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Richard Russo on his new memoir, Elsewhere.

For some reason, I put in a standing order a long time ago for Richard Russo’s Elsewhere: A Memoir, and now here it sits on my coffee table, a book, it turns out, about his close but conflicted relationship with his mother. Maybe I was eager because I enjoyed Empire Falls, or maybe I was curious at the time about what an acclaimed novelist would do in his first work of nonfiction.

Anyway, it was ages ago that I committed to this book, and I’ve read so many memoirs since, increasingly ones checked out from the library. I’ve realized they’re like novels—you can’t keep up, can’t read them all; I only bought Cheryl Strayed’s Wild after reading a library copy—but here on my table, for some reason, is this one, a handsome book.

In conjunction’s with his memoir’s release Russo has given an interview to The New York Times in which he says several interesting things, including this on the role in memoir of selection and dramatization in scene:

I think the best memoirs read like novels, which means, among other things, that the writer must decide what fits the narrative arc and what doesn’t. The fact that something actually happened doesn’t mean it should be included. A memoirist isn’t free to invent, but the shape of the story is up to him. He decides—as in a novel—how and where the story begins (near the end, in this case). He also chooses, just as a novelist does, when to summarize and when time should slow down for a dramatic scene.


Memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert on being a lifelong writer

My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. —Elizabeth Gilbert, in her Rumpus interview

Speaking of conflicted feelings, I had them about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—like a subset of other readers, for me its veiled calculation curdled some of the book’s pleasures—but admired her writing ability. I found inspiring her recent wide-ranging interview with Rachel Khong for The Rumpus.

She discusses her new historical hovel, her writerly girlhood, and her years, while learning to write fiction, of bartending and waitressing and her wasting time in “fucked-up emotional psychosexual dramas,” so that it’d take her almost a year to write one short story. A big breakthrough came with her GQ article, about a bar she worked at and where she’d set a short story, which led to the movie Coyote Ugly.

Gilbert (or Cousin Liz, as I call her—no relation) is really good on keeping going as a writer, and she answers her critics of Eat, Pray, Love and those of its follow-up, Committed. An excerpt:

It does get to me sometimes. Of course it does. Because writing is everything to me. Publishing wasn’t everything. Writing was everything. And I accidentally made this bestseller. It wasn’t my intention. And to be honest, it felt like a big risk for what I had of a career. Because prior to that point, if I was known at all, I was known as the tough-writing woman who was the only girl in the room. I quit my really good job at GQ to go traveling that year, and they couldn’t promise me that I could have that job back. I’d earned a certain amount of credibility that I knew I was endangering by speaking with such emotional candor. All the guys that I hung out with at GQ I was thinking about as I was writing Eat, Pray, Love. . . . It was a really emotionally honest attempt, and it was a really literarily honest attempt, too, as a book, and for every person who’s snarky about it, there are several thousand whose lives were altered by it, in ways that were very real, and when I meet those women and they tell me their stories and they tell me what that book did for them, or did to them, those stories are profoundly real, and they’re far more real than a gripe-y blogger. Of course the gripe-y blogger has a real life, as well. But I’ve met those women and I’ve spoken to them and I’ve seen this great opening this book gave them to start to consider questions in their own lives about what they deserve, and what they want, and what they want to seek. That’s a solace. . . .

It’s almost like Committed was the sacrificial book. I’m very fond of it and it’s very dear to me for that reason, because it went out into that aftermath and allowed itself to absorb all the disappointment and all the attacks from people who’d had years of frustration about how much they hated Eat, Pray, Love build up, and they needed to get it out on their blogs—it just took all of those slings and arrows. But then it was distracting everybody, and I got to go off and write a novel about 19th century botanical exploration! And so Committedpermitted me to write this book. I feel like that’s why you have to keep working, because you never know what your one project will open up for you, for your next one. You owe it to the project that wants to be born next to get this one finished, so that you can do the next one. You just have to keep the assembly line going. I know I make it sound like it’s always been a ball, but it hasn’t always been a pleasure. Sometimes it’s been painful. But it’s mostly been a pleasure.

 

The definitive account of the fall of Jonah Lehrer

. . . Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out.—Boris Kachka, New York magazine

Kachka’s rather amazing New York article,Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer” is about how Lehrer, whose unraveling began when some obsessives noticed he’d made up some quotes by Bob Dylan for his book on creativity, Imagine, represents the end stage of a new evolutionary beast:

In the world of magazines, of course, none of us is immune to slickness or oversimplification—New York included. But two things make Lehrer’s glibness especially problematic, and especially representative. First, conferences and corporate speaking gigs have helped replace the ­journalist-as-translator with the journalist-as-sage; in a magazine profile, the scientist stands out, but in a TED talk, the speaker does. And second, the scientific fields that are the most exciting to today’s writers—neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics—are fashionable despite, or perhaps because of, their newness, which makes breakthrough findings both thrilling and unreliable. In these fields, in which shiny new insights so rarely pan out, every popularizer must be, almost by definition, a huckster. When science doesn’t give us the answers we want, we find someone who will.

The contrast between Elizabeth Gilbert’s slogging apprenticeship as a writer and Lehrer’s as a science journalist is striking. He’d studied to be a scientist, apparently, or at least majored in neuroscience at Columbia, and then won a Rhodes Scholarship and wrote a book. At some point, he saw he could translate science to a big audience. Just as Malcolm Gladwell raids social science, he could plunder the harder stuff.

But as Kachka points out, no one, not even a genius, let alone the merely brilliant, could do everything Lehrer was trying to do as a leading practitioner of  “this new guard of nonspecialist Insight peddlers.”

 

The almost-definitive account of David Foster Wallace & his demons

David Foster Wallace’s suicide was the greatest literary tragedy since John Berryman flung himself from a Minneapolis bridge in 1972. The pain of mental illness and drug addiction constituted a frightful part of who he was. Out of that pain and his efforts to purify and to heal himself he wrote one of the most remarkable novels of our time. To say it reaches the heights of Joyce or Dostoevsky is going too far, but it will stand, and it has something crucial to teach generations of readers about how to live, even with terrible pain they might think they cannot endure.—Algis Valiunas, “King of Pain”

I say almost because it will never end. Obviously.

But Algis Valiunas’s “King of Pain,” for the website of the Claremont Institute, while another baby-whale retrospective on the late writer, is impressive and interesting; it addresses what kind of person he was, his long but productive apprenticeship, his moral vision, his mature writing and especially Infinite Jest, and the depression that killed him.

For anyone with any interest in Wallace as a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist, it’s well worth reading.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, scene

The 10,000-hour rule of thumb

Listen, do you want to know a secret?

Do you promise not to tell?

Closer, let me whisper in your ear . . .

—“Do You Want to Know a Secret,” from Please Please Me, 1963

By the time the Beatles brought the “British Invasion” to America, in February 1964, and my family watched them on the Ed Sullivan Show, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been playing together for seven years. By a fluke, in 1960, “when they were still just a struggling high school rock band,” notes Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success, “they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany.”

What was special about Hamburg was the sheer amount of time the teenagers were forced to play in the city’s sleazy bars—as long as eight hours at a stretch—seven nights a week. Gladwell explains:

M. Gladwell, not A. Garfunkel

 The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg gigs, in November and December of 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.

They were getting better all the time. They covered every song and type of song and they improvised and they started writing their own material. They were still young men when, after ten years, they produced their greatest works, including “the white album,” Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road.

Gladwell’s relevant point from Outliers is that any mastery, regardless of talent, takes 10,000 hours of effort, or about ten years. Writers, artists, immerse! If you’re just starting your apprenticeship, you have ten years to learn to paint your masterpiece—as you make it. Sixty-, seventy-, and eighty-year-olds are doing it. I’m certain that it happens all the time.

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Filed under immersion, NOTED, working method

Charlotte Roche, Mick Jagger, creativity

Charlotte Roche introduces her interview with Mick Jagger in German, then talks with him in English.

Charlotte Roche is the author of Wetlands, a novel, according to The Guardian, that “makes the Vagina Monologues sound tame,” and which has been a big hit in Europe, especially in Germany, where the author lives. I’d heard about it and how disgusting it is, but hadn’t read it until recently, intrigued by a student’s struggle to review it on campus for a literary journal.

And I can confirm: Wetlands is uber gross.

It’s also a genuine work of art. Just don’t plan to eat while you’re reading it—the student’s warning, now mine.  The story involves a teenage girl, one Helen Memel, who is in the hospital for rectal surgery, necessary due to an infection acquired from a shaving mishap. And that situation, as graphic as it becomes, isn’t one of the book’s particularly newsworthy bits, although the story flows, as it were, from it. Roche sets the tone in the novel’s first sentence:

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had hemorrhoids.

Helen’s intimate habits, as revealed by her behavior in the hospital and in her inner musings and flashbacks, are truly nauseating—I can’t bear even to summarize them. But as the novel unfolds, we learn why she’s disturbed. Thankfully her voice, which narrates Wetlands, is sane and funny. I was impressed how one character’s voice and viewpoint could so easily carry the 229-page novel, as could its one setting and limited time frame: the book opens with Helen about to go under the knife and proceeds through her recovery and her intentional setback, a bloody self injury harrowing to read.

Roche was born to British parents, who moved her to Germany when she was eight, and she became a popular talk show host in Germany. She has said she doesn’t read much, herself, and that Helen is her alter ego; they share a few details in common, but Helen is largely a feminist device. What if women, instead of being the prudent and cleanliness-obsessed gender, were precisely the opposite? Roche conducted research for Wetlands, partly by going to brothels and interviewing prostitutes.

Her ten-year-old interview with Mick Jagger on YouTube is fascinating partly because she’s so young—ten years before Wetlands—and partly because, while Jagger was old even then, at least compared with her, his youthful freshness when he talks about writing is compelling. Now, I’m not the biggest Stones/Jagger fan—I’m a Beatles guy—but, hey, give the devil his due, or at least show some sympathy. Jagger notes that he at first wrote only lyrics and that Keith Richards wrote the “tunes.” As for writing itself: “The thing about writing, whether you’ve writing a book or a song, is you don’t need a lot of equipment. You need a pad and a pencil. And then you can get ideas. I like to go somewhere for like two weeks and just concentrate every day, a little disciplined.”

For instance, to write an album he makes himself start work at three o’clock in the afternoon and goes until seven, and then after a break he labors from eight o’clock to two a.m. He’s talking specifically about writing his solo 2001 album Goddess in the Doorway but his method seems codified. (His neighbor Pete Townsend and his buddy Bono sing with him on “Joy.” Roche notes that his song “Gun” on the album is “The nasty one,” and Jagger says, “Very nasty—they can’t all be nice.” Roche seems utterly delighted—as she does throughout.)

But here’s what struck me, beyond Jagger’s creative joy and craftsmanship: “After you go like this for two weeks you have a lot of stuff. At first it’s worrying, you never know if you’re going to get anything, but it always tends to come.”

Yes—art takes a lot of stuff because it takes selection. This is one of the secrets of a book-length work, I think, having a lot of material, to move around, to select from, to jettison. In the second part of the interview, Jagger mentions another writing phenomenon: how unplanned, surprising, personal, and even edgy stuff can surface in the process:

When you’re doing it you don’t realize what you’re writing, to be honest. That’s the good thing—because if you start realizing it, then you can say, “Oh, I don’t want to write about that.” And then you write it and say, “Do I really think that? I must probably think something of that.” Sometimes it comes out, a subconscious thing. It’s a revelation sometimes. You might not want anyone to know that about yourself, so you don’t have to put it out. There’s a song [on this album] called “Gun” and I didn’t really like the sentiments in it [about someone begging a woman to shoot him in the heart, since she’s breaking it anyway], I must admit. I don’t like guns. But in the end, I really quite liked the song— it’s tough. Sometimes you surprise yourself.

Malcolm Gladwell takes a detour to discuss Jagger’s creativity in his latest New Yorker article (May 16) “Creation Myth,” which discusses the tension between innovation and tried-and-true business products at Xerox and Apple in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Gladwell cites psychologist Dean Simonton saying genius comes from fecundity—lots of ideas, many bad—not just from having only great ideas: “Quality,” Simonton writes, “is a probabilistic function of quantity.”

In regard to Jagger, Gladwell goes to the authority: Keith Richards, who in his new memoir says the making of the classic Exile on Main Street album was an ordeal because the Rolling Stones had too many ideas—from Jagger, who scribbled down classics like “Brown Sugar” on a yellow legal pad and also lots of mediocre songs. Gladwell writes:

Richards goes on to marvel, “It’s unbelievable how prolific he was.” Then he writes, “Sometimes you’d wonder how to turn the fucking tap off. The odd times he would come out with so many lyrics, you’re crowding the airwaves, boy.” Richards clearly saw himself as the creative steward of the Rolling Stones (only in a rock-and-roll band, by the way, can someone like Keith Richards perceive himself as the responsible one), and he came to understand that one of the hardest and most crucial parts of his job was to “turn the fucking tap off,” to rein in Mick Jagger’s incredible creative energy.

This reminds me of the recent documentary The Promise, about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Bruce didn’t have anyone to shut him down; what he had was a magic book of lyrics, as fat as your grandmother’s photo album, and bandmates who stood mute before his genius. They could only shake their heads as he threw out obvious hit after hit in search of the tone and thematic unity he sought. Darkness probably should have been a double album—and now is, and more, since the thirtieth anniversary edition, released last November. It now features twenty-one songs recorded in the studio sessions but dropped from the immortal original.

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Filed under fiction, NOTED, working method