A friend emailed me the other day and asked if I had ever read Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections
. I hadn't, I told her, but I had heard amazing things about the book. I have had a hard time putting it on my to-read list based on the fact that many articles and essays I have read claim that Franzen is an asshole. Anecdotal evidence showing that he is highly uncomfortable with the fusion of literature and mass-market appeal is prodigious:
There was the Oprah incident
; the 2005 essay in Harper's magazine by Ben Marcus questioning Franzen for his lambasting of the entirety of experimental fiction
; the essay that engendered Marcus' response, 'Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels.' Even fans of his writing find much to dislike about him
She had heard the same things regarding Franzen and did not want to get the book for these reasons or purposes. However, she told me, it was a National Book Award winner, and since she was purchasing it in a used bookstore, she was assured that no money would be going to him. (As someone hopefully about to embark on a writing career, I hope this doesn't happen to me, and, given the state of the publishing industry in general, I have been trying to buy books new or at readings just to continue to support the industry I so hope to become a part of.)
I can't say I will run out and buy The Corrections
or run to the library and take out a copy of the book: I have many other books on my shelves that I have never read. But over the past few years I have been trying to change my mentality on writers and their personalities, trying not to let my judgment of them as people affect how I feel about their work. One of the first writers I applied this regard-for-the-work-not-the-person mentality with was Ezra Pound. Pound, after World War I, moved to Italy and wound up supporting the Fascists and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini: "Every man of common sense, including the odd British MP, knows that every man of common sense prefers Fascism to Communism, from the moment that he learns a few concrete facts about both of them." He was against American involvement in World War II, against centralized banking, and was also anti-Semitic. In general, not exactly an upstanding person. However, read these short poems, including the ever-anthologized 'Alba' below:Alba
As cool as the pale wet leaves
She lay beside me in the dawn.The Encounter
All the while they were talking the new morality
Her eyes explored me.
And when I arose to go
Her fingers were like the tissue
Of a Japanese paper napkin.
Simple, exquisite, timeless. I can forgive all of Pound's odious politics and personal beliefs for those two poems. And there are thousands more that he wrote like that.
Truman Capote was as self-absorbed a human as there ever was. He was gossipy, ungrateful to friends and colleagues, and in his final unfinished novel Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel
he publicized the private lives of many of his friends and confidantes. If the movie Capote
is to be believed, he turned the film premier of To Kill a Mockingbird
into a bitchfest of how the legal system was preventing him from from finishing his book, not once congratulating Harper Lee. He stayed the execution of two men in the Kansas State Prison system, not because of humanitarian purposes, but he hadn't finished interviewing them yet In Cold Blood
And yet it is that book that made me ignore Capote the man and regard Capote the artist. Within the first sentence, we understand his writing genius:
"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.'"
Within the brief space of 22 words, Capote has shown us the entire world of this lonely, prairie town. By referring to Holcomb as a village and not a town, we are given the sense of the type of dependent community of the people: in a village, every person matters, and what each person does or provides can affect everyone else: it's a matter of numbers. Most people have a geographic and demographic sense of Kansas as being isolated wheat field, prairie, long rolling expanses of hills and wheat without many people in between. For other Kansans to refer to this village as "out there" really invokes the destitution and isolation of its people. And by setting this up first, we know, just from our own reading and film mythology, that anything nefarious is possible in an isolated area. Where no people are, it's easier for something dreadful to occur.
And Capote accomplishes all of this in 22 simple words, doing nothing more on the surface than describing a landscape. But what's under the surface of the picture Capote paints in that first sentence, the subtext of those words that made him a true genius. Despite being a horrible person.
A few months back, I read a review about a new biography about Raymond Carver
, one of the titans of modern writing, and the king of the minimalist short story. This passage from Stephen King, the reviewer of the biography and someone who knows a thing or two about alcoholism and its destructive effects, says all that needs to be said about Carver the person:"As brilliant and talented as he was, Ray Carver was also the destructive, everything-in-the-pot kind of drinker who hits bottom, then starts burrowing deeper. Longtime A.A.’s know that drunks like Carver are master practitioners of the geographical cure, refusing to recognize that if you put an out-of-control boozer on a plane in California, an out-of-control boozer is going to get off in Chicago. Or Iowa. Or Mexico.And until mid-1977, Raymond Carver was out of control. While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he and John Cheever became drinking buddies. “He and I did nothing but drink,” Carver said of the fall semester of 1973. “I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.” Because Cheever had no car, Carver provided transportation on their twice-weekly booze runs. They liked to arrive at the liquor store just as the clerk was unlocking for the day. Cheever noted in his journal that Carver was “a very kind man.” He was also an irresponsible boozehound who habitually ran out on the check in restaurants, even though he must have known it was the waitress who had to pay the bill for such dine-and-dash customers. His wife, after all, often waited tables to support him."
I posted this article back in November on a separatand a friend replied, "I realized a long time ago that I would never want to meet my favorite authors in person..."
That is so true. I don't think I would want to have dinner or lunch with Jonathan Franzen, or to meet Capote, or John Cheever or Raymond Carver. It was a sad day when I realized that Gore Vidal, one of my favorite writers and quite possibly the best political essayist of my lifetime, was in real life an asshole. However, I still read his books and most of his older essays. (His new works and interviews are nothing more than the screechings of a bitter man.)
But it is possible to divorce ourselves of our personal feelings about an author, and still hold their art, their work in high esteem. And the converse probably holds to be true as well: Nicholas Sparks is probably the nicest man in all of literature.
A friend texted me recently, asking, "Have you ever written something and say 'Wow! That's cool'"
I responded, "Yes, I have. 95% of what I write is junk or average. But that other 5% is why I keep writing."
The percentage of these moments compared to the amount of time spent writing is drastically small (as noted in my response to my friend), but these are the moments that make us continue to write, paint, create music, sculpt, act, whatever our creative outlets happen to be.
This exchange made me wonder about the best writing moments I have had. Some of these did not result in my best work, those perfectly crystalline phrases that make you want to scream, "Hey Everybody!! I just wrote an amazing line. Everyone needs to read this! Or listen to me read them the line," causing you to then run downstairs to find your spouse or significant other and tell them the line, but then remember that they just had a hard day at work and are sitting on the sofa wrist-deep in a carton of ice cream so you move on to your kids, but they'll just look at you as if you had three heads, and the context of the brilliant line might not be appropriate for them, or maybe they're not around, off playing with their friends, or at dance or band practice, or off with their own significant others and so you run outside, run up the street stumbling across pedestrians, mailmen, dogs, and you try to read them the line, looking for affirmation of your brilliance, but they also probably don't understand the import of what you wrote, and at this point your focus has shifted to finding people and not on the words themselves but you need to tell someone so you decide upon the only place where people would appreciate this: the library! And you sprint into the library only to find that they don't like screaming in there, so you might as well go back to your typewriter, sheaf of paper, computer and continue writing.
Those types of lines were not created in these greatest writing moments. Instead these are the moments of creativity where you feel this is what you should be doing, where you immerse yourself into the flow of creativity, when your mind and will merge into one intention: to create. They are also not in any discernible order.
1. During my senior year of undergrad, I was taking two courses--Sports in Literature, Children's/Young Adult Literature--with the same professor. The final paper for each class required us to write a story within each genre. I asked if I could consolidate the assignments and write one story for both classes.
On a Friday night, both my roommates away for the weekend, I stayed in and decided to write the paper. I lay on my bed tossing a ball in the air, each errant throw bouncing off the wall, sometimes falling behind the bed as I lunged, missing the catch, juggling ideas for how to write a story that could fit within the sports literature and the adolescent literature genres, and make it something I would enjoy writing. Then I had it!
I wrote for four hours straight on my electronic word processor: it allowed 6500 character spaces before the draft had to be printed and deleted. I printed out nearly five pages of single-spaced brilliance (everything you write between the ages 0f 18 and 21 is brilliant!) and continued with the story. About an hour later I stopped writing mid-sentence, stumped on one word, the perfect word for that thought, that sentence. I took advantage of this momentary mental respite to make dinner. While I stirred the boiling water, the word came to me. I went to my room and continued typing until I remembered the boiling water on the stove. What had been a full pot of boiling water was now less than an inch, smoke evaporating into the stove lights. I turned the water off and finished the story.
I submitted this as a first and only draft. About a week later, I saw my professor. He asked me why I did not submit this story for the campus-wide writing contest. The deadline for the contest had already passed before I wrote the story, I told him. "I was the primary judge for that contest. This would have won hands down." "I didn't know that," I said. "And the deadline had already gone by." "I would have allowed it." "Oh. Thank you. I didn't know."
I have since revisited this piece and had it reviewed at a workshop a few years back. I will one day revisit it again, incorporating some of the suggestions made in that workshop. However much this story may improve, the finished version will not match the flurry of creativity I felt that Friday night in my apartment when I wrote the first draft.
2. About a year ago I was sitting in my apartment and realized I needed to get out of the house and write. My environment was becoming distracting. Each time I would start writing I would look to my right at the books on my bookshelf that needed to be read; I would minimize my word document and check my email accounts obsessively; I would internally lament that of the 800+ CDs I had on the left wall, none seemed to provide the proper writing soundtrack. I needed to manufacture accountability, and my comforts and hobbies were trapping me, preventing me from being accountable to my writing and myself.
I went to the library. I was working on a story in which one of the plots regards the nature of luck and superstition. Specifically, I was working on a scene where the main character, after purchasing what he hopes will be a couple of bags of lucky marbles at a toy store as a boy, gives up on all superstition and lucky trinkets and baubles. I found a table upstairs and began writing. Upon finishing the scene, I looked to the bookshelves to my left. There on the metal shelves stood books on toys, crafts, hobbies, games, including a few on marbles. I hadn't noticed them when I entered the room: I had just seen an empty table in a quiet section of the library. Subconsciously, I must have noticed and my surroundings made their way into my story.
3. A month after the serendipitous marble scene, I went to New York City for a few days for research. I needed to roam the streets of the city for a novella that took place here.
I went to the New York Public Library, one of the favorite places on all of the planet. (The reasoning for my love of the NYPL will be a future post: if I listed my reasons now it would detract from this post.) I found one of the open study rooms. Surrounded by walls of old law books, ceiling painted like a Sistine Chapel, I plugged in my laptop and began writing. With scores of students, teachers, researchers, tour groups milling about, poring over books and laptops I found an accountability in my anonymity. If any of these people did not see me writing, then why was I here? Over the course of a few days, I created a scene in the novella that has since required very little revision, a defining moment in the description of a character, where the character's grip on her piety and faith is so tight and unyielding it threatens to undermine and destroy all her other relationships.
The novella has a little ways to go before it's complete, but at that moment in the NYPL something clicked within me in the writing of that one scene.
I have had other "Eureka!" moments in writing but these are the ones that particularly stand out. Without this inspiration, the finished product will never have a chance of becoming reality.
Now that I have shared some of my greatest moments of writing inspiration, I throw this question out to you: what have been some of your greatest writing or creative moments? You don't need to be a writer. You could be a cook, a painter, a graphic designer, a maker of scrapbooks, seamstress, horse rider, baseball player, geologist. Feel free to share.
I have never been comfortable with self-promotion. That's not to say that I am averse to talking about myself. Au contraire! But I am comfortable in talking about non-salient items about myself, nothing involving anything of import that might be happening. I am very comfortable talking about food ("Oh, I tried this before. It's really good."), movies ("I really liked this movie!"), music ("that band is awful"), etc... but not in promoting my own work.
When I was twelve years old, I was visiting my grandparents in Florida. Across the street were tennis courts and a tennis practice wall. One afternoon while arduously practicing backhands with no improvement, a photographer for the local newspaper took a series of pictures of me. One of these was published in the newspaper the next day. Instead of saying anything about it when I got back to the house, I instead waited. The next day I asked where the newspaper was. I found the photo, asked for a pair of scissors, and finally talked about what happened after they asked what the scissors were for and why I was cutting up that day's newspaper. Telling people about this really cool thing that happened to me--even my own family--was extremely uncomfortable.
Fast-forward twenty-something years and I find myself in the unenviable position of trying to promote myself and my burgeoning writing career.
In February, I was very fortunate to win an award for a short story I wrote: "Opus No. 1." Along with winning the award came publication in the university's literary magazine, Amoskeag, a journal of growing literary esteem and reputation. Earlier last week, the president of the university wrote a review of the magazine on his blog.
And now I yet again find myself in the uncomfortable position of self-promotion. I have attached the link and embedded the text below of the president's review. I will post this link on my Facebook page, directing people to this website and blog post. I will also post the link to this entry, and possibly to the review, and will also post the link to my twitter feed. I will do this with a sense of obligation, but not excitement. Self-promotion may be necessary, but I'm not comfortable with it. I'd rather watch reruns of Scrubs. Amoskeag I just finished reading the new issue of Amoskeag while on my flight to Chicago last night. To put it simply: it’s fabulous. The journal just keeps getting better and better and this issue assembles contributors from around the country, many of them quite accomplished, others just starting their careers. Darren Cormier, one of our MFA students, has a lovely story called Opus No. 1. The circumstances of an adult son coming home to care for his dying father and confront his own failings and trauma was tender and beautifully wrought. That complicated and often painful time when the parent becomes child again and roles are reversed is something most of us will undergo and Cormier makes it sad and sweet and reminded me that the very frail and diminished people we often encounter in their old age were once vital and accomplished and, when in our families, often the shaping forces in our lives. I was moved.
Ann Hood’s Long Beautiful Hair
takes a turn that is like a punch in the gut — I had to stop reading for a moment. It is a story that packs so much into so few words. Just masterful. It also holds out the possibility of recovery and redemption and rebuilding a life after even the most unimaginable of griefs.
Our own Diane Les Becquets provides a scene that is wholly original in her story Wild Spaces
and I’m dying to ask her if it based on her own experiences, though I’ve always believed that one should not ask artists those sorts of questions. It feels almost indecent and irrelevant to the power of the art. But…..if you want to ask her and she tells you, let me know what you find out. We are so lucky to have a writer of this caliber leading our Creative Writing major.
I have a soft spot in my heart for poetry, the least appreciated of the arts in America. The ability to condense so much meaning and power in so very few words, to raise questions and simple delight in the structure of a couple of lines is a gift. I love Alexis Ivy’s last lines of her poem Unhearing
: Untimid, I would speak but I don’t understand hands.
Read the whole short poem and those lines will make sense. Julie Paige’s Beige
is funny and wistful and just terrific. There are two hour movies that fall short of capturing the complexity and confusion and mystery of relstionships in the way Paul Hostovsky does in Open
. Ah, to write like that!
I could go on. When people like Bob Begeibing and Bob Seidman and others started the journal so many years ago, could they have imagined what it has become today? In my last post I wrote about the intellectual and cultural landscape of the university. Amoskeag
stands out as an absolute highlight within that context that is bringing SNHU national recognition.