Category Archives: Classics

If It’s Good Enough For George

In the February issue of Vanity Fair, my pal George gives his answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire.  Would you be surprised to learn his most treasured possession is a pen and a piece of paper?  That his hero of fiction is Atticus Finch?  That the thing he’d most like to change about himself would be to read more books?

Not a snarky answer in the bunch.  My George is all grown up.  And I admit he got me in the gut with his answer to “what would you change about your family?” when he said:  I’d make them young again.

He also surprised me.  His favorite writers are Mark Twain (I’d never have guess that one) and Paddy Chayefsky (who I had to Google).  Turns out Paddy is a playwright, screenwriter, and novelist; and the only person to have earned 3 solo Academy Awards for Best Screenplay.  Paddy is a much respected and renowned American dramatist.

Paddy Chayefsky.  I love making these kinds of discoveries.

Now, of course, I can’t resist asking you a few questions.  Who knows what I might learn.  And I’ll play if you will.

_________

Favorite Writers and why (I’m limiting myself to 4, because you know this list could be looooooong):

William Styron — what style, not a wasted word in the place, with long flowing complex sentences I could read over and over again.

Joan Didion — particularly for her nonfiction, a structural genius who writes what she wants and doesn’t worry about what she’s not supposed to do.

Mary Karr — raw poetry in prose, most recognizable nonfiction voice in town.

Larry McMurtry — brilliant epic storyteller, creator of unusual and conflicted characters who drive seamless plots.

__________

Best last paragraph of a book:

Jane Smiley’s A THOUSAND ACRES
“And when I remember that world, I remember my dead young self, who left me something, too, which is her canning jar of poisoned sausage and the ability it confers, of remembering what you can’t imagine.  I can’t say that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he chose never to remember — the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing him, wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed, when he wandered around the house at night after working and drinking, like the very darkness.  This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all the others.”

___________

Favorite Writer You’ve Seen Speak in Person:  

Dorothy Allison.  Couldn’t take my eyes off of her.  She read a little, but spent most of her time on stage just talking like a real person, seemingly off-the-cuff, not a note in sight, about her writing and reading life.  Her remarks were like listening to a great poet put their everyday life into a regular conversation.  About a year later, I saw her perform her famous (which I didn’t know at the time) monologue, Frog Fucking, at AWP in front of hundreds of people.  It was shocking and hilarious and devastating, and the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.

___________

Your turn ….

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Have Title, Will Travel

Over the many lifetimes years I’ve been writing this book, it took ignoring it almost completely for the title to show up.  It felt a bit like walking in on a surprise party.  First, shock and disbelief.  Then letting loose enough to get in there and have some fun with it.

I’ve been working in my head, in my Moleskin notebook, and on the computer screen ever since.  Finding the title has helped me find my way.

This does not, however, mean I’m ready to reveal it.  Sorry folks.  I’ve learned too many times that, once I give up these kinds of prized details, said details slip off into an alien atmosphere and the faith is forever lost.  You’ll just have to trust me on this one.  For now.

I will say I found it in a poem.  Which reminds me that so many of my favorite books got their titles from the world of verse.  Here are just a few …

_________

Wallace Stegner’s CROSSING TO SAFETY (from these lines by Robert Frost)

   I could give all to Time except — except

   What I myself have held.  But why declare

   The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

   I have crossed to Safety with?  For I am There

   And what I would not part with I have kept.

__________

William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY  (from Shakespeare’s MACBETH)

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

    To the last syllable of recorded time,

    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

    And then is heard no more: it is a tale

    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

    Signifying nothing.

__________

Cormac McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN  (from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”)

   That is no country for old men. The young

   In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

   – Those dying generations – at their song,

   The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

   Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

   Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

   Caught in that sensual music all neglect

   Monuments of unageing intellect.

Fear of Fat

I have a fear of fat books.  I don’t mean the 500 page kind; I love those.  I’m talking about the fattest-ass books around, the thousand pagers, the ones you can’t balance with one hand.  What’s the reading strategy?  How do you commit to a story that long?

Here are a few of the fatties I’ve always wanted to lay into, the ones I talk about reading ad nauseum — Big Talker! — but never ever pick up.

Setting The Memoir Table

The Dining Room in Carter Library

Last night I hosted Book Club and man was I worried as I set that table — I’d picked Mary Karr’s LIT and I was certain they were either going to (a) hate the book, (b) not bother finishing it, or even worse (c) hate Mary Karr.  My god, what was I going to DO if they hated my Mary Karr?!

Like most of my totally irrational fears, this one didn’t pan out.  I won’t say everyone loved LIT, but they liked it well enough and pretty much everyone finished — except for one, who’s Kindle died right in the middle of reading — and I was thrilled with the discussion it prompted.  I’m not sure we’ve ever discussed a book where so many of us could quote from the book without opening it.  How about that mother saying, “I’m a lot of fun to be with.”  Or how she was such a “sneaky bitch.”  Remember that woman from AA who kept her Vokda in a turkey carcass in the freezer and, when she couldn’t midwife it out one night, just tipped up the whole bird!  Or that guy who blew himself up because he needed a cigarette and forgot the stove gas was on from when he tried to kill himself.

Insert ROUSING LAUGHTER all over the place …  Funny how funny tragedy can be.  My Mary Karr, bless her, does this better than anyone.  I worship at her altar.

Since we don’t read many memoirs in this Book Club, I decided to use some of my favorite tell-alls as the table decor.  Note THE LIARS CLUB right there in front, and also Kathryn Harrison’s THE KISS (also the topic today over at Betsy’s) to the right of it.  THE KISS has been a favorite since the first time I got my hands on it.  It’s a small book with big print and the craziest damned story — sparsely and achingly told — the kind of story you read in one sitting.  I’ve read it no less than 5 times.  I even wrote a paper about in grad school (what a study in structure, voice, the not naming of names, etc…).  Harrison’s prose is no less than brilliant.  But I can’t for the life of me get anyone to read this book.  I tried to sell it again last night but, as usual, no one was buying.

What am I doing wrong?  (aside from trying to shove it like a stick of dynamite into everyone’s purse and then hover over them while they read every last word)  If you want to read some excellent interviews with Kathryn Harrison, here’s her website.  I love her matter-of-fact answers.  And in light of James Frey coming back into view with his latest Oprah interview, you might find Kathyrn’s answer to this question worth its weight:

Q: Your 1997 memoir, The Kiss, is a stunning look at father-daughter incest, and feels quite confessional. How do you incorporate translation when writing about your own life?

KH: I teach memoir writing, so I’ll answer as both a writer and as a teacher. We’re very aware right now of writers like James Frey or Augusten Burroughs being accused of fabricating too much to call what they write memoir, and a lot of my students are anxious about how strictly faithful a writer must be to factual truth. My feeling is, if you’re doing your best to tell the truth, it will be evident in your work. I was asked to blurb James Frey’s book, so I read it before all the controversy, but immediately I responded to the book as an exercise in self-mythologizing rather than memoir. Memoir, to me, is anti-narcissistic; it leans towards discomfort; it relies on self-scrutiny. If a writer is engaged in that process he or she is being faithful to the idea of truth and honesty. Truth is not a destination but a direction; it never has a capital T, not if you’re mortal. A lot of how a book reads has to do with the writer’s agenda; if your agenda is to reveal yourself honestly, then your narrative will read that way, no matter if every detail is factually accurate or not. I think text is more transparent than people assume. 

Keep reading.  I promise not to hover.  Much.

A Page From E.L. Doctorow

What a treat this week — I saw E.L. Doctorow twice!  Last night he read from his latest short story collection — ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD — which is a pretty funky title considering he just turned eighty.  And today he was in conversation with a professor at the University Theatre.  That’s Mr. Doctorow on the left, spry and sharp as they come (sorry it’s such a blurry picture).  Anyway, here are just a few of the gems he shared with us.

Where do his ideas come from?  First, he’s not a believer in overthinking and story-boarding it out.  And he doesn’t wait for fully cooked plot lines and characters and mull them over for days/weeks/months.  He just sits down and starts typing.  How does he get started?  It all starts, he said, with an image, a sentence, a piece of music … some little spark that fires his imagination.  He jumps into it with absolutely no idea where he’s going.  He said that after he finished THE BOOK OF DANIEL, he was emotionally exhausted.  Couldn’t write anything for a year.  When summer came, he made himself sit in his office where just sat at his desk, stared at the plaster wall, and wrote about the wall.  Then he moved to the woodwork.  Then he realized how old his house was, that it had been built in 1906, which conjured images of how people might have dressed back then:  women in their all-white summer frocks, carrying parasols.  And so it went from there.  A new novel was born.

Speaking of THE BOOK OF DANIEL:  He started writing this story in the 3rd person.  150 pages in, he felt like he was writing the most boring, lifeless story — he hated it, hated working on it — and got so fed up he took the whole stack of pages and threw them across the room.  But why was the story so boring?  Pondering this, it occurred to him that he needed a character’s perspective worth following.  He put a new piece of paper in the typewriter and wrote the opening of the story from the innocent child’s viewpoint.  And it worked!

The spark image for BILLY BATHGATE:  He saw a tug boat in the harbor and imagined several men in dark suits standing on the boat.  This was an odd image.  What would these well-dressed men be doing, dressed in their finest, in the filthy, blue-collar area of the docks?  Then he had it.  A little boy, Billy, was seeing this scene, thinking these thoughts.  They were gangsters, taking a body out to dump, and Billy needed to follow these men, tell this story, to see what happened.  And needed to tell it in the first person, in his own voice.

On doing research:  He often writes about places he’s never been, about people and times he knows little about.  He says that all you really need are some key points and then you need to start writing.  Part of the joy of writing it is, after all, discovery.  So what if he doesn’t get it exactly right.  It’s fiction!  He knows so many writers who have researched a topic to death, only to become so bogged down by the facts that their imaginations become paralyzed.  And then they can’t write.

Did you know that Amazon.Com has an entire page devoted to E.L. Doctorow’s work?  Here’s the link.  I’m  a new fan.

Styron, Set to Mozart …

I have a mere 30 pages left in Alexandra Styron’s READING MY FATHER, and I know I’m going to be sad when it’s over.  The best kind of book, right?  It’s been a pleasure following Alexandra’s journey to solve the mystery — and he was a mystery to her — of who her father was, of what made him tick, of how he wrote and failed and succeeded and worried.  Of how he barely survived madness, only to succumb to it in the end.

I’m not going to share many details of the book.  I don’t want to spoil it.  But I can’t help but share a few sentences as enticement for you to read this wonderful window into the life one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

William Styron, on writing a long novel:  “Writing a long novel, as I’m doing, has an overpowering effect on the psyche.  There’s so much of it … so much that’s almost bound to fall short of your lofty aims that, if you’re at all serious, you end up existing in a perpetual state of sweat and melancholy and quasi-alcoholism.  In effect, it’s a perfect symbol of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a human, and I can only console myself with the rather feeble notion that perhaps, after all, this is all a novel is supposed to be.”

On William Styron, “in the zone” of writing:  Artistically, the late seventies were really good years for my father.  Entrenched in SOPHIE’S CHOICE, he was making art, piling up pages every day.  But that ‘zone’ in which he operated necessitated complete focus; every minor irritation was a potential threat to production.

On the surprising success DARKNESS VISIBLE, his memoir of depression:  Every once in awhile, a writer touches on a truth that, somehow, has not yet been expressed.  Like a magic trick, his ink reveals a panel of human experience felt everywhere but, until illuminated by the writer, was never before truly seen.  Such was the case with DARKNESS VISIBLE.

On page 225, I found his music.  In the midst of his first true bout of depression (circa 1985), Alexandra and her family were so desperate to reach him they made a film of home videos set to his favorite music — Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante — which he listened to while writing.

May Days

May is a mixed bag.  Here’s my list of the coming month’s anxieties and anticipations …

1. Opening the patio.  The rains here are officially finished.  We won’t see another drop — not one! — until probably November.  No kidding.  It’s time to get the big oak trestle table and cushioned chairs out of the garage, and invite the neighbors over for what we call “chosen-family dinner.”

2.  Reading outside.  This kind of goes with #1.  I’m 150 pages into Alexandra Stryon’s READING MY FATHER (which, so far, is to die for), and today I was able to sit outside under the crimson-colored, Japanese Maple, warm breezes blowing through, with this book on my lap …. aka, heaven.  Even if you’ve never read Styron, you would appreciate this daughter’s plunge into her father’s life.  Beautifully written, and revelatory.

3.  Mothers Day.  Good god, Mothers Day.  I dread it, or hate it, or both.  Oh, I hated it when my mother was alive, too, but for different reasons.  Mothers Day used to feel like an obligation, one established by Hallmark Cards and predicated on guilt.  Once a year we were all required by mass marketing to prove how much we loved our mothers, how much we thought about them, missed them, couldn’t exist without them.  We had to choose the right card.  We had to get that card in the mail on time — the two-day-late card being far, far worse than no card at all.  Now, of course, I wish I had to buy the damned card.

4.  Good friends and family.  We’re meeting one of our favorite couples for a long weekend.  There will be too much food, too much wine, and too much laughter.  We’ll also be in Indiana to visit my son and in-laws —- in-laws who don’t seem the least bit like in-laws at all.  Since my mother passed, these family visits are invaluable to me.

5.  AmyG !  In a couple of weeks, AmyG and I will be meeting at an undisclosed location.  🙂  I’m sure there will be (a) buku coffee, (b) hugging, (c) gossip, (d) photos (at least one!), and (e) commiserating about our writing lives.  Maybe her beautiful office / desk organization will rub off on me.

6.  E.L. Doctorow, for a reading one night and an “in conversation” the next day.  I will have to read his masterpiece, RAGTIME.  I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read a word of E.L. Doctorow.  Have you?

7.  Am I skinny yet?  This is about the time I start to panic about summer clothes.  Okay, I’m already really, really panicked.  I’m never as thin as I want to be when May rolls around.  Why do I always, always imagine I’ll magically be a size 6 — ha!! — by now????

8.  Gifts of this magi, running late.  This week I’ll be delivering gifts to my favorite professors, first editions of books they love.  Sometime tomorrow I need to sit down and write them the notes to go with the books, telling them how much and why I appreciate them, how much I’ll miss them now that I’m gone.

9.  Graduation.  Though I officially graduated in December, all the ceremonies are later this month.  For us MFA’s, we’ve got 3 official events, though I will only be attending one:  the big, all-school one.  Early on a Saturday morning, I’m going to don my robe and the big, brown-trimmed Masters hood, and take my place in line.  I have always loved school so much — I’m kinda sad it’s finished, even at age 45.

10.  WORK.  So much re-writing to be done on my book.  Thankfully it’s work I’m looking forward to plunging into.  And speaking of writing, here’s a little bit from Alexandra Styron’s book about her father’s (my icon’s) work habits:

The big living room was Daddy’s domain.  Here he read, watched the news, clinked ice around in his Scotch glass, and hid from the rest of us.  During the day, he wrote in the study in the little house.  But when evening came, he’d set his manuscript pages up at the bar and pace the gold shag carpet, making revisions to the day’s work with Mozart blaring on the hi-fi.

Here’s to family and friends, to the coming of Summer, to our literary and teaching heroes, to reading and working.  Maybe I’ll try a Scotch and some Mozart.

Cheers!