Category Archives: Essay

The New Yorker Fact Checks Scientology

This is getting plenty of coverage, but I’m posting it so you don’t miss the back story.  Lawrence Wright’s article on Scientology — prompted by screenwriter Paul Haggis’s departure from it — appears in this week’s New Yorker.

Writer Friends Take Note:  The story behind the story — the one that tells what it took for Wright to get from that first request for an interview to publication — blew my mind.  Listen to him talk about it here:  Wright’s 20 minute interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

No Tricks, Please

On those days when I need give my writing self a swift yank back to “simple,” I reach for advice from my go-to short story geniuses:  Richard Yates, John Cheever, Raymond Carver.  I wish I could talk more people into reading short stories.  They’re respected by writers, sure, but not enough by the average reader.  I tried to push OLIVE KITTTERIDGE on everyone I knew when it won it’s prize, but people just were not interested.  I loved that book.  I’ve also recommended T.C. Boyle’s short stories a ton, but no one bites.  They’re off-the-charts great, but it seems like the only people who know it are in academia.  Sad.

Here’s Carver:  “I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing- a sunset or an old shoe- in absolute and simple amazement.”

Raymond Carver (Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories)

Essay “Old Games for New Girls”

I have an essay coming out this month in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of West Branch, the literary journal at Bucknell.  All publications are sweet, but this one is particularly satisfying for the following reasons:

1.  On the surface it’s about women playing golf.  But it’s really about the chauvinism that women in corporate America have to deal with and it felt good to write it.  Yes, things are better since Anita Hill, but not perfect.

2.  When this essay was in its early stages, a man read it and his feedback was so negative as to the subject-matter (women and golf = boredom), it just made me want to work on the story even harder.  This essay is many things, but “boring” is not one of them.

3.  Dealing with the editors at West Branch has been a pleasure.  So professional and kind.  And their journal is beautifully produced.

4.  Six months after the essay was accepted for publication, I received an e-mail from another journal about possible publication.  They wanted to change the Point of View (or have me defend my use of 2nd person for parts of the story), as well as make several other changes.  It felt good to be able to say “No thanks.”

EXCERPT:

As a twenty-something newlywed, you had no plans to get pregnant, but you would probably have had Dennis’s baby if it meant getting that job. Between the salary bump and bonuses, your income would triple. Dennis might not be the boss you dreamed of, but the job certainly was. For years, you’d watched your single mother trudge off to work the second and third shifts at the hosiery mill. The nighttime hours and the machine noise and the constant dust and dirt wrung her out. The asbestos poisoned her lungs. All you’d ever wanted was to have an office (with a door), to sit behind a desk in a high-backed chair (that swivels), to wear pantyhose and high heels (real Italian leather!), and to go to important meetings (where you could act “important”). You wanted to work in a place where people were so goddamned busy they had to order in lunch.

And, well, there you were.

Your peers thought you were too small-town for the job and, not to mention, a girl. You had news for them. You’d grown up in a neighborhood full of boys. You raced your beat-up bike downhill, and even when you wrecked and slid sideways in the gravel, you wore your scabs and scars like trophies. You played baseball on the street with sometimes fake, sometimes real, bats, and you would slide into base, even if that base was a white Frisbee on cement, to help your team win. When you were eight, your mother signed you up to play softball. Softball! With girls!

“Girls don’t play baseball,” she’d said. “You could get hurt.” Then, like some kind of insult, she handed you a brand new softball. This ball-for-sissies was so big you could barely hold it in your hand, much less throw the stupid thing.

“I can’t throw this,” you said, trying to hand it back to her. “I don’t want to play.”

“I already signed you up. You’re playing. You’ll figure it out.”

Nonfiction Additions to “The List”

Following the vein of my last post, here are the nonfiction books I would include on the SJSU reading list for MFA students.  It would add variety for the myriad kinds of nonfiction writing, and you just can’t have a list like this without Stop Time or The Kiss, can you?  (P.S.  I know Night was published as fiction, but of course it is really nonfiction …)  If you can think of any others, let me know.

Bissinger, H.G.  —  Friday Night Lights

Caputo, Philip  —  A Rumor of War

Chang, Iris  —  The Rape of Nanking

Didion, Joan  —  Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Foster Wallace, David  —  Consider the Lobster

Grealy, Lucy  —  Autobiography of a Face

Hampl, Patricia  —  A Romantic Education

Harrison, Kathryn  —  The Kiss

Levi, Primo  —  Survival in Auschwitz

Lewis, John  —  Walking with the Wind

Mailer, Norman  — The Executioner’s Song

McBride, James  —  The Color of Water

O’Connor, Frank  —  Stop-Time

Parks, Gordon  — A Choice of Weapons

Redfield Jamison, Kay  —  An Unquiet Mind

Rhodes, Richard  —  The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Shields, Carol  —  The Stone Diaries

Spiegelman, Art  —  Maus

Wideman, John Edgar  —  Brothers and Keepers

Wiesel, Elie  —  Night

Best American Essays 2009

I’m taking a break from novels and memoirs to enjoy some shorter works, polishing off one essay from this collection each night before bed.  My favorites so far?

In less than 5 pages, “Cuss Time” by Jill McCorkle shines a light on the power of language, how we learn to use ‘bad’ language, and what we gain/lose in the process.

For my writer friends, “The Dark Art of Deception” is Patricia Hampl’s rendering of her obsession with detail, description, and even punctuation (“It was almost two a.m. and for the past four hours I’d been changing commas to dashes and then back again to commas with the obsessive focus only a fanatic can sustain.” — sound familiar??).

In “Shipwrecked” by Janna Malamud Smith, she juxtaposes her experience of her mother’s death with shipwrecked vessels.  It is, of course, about loss.   Loved it.

By far the most entertaining was Michael Lewis’s “The Mansion: A Subprime Parable” in which he examines how we Americans have gotten ourselves into the current mortgage crisis by our desire to inhabit a home that’s beyond our financial means.  It’s funny and enlightening.

And then I realized …

I’m just now getting around to reading (by that I mean ‘not scanning,’ but really and truly reading) this book on writing that was assigned my first semester of grad school.  In Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, he digs into the problems that plague current fiction.  One of my favorite essays thus far is “Against Epiphanies” which reminds me of a classmate’s reaction in workshops to the word “realize”  (Eric, you know who you are! :-).  Baxter argues that we writers have grown lazy.  The need to wrap things up with some revelation inevitably leads us to end our short stories and novels with a tacked-on Aha! moment, when everything we’ve learned so far as finally, finally added up to some great knock on the head.

Why can’t we write a story for the sake of the story itself?  Why does there have to be some great revelation?  Eric, you were right.  Every time I read a book or see a movie where someone says, “And then I realized …” it ruins the whole thing.

Baxter quotes Raymond Carver:  “What good are insights?  They only make things worse.”  This will be my mantra as I write this week.  Not to “realize” anything at all.