnecessary philodendron leaves or flowers or chuffy hogs that some publishers stick there can annoy. Asterisks are bad enough.

Perhaps the most basic reason for line breaks in traditional work is that they give readers an island where they might rest amidst a sea of dense type. Which raises the question of how white space is used in America’s greatest novel, Moby-Dick, which sprawls to 654 pages in the copy I own. In the book, white represents a hostile blankness epitomizing the indifference of the universe, so one wonders if Melville would dare employ white pauses, and if typographic conventions of the day were a factor when the book was published in 1851. Moby-Dick is famous for its 135 chapters, many of them very short; and Melville regularly ended a chapter and began the next as an almost-seamless continuation—a perfect place for a line break transition.

But . . . he does use line breaks, about four, and the short chapters supply even more emphasis and resonance than mere pauses. (In fact, one famous chapter, 122, is only four lines and is itself mostly white space.) To Melville, the matter was organic, as he explains in the opening of Chapter 63: “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

Melville employs his  line breaks in the way we do. The first doesn’t appear, by my count, until page 234, in the middle of the short chapter “The Mat-Maker.” His white spaces aren’t completely empty, as they bristle with five asterisks harpooned across their modest wake. The publisher’s unfortunate decision? Maybe not, because there’s a strange place in Chapter 54 where four asterisks trail a sentence, telegraphing a break typographically, not physically—yet another innovation, an ugly one. I wonder if Melville drew them into his draft, though technically dingbats are the publisher’s lookout, at least nowadays, and I think a pure uncluttered white space there would be better. Yet preserve Moby-Dick with such eccentricities: Melville also uses the dash like we do—but sometimes like this,—with that comma, or sometimes a semicolon, before the dash. That’s the nineteenth-century showing in this startlingly modern book. Dash-wise, Melville may seem caught typographically in the evolutionary middle, halfway out of the sea, so to speak; but there were reasons for his variance, subtle in the case of the comma; the semicolon and dash pair makes more obvious sense: a pause;—and then a leap. We’ve largely abandoned that flexibility and have stripped to the plain dash; and to wider, more frequent, and less ornamented white spaces.

These may be small matters in a masterpiece. Yet white space is a powerful structural device and, as I like to tell students, structure is what writers talk about when they talk about writing.

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Filed under craft, technique, design, essay-lyric, fiction, journalism, structure, teaching, education