Friday, March 28, 2008

With Permission from Ernie Hebert...

I thought it a fitting end to this week to post a poem that has haunted me since the first time I read it. Ernest Hebert is not only one of my very favorite authors, but he is also a very nice man and gave me permission to post this poem here. You can read about the genesis of the poem here.

Hypothermia, a Poem

You started as a shape in the snow.
Not dead, but like
one pretending to be dead,
body temperature dangerously low,
mind in a torpor. I stripped you
to your underwear. I undressed, and crawled into
the sleeping bag with you,
and looked at the sky through hardwoods
bare of leaves.
I told you how nice it is when
the wind sends tremors through the tops
of the trees and underneath it's still.
I did not voice
my regret that the shape in the snow
was only you and not a new me.
Slowly, you began
to warm. I said, "Come to consciousness."
You whispered, "Are you my poem?"
I answered, "No, I am only a story."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

From New Hampshire to Bread Loaf to Denver

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while might recall that one of my very favorite authors is a New Hampshire native, named Ernest Hebert. He’s the author of The Dogs of March and eight more novels, all set in New Hampshire and about working class New Englanders. I love his work.

He teaches at Dartmouth and he’s got a web site that hasn’t been updated in a long time, but he's got a number of essays on it that bring me to tears. One of my favorites is a piece called, “How John Gardner Kicked My Ass and Saved My Soul”. I’d always remembered Mr. Hebert’s description of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference he attended over thirty years ago:

“The conference was held in a compound in the woods up slope from Middlebury College in Vermont. Medora and I didn't have much money, so to save on coin we didn't lodge at the conference center but in a tent in a nearby campground, primitive living for three weeks. I was in an agitated state of mind. I imagined myself a prisoner going up before a one-man parole board -- John Gardner.

I didn't like the scene at the conference center. It was too much like a summer camp for adults with tennis courts and cocktail hours and schedules and a hierarchy that consisted of published writers, darned-near published writers, wait persons; at the bottom were myself and the other wanna-be's who had paid money to get in. The weather was sunny, the people civil, the talk gossipy, full of good humor, subtle irony, even joy. I would have preferred dark skies, austere surroundings, and serious conversation.

I particularly hated seeing other conferees enjoying themselves. In particular, I hated Poet Mark Strand. He was six feet six, handsome, kind, warm; he played tennis in white shorts and beautiful women fawned over him. I would have hated him less if he'd been a mediocre writer, but his poems were beautiful and insightful.

The daily workshops, nightly readings and lectures put me on edge. I went out of my way not to listen. I was hanging around for one reason -- my impending conference with Gardner.

He was clearly the number one pooh-bah here, even bigger than Mark Strand.”

The name, Mark Strand stayed with me, but since I didn’t read or write poetry, I never bothered to find out who he was.

A couple of weeks ago I got my monthly newsletter from Lighthouse Writers Workshop and in May, there will be a Writer's Studio event with former US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner, Mark Strand. Aha. This was a message meant just for me. I did a search on Mark Strand to learn more about him and found this essay he wrote on the Poetry in the World. If anything appeals to me, it’s the idea of a “serious” poet with a sense of humor. In the essay, Strand recounts the difficulty of coming up with talk for a speaking engagement he’s been invited to.

“Days went by. I wrote nothing. I began to think that I should come up with yet another title, but I knew that I'd be giving in to a weakness I had for reduction, that were I to let myself go, I might end up with a title like "A Couple of Words in Space" or "A Syllable in the Woods." In other words, the less inclusive the title, the less I would feel obligated to say anything. But I also knew that without the obligation to speak, I might remain silent. A silent lecture! The ultimate reduction! But, alas, beyond my ability to perform. I decided to stick with ‘Poetry in the World’.”

The rest is here and is excellent.

From Hebert in New Hampshire to Bread Loaf with Gardner in Vermont to Strand in Denver – all things seem somehow connected.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Perils of "Pantsing"

Eleven chapters and 28,520 words into my first draft of The Foundling Wheel I have to pause for a moment and share a secret with you.

Sssshhh. Don’t let anyone read over your shoulder.

Okay – are we alone? No, really?


I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I’m taking deep breaths. Om. Seriously, it’s not like I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had a premise and a fairly good idea of how to create what might be an interesting situation. Surely, there is an infinite number of possibilities for where I might transition from the past to the present. I’m just not sure what they are or which to choose.

I opened up a new file and I named it: Chapter Twelve. I typed 52 words and then I stopped.

Something tells me it’s time to step away from the story and find some time to take some long walks or paint a room or go outside and pull some weeds.

Muse, are you there? Muuuuuuuuuse? MUSE!

I know you would never find yourself in this situation. You either outline the whole story, or the story reveals itself bit by bit, getting better and better as you go along. I just know it.

But in case you’ve ever heard of anyone who’s gotten herself into a predicament like this, I’d love to hear how that poor lost soul found her way.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Frailty of Memory

The little girl dropped my hand and her face began to crinkle and collapse in on itself slowly the way a piece of plastic does on a campfire. I reached out my arms and she hugged her body, her pointy elbows angled out impossibly. She let them drop and buried her face in my belly and she heaved and shook.

She was afraid that she would forget her mother, now one week gone.

You won’t forget her, ever, I told the girl, but she would. Today she remembered her mother as she’d seen her last, hair fuzzy as dust bunnies and skin thin as a treasure map. Some days the girl remembered her mother before she was sick and she would try to hold onto those days at the beach and those nights watching movies, but they would slip away as dreams do in the moments before waking.

She would think of the way her mother would fold a sheet or the curl of her mothers lip when she’d blow a wisp of hair from her eyes, and for a while she would catch her mother’s scent on a sofa pillow or a sweater, but soon she would remember only those Christmases and birthdays captured in pictures and she would invent memories from what she’d see in the photos.

She would not long be this little girl with the narrow shoulders and the tangled hair. Her body would lengthen and curve and she would become a woman by herself. A kind eyed neighbor, an aunt or friend would quietly offer help and she would refuse, preferring to keep her privacy. A time would come when she’d realize she hadn’t thought of her mother for many days and when she’d try, she’d only see flashes, a pair of sneakers, a silver necklace, a brand of soap.

She’d grow up and she’d realize that the mother she knew as a child was a stranger to her in her new woman’s life. She’d understand she never knew the woman her mother was and she’d wonder if they would have liked each other. She wouldn’t recall the sound of her mother’s voice or the cadence of her speech. She’d try to imagine who her mother might be had she lived. Her mother’s breasts would never sag, her hips never widen and lines wouldn’t mar her face. Her mother would be loving and wise and perfect.

One day she’d realize she’d passed her own mother’s age and she’d know her childhood mother was lost to her forever. Her aunts and uncles and older relatives would die and there would no longer be anyone left to ask, what was my mother like?

These things I could not tell this broken child, so I held her more closely and whispered to her that as long as she was alive, her mother would live in her heart and in her memory.

Friday, March 21, 2008



Percy Bysshe Shelley


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I suppose it’s sort of interesting that, like The Second Coming, this one also references the ancient desert. This poem reminds me of the thoughts I’ve had when I look at my driveway, the cement chipped and cracked from frost and snow, grass pushing up through the cracks in the summertime. It reminds me of the tall weeds that I could see through the floor boards of my grandmother’s back porch, or the tree roots and shrubs that creep underground and try to pry their way into pipes and through foundation walls. It makes me think back to the old houses on the gulf coast in Biloxi, Spanish moss dripping from giant trees, paint peeling, siding rotting and vegetation surrounding the houses and claiming them in the languid heat. For every construction site I see, I imagine the battle waged against nature and how quickly anything we build or make succumbs once we give up the fight to keep it.

I wonder when a person officially disappears. People I knew who have been gone for many years become less real and more fictionalized with each year that passes and with each person who dies and one day, no one living will remember them anymore. They will become a short description of whose mother they were or that they had polio, what war they fought in or that they were allergic to bees.

I wonder about our newly obsessive urge to catalogue and document every event in our lives. When my friend’s baby is grown, will all those digital pictures and scrapbooks still exist? Will they mean anything? How will it change a person to have photographs and video to cement reality, instead of the sketchy photos, old blue ribbons and random report cards my generation has, which allow us, with or without intent to morph and recreate the past?

Poetry Rorschah

My good friend Karen came to visit today and brought books of poetry for me to borrow. What a wonderful surprise. The only thing better than buying new books is having a friend loan you books she thinks you'll like. I spent most of the afternoon curled up with an anthology of “The Classic Hundred All-Time Favorite Poems” and found that I recognized many more of them than I imagined I might.

I’ve been marking the ones that especially resonate with Post-it notes. I imagine my favorites may reveal a strange Rorschach interpretation of my inner psyche.

I thought I’d post one that I’ve heard the final lines to many times, but I didn’t know who wrote it and I’d never read the whole thing. It felt very fresh and eerily prescient, although the poem was written in 1919 and published in 1920. For those of you interested in dipping back into some poetry, enjoy.

The Second Coming

By William Butler Yeats


TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Muse Says...

Calling all poetry lovers! The muse informs me that it’s time I read some poetry.

My knowledge and understanding of poetry is sketchy, at best, but one can’t live in the world and not have some of it creep into one’s soul.

My grandfather (who left school when he was nine years old) used to recite parts of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Charge of the Light Brigade. My favorite YA (before there was such a thing) book, The Outsiders had that wonderful Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. Stay gold Ponyboy!!! Naturally, being a New England native, I read lots of Robert Frost. When I was a teenager I found a whole box full of beat-like stuff like Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. My little brother Jessie memorized Poe's Annabelle Lee for no apparent reason at all when he was quite young and I'm sure he can still recite the whole thing today.

The only poem I've ever memorized was one called Abu Ben Adam, by James Henry Leigh Hunt. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Helmsdorff made us memorize it. I suppose she was trying to teach us something about humility. I can still remember every line, but I've never met anyone else who's heard it before.

Abu Ben Adam, may his tribe increase
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace
And saw, within the moonlight of his room
Making it rich, like a lily in bloom
An angel writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace had made Abu Ben Adam bold
And to the presence in his room he said
' What writest thou?'
The vision raised its head
And with a look of all sweet accord Answered:
'The names of those who love the Lord.
'And is mine one?' said Abu.
'Nay not so' Replied the Angel
Abu spoke more low
But cheerily still and said
I pray thee then Write me as one that loves his fellow-men'
The angel wrote and vanished.
The next night it came again with awaking light
And showed the names of whom love of God had blessed.
And lo! Ben Adam's name led all the rest.

When the movie, Sophie’s Choice came out, I was assaulted by Emily Dickenson’s poem, Part Four: Time and Eternity and I start sobbing before the narrator can even begin to recite:

Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

I’ve incidentally read and heard lots of poetry, but not with intent.

Until now.

The muse is telling me that the time has come for me to read some poetry and that doing so might help me to become a better writer.

So, my dear friends, it’s time for me to solicit your suggestions. Where to begin? What specific poets, poems and books are your favorites, and what do you recommend I seek in this part of my journey? You know me – what do you think I’d like?

On a side note, Chapter 11 of The Foundling Wheel continues to evolve, but between an unexpected, but welcome visit from a friend this weekend and a scheduled social obligation, it is not yet finished. Soon.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Deathly - Aimee Mann

I haven't posted. I haven't written. It's all work, work, travel, work. It's OK. It pays the bills and I have obligations. I've been plugging away at Chapter 11 and even though I've only managed a couple of hundred words each time I've found some time to work on it, it's moving forward. I had an appointment this week that gave me an entire hour to myself. I didn't read or work. I closed my eyes and developed a character that makes an appearance soon. I can't remember when I had an entire hour with nothing to do but sit and think about my story.

I love Aimee Mann. Unfortunately, you don't get to see a video with this YouTube movie, but you do get to hear one of my favorite songs of hers. I listened to it and realized how much the song ties into my emotional state when I'm feeling especially fragile about my writing. At this point, I'd be grateful to feel fragile about it if it meant I'd find the time to do it. But Saturday is almost here...

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Curve

There are some things that I find it impossible to do if I think about the fact that I’m doing them.

Usually they’re things that involve some kind of muscle memory. When I was skiing all the time there were days where I felt transformed, like I was flying and I was completely present and in the moment, in that zone – unless I started to think about what I was physically doing.

Getting to the point where skiing was fun meant that I had to endure a few seasons where I was awkward, frequently frustrated and often terrified. I had to get past that learning curve so I could finally enjoy the sensation of that controlled fall through space.

Writing feels that way: reason #8,752 for writing often, even when the writing sucks.

A couple of things that flitted into my consciousness over the last couple of days scared me a little. I read some blog posts that focused on specific craft ideas. It wasn’t new information. It was the kind stuff I’ve read about many times and yet when I thought about how or if I was using these techniques, I came up blank.

I don’t know.


The reason I was scared was because I realized that the snippets of work I might feel bold enough to think have the potential to be good are the snippets that come to me when I’m in the zone. As soon as I become conscious of using words to a certain effect, it becomes obvious and the work feels contrived.

When I revise, I become more aware of sharpening certain images or ideas to reinforce what I’m trying to convey. I know that when others critique my work, they sometimes point out the effectiveness (or not) of something I’ve done and I’ll realize they’re right even though I didn’t consciously include that word or that image or that description. Oh yeah, I meant to do that.

I have a theory that the reason that Scott’s new abstract work feels so powerful is because a good abstract painting requires that the painter have a mastery of all the skills needed to do a traditional, representational painting, only he has to intuit his way through the abstract. He knows if the color harmonies are correct and if the composition is balanced because he has an innate understanding of those concepts.

If we have an underlying appreciation of the visual arts, we know the painting works when we look at it, but we don’t know why.

Books on writing craft don’t talk much about the importance of years of experience in writing, but perhaps there’s a reason for that. We want things that give us results now and there’s no shortcut to practice and experience. Perhaps it would help us to set more realistic expectations and motivate us to write more and work harder to get good at what we do if we thought of writing as a long apprenticeship. Actually, that's helpful to me, but I know it's not the path for everyone.

There are plenty of people who can write well enough to get a book published, and if that’s the writer’s goal, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’m talking about writing well. I’m talking about my vain wish to have a reader touched by my words or to have a reader thinking about my characters even when he’s not reading the book. I’m talking about a reader losing himself in the work and entering John Gardner’s fictive dream. I keep remembering a scene from the movie, Amadeus and a monologue that the Salieri character delivers:

“While my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of: Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen.”

My aspirations aren’t quite so grand, but I can confess to a fantasy where someone, somewhere writes a review of something I’ve written and confers some kind of literary approval on it.

When I attended Carleen Brice’s book launch party for her debut novel, Orange Mint and Honey she talked about writing the book over a period of six years and she talked about completely rewriting it multiple times. I was truly comforted to learn this. I had a secret fear that good books might come pouring out of other writers at a speed and a rate that I know myself quite incapable of.

While blogging has far more advantages than disadvantages in the form of creating community, the public nature of our efforts creates a small disadvantage.

When will you finish it? When will it be published? I sense from well meaning friends a certain impatience and maybe even disappointment that I don’t move more quickly. I think about The Foundling Wheel, my Dickens Challenge work in progress and I know that my goal is to finish it. For now, that’s my only goal. I don’t know if I’ll want to rewrite and revise and edit it once I come to the end. I don’t know if that’s its purpose. I know the project is teaching me a lot about writing, but I don’t know if it’s my first book.

When I say that my eventual goal is to publish a novel, I mean it. Eventually. I don't know when. I don’t know which novel that might be. I don’t know if it’s the one I’m working on, one of the two I’ve set aside or one I don’t know about yet. I just know I’ll know it when it comes to me. Maybe I’m too idealistic. Maybe this means I’m not a real writer, whatever that is.

Sometimes the lack of validation feeds the self-doubt that I and all of us have from time to time – but I also suspect that self-doubt never goes away no matter how much external validation we get about our writing. The blogging community gives me enormous validation about my emotions and about the process. For that reason, I keep coming back. I think that eventually, the only true validation about the worth of our own writing has to come from ourselves.

I once read an interview with Frank Conroy about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The interviewer asked him if he could tell which of the writers would go on to be published and which would be successful. He said he couldn’t. Talent and potential have very little bearing on whether or not a writer can go on to finish and publish a successful book.

As time goes on, I am learning to trust myself. I feel a huge learning curve still ahead of me and I’m at peace with that. It’s my path and no one else’s. It doesn’t frustrate me. I’m in no hurry. I’ll write what I’m meant to write and learn as I’m meant to learn.

Does my lack of a sense of urgency reflect a lack of drive or of passion? I don’t think so. In the seventies, Paul Masson’s famous advertisement coined the phrase, “We’ll sell no wine before its time”.

I feel that way about my writing. It’s not time. I’ve often heard writers talk about how much bad fiction is published and how often they’ve read books and known they could write better. All true, but that’s not what drives me. I confess, I want to write something good and only time and more and still more writing will tell me if I can.

But that’s just me. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe my expectations are too high.

For those of you both published and unpublished, how important is it to you that your work be perceived as good? Is it enough to provide your readers with escape and entertainment? Can you recognize your own shortcomings due to inexperience, or trace a path from inexperience to a gradual or sudden improvement?

Why are you writing that book?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Conversation with Nick Arvin

Nick Arvin is the author of the short story collection, In the Electric Eden, Along the Highways, which was featured in The New Yorker and the novel, Articles of War. He grew up in Clio, Michigan and earned degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan and Stanford, and he has worked in automotive engineering, forensic engineering, and power plant engineering. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a member of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop faculty.

Articles of War was named a book of the year by Esquire Magazine, was winner of the American Arts and Letters Rosenthal Foundation Award and the American Library Association’s Boyd Award. It won the Colorado Book Award and was chosen by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper as the 2007 pick for the One Book, One Denver program.

I had the pleasure of taking Nick's Experimental Fiction workshop at Lighthouse in late 2007.

Your work has been featured in The New Yorker; you’ve published a successful debut novel and a collection of short stories. You have an incredible pedigree and your first novel was met with critical success and reviews in all of the best publications. Does all of this praise and attention create additional pressure for you?

It feels strange to be described that way. In my mind, I'm still pretty much just a chump from a small blue collar town struggling to piece together sentences and hoping that maybe someone will like them when I'm done. Just the other day I got a form rejection from The Colorado Review for a story I'd submitted.

At the most basic level, having had some success doesn't affect things much; I mean, it's not as if while writing a sentence I'm simultaneously thinking, I wonder what the American Academy of Arts and Letters might think of this? (I'm more likely to be thinking, this is really bad. Could I possibly be writing a more bad sentence than this?)

When I step back and look at what I'm doing a little more broadly, having had some success is usually more of a help than not, because it provides some validation. I've managed to write some publishable things in the past, so it seems like there's a decent chance that maybe I can do it again. Maybe I'm not wasting my time. I remember well enough what it was like when I sat down to write every day with nothing to back me up but a lot of rejection slips, struggling with the feeling that I was doing all this work and quite possibly, basically, I wasn't even very good at it. So, no, on balance, having had some success doesn't cause me to feel a lot of pressure; it's more like relief.

How much do you care about reviews?

I feel anxious reading any review, even if it's on some completely obscure blog, and it only takes a mildly negative comment to set my teeth on edge for days. But, taking the long view, it's absurd to hope for complete understanding or sympathy from every reader or reviewer, and the best work is often divisive. When I was at Iowa, at some point I began to recognize that my best pieces were the ones that some people loved and that some others disliked intensely. For a work to have an effect, it's important that readers react passionately to it, and in creating the opportunity for that reaction, you are probably, and perhaps inherently, going to create the opportunity for some to react with a negative passion. That said, the great majority of the reviews of AoW have been extremely positive. I've got no complaints.

Were you ever hooked on one particular writer’s work?

At various times I've burrowed into Italo Calvino, Borges, Alice Munro, Graham Greene, Dostoyevsky, Cormac McCarthy, others.

But, actually, I find I often do a funny thing when I encounter a writer I really like, which is to put off reading their other work into the indefinite future, and I'm not sure if I do that because I want to save it for a day when everything else dismays me, or if on some level I feel like the anticipation of reading something really good is even more delicious than actually reading it. Usually I do eventually get around to it, but it can take years.

Who’s your favorite contemporary writer?

It's tempting to work up a long list, but I'll just say that the first name to come to mind is Edward P. Jones. I admire his work of the last several years enormously.

Were there any classics that you wanted to read and wanted to like that you just couldn’t get through?

Generally I enjoy reading the classics, and I rarely abandon books once I've gotten past the first two dozen pages or so, but this did happen recently with The Man Without Qualities, by whatshisname, which I gave up on at around page 200. I found I'd begun to regard reading it as a labor, and there was just no reason to put myself through that.

The interesting thing about it was that I had told a friend I was planning to read TMWQ, and she was interested in it, and I said I'd let her know what I thought when I finished. So then I had to write her and tell her about giving up on it, and she wrote back wondering why I was so apologetic about not finishing the book. And I discovered that I really did feel apologetic about it. Which is kind of absurd. But -- and probably this happens particularly with a classic -- I realized that I tend to think, or feel, like my inability to enjoy a book that a lot of other people have enjoyed represents a failure of sympathy or empathy or intellect or something. And maybe it does!

I’ve gotten jaded about assuming that all works that garner awards and positive praise are worth my time. I sometimes believe the emperor has no clothes

I can certainly agree that there are plenty of empty suits (armies of them!) wandering around looking for an emperor. But this also comes back to the idea that, basically, you can't please all the readers all the time. I'm more than willing to allow that there are some great books that don't seem so great to me and yet are nonetheless great books. Literature should be larger than the horizons of my individual taste and understanding.

Who’s the best writer I’ve probably never heard of?

Go read Wright Morris, particularly Plains Song and The Works of Love.

Stephen Goodwin in The Washington Post Bookworld said, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.” Why do you think that is?

Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, captures it better than I could: The Works of Love, about a man whose life never amounts to very much and who lives his life in a semi-trance is written in a relentlessly peculiar style... After a few awkward gestures toward plot, the novel's story line, such as it is, renounces conflict in favor of meditation. Declarative sentences often switch direction and conclude with question marks... If it were not for its seemingly banal Midwestern settings and lower middle-class characters and laconic narrative voice, the book would have long ago been classified as European experimentalism at its most willful and extreme... The result is a terribly eerie novel about a specific kind of American emptiness..."

What Baxter is saying here is particularly true of The Works of Love, but it would also more-or-less apply to most of Wright Morris' work that I've read. I think the plotlessness, in particular, probably puts off a lot of readers. In this way Morris is similar to WG Sebald, who I know you've read.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?

When I was at Iowa, I met with an agent who had read a couple of my stories, and she told me, basically, that these stories weren't very good, and that I should try writing closer to my own experience. She suggested a novel about a man who grows up in Michigan and goes to work for Ford and maybe writes, too (i.e., a thinly veiled memoir). The stories that she had read both went into my first book, and in hindsight she was offering simply awful advice, although at the time it really shook me up. I'm very glad I had enough self-confidence (and supportive readers) to ignore it.

This "write what you know" cliché irritates me because I don't understand where it comes from. I've read a lot of mediocre fiction in a lot of workshops, and whatever problems those pieces have had, it's almost never (if ever!) that the writers have stretched too far outside of "what they know." It's often the opposite, in fact. I suspect that "write what you know" is a thing people tend to say when they don't like what they've read and they're too lazy to think very hard about why that is.

Contrast this with the "show don't tell" cliché, which also irritates me, because there are plenty of situations where telling is more effective. But I at least understand where it comes from, because I have seen writers (usually rank beginners) who simply don't know how to write scenes or develop physical detail and even experienced writers will sometimes gloss over a difficult emotion or interaction with a summary word or phrase, so that it becomes tempting to offer up that particular cliché. But I resist, I really do.

What would you like to talk about, but no one has ever asked you?

Well, a topic that I'd like to see more writers address, because I think it's important and because I don't actually have any clear ideas about it myself, is how fiction fits into modern life and whether it should adjust itself in some way to the pressures now on it.

What I mean is that there was an era when the printed page was the only mass media there was, and if you wanted to immerse yourself in a narrative, you either got someone to tell you a story orally or you sat down and read a book or magazine or newspaper. I suppose if you lived in a city, maybe you could go to a play. Now, however, you have a lot of options for finding various kinds of narrative -- movies, TV, radio, blogs, video games, pod casts, and probably lots of other formats that I'm too square to know about. So, because people have finite time to spend on these things and they have all these new alternatives, it's not terribly surprising that people are reading less than they used to. What I've been wondering is if written fiction ought to adjust itself in some way to fit into this new situation, for example, by emphasizing its unique strengths relative to other media forms (and if so, what are those strengths?).

It's become almost a commonplace to say that recent fiction has been heavily influenced by cinematic techniques, and generally cross-pollination between the arts is a good thing, but is there a danger that readers might begin to see a novel, any novel, as merely a kind of half-assed movie? (I think there actually is a danger of this, based on how quick people are to ask me whether my novel will be a movie, and ask this in a way that seems to imply its potential will only be fully realized if it does become a movie.)

I think that one clear advantage written fiction has over other narrative forms -- movies and TV in particular -- is in its ability to depict an inner consciousness. But I'm not sure that means we should all be hot on the heels of Joyce and Faulkner.

I'm curious what you think about this, particularly since you have some experience in both writing fiction and in blogging. Do you see the two forms engaging the reader differently? Are you aware of trying to take advantage of those differences?

I do strive to take advantage of those differences in fiction. The books I love do things that only fiction can do. The characters have rich interior lives and the writers use language in a way that can only be appreciated when it’s read. I don’t think of blogging in the same way I think about fiction writing, because it’s a dialogue. Frankly, if I thought about it as writing, as opposed to the public whining I do with my online friends, I’d never post anything.

Kurt Vonnegut said “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Do you write with a particular reader in mind?

Not really. I write to please myself, mostly. That is, I try to tell stories that I would like to read, and to tell them in a way that's pleasing to me. Most of the day-to-day decisions in writing are really micro-level questions of diction, syntax, physical detail, and it would seem very strange to me to try to guess whether my wife would prefer, say, "gasping" or "wheezing" in a particular sentence. And I also feel like, if I'm not writing to please myself, why bother? I mean it's not like it pays well.

Is there anything you want to reveal about your second novel?

Let's just say it features more car crashes than an entire season of Dukes of Hazzard.

I look forward to reading it! Thank you for taking the time to entertain my questions.

* * *

Articles of War is a wonderful novel, now out in paperback. Since we don’t discuss it in this Q&A, please be sure to see Articles of War reviews here. See my review of it at The Book Book.

For additional interviews with Nick, see 20 Questions with Nick Arvin and this Interview at BookThink.

Do you think that whether or not a book is adapted to film is now a standard for whether or not the book is successful? How often do you tend to read a book as if it were a movie? What are your thoughts on how fiction is adapting or might adapt to keep pace with our world?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Gift to Me!

Little did I know when this piece was being painted that Scott was doing it as a gift to me! The finished piece is called "Rhythm and Flow" and now my dreary front hall is much more interesting.

Thank you Scott!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf