Category Archives: Writers

Bad Writing. The Movie.

There is a documentary called BAD WRITING.

Did you know this?

Where has this film been and who’s been hiding it from me?

You can buy the film or rent it.  I bought it for $9.99 on iTunes and have watched it.  Twice.  Today.  Cheaper than 2 trips to Starbucks.

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Disclaimer:  A few of my biggest writer crushes appear in this movie: Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Nick Flynn, and Lee Gutkind.  (I am honest-to-god swooning as I type their names.)

Favorite line by the writer / filmmaker:  I felt sick, maybe I wasn’t doing as well as I thought, maybe I was still bad, maybe I would never be a good writer, maybe I was wasting my time.

Best reminder:   Anybody who doesn’t write and fail is really not trying very hard.

Most under-appreciated question:  But how do you write and not smoke cigarettes?

And now, in the spirit of this wonderful film, I offer you this week’s very worst of my bad writing:  (As a writing prompt, I was told to think about the sky and the grass.  Please hold your applause until the end.)

_________

She often wondered, where was up and where was down?

Why one blue, the other grass and green,

Green on the low road, blue on the high,

What road was she on?

She often wondered.

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He often wondered, where was he going, the same place he’d been?

Why bother with forward

When all he knew was back

Back where he’d come from

The same old road

There, nowhere, again.

He often wondered.

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Who wants to share their best bad writing?


How Much Fun Was That

LITTLE GALE GUMBO. 2 glasses of wine. Some chips and cheese. The perfect evening.

This wonderful book arrived on my doorstep Friday afternoon and I savored it all weekend, turning the last page last night just before turning out the bedside light.

I’m pretty sure the last time I got this caught up in a really well-written family saga must have been THE SHELL SEEKERS, which I read earlier this summer.  An older book (which I eventually realized I’d read before, long long ago) I was so caught up in the yarn of the story, the charming characters (strong women), the smooth shifts back and forth in time, and the mysteries to be solved, it was hard to put it down.  I was sad to see THE SHELL SEEKERS end.

I felt the same way about LITTLE GALE GUMBO.  What a pleasure it was.  Truly.  I hated to turn that last page, and I’m already wondering about a possible sequel?

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From a writer’s perspective, here’s an additional list of some things I appreciated about Erika’s work:

1.  The multi-sensory experience.  I could feel the bitter cold and the fog of a Maine island winter; I could smell the melting butter and sugar of every Praline; I tasted the gumbo and the red beans and rice, right down to their textures; I could hear the sisters voices so clearly – the headstrong (but underneath fragile) Dahlia, the sweetness and let’s-just-make-it-all-better heartbreak in Josie, Camille’s steady strength.

2.  The complexity.  The story is complex — all those romances and mysteries — but you never feel that way reading it.  There were so many times when I marveled at how well this story flowed, and I especially loved how much the author trusted her reader.  She knew when to give just enough information to let me figure things out for myself.

3.  Time sequencing.  For all of us who try to do it, we know how hard it is to make it flow naturally.  Erika made me feel like she was sitting on the porch, with no notes, telling me a story.  That’s how smooth it was.

4.  Sense of place and real characters.  I could feel what it might be like to be a girl in New Orleans, a girl sheltered from The Quarter and schooled in the arts of Creole cooking and voodoo.  I wanted to be the young Camille.  And the way they move to Maine (and how Maine is ‘chosen’) was so clever, but also perfectly in line with what the now-world-wise Camille would do.

5.  Elements of surprise.  I was pleasantly surprised many times by this story, so many secrets and happenings — which I can’t list because I don’t want to give them away! — which unfolded in unexpected ways that, after the fact, made perfect sense.  It’s hard to surprise a reader who’s trying to puzzle out what’s coming, but Erika pulled it off so well.

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This would be a perfect book club choice.  I can see a group of women serving up the recipes in the book on a cold winter night, glasses of wine in hand, discussing the trials and pleasures of the Bergeron women.  I’m a little afraid to try the Pralines, but I’d be willing to give them a shot.  Plus, I’m always looking for just the right opportunity to say the word etouffee.  Doesn’t that just sound delicious?

Grateful Thankful, Thankful Grateful

A few years back, I got into it with a friend over the difference between grateful and thankful.  We were on vacation together and I’d said, in passing, I was grateful to be there.

“You mean ‘thankful’,” she corrected.

“No, I mean ‘grateful’.

“But you’re wrong.  You’re thankful.  Being grateful is like groveling.  Who uses that word?  Ick.”

It had started out innocent enough, as these things often do, and morphed into one of those diabolical pissing matches you’d love to get out of, but there you are, not giving an inch.  Because you can’t.  I kid you not, this went on for a week.  We looked up proper definitions in both English and French dictionaries and on-line.  Everywhere we went she would quiz the waiter / bartender / shopkeeper, “what’s the difference between thankful and grateful?”

I finally gave up and let her think she won.  I couldn’t take it anymore.

I remained grateful.

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I was grateful recently to receive the following (unexpected) items in the much-underrated snail mail.  Who doesn’t like to get cool mail?!

First, there was the book FOLLOWING ATTICUS from MacDougal Street Baby, with this beauty, which is now framed aside our family photos on a bookshelf in the living room.  I love the colors, the perfect imperfections, the movement.  I call it my shy sunflower.

And not long after, there was this itty-bitty (one inch??) exact clay replica of my dog Lucy Lou, who passed away back in June, from our Lyra.  Right down to her 3 legs, her pale blue eyes, and her pink-spotted nose.  This beauty is safe inside a glass curio cabinet in my bedroom.

I’m grateful AND thankful, I am.  Are these gifts spectacular or what?


The Art of Fielding

As much as I try to avoid the big hype books (until the hype is long dead, at least), I’ve made an exception for the current literary darling.

I first heard of THE ART OF FIELDING when, late on a Friday night, AmyG directed me to an article in the latest Vanity Fair she called “writer porn.”  And jesus people, who among us can pass up writer porn?

AmyG was right.  If you haven’t read this long and detailed piece about how THE ART OF FIELDING came to be, stop reading this post and get ye straight to the magazine and read Keith Gessen’s phenomenal essay.  (in the print magazine only, sorry)  I’ve never read a better, more detailed and intriguing drama about how a book was written, re-written, discovered, agented, edited, negotiated, sold, marketed and, finally, set out into the world.

The writer, Chad Harbach, is also a co-founder and editor of N+1, one of my favorite lit mags.  Here’s an 8 minute review on NPR’s All Things Considered.  Chad wrote this book long-hand; he says he finds writing on the screen paralyzing.  There’s a thought.  He’s got me thinking, this Chad Harbach character, thinking about baseball and expectations and writing and success and MOBY-DICK and tragedy and secrets and long sagas and the art of great story telling.

Who wants to read this with me?  

Witness the Execution

I did not sleep last night.  Before padding up the stairs to bed, I turned on CNN and watched those who’d witnessed the execution of Troy Davis step to the podium, big notebooks clutched to their chests.  I listened as each person give his or her account of Mr. Davis’s last hours, last minutes, seconds.  And though I don’t know Troy Davis or his family and I don’t really pray, I said a little prayer for them and weeped my way to bed.

I don’t believe in the death penalty.  Though I admit that, sometimes, when a horrific crime occurs — with witnesses and confessions and undisputed evidence —  I question myself.  OJ Simpson comes to mind.  Casey Anthony.  At 2 and 3 a.m. I was imagining little Caylee Anthony, abandoned in those dark woods, and her mother out in the sunshine living her life.  4 a.m.  5 a.m.  Troy Davis is dead.

In the Davis case, the key witnesses all recanted their testimony.  How do you put someone to death with that kind of doubt?  I can’t sleep, but I figure Casey Anthony is resting in a nice warm bed tonight, and maybe she wakes up thinking she might be due for a salon appointment, should she have eggs or cereal for breakfast?, what will she do with her day….

We have no idea what the hell we’re doing.

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This year my friend Charles McLeod published his first novel in the U.K., AMERICAN WEATHER, a brutal satire on our current way of life.  One of the big events in the book is a public, televised execution.  A fine new way to make millions!  Ask yourself, if significant money could be raised by advertising executions — to invest in our schools, get healthcare for children, to put the unemployed back to work — would you watch?

I’ve only read the first 30 pages of this book, but my husband finished it last week and I hope he leaves his comments here later.  You can read a review here.  This is the publisher’s description:

Meet Jim Haskin. He’s forty years old. He’s worth around thirty-five million. He runs his own San Francisco ad firm, American Weather. AmWe’s image is green, modern and forward-looking: if your product is upcycled or hydro or vegan, they’ll make you an ad. But behind the scenes, Jim manufactures ways to support the old captains of American industry; bleach, beer and guns. But all is not well: Jim’s wife, Denise, has been in a coma for over a year, a state brought on by a drug Jim helped promote. A live-in nurse, a former Salvadorian gang member, helps Jim tend to her. And Haskin’s only child, Connor, has been sent away to a boarding school three thousand miles away, after assaulting a student at his former high school. Orphaned at 14, Jim and his three closest friends grew up at Mr Hand’s Home for Well-Behaved Boys. All have profited from the American dream.

In 2008, on the brink of the Presidential election, the quartet finds themselves short on cash and look to Jim for a solution. The scheme he devises involves a Death Row inmate, pay-per-view television, and most of America’s major corporations. Everything is set for it to be his greatest achievement yet.

Read Like A Man

One of the best opening sequences I’ve ever read is in Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE.  The first few pages are a jolt into the quiet realities of war, as 18 yr old Seaman Apprentice William Houston Jr. stalks alone through a jungle in Vietnam.  Three years after first reading this, my heart still aches — and I mean literally here — just to think about it.  (If you never saw the NYT review, read it here.  I’ve rarely seen such worthy praise.)

That said, I never got going when I tried to read this 600 pager.  (I’ll spare you my list of lame excuses.)  Now Johnson has a new book out, a 128 page novella called TRAIN DREAMS, and all I can think about is going back and reading TREE OF SMOKE.  Yesterday I saw the review of TRAIN DREAMS in The New Yorker and it brought to mind all the reasons I picked up Johnson’s big Vietnam epic in the first place.  “Johnson’s fiction has always turned on questions of vision. His characters are often weirdly privileged noticers, for whom reality will confess slightly esoteric pigments and details.”  Weirdly privileged noticers.  And “realism in Johnson’s fiction often seems, like the Savoy Hotel, to be about to dribble away into a dream, and what brings it back from the looking-glass world is the exactitude of Johnson’s language.” 

I met Denis a couple of years ago when he visited my grad program (here’s a fun article about him).  He gave a big reading and then sat around the conference room table the next day and, for lack of a better phrase, shot the shit with about 10 of us.  I remember I asked him a couple of questions and, though I don’t recall his answers, I can still see him looking me right in the eye, answering seriously and at length and with appropriate flippancy.  Definitely a shy guy, but comfortable in, and even caustic about, his writing; a guy who seems not to care what anyone else wants from him; an artist who’s not all that comfortable talking about his “art.”  I left there wanting to read everything he’d ever written.  He’s one of those writers I think of when people ask, “should I go to an MFA program?”  Reading Denis Johnson is some damned good schooling.

I don’t know if I’m in the mood for another 600 pager just now, having recently finished Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA, but the arrival of Johnson’s latest serves as one of those kicks in the ass I often need.  First, I’m getting my hands on a copy of TRAIN DREAMS.  I can squeeze in 128 pages, right?  And second, I was looking at my shelf of “to read” books and most of them are by women.  Not to cause a feminist uproar here, but come on … maybe that’s one reason I’m a little bored with my reading list lately.  I need to hear a different voice.

What are your favorite “man” books?

Booking Philip Roth

Have you  been reading this flap about Philip Roth winning the Man Booker Prize?  It seems Carmen Callil resigned from the committee after the panel of three (2 to 1) chose Roth, with whose body of work you might say she has a little problem:

“There are great moments in Roth’s work. He is clever, harsh, comic, but his reach is narrow. Not in the Austen, Bellow or Updike sense, because they use a narrow canvas to convey the widest concepts and ideas. Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor’s clothes.”   – Carmen Callil, The Guardian (May 21, 2011)

Ouch.

I’ve never been a huge fan, but it’s safe to say that my husband is fan-enough as there’s a pretty full Philip Roth shelf in our library.  Over the years, he’s suggested I read his favorite — AMERICAN PASTORAL — and though I’ve tried a few times, I’ve never been able to get going with it.  I’ll read maybe 20 or 40 pages and then back it goes, back to its slip on the shelf.  And I might have finished HUMAN STAIN, might have, but it’s been so long I can’t really remember.  I’d remember that, wouldn’t I?

A couple of years ago, I took a summer class with a favorite professor and, as summer heated up and school wound down, the last novel we raced through and discussed was Roth’s THE GHOST WRITER.  It’s the first in a trilogy and introduces the character/narrator Nathan Zuckerman, a young writer obsessed with his literary idol.  It’s at once a meditation on the writing life, the lines between fiction and nonfiction, obsession, and a pretty damned good mystery.  Less than 200 pages.  I couldn’t put it down.  I fanned through the pages of THE GHOST WRITER today to see if I’d marked anything and found just one little underlined phrase towards the end.  The great writer’s wife complains to Nathan:  Nothing can be touched, nothing can be changed, everybody must be quiet, the children must shut up, their friends must stay away until four — There is his religion of art, my young successor: rejecting life!  Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of! (p. 174)

Why did this, this one phrase, stand out, I wonder?  Do you ever write notes in the margins or underline something, only to go back years later and wonder what in the hell you were trying to capture?

Anyway, I got to thinking about Callil’s comments about Mr. Roth.  He uses a big canvas to do small things, she said.  In this little book, nothing seemed small at all.  In fact, what impressed me the most about the story was it’s complexity and richness and big themes.  A whole lotta story in so few pages.

I don’t know if Callil is right or wrong.  Who knows what discussions went on in that committee room.  And I do understand how frustrating it must be to have such a big list of talented writers (see the list of finalist below) and have your peers choose the one person you don’t think deserving.  But is it more than that?  More than personal taste?  I can’t decide.

What I do know is that I’m prompted to go back soon and read the next 2 books in Roth’s GHOST WRITER trilogy to see if I can see what all the flap is about.

The 2011 Man Booker Prize finalists:  Wang Anyi, Juan Goytisolo, James Kelman, John le Carré, Amin Maalouf, David Malouf, Dacia Maraini, Rohinton Mistry, Philip Pullman, Marilynne Robinson, Su Tong, Anne Tyler.

Boundless Grounds, and Beyond

I don’t even know where to start with the AmyG meet-up — of course there is way too much for one post — but I know you want photos so here they are. First things first.

Since both of us might beat the record for coffee consumed per day, what better place to meet?

We had no idea they had a little lending library as you walked in the front door. How appropo. Even a guitar.

The Book Nook ...

At our tiny square table in Boundless Grounds, we talked nonstop for about 2 hours. It wasn't until AmyG got up that I noticed 3 women at a table down the way. They said, "You girls have not stopped visiting since you sat down!" You 'girls.' 🙂

After leaving Boundless Grounds, we drove up the hill. Outside the Benedictine monastery on the hill, we walked down some concrete stairs --- which we discovered were shaped to be the rosary --- and had our picnic lunch on a concrete bench. A canopy of trees kept the few light sprinkles away.

Here's a peek at the inside of the church. We were the only ones there --- well, except for a quiet nun in the pews to the right. We wanted to go up on the altar but thought the nun might not care much for that. Still, we somehow, ACCIDENTALLY, found ourselves up there anyway. 😉

We climbed the spiral staircase of the monastery for a gander at the view. Mist-laden, rolling hills. Spectacular. Time was too too short. I can't believe it was all over so quickly.

More Trouble With Truthiness

You’d think nonfiction writers would learn.  I’m hoping this latest report — that Greg Mortenson allegedly fibbed in his book, THREE CUPS OF TEA, about stumbling, disoriented, into the village of Korphe in 1993 — is wrong.  But when you have 60 Minutes questioning your “facts” and the likes of Jon Krakauer asking questions you can’t seem to (or don’t want to) answer, my big red flag starts waving.

I didn’t love his book.  I liked it well enough, though, and I especially liked what Mortenson was doing to build schools for girls in the remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Now I’m feeling a little sick about the whole thing.  In an interview with The Bozeman Chronicle, he, in part, says this:

“The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.  As the co-author of the book, along with David Oliver Relin, I am responsible for the content in the book. There were many people involved in the story and also those who produced the manuscript. What was done was to simplify the sequence of events for the purposes of telling what was, at times, a complicated story.”

Guess what, Greg:  all nonfiction stories are “complicated.”  And your answer sounds like a bunch of gobbledy-goop.  It’s disappointing, to say the least.  I hope you come up with something better.  Something better like, maybe, telling us all exactly what transpired, particularly on the Korphe event which is, frankly, the big dramatic start of your story.

What do I believe?  I believe Greg Mortenson has done good work, both raising money and building these schools.  So I’m willing to give this some time to see if it all shakes out in his direction, time for him to lay out exactly how all these events transpired.  But I’m worried, based on his initial responses, that it’s not going to turn out well.

What do you think about all this?

A Styron On Styron

A memoir by Alexandra Styron is soon to be released, and I just pre-ordered my copy — my hardback (non-Kindle) copy — from Amazon.com.  Being the Styron addict I am, I’ve been dying to read this book since the minute I heard she was writing it.

In this month’s Vanity Fair, you’ll find an excerpt of what appears to be an unflinching account of real life in the Styron household.  It was tough for me to read.  The book will be tough, too.  Because while I’m certainly aware of William Styron’s struggle with depression and drinking, it’s quite another thing to see it there on the stark white page, from his daughter’s vantage point, where it will, I know, break down my iconic image of the handsome, always brilliant, always charming, perfect man, writer-hero I’ve held in my mind’s eye for so, so long.

Still.  I can’t wait for the mail lady to drop that book, plop, on my doorstep.  I promise you I will toss aside whatever I’m reading — yes, even you, Gustave Flaubert! — and start in on this one the minute I unwrap it.

Styron’s daughter is an accomplished author in her own right.  When I read her bio today, I was imagining what it might have been like on the first day of her MFA program at Columbia, going around the table for introductions.

“I’m Alex Styron.  Hi (slight fingers wave), and I live in Brooklyn.  Did my undergrad at Barnard.”

“Styron.  Cool.  Any relation to William Styron.”

“He’s my father.”

(stunned silence)

Okay, maybe it didn’t really happen like this.  But can you imagine writing with this kind of legacy?  Though from this Vanity Fair excerpt — and another article I read of hers in The New Yorker a few years ago — I’d say she’s doing just fine, following her own path.  How brave.

P.S.  While fishing around the Vanity Fair site, I also found this 15 minute audio from 1958:  Styron reading from LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS, which he wrote at age 25.  Twenty-five — that’s about how many times I’ve read the opening sequence of this book to see how it works.